Commentary by Louis VIS
Three months ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union by the smallest of margins. Following the latest speech of Brexit Minister David Davis, one could honestly wonder whether the government knows what Brexit means. But what, if anything, can we learn from the result of the EU referendum? This article will argue that the vote has highlighted the limitations of today’s left-right political spectrum. It is now completely inadequate.
In an article last year, I argued that the EU was entering ‘a new, if not more dangerous political crisis’. Since the publication of this article, Rome elected its first mayor from the Five Star Movement (M5S), which is considered a populist and Eurosceptic party; Britain voted to leave the EU; and Austria narrowly avoided the election of Norbert Hofer, a right-wing populist politician, as its next Chancellor. Meanwhile in the United States, Donald Trump won the Republican Party’s presidential primary.
What can explain this sudden shift in Western politics? Society is a dynamic and fast changing entity, but political parties have largely remained unchanged and have thus failed to adapt. In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party used to represent blue collar or manual workers on the left of the political spectrum, whilst the Conservative Party stood for white collar or skilled workers on the right of the political spectrum. As society evolved, the labour market started to change and the distinctions between workers started to fade. Unsurprisingly, both parties broadened their appeal to remain competitive, thus blurring the boundaries between each other. As both sides of the political spectrum sought to embrace the middle ground and encouraged globalisation, many voters on the extremes started to feel that these mainstream political parties now failed to represent them. The rise of anti-establishment parties is the result of this process. Those ‘left behind’understandably wish to challenge the establishment by voting for the likes of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Front National (FN), Partij Voor de Vrijheid (PVV), M5S, Jobbik or Alternative Für Deutschland (AfD). Unlike mainstream parties, these newer political parties claim to offer voters a chance to resist change and return to a society similar to the one that they grew up in.
Although UKIP – an anti-immigration and Eurosceptic party that led the campaign for Brexit – is considered by many to be on the extreme right-wing of the political spectrum, it is gaining popularity in traditionally strong Labour areas of the country. Indeed, many former industrial cities such as Sheffield and Sunderland voted ‘against’ Labour and in favour of Brexit. This suggests that today’s politics are not about sitting ‘left’ or ‘right’ but about being ‘open’ or ‘closed’. The British Labour Party’s identity crisis or Mr. Sarkozy’s flirtation with the far-right perfectly illustrate the limitations of the left-right political model. So far, only Canada’s new Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, and Emmanuel Macron in France, seem to have understood this. The best way to counteract the protectionism, nationalism and division of ‘closed’ political parties is to make a clear and positive case for remaining ‘open’, rather scaremongering voters. To counter the negative rhetoric of Trump, Le Pen or Farage, one must stand up and fight for an open world order by clearly explaining to voters the importance of free-trade, the EU, NATO, WTO or the UN. However, one must also acknowledge that if globalisation is to work, better policies and safety-nets have to be set to minimise side-effects, whilst at the same time providing all citizens with the right tools to cope with a fast changing world. Resisting or ignoring change, as the ‘closed’ parties seek to do, is no solution. If anything, it will make matters worse by holding back those seeking help and support.
Recent political events such as Brexit or the German regional elections in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania on Monday, which saw the AfD beat Angela Merkel’s party with 21% of the vote, suggest that ‘closed’ political parties have the upper hand. However, these election results also suggest that young voters are far more tolerant and ‘open’ than older voters. In the UK, 73% of voters aged 18-24 voted to remain in the EU whilst only 40% of voters aged over 65 did. Society has seen huge changes during the last century. It is high time political parties did so too if they are to reconnect with the electorate.