Could US and UK voters spark a global center-left revival?

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In this year of high-stakes elections, none are likely to tell us more about the health of liberal democracy than the marquee contests in the United Kingdom and the United States.  

All signs point to a crushing defeat for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Conservative Party after 14 tumultuous years in power. Poised for victory is a renovated Labour Party, ably led by Keir Starmer and leading the Tories in polls by more than 20 points.   

A Labour victory would cap a remarkable turnaround for a party that suffered a devastating rout in 2019. That year, Boris Johnson and the Tories breached Labour’s “red wall” across England’s industrial heartland, winning over working-class voters with promises to “get Brexit done” and “level up” economic conditions in the less prosperous north.  

Labour’s return to power also would be a major morale boost for Europe’s center-left, which hasn’t had much to celebrate lately.  

Far-right parties are surging across the continent. Propelled by populist frustration with immigration, supercilious elites and the seepage of sovereignty from national governments to the European Union, they are expected to make major gains in next month’s EU parliamentary elections.  

Not long ago, it was considered taboo for established parties to cooperate with the far-right insurgents. Now ultra-nationalist parties are joining governing coalitions across Western Europe.  

Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, leads a party with neo-fascist roots. The far-right Sweden Democrats have joined a conservative coalition ruling that long-time bastion of social democracy.  

So too has the Netherlands’ Freedom Party, whose stridently anti-immigrant leader, Geert Wilders, calls for bans on mosques and Islamic schools. 

In France, the once-fringe National Rally headed by Marie Le Pen continues its march toward the political mainstream. The next presidential election isn’t until 2027, but polls show her party leading term-limited President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance coalition by almost 2 to 1.  

An important exception is Germany, where progressives still hold power. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-party coalition is fraying. Shockingly, his Social Democratic Party recently was surpassed in national popularity by the neo-Nazi Alternative for Deutschland (AFD) party. 

Poland is bucking the trend; last year, voters there tossed out the authoritarian Law and Justice Party. In most countries, however, the normalization of far-right parties continues, usually at the expense of traditional church and state conservatives.   

“Across Europe, the far right is becoming the right, absent any compelling message from traditional conservative parties,” says Roger Cohen of the New York Times. Sunak’s Conservatives, for example, are now hemorrhaging voters to the new anti-migrant Reform party.   

But Americans don’t have to look to Europe to find the country closest to a radical rightwing takeover. That would be us.  

Despite conspiring to nullify the 2020 election, Donald Trump is leading President Biden in the polls. His campaign, laced with contempt for what he calls a failing America, is essentially an invitation to civil strife.  

Trump’s plans for a second term include forcibly deporting 11 million immigrants, deploying the National Guard and U.S. military to help round them up and quash public protests, allowing red states to prosecute women who get abortions, pardoning the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, directing the FBI and U.S. Justice Department to investigate his political opponents, including Biden and quite likely abandoning Ukraine and even NATO. 

A Trump victory would be a shot of adrenaline to Europe’s illiberal right. Conversely, a Democratic victory, coupled with a Labour win, would check the hard right’s momentum and send other center-left parties an invigorating signal of liberal resilience.   

These gains will prove fleeting, however, if the two parties fail to grapple more effectively with the working-class revolt that’s fueling populist nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Non-college voters in smaller cities and towns and the countryside feel left behind by technological change and globalization. Amid a steady influx of ethnically diverse immigrants, they also feel their own sense of cultural and national identity slipping away.  

These voters are vexed as well by the cultural left’s fixation on dividing society into oppressors and victims, discomfort with patriotism and disdain for traditional gender roles.  

Most progressive parties have tried to cope with these anxieties by ignoring or deploring them. That hasn’t worked. Nor has left-wing populism proved an effective antidote to right-wing populism.  

Labour tried that under Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, a dogmatic socialist who thrilled young left-wing activists but alienated Labour’s working-class base in the north of England.    

Starmer, a London lawyer, has methodically purged the hard left and moved his party back onto center ground. His steady hand and pragmatism project a reassuring competence to Britons suffering from “Tory fatigue.” 

The electoral outlook is cloudier for Biden. Voters are seldom kind to incumbents who preside over painful bouts of inflation. For that and other reasons, he’s trailing Trump nationally and in the key battleground states, mainly because of defections by working-class Black and Hispanic voters.  

For both Democrats and Labour, winning back non-college voters — white and nonwhite — is imperative. Otherwise, they’ll struggle to compete outside their metropolitan redoubts and build durable national majorities.   

Team Starmer is making headway on that task, and Democrats should be taking note. At a recent Progressive Britain conference in London, I took part in a Q&A with David Lammy, a key Starmer ally in Parliament who is shadow foreign minister. 

Lammy reminded the gathering that Labour and Democrats joined forces during the Clinton-Blair years to lead a remarkable global movement of center-left ferment and electoral success.  

Wins this year, he said, would give them an opportunity to reprise that role and rally other center-left parties to turn back the populist tide. 

Will Marshall is the founder and president of the Progressive Policy Institute. 

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