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Why the left can’t redistribute anymore
Left-wing support bases have become wealthier, irrevocably weakening the left’s redistributive capacity. Few realize how consequential this is.
Left-wing support bases have changed. Following the rise of sociocultural classes and decline of industrial classes, the support bases of left-wing parties increasingly consist of wealthier voters. This is an international phenomenon, affecting parties such as the UK Labour Party, US Democrats and Podemos. This also affects trade unions. In recent years, many of the most successful unions have organized sociocultural workers such as doctors and lecturers.
Recently, parties and unions have also pronounced calls for socioeconomic justice. But a paradox curses the left. Given the richer profile of supporters, the left’s redistributive capacity is historically low. No theory of redistribution, least of all the Marxist approaches which many on the left favour, predicts that political movements will transfer resources away from supporters. Talk is easy, the left naturally emphasizing the justice of its programme, yet limited resources and distinct economic values mean that resources tend to be transferred to supporters.
Evidence shows the extent of this problem. In the UK, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) analysis found that the 2017 Labour manifesto redistributed resources to middle-income deciles rather than the poorest. Measures such as removal of the public sector pay cap were ostensibly progressive, yet tended to benefit the richer citizens who are employed in the public sector. Though the 2019 Labour manifesto was judged more progressive by IFS, this document proposing abolition of the two-child limit on welfare support, there were similar problems; ‘relatively modest’ working-age welfare proposals reversed just over half the cuts introduced since 2015 and less than a quarter of those since 2010.
Investigations of other contexts reach similar conclusions; several studies of Western countries show that left-wing governments with strong working-class support provide more generous unemployment benefits and pensions. This problem necessarily affects trade unions which organize affluent workers. In coming weeks, the UK University and College Union (UCU) will probably strike. UCU actions may promote fairness within the sector, but claims that the strike will advance wider equality are fanciful; unions which organize richer deciles are unlikely to achieve this, particularly when organized at sector level.
But some deny this problem. Analysing the UK, certain commentators emphasize that Corbyn won majorities among working-age voters, support being stronger among the low-paid. But this analysis excludes pensioners, making it unfeasible. Moreover, this is an international phenomenon which has occurred for decades, implying a wider basis. Others accept this problem, but underline the progressive economic values of left-wing voters, suggesting that party programmes will reflect these values. Reality is more complex. Though the economic values of richer progressives are nominally left-wing, these voters prioritize new social risks, such as parental leave and gender equality, rather than old social risks, such as pensions and unemployment benefits. But policies on old social risks better tackle inequality, transferring resources to low-income groups.
Some argue that the ascendancy of such movements entails the hegemony of the left, encouraging future redistribution. When National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) actions strained the British economy, some asserted this. There was something in this; NUM were a key part of a working-class movement. This is difficult to apply to unions such as UCU, these being unambiguously middle-class. In certain ways, the arguments of these unions resemble trickledown economics.
Certain features of the left mean that this trend is self-reinforcing. Such movements also support liberal causes such as immigration and LGBT+ rights, often in a militant fashion. But these issues lie in tension with the values of low-income voters. As I have argued before, lower classes desire societies in which living conditions are decent but tradition prevails; a study of 99 countries found that it was more common for right-wing cultural views to be coupled with left-wing economic views, particularly among poorer citizens.
Consequently, such citizens are driven away from the left. The absence of poorer voters compounds the left’s difficulties. Because these citizens endure low incomes, there is a link between desired policies and narrowing of inequality. Their exit deprives the left of such voices, accentuating the demands of wealthier groups. There is scope for solidarity between poor citizens and minorities – legal aid is an immigration issue while youth housing benefit is an LGBT+ problem - yet this appears difficult to realize in practice.
It may be that right populist parties are best placed to achieve redistribution. Increasingly, low-income voters support these movements. Many of these parties advocate redistribution; PiS (Poland) and Rassemblement National (France) are prominent examples. In these cases, it is difficult to deny potential; the social policy of the PiS Government is one of the most impressive in Europe. If Rassemblement National came to power, their record might be similar. This does not imply support for right populism. Other parts of this ideology are extreme and right-populist welfare policies often exclude minority groups, reflecting the discriminatory basis of right populism.
The traditional left has largely disappeared. Admittedly, many of its concerns echo in the agenda of the contemporary left, path dependency encouraging action on low-income issues. The language of today’s left reinforces this, commitment to social justice motivating action. Notwithstanding these caveats, the erosion of the left’s low-income support base is a hammer blow, irrevocably weakening redistributive capacity; no slogans or speeches can replace it.
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