Douglas Carswell was MP for Clacton from 2005-2017. His latest book Rebel: how to overthrow the emerging oligarchy is published by Head of Zeus.
The Conservative Party has just lurched to the left, say the pundits. “Red Theresa” May’s manifesto, launched yesterday, was full of dirigiste ideas. She is, suggests the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, “the most left-wing leader the Tories have had 40 years”.
Comrade Corbyn, meanwhile, has unveiled a manifesto that seems almost Marxist. He wants rent controls, and the centralised provision of education. There’s even a pledge to guarantee the number of hours we work each week.
But the idea that we are seeing the return of retro-1970s socialism obscures a bigger truth; the Left is dying – not only in Britain, but across the Western world.
Corbyn’s Labour party may be ultra-left, but that’s what makes it unelectable. No one has given much attention what’s in Labour’s manifesto precisely because it is utterly irrelevant to the future governance of the country.
Labour entered this election with a lower share of the vote than it has had for a generation – if not three. Seats such as Sedgefield and Bolsover, where wane jokes were once made about weighing rather than counting the Labour ballot papers on election night, are now rumored to be within range for the Conservatives.
It’s not only in Britain where the traditional party of the Left is being annihilated. In the recent French presidential election, the Socialist party finished fifth. In Holland, where a Labour party has been a fixture since the Second World War, they came seventh.
What we are witnessing is not one of those cyclical swings that have happened in post-war politics across the Western world, but something more significant. We are seeing the death of social democracy.
Much has been said about the rise in recent years of populist parties. But the other side of that story is of the abandonment of established left-of-centre parties by their traditional supporters. From Spain to Italy to America, parties of organised labour are in trouble. The blue collar base didn’t come out for Hillary in Pennsylvania last year, and its starting to look as if they might not come out for Corbyn in the north of England in three weeks time either.
Why is the Left being jettisoned by its traditional supporters? A lot of it is down to technology.
Over the past decade or so, millions of us in Britain have become part of what you might call a “Netflix nation”. In common others around the world, we are able to watch what we want, when we want to watch it. We expect to be able to buy what we want, at our convenience, our groceries delivered at a time of our choice. The best products are ubiquitous.
Thanks to the digital revolution, self-selection and choice have rapidly become established cultural norms. In other words, we have control – and increasingly expect it.
Far from being trivial, giving people an expectation of control has enormous political implications. As we saw last summer, the idea of taking control resonates. The governed increasingly have a new set of expectations that the governing have yet to grasp.
Yet for as long as anyone can remember, the Left has been in the business of offering to organise things for us. From Beveridge to Blair, there was always a blueprint -, Labour leaders seeking office by saying: “give us your vote, and we will do things for you”.
But what happens when the voters want control? That basic proposition starts to sound a little condescending.
Those that might have traditionally voted left start wanting public services that serve them, as individual members of the public – rather than being run in the interests of those on the public sector payroll.
Ordinary folk might want the same choices as citizens that they take for granted as consumers. All that top-down statist stuff about improving education with a National Education Service starts to seem a little implausible. The Left, wedded to the idea of top-down design, has little to say to this new class of citizen consumer.
“But surely” you interject “the Labour Party has adapted to the internet. What about all those young Corbynistas? Or Momentum, with half a million members?”
Labour may indeed have created an online mass membership movement. But in doing so they have unwittingly corralled together the 600,000 or so people who believe in socialism – and cut them off from much of the rest of country.
The Left in Britain, as in much of the English-speaking world, has only ever been electable when it has been soft and Fabian. Online aggregation instead gives the Labour movement a digital purity, making it shrill, certain and socialist. And rendering it electorally irrelevant in the process.
So why, then, if the Left is doomed has Theresa May just offered up so many left-wing ideas? Why has she served up things that Ed Miliband as Labour leader contemplated doing if he got to Downing Street?
Such is the nature of political reporting that there are many who see some sort of cunning ruse. May, so they say, is trying to kill off the Labour Party by adopting ideas that will help her to win in their own backyard. Perhaps.
Consider instead what we know about Theresa May’s career up until this point. On almost everything, from her decision as Home Secretary to end stop and search powers for the police, to her stance on Brexit, she has tended to take a position on the basis of expediency.
If you have few ideas of your own, you end up grabbing hold of whatever ideas you find around you. And much of what we find in the Tory manifesto is part of the glutinous groupthink that has been percolating around Whitehall for years.
The most resonant critique of that orthodoxy in future is no longer going to come from the Left – and that, in terms of steering and shaping our political future, is what will count.