The 2019 general election in the UK have once more revealed Europe’s inability to fully adopt the “progressive” attitude that it claims underlies its policies and political structure. The EU’s main values are democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and social cohesion, and yet its member states have witnessed a significant regression in attitudes of solidarity and humanity, most notably regarding the subject of immigration. In European politics there is a consequential increase of voters choosing right-wing political parties over left-wing ones. The left is losing – but why?
In the latest general election, the Conservative party secured majority with 366 seats in the House of Commons. 326 are generally required to win. These results mark the biggest election win for Boris Johnson’s party in 30 years, whilst the Labour party’s catastrophic defeat of only 203 MPs is their worst result since the general election of 1935.
Critics have blamed Labour’s unpopularity with voters on its continuous shift to the left. With an election manifesto titled “It’s Time For Real Change: For The Many Not The Few”, Labour promised, among other things, a green industrial revolution, a rebuilding of public services, serious tackling of poverty and inequality as well as a final say on Brexit with a second referendum.
The manifesto was described as “radical”, holding promises to “transform” the UK. Others labelled Corbyn’s politics “unabashedly authoritarian and relentlessly abusive”, and the party leader himself was said to be “electorally toxic”. Many now suggest that the party should have taken a more neutral approach to convince UK voters and see the results as a lesson for the left, not only in the UK but in the rest of the world as well.
On the other hand, the Conservatives won with definite majority, despite public attitudes of racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia of its party leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who people cast in the role of Britain’s saviour. Somehow, the Labour party’s call for fundamental change in the UK system was more alarming to voters than the bigotry and prejudice of its Prime Minister.
One cannot ignore the circumstances of this election – Brexit – which played a significant role in the voters’ behaviour and undoubtedly influenced many to turn to Johnson and his party in hope of finally getting through this messy period in Britain’s history. But nevertheless this phenomenon of voters choosing right-wing politicians over left-wing politicians out of fear of the left’s radicalism is not only apparent in the UK.
In certain parts of Germany, more often than not certain conservatives are open to the far-right more than the left. In Thüringen, a state in Central Germany, the 2019 state elections showed a significant increase of votes for the populist, Eurosceptic and anti-Islam AfD (Alternative for Germany), which ended up as the second strongest party after Die Linke (The Left), the German socialist party. The CDU, chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, was the third strongest party. In the following discussions regarding the future of Thüringen’s government, the CDU made clear that they were unwilling to form a government with the socialists, but temporarily began a conversation with the AfD, claiming that they had to respect AfD voters and their political opinions. In the end, they did not come to an agreement. Instead the socialists formed a minority government with the social democrats, the SPD, and the green party, Die Grüne.
Some have claimed that the dilemma that leading parties like the CDU face is the pressure to retain “einen verantwortungsvollen politischen Kurs [a responsible political course]”  that respects the needs, wishes and worries of its people. Yet many of these worries are misplaced, and needs and wishes born of privilege and habit. While the left is urged to compromise its values and moral standing as to not offend those that prefer to remain “neutral”, those fearing the discomfort of social reform for greater social inclusion and justice are depicted as the groups of voters voicing real concerns of the people. Their fears are worth being listened to.
The fear of change is more prevalent than the fear that things will stay the same – change implies temporary confrontation with the unknown, which for many is a terrifying scenario. The possibility of a better future for many is not yet visible enough to be given real consideration in political discussions. Many left-wing voters are working-class, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people, or of similar groups that are not represented in the manifestos of the centre-right and right-wing political parties. For them, systemic change is necessary to gain visibility and consideration in the decision-making processes of their governments.
Why then do voters more often than not choose conservative parties over liberal ones? Why is it that in the recent political polarisation across the continent the radical right is receiving this much support, often more than the left?
At the centre of the majority of recent political developments is the topic of immigration. And central to the failure of social democratic parties, and the left in general, according to Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy, are precisely their attitudes towards immigration. Voters tend to fall for other parties, which promise them to take proper, practical steps to control immigration. Specifically countries’ “traditional” white citizens of lower socioeconomic positions feel betrayed by their leaders’ supposed prioritising of new migrants and communities and their claim to jobs and welfare benefits.
It is said that the left has long struggled with finding a balance between principles and pragmatism. And in contemporary European politics, there is perhaps too high a focus on politicians’ personalities, on what could happen and not on what is happening, on short- rather than long-term results. As Peter Mair writes in Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy: ‘The age of democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form’. Consequently, even voters of marginalised groups or working-class demographics that are expected to vote for social democratic parties are now increasingly voting Conservative, despite the thinly veiled attitudes of racism and Islamophobia that are at the core of its immigration policies.
The growing resistance against the values of liberal democracy and mainstream politics, and its resulting rising support for centre-right and right-wing populist parties, not only in the UK and Germany but in Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and other European countries, clearly indicates that something must change, not only in the European politics but in the way we think about politics and what it can do for us.
The people who will suffer most from the results of the UK’s general election, as well as the political power of right-wing political parties, are not those we see represented in mainstream media: they are talked about but they are rarely allowed to speak for themselves. But those marginalised groups – immigrants, people with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ community, among others – are the ones we need to listen to in order to understand the urgency of political action.
But what can you do to change that? If you feel lost in all this, where can you start to make a difference?
Start with an attempt to overcome your own ignorance: if the only accounts you follow on Twitter are white cis-heteros, perhaps there’s a more effective way to use your social media. Perhaps you want to read books by authors of a demographic unfamiliar to you, as to allow yourself access to a wider variety of voices, those that are denied the right to speak to a wide audience. If the only people educating you on issues regarding immigration, race, accessibility, gender and sexuality are not themselves members of the marginalised communities that are central to these topics of discussion, make sure that you change that.
Diversity is complicated. Inclusion is complicated. Change can be scary but it is necessary. The least you can do is make an effort to listen.
 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/13/us/politics/britain-labour-elections-democrats.html; https://www.euronews.com/2019/12/21/uk-s-labour-descends-into-civil-war-can-it-survive-its-election-drubbing
 cf. https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2019-11/cdu-afd-regierungsbildung-gespraeche-thueringen
 Manwaring, Rob, and Paul Kennedy: Why the Left Loses: The Decline of the Centre-Left in Comparative Perspective (Policy Press: Bristol and Chicago, 2018).
 Ibid, p. 210.
 Cf. ibid. cf. Rooduijn, Matthijs et al.: Radical Distinction: Support for Radical Left and Radical Right Parties in Europe, in: European Union Politics 18:4), pp. 536-559, p. 541
 Mair, Peter: Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (Verso Books: New York, 2013)