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Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski
Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski

konrad yakabuski

What’s left for the centre-left? Add to ...

Pity today’s centre-left politician. Voters are fed up with the status quo of evermore trade liberalization, budget austerity and free-market capitalism. Yet, parties of the mainstream left have been unable to harness this discontent or offer a compelling antidote to it. They have seen their share of the popular vote collapse almost everywhere, as many traditional supporters – intellectuals, social activists and working-class voters – opt for more extreme alternatives on both the left and right.

Britain’s Labour establishment is reeling after last weekend’s overwhelming re-election of hard-left ideologue Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s leader, despite opinion polls showing a Corbyn-led Labour facing near-annihilation in a general election. Whether the party can hold together long enough to even get to the next election is an open question. Three-quarters of sitting Labour MPs oppose Mr. Corbyn, and he is struggling to form a shadow cabinet after most of the last one resigned in protest against his extreme economic and foreign policy views.

In France, Socialist President François Hollande has abandoned all pretense of advancing an economic agenda that differs from that of his centre-right predecessors, constrained as he is by European Union caps on deficit spending and the imperative of reforming rigid labour laws and onerous payroll taxes that have sapped France’s competitiveness. This has earned him only enmity from Socialist militants, who are lining up behind radical left-wing candidates to replace him.

The leading contender to oust Mr. Hollande as the Socialist candidate in the 2017 presidential vote, Arnaud Montebourg, is a hard-left ideologue who would renationalize French banks and tax and spend to his statist heart’s content. But he has almost no chance of becoming president. Polls show he would barely crack double digits in next April’s first-round presidential vote.

Civil war has broken out among Spain’s Socialists, too. Leader Pedro Sanchez, who has presided over the party’s worst electoral results ever, faces a putsch as regional party barons rebel against his unwillingness to accept a compromise that would allow the centre-right People’s Party to form a government, after two elections in which the PP came first but failed to win a majority of seats in Congress. Mr. Sanchez appears to have the support of the Socialist rank and file, which wants the party to cozy up to a three-year-old hard-left party, Podemos. But such an alliance would only alienate mainstream voters, likely leading to further Socialist electoral losses.

Greek Socialists, who, not long ago, governed, have been reduced to a rump in parliament. But the harder-left Syriza government now in power has proved no more capable of resisting EU diktats on debt, spending and migration, leaving the entire Greek left in crisis. In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is hanging on amid disarray on his country’s right, but a December referendum on senate reform is shaping up as a plebiscite on his centre-left leadership that the populist and leftist Five Star Movement is exploiting to unseat him.

In the United States, both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival Donald Trump are courting supporters of the the populist revolt led by Senator Bernie Sanders. Aversion toward Mr. Trump may enable Ms. Clinton to win over the Sandernistas this time, but the defection of working-class voters from Democrats could spell an identity crisis for the party sooner rather than later.

Canada’s New Democratic Party, meanwhile, is testing historic lows in popular opinion at the same time as supporters of the anti-globalization Leap Manifesto are striking fear into the hearts of potential party leadership contenders. In a recent CBC Radio interview, Leap co-author Avi Lewis compared his movement to Spain’s Indignados, the anti-austerity uprising that led to the formation of Podemos. He stopped short of advocating the creation of new political party in Canada. But might the existential crisis facing the NDP about the Leap Manifesto lead to that?

For now, the rambunctious New Democrats are biding their time. Mr. Lewis highlighted the “fundamental conflict” facing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which is big on “progressive symbolism and values-speak,” but whose policy decisions will inevitably alienate NDP voters who defected to the Liberals in 2015.

Still, the left almost everywhere is a mess. Some argue it’s because right-left labels are now meaningless and that a political realignment is under way pitting the winners and losers of globalization against each other. Yet, on the central issue of the role and size of government, the right-left continuum is as relevant as ever. It’s just that the left has split bitterly over how much “state” is desirable or feasible. And as Mr. Corbyn’s re-election shows, the left is a long way from settling its differences.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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