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President Trump and Brexit – some lessons for the liberal left

November 9, 2016

Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic will have their heads in their hands today. How on earth could one of the best prepared candidates in American history be defeated by a loud mouthed, pampered extremist with no government experience? On the back of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union 2016 is going to be the year two liberal nightmares became reality.

This is a rude wake up call for every liberal, progressive centre left politician and commentator in the USA and Europe. Liberal and social democrat (let alone socialist) parties and governments are struggling everywhere, with the notable exception of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party government in Canada. Brexit and Trump’s victory has shattered the cosy consensus among the political establishment, including for this purpose the centre right conservative and Christian Democrat parties, that globalisation and mass immigration were necessary and beneficial for all advanced economies. It also exposes the feeling of many people, especially white straight men, that the equal rights given to women and various minorities are a challenge to their status. Many people are fed up with being told what they can’t say and do. Rather like at the end of Gladstone’s great reforming ministry in 1874, the people may have “grown tired of being improved” by their liberal masters.

What are the lessons that must be learned by liberals and other centre left thinkers? I think the main one is that we should listen more to and understand more about people’s concerns, as they feel them and choose to express them. If you are well educated then rapid change in the economy and society is something that you’re well equipped to adapt to. You may even find it exhilarating. But if your formal education stopped at school leaving age then rapid change is more of a challenge. It’s something that alarms you, rather than something that you want to embrace.

Globalisation has brought about a collapse of extractive and manufacturing industries in many communities such as my own native South Wales or Tyneside in north east England. The same is true in parts of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump and Brexit campaigners exploited the resentment that jobs that were once secure and generally well paid had been offshored to China and Eastern Europe. Globalisation has also seen a massive expansion in financial and ancillary services. But these jobs are in London and New York and are for the well-educated. When they had an economic crisis in 2007-10 they were bailed out by the taxpayer. When steel, mining and manufacturing faced a challenge the result was closure, unemployment and boarded up shops.

Liberals need to say loud and clear that they know some groups have been hurt by rapid economic change. An interventionist industrial policy should spread the new jobs that come from the digital economy and other new industries to parts of the country that have felt the loss of traditional jobs. Trump will soon be exposed for not being able to “bring back the jobs” that have been lost to Mexico or China. But if he’s as “smart” as he says then he will put in the infrastructure spending and tax incentives to get new well paid jobs to Detroit and Pittsburgh. In Britain the Coalition government made a start on developing regional centres and Vince Cable developed a series of industrial strategies, seeking to copy Germany. The new Tory government will have to go further to make sure Brexit doesn’t widen Britain’s economic divide.

Liberals also need to appreciate that some people are troubled by the rapid social change of the last few decades. We shouldn’t retreat from advances made for women and minorities. Overt sexism, racism or homophobia must be faced down. But if people complain about housing allocations, school places, waiting to see a doctor or say they don’t like the way some immigrants don’t integrate, then their concerns should not be ignored or dismissed as racist or ignorant. We must understand some people feel that others have seen their status rise while their own self esteem has fallen. In ‘Mississippi Burning’, the film about racism in the deep South, Gene Hackman’s FBI character tells a colleague that his daddy poisoned a black farmer neighbour’s cow as if he “wasn’t better than a negro, who was he better than?” Resentment can lead to prejudice and bad behaviour. But the cause of the resentment needs to be addressed, as well as telling someone that prejudice is wrong.

Finally, the behaviour of liberals themselves has made it easier for demagogues to succeed. Liberals, social democrats and socialists are pretty vicious to each other. If a progressive in government compromises in order to get most of a policy into law or fails to achieve 100% of a manifesto then it must be a betrayal and a sell-out. The British Labour Party in 2016 prefers to be led by the purist Corbyn and largely disowns its most successful leader Tony Blair. Bernie Sanders helped make Hillary Clinton toxic to many young voters.

When the comrades aren’t stabbing each other in the back they like nothing better than to dance on the grave of a liberal. Seeing off progressive rivals is often seen as a higher priority than defeating conservatives. I understand this is jokingly referred to as “business before pleasure” inside Labour. This attitude will make it harder for the Liberal Democrats to defeat the Brexit supporting Tory Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by election. The local green party have behaved more constructively than their American standard bearer Jill Stein whose candidacy in Florida and New Hampshire has helped Trump in the same way as Ralph Nader helped Bush in 2000. We must all learn that belittling and toxifying each other only helps the conservatives in politics.

So if liberals and other progressives are to recover the political initiative then we need to listen to people’s concerns and reassure them where they are valid. When the concerns are wrong or the benefits of globalisation in terms of cost of living, new products and new opportunities are not appreciated then we should redouble efforts to stand up for the benefits of a more open society. We must have credible answers that deal with their anxieties about their social and economic status. And we must find ways of cooperating with like-minded politicians and thinkers, abandoning petty tribalism. If liberals don’t respond quickly to the rise in support for demagogues then the likes of Trump, Farage and Le Pen will set the agenda for the next decade.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Fox permalink
    November 9, 2016 6:22 pm

    I think you have missed an important aspect of the Brexit vote, and one that marks a significant difference between the referendum here and the election in the U.S. The main similarity between those two events is that all of the pollsters and chattering classes got their predictions wrong.

    Several areas of Britain – – and thereby millions of people – – voted to leave the E.U., against what appeared to be their financial interest. That aspect of the Brexit vote suggests some dissatisfaction OTHER THAN economic well-being, and you (and other politicos) haven’t really taken notice of this “other” factor. I suggest it is a rebellion against the remoteness of power. People like to feel in control of at least some of the fundamental aspects of their lives, and that doesn’t just mean the economic aspects. They don’t like very distant powers controlling all the levers. By “distant” I mean socially and “culturally” different; people with vastly different lifestyles. By “powers” I mean the entities that are able to exercise control – – mostly people with vast wealth, very big corporations, politicians with huge influence. Most of the population don’t have these lifestyles and options, and they resent being told what to do by “others” who are perceived to have very different opportunities and interests.

    Clearly there’s a general lessening in belief in the status quo, a widespread dissatisfaction across many countries with “the powers that be”. We’ve moved, within two or three generations, from people having valuable and valued roles in their social and geographic circles, to most “ordinary” people feeling a degree of alienation. Family life is more fractured (e.g. by the huge uptake of ready meals and take-aways). Village life is less inclusive (e.g. by fewer job opportunities. Housing individuality is subsumed by increased planning and building regulation. Working life is increasingly “homogenised” (e.g. by burgeoning health and safety conditions). Financial life has become disconnected from personal endeavour (e.g. by credit cards and digital transactions). Satisfaction in lifestyle has become synonymous with purchasing power. It is no wonder that many people are rebelling, and not just in these two countries.

    One of the major attributes of the digital age is that everyone in the world can now see how everyone else is getting on. There a long list of positive aspects to this, but there are also some negative aspects and one of them is that “dissatisfaction” is contagious and is less easily bought off or suppressed.

  2. November 9, 2016 6:39 pm

    Richard, I agree with all of that and thank you for writing it so well.
    I may well write another piece on your first point about the inaccuracy (again) of the polls.
    I’ve written and spoken many times about the remoteness of power. There is a big disconnect between the Westminster bubble and much of the rest of the country. Our over-centralisation of power in London and our adversarial style of politics, with a distorting voting system, doesn’t help.

    • Richard Fox permalink
      November 9, 2016 10:24 pm

      I don’t think that proportional representation would solve the problem now – – the dissatisfaction has gone too far, the urge to revolt is out of the bottle. It’s not just the Westminster bubble; it’s the remoteness of power in every sphere of life; the Westminster bubble problem is just one of the factors that the chattering classes like to chatter about. Look at food: there’s growing mistrust and dissatisfaction with big supermarkets, and Bristol’s rennaissance of good food is one happy answer to that. Look at religion: the mainstream very large groupings are fragmenting, certainly in the northern hemisphere. Look at education and the growth of home education: “parental choice” or a general mistrust of large centrally controlled institutions? Look at healthcare: increasing complaints and payouts for malpractice. Look at policing: increasing complaints and payouts. Look at transport: increasigly costly, increasing commuter times to get to work, increasing alienation on public transport (seen many people smiling on the tube recently?).

      Humans are social animals; we’re built to interact with others, and we get disturbed when those interactions don’t feel very satisfying. We’re also designed to cope with a large amount of stress, but it does seem to lead to some antisocial trends.

      So I would like to see “liberal” people taking back the reins of power from the big conglomerates who monopolise our lives now, and that includes the big political parties – – actually that may be happening already as the big parties begin to self-destruct. Why wait for the uncomfortable spin-offs that will result, like the Tea Party and UKIP? Why not take the lead and advocate really “human”:scale activities and decision-making in all the aspects of our lives? Why not create a liberal (small-L) manifesto that tips the balance away from the powerful and remote institutions, and tilts towards the dis-empowered? Some philosophers have argued that is the proper role for government anyway.

      The renaissance of good slow food in Bristol might be an example to build upon. Supermarkets might be beginning to lose their stranglehold on the food supply chains, so give the independent producers some tax encouragement. Put some brakes on big business, big government, big religion, etc. Those institutions by definition can fend for themselves; they don’t need government protection and encouragement. It’s the little people who need to be given space to breathe. Support local trade (e.g. the Bristol pound) as preferable to international trade. Support village/parish/ town hall powers and encourage them to raise money and spend it on behalf of their local residents. Change the tax system entirely so ordinary people can understand it without having to hire experts, and put increasing taxation on big corporations that use professional accountants to avoid/evade their responsibilities.

      You are an ex-accountant. Explain to me why an institution might need government protection because it is “too big to fail”. Your colleague Vince Cable spoke very forcefully on the subject, before the 2010 election. He asked, at a lecture in Bristol, why anyone needed to earn more than £100,000 per year to run a bank. He said – – in answer to the oft-heard argument that the best talent will just go elsewhere if they aren’t offered super-high salaries – – “let them go elsewhere. I think there are some excellent lower-level bank managers who would be happy to take a salary of £100,000 and step into the role of managing a bank. Why not give them a chance?” Of course he was seen to change his tune once in government, thereby adding yet one more nudge to the public’s dissatisfaction with the experts in government.

      Frankly I think the public is really disaffected when they hear of a company setting aside several billion pounds year after year to deal with their past mistakes. Why are they allowed to accumulate so many surplus billions? It sets that whole industry against the common-sense feeling of what is right.

      • November 9, 2016 10:54 pm

        I have no problem with most of what you say. If you look through my blog archive you’ll find several articles on bank reform, tax avoidance, high streets and even local food!

      • Richard Fox permalink
        November 9, 2016 11:42 pm

        Sure, but where’s the plan for action? How are we going to make significant changes fast enough before the natives get restless? If we piddle about for a few years we are likely to see another Trump-like vote, more activity from UKIP, or more shouting about referenda, etc.

        The problem is that the people who now hold the reins of power are always reluctant to give it up, and it usually has to be wrested from their hands causing some pain (or blood). And that leads to yet more exercise of the power.

        Or maybe that would be a good strategy: a few more mass-disaffection actions and more people might think structural change is desirable. One of the most poignant slogans for the 1972 U.S. presidential election (for Nixon’s second term) was “Liberals: Vote for Nixon and he’ll hang himself.” Another slogan was “Don’t vote. Whoever wins, you lose.”

      • November 11, 2016 11:20 am

        Practically all Parties should seize the opportunity of the Metro-Mayor elections. Not because Metro-Mayors are particularly good or well thought out, but because they are a start, and a potential political moment. If they are seized, more powers can be demanded and fought for. Local political scenes can develop more. Similarly local authorities and cities like Bristol must demand more power, but also champion their identity more.

        People are crying out for identity and cultural comfort in the 21st century. Cities may help provide that.

        The biggest barrier I think is that the Conservatives do not yet grasp the gravity of the situation, as politically they are the main beneficiaries so far. However liberal conservatives need to be dragged off the fence, and realize that their party as they knew it will not survive either.

  3. November 9, 2016 7:38 pm

    Quote, “How on earth could one of the best prepared candidates in American history be defeated ….. “. You forgot to mention that the Clinton camp is as corrupt as can be, farming millions from eastern ‘rich-bitch’ countries eager to get a foot-hold in American politics as many have here and then trying to rule with their own brand of bullyboy tactics in politics -Luftur Rahman anyone?
    The second important factor is that the people, yes, the important people are sick to death of the pampered ruling elite who squander money junketing around the world on matters that are basically inconsequential. People are also sick to death of politicians ignoring them. They are elected BY the people to SERVE the people and the Americans, after watching our wonderful BREXIT have finally grasped the nettle. Who knows Stephen, the Americans might find an excuse to have a re-vote!

  4. November 9, 2016 8:19 pm

    The two Clintons have never been found guilty of corruption to enrich themselves. They’ve made a lot of money from people who pay them for speeches and articles, like Blair and others over here. But to reject a woman who may have made money from her brain power and favour instead a billionaire who’s been pampered all his life?!

  5. smoothsilk permalink
    November 10, 2016 10:53 am

    If I’d have been Hilary Clinton, I would have got that email business “sorted” so everyone could judge her. Not doing this, leaves a suspicion of corruption which can’t have helped her get votes. It will be interesting to see how Trump goes as President, I am sure it we will have plenty to chat about, let’s hope we are pleasantly surprised!

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