Progressive Futures

Trump and Brexit show that progressives cannot take white working-class voters for granted

21 November 2016

If we continue to ignore the views and anxieties of working-class voters we will be out of power for decades to come

Emma Reynolds MP

Some on the left here and across the Atlantic have wrongly argued that if only the Democrats had run an angry anti-establishment candidate, Donald Trump would not have won the US presidential election. But we cannot assume that if the left simply criticises the status quo and shouts against the establishment that we will benefit. Stemming the rise of rightwing populism won’t be that easy. The progressive left needs to learn the right lessons behind the victories of Trump and the Vote Leave campaign here in the UK.

The votes of white working-class people, who are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo and feel that they have been left behind, were key to both victories. It is the group that Trump called “the forgotten men and women”, who have traditionally voted Labour in the UK and for the Democrats in America. Although globalisation has lifted millions of people out of poverty, it has also caused serious dislocation in western economies and governments have done little to help those who have lost out. The states that switched from Democrat to Republican – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – bear a striking resemblance to the post-industrial towns and cities of Sunderland, Barnsley and Wolverhampton, whose landslide majorities for Brexit were decisive in the vote to leave the EU. These areas have above-average rates of unemployment and have lost steady manufacturing jobs, which have often been replaced by low-paid and increasingly insecure work.

But the rise of rightwing populism should not be seen solely through an economic prism. There are profound questions of identity that the left has tended to overlook. In the UK, opposition to free movement of people was one of the major reasons behind the vote to leave the EU. Polling by GQRR’s James Morris found that 53 per cent of voters were put off voting remain because they felt the remain campaign did not take their concerns about immigration seriously. The communities who have concerns about immigration don’t just express fears about competing for jobs and wages, they are also worried about their communities changing beyond recognition. Not only do they feel that progressives are out of touch, but they also think that the left sneers at their patriotism. We have failed to appreciate that in a fast-changing world, a sense of place, community and identity matters.

There were many problems with Hillary Clinton’s campaign – some of which were of their own making and some were beyond its control. The decision by the FBI to re-open the investigation into her private email account a fortnight before the election was appalling. However, her campaign’s failure to set out an overall narrative meant that she had nothing to match Trump’s campaign message of “make America great again”. Criticising your opponent is never a substitute for a positive message.

Progressives are rightly concerned about widening inequalities, which are responsible for much of the rising dissatisfaction with the economy. But analysing people’s fears and concerns is no substitute for discussing how to secure a better future for them and their children. Trump succeeded in doing this, by using simplistic messages which tapped into people’s emotions, whereas Hillary didn’t seem to even attempt to have that conversation. The challenge for progressives on the left is not to pretend that the answers to complex problems are simple, but to find solutions which we can communicate in a language that resonates with people.

The progressive left has failed to offer a compelling alternative to the simplistic solutions offered by rightwing populists, who have successfully constructed a powerful narrative that we are a self-serving and out-of-touch elite. Rather than try to echo the anger and anti-establishment views of populists like Trump, we need to reconnect with working-class voters. The lesson of Hillary’s defeat and the vote for Brexit is that if we continue to ignore their views and anxieties, we will be out of power for decades to come.

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