Sarah Wagner


Back in 2015, continental European centre-left parties were looking at the UK Labour Party to find out how a party could get half a million mostly young people to join a political party in the 21st century. The answer was found in a radical left activist, Jeremy Corbyn, – a drastic move away from the Blair model of the Labour Party. Half a decade later, we need to ask ourselves the question: what is left of the Corbyn wave?


In large parts, the positional ambiguity around Brexit was the downfall of the Corbynistas. Yet, Brexit (although unique in itself) is not an individual case. Most parties, especially on the left, have to decide where they stand – are they cosmopolitan or nationalist? By choosing to be ambiguous about this choice, the Labour Party alienated their voters. So, what will left-wing parties choose in the future?


This blog post will show some of the stances left wing parties across Europe have taken towards nationalism. Further, it will show that nationalism is the crucial issue that left-wing parties need to decide on in order to stay relevant today.


After the financial crisis of 2008, it seemed like the centre-left parties in Europe had become more electorally irrelevant than ever. After being severely involved in the implementation of austerity packages, due to their overwhelming representation in European governments, the general European electorate was drawing consequences.


In the middle of the rise of the populist right, the Labour Party attracted 500,000 new young university educated members. Parties like SYRIZA came into power and parties like Unidas Podemos were successfully founded. For the left across Europe, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn seemed like there was hope for the left after all.


In 2020, we know differently. The left, especially centre-left, is being criticised for being out of touch with voters and electorally irrelevant. Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria – the examples can be found all over Europe.


The Left and nationalism


Does this mean that there is a need for left-wing populism? Maybe. From the outside, populist left-wing parties seem to have had more success at the polls in the last few years. However, the answer is not as easy as to suggest that the left simply needs to come up with their own version of “Get Brexit done”. Why does nationalism matter for the left? The left needs to ask the question: Who is their core voter group? For the Labour Party, the answer was both the Northern working class, who’s rather socially conservative and economically left-wing and the so-called “metropolitan elite”, young, highly educated, cosmopolitan people.


The Labour Party made the strategic move to stay ambiguous on their stance towards Brexit, a conscious choice to avoid having to make a move against either of these voter groups. This case is not unique. The Labour Party’s dilemma shows that cosmopolitan and nationalist issues are part of a key salient dimension that parties need to confront themselves with. Most importantly, this is significant for left parties. Most other party families already have a preconceived understanding on where they stand on this divide. Green parties are in their nature more cosmopolitan, far right parties are ideologically more nationalist.


Across Europe, left parties have realised that they need to make a stance on this divide, especially learning from the Labour Party example. Left wing parties like Sinn Fein and KKE have nationalist positions on immigration or the EU. This civic nationalism might be distinct from the ethnic nationalism often found in radical right parties, however it is still a form of nationalism that will attract a voter base.


Other left wing parties have chosen a cosmopolitan path, promoting open borders and free movement. The Swedish Vänsterpartiet has as recently as last year decided to drop their long-term policy position of leaving the European Union.


Is this the final decade for left parties?


The question left parties across Europe need to ask themselves is: “Is the Left too divided on nationalism?” The intra-party heterogeneity was clearly a problem for the Labour party on the issue of Brexit. Indeed, this is a problem that other left wing parties face on issues related to nationalism. When the leader of the radical left party in Germany, Die Linke, made anti-immigration statements, the ideological splits in the party became very obvious.


This heterogeneity, similar to one found in the Labour Party, is usually a negative sign for the voter, as is shows that the party has internal conflicts and is undecided on a central issue. Prior (and during) the 2019 election, the Labour Party strategically positioned itself ambiguously on the issue of Brexit. By staying vague when asked and blurring the issue in their manifesto, the Labour Party tried to make sure both of their voter groups felt included.


However, due to the prominent intraparty heterogeneity, this strategy failed. Consciously blurring issues can work for parties (see radical right parties on the economy), however this needs to be carefully signalled away from internal party conflicts.


The ending reign of Corbyn is not the final hour of the European left. However, parties on the left need to be increasingly conscious of new salient issues that questions their own position and voter groups. Therefore, this decade needs to address topics that have been dividing left-wing parties in the 21st century and left-wing parties need to understand where they see themselves in the nationalism question.


Sarah Wagner is a Doctoral Student of Comparative Politics at the University of Essex and a PSA member. She is funded by the Foundation of German Business. Her research is focused on the nationalist dimension and the radical left party family in Western Europe. Image credit: CC by Jeremy Corbyn/Flickr.