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The disturbing decline of Europe’s left

British Prime Minster Theresa May delivers remarks at

British Prime Minster Theresa May delivers remarks at GSK, GlaxoSmithKline, in Maidenhead, England, on Friday, April 21, 2017. Credit: AP / Leon Neal

British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked her nation last week by calling an early election, to be held on June 8. Her Conservative Party is likely — though not certain — to win, a result that would end all doubt that Britain will leave the European Union.

But it’s not Conservative strength in Britain that’s the most impressive. It’s the weakness of the opposition left-wing Labour Party. It’s not just Labour that’s weak. All across the continent, the left is in trouble, just as the EU is. And the EU’s problems are the left’s.

Start with Britain. Right now, the Conservatives have a 20- point polling lead on Labour. For years, analysts assumed that Labour could never draw less than 25 percent of the vote. But now it regularly polls at that level, and often below it. Labour’s position is historically terrible.

That doesn’t mean a Conservative landslide is assured. Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, might bounce back from its own catastrophic defeat in the 2015 election. But even if the Conservatives don’t run away with it, no one expects Labour to do well.

The easy explanation is that Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, is very unpopular. He won his unpopularity the old-fashioned way — for example, by supporting the Irish Republican Army and later by saluting Saddam Hussein. A recent poll found that only 27 percent of Labour voters want Corbyn to win; 29 percent preferred May.

But it’s not all Corbyn. Another polling firm found that Labour’s policies were unpopular when described as Corbyn’s policies. But they were equally unpopular when described as Labour’s policies. The problem for the left isn’t Corbyn. It runs deeper.

The same is true across Europe. The most striking feature of European politics over the past decade is the decline, or even the destruction, of the traditional left. The Greek left has been eliminated. In Spain, the Socialist Workers’ Party has bled support to far-left Podemos. In the most recent elections in the Netherlands, the left hung on, but lost a third of its support.

Nothing is happening in Britain that isn’t also happening on the continent. It’s a terrible mistake to forget that politics, like all strategy, is interactive. The Conservatives in Britain aren’t leading in a vacuum. They’re leading because few want to vote for Labour.

Like the rest of the European social democratic left, Labour has two problems. First, the traditional working class has shrunk, and the left has no answers to the problems that globalization poses for lower-skilled workers, or the unemployed.

The left in Britain — as in the United States — is still hung up on ideas like the minimum wage, a policy from the industrial age. All a minimum wage does today is encourage automation. It does nothing for people whose problem is a low-growth economy that creates no jobs.

Just as bad are the challenges around immigration. Today’s left likes immigration — partly because it’s multicultural, and partly because immigrants provide the child care many in the urban left don’t want to do. But the left’s core vote sees immigration as another source of low-wage competition.

The traditional left existed to defend the working class. But now it’s not clear what that means. What is clear is that the traditional left hasn’t been able to solve that problem, and so hasn’t held on to its vote. That vote has therefore gone to other parties — some on the left, others on the right, and some (like Italy’s Five Star Movement) that offer a bit of both.

I don’t pretend to be a supporter of the traditional left, but the traditional left was democratic, usually friendly to the United States, and it at least tolerated capitalism. If the European left can’t come to grips with globalization and immigration, it will be replaced by parties that reject that legacy completely. That would be catastrophic for Europe — and for the United States.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.