The return of the many

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Through its votes for Corbyn’s Labour platform, the UK has embraced the escape from the false opposition of globalists and nativists (Cosmopolis column published in the Hindu Business Line, 16 June, 2017)

Since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump last year, political analysts in the West have adopted a really simple schematic for explaining the upheavals in their societies. The world is divided between “globalists” and “nativists”. The former have thrived in the era of globalisation; they are more upwardly mobile, cosmopolitan, worldly, and optimistic. The latter are suffering. They are often less well-educated, have seen their wages and living standards decline, and feel cut off from the transformations taking place in globalised urban centres.

In this view, the surprise votes for Brexit in the UK and for Trump in the US sprung from nativist resentment of the globalist elites. Places like post-industrial Sunderland or Wisconsin went to the polling stations and rejected their cultural overlords in London, New York, and Washington DC.

(Always keen to adopt the fashions of their right-wing counterparts in the West, many BJP activists have begun disparaging their enemies as “globalists”, too.)

If there is any truth to this simplistic binary, it may be in the economics. Since the late 1970s and ’80s (when tax rates in the UK and the US began to fall), inequality in the West has risen steadily. Low-skilled industrial sectors have shrunk (thanks both to globalisation and automation) and along with them a once viable pathway to comfortable middle-class life for many Americans and Britons. As gleaming towers rise for jet-setters in London and New York, people in the rusting hinterlands understandably feel cut adrift.

And yet, if you believe the analysts, there are only two routes available to politicians in the West: either a parochial, xenophobic retrenchment with stronger borders and reduced migration (the Trump/Brexit option) or an unquestioning embrace of laissez-faire, liberal globalisation.

In the recent momentous British general election, the Conservatives (as they often do) resorted to scaremongering over immigration and caricatured the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as an out-of-touch, effete London cosmopolitan. The Tories assumed that this approach would help secure the votes of the white working-class Brexiteers in depressed parts of the country.

There is a deep presumption to the globalist-nativist binary that I reject, that somehow “multicultural” urban communities are fundamentally at odds with the less diverse heartlands. In New York and London, there are plenty of non-white people who suffer from the same economic insecurities and deprivations as people in Sunderland or Wisconsin. It is possible to bridge the divide, to understand people’s shared economic interests without demarcating them culturally.

That is why I believe the strong showing of Corbyn’s Labour Party last week is a very important moment in the West. I stayed up in New York till 2am watching the returns of the UK general election on June 8. Rarely has defeat felt so much like victory. Though it finished over 50 seats behind the ruling Conservative Party, Labour under Corbyn bucked all predictions. He had nearly the entire British press against him. His party was widely expected to crumble even further in the snap election, with the Conservatives padding their majority. Instead, Labour won 40 per cent of the vote, its highest vote share in 20 years. The party won 30 more seats in parliament. Having misjudged the electorate totally, the Conservatives lost 13 seats and its majority.

One of the main reasons Corbyn did so well is his unabashed left-wing manifesto. He pledged to raise taxes on the wealthy, to scrap university tuition fees, to renationalise public goods like the railways, and to better fund the National Health Service. He abandoned the technocratic, centrist ground ploughed by his Labour predecessors in the last two decades. In so doing, he won unprecedented youth support, as well as much of the white working-class in the north of England that was supposed to vote for the Tories.

Across Europe, centre-left parties have floundered in recent years in large part because they are unwilling to strike such a firm, principled line. Similarly, Hillary Clinton suffered in the American presidential election because many voters found her centrist politics too tepid. Corbyn’s Labour platform offered an escape from the false opposition of globalists and nativists. It appealed to people’s economic interests without, and this is crucial, dividing them culturally, without playing majority against minority, without stoking fears about foreigners, without inveighing against immigrants. His social-democratic politics did the almost unimaginable: it appealed to both the diverse, inner-city boroughs of London as well as the slumping coal and steel towns of the north.

The last year has been poisonous in the West. Traditional liberalism has lost its lustre on both sides of the Atlantic. We’ve seen the re-emergence of hateful, far-right ideologies that were thought to have long been consigned to the ash heap of history. Racists, white supremacists and neo-fascists have been galvanised by a political conversation that divides society between indigenous nativists and mongrel, multicultural globalists.

Corbyn’s Labour revival suggests that we might jettison those terms. Inequality is a real problem, as is rising intolerance and cultural division. The only way to address both is through a strong pluralist, social-democratic politics.

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