Why do leftist political parties moderate?


“That unpopular defence of Labour”


When political parties gain widespread attention, the key to their success often seems to be in moderating their views. Left or right, parties tend more toward the centre once they have a chance of power/once they get into a position of power.

To the cynical mind, particularly on the left, the common answer for why this happens is ‘to win votes’. The theory goes that once a party gets a taste for success, or a glimpse of power, they immediately froth at the thought of it and begin trying to get the support of people who wouldn’t usually vote for them. It thus follows that they either moderate the undesirable parts of their views, else take on some less radical ones in order that they appeal to a wider section of the electorate.

This is reasonably plausible as it fits well with what we know about the gradual creep toward the centre that the main parties in Britain have undertaken, for instance. However it is far from the whole story; perhaps this ‘vote-winning’ theory isn’t even a big factor.

Consider the classic position of leftist fairness. This normally takes up the ideals of taxing the rich, generating employee-focused employment laws, providing welfare benefits for the poor, having a public system of healthcare, etc. The Green Party might be a good example of a proper leftist party in UK politics, and they very much fit with this sort of stereotype.

A key to understanding why leftist parties moderate when they achieve power can be found in examining the effect that Green Party policies would almost certainly have in government. By increasing corporation taxes, increasing minimum wages and generally trying to increase the level of fairness on behalf of workers, the economy would begin a downturn. Companies that could base themselves in less costly nations cultures would begin doing so; investment would not be forthcoming from people (domestic or foreign) who feared the high level of tax and costs would not make it worthwhile; less employees would be employed and so would be paying less income and value-added tax, etc. This, in turn, means the income from business tax would actually drop (despite the intentions of the party to raise tax), leaving less money to fund the social justice endeavours that the centre-left parties like Labour have previously failed to. The potential solution, like for so many countries, is in excessive borrowing above current levels – which at significant levels would almost certainly drop the credit rating, thus raising the interest on national debt and hampering the ability to borrow more money – and in turn becoming a further factor which drops the country’s ability to be economically effective and raise the tax income to actually fund public services.

With an example like this it is easy to demonstrate why leftist parties aren’t quite so idealistic and fair when they are in government: market forces mean that to implement immediate change, without a gradual global change, is to actually decrease your ability to implement any further change. Similarly it increases the forces on you to revert back from that initial change. Significant losses, like in the above example, would leave a party like the Green’s facing a parliamentary vote of no confidence, and undoubtedly cause a national pressure on them to give up the policies, else call an election to see themselves ousted mid-term.

Many on the left see this as scare-mongering, of a type. Of course it isn’t – it’s just how things work – but they do not like that the actions of big business should be able to dictate tax levels or social policies. They are right not to like this. We shouldn’t have allowed economics to get to this stage, but it has, and ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Potential future solutions lie in global changes which eliminate corporate tax havens, thus dissolving the ability for companies to evade taxes they are morally due. But also through international innovation and cooperation in ensuring companies pay a similar tax regardless of the country it exists in, or where the money is made. This would defeat the ability of companies to create competition between governments, which currently leave a race to the bottom in business rates.

Until then we must see that progressive change has to be gradual, else it will be counter-productive. Centre-left Labour recently announced an achievable rise to the minimum wage, going up to £8 in 5 years after they get elected. This is achievable, sensible change, that would greatly increase the wellbeing of many individuals and families, even if it isn’t as progressive as ethics is telling us we need to become. The Green Party, on the other hand, are campaigning on a policy of a £10 minimum wage, immediately. In a nutshell, there you have the difference between moderate, effective leftist policy and idealistic, unrealistic and ironically even counter-productive policy. You also have the difference between a mainstream leftist party, who many on the left think have ‘sold out’, and a small political party of currently only one MP, who can afford not to sell out because they don’t have to make their policies work.