Many people have today begun questioning if the left-right political axis really exists and is a useful political divide in practical politics, notably where ‘left’ means socialist, even communist, and ‘right’ means conservative and capitalist, even ultra-conservative with fascist resemblance. I believe it is useful to consider these issues in our time, indeed a few days before the International Labour Day on May 1, 2017. New parties appear, and some of them cannot easily be placed on the left-right axis; some may be for certain professional, geographic and other groups; other parties may have family or personality ties rather than ideology or other ideals. In Western political tradition, indeed in Europe, Oceania and the Americas, most political parties are either left or right leaning, including those who are more centrist and perhaps consider themselves ‘in-between parties’, above the standard geometric axis. Yet, the centre parties would usually sympathise with either of the larger parties, which would be socialist or conservative. The parties on the right, the non-socialist ones, are also referred to as bourgeoisie parties. Even the traditional left and right parties’ profiles and opinions change over time, at least somewhat. In future, they are likely to change more as they try to renew themselves to gain popularity and power.
This applies to the traditionally large socialist parties, as well as the conservative parties. In America’s last presidential election, Bernie Sanders said he was a ‘democratic socialist’. He probably meant that he was a social democrat, which would have sounded less scary to the American public, which in general, is quite untrained in political ideologies, victimised by capitalist state propaganda, which is often quite right-wing, claiming there are dangers in socialism, and indeed, in communism.
If Sanders had used a better term for his ideology and thinking, such as a social democrat, he might well have gained more support. He spoke perhaps more like a political scientist than a politician; he analysed issues using statistics and other empirical data; often he landed on the left rather than on the right side of the spectrum. No wonder then that many well educated and logical young people supported him, while less well educated and older people supported other candidates, even the populist talk of the winner, President Donald Trump. Let me say that populist ideas today, in America and Europe, mostly fall on the right side of the left-right axis. They are mostly, or always, scattered or selected protest ideas; they could also be leftist. In any case populism would be the opposite of the logical and thoughtful opinions of Bernie Sanders. Last weekend’s first round in the French presidential election ended with the right-wing Marine Le Pen of the Front National coming in second with under twenty percent of the votes; the centrist, former socialist, Emmanuel Macro, come in clearly ahead of her. However, the other candidates together, although now out of the race, won more votes than the two winning candidates. Yet, the system is such that only the two candidates with most votes are included in the second round of the election, which will be on May 7. It is likely that Macro will be a clear winner. Macro, too, is outside the orthodox left-right axis and he would not like to be seen as a socialist, but probably a social democrat. In many ways, He seems more of a pragmatist than Sanders; he is a practical politician, some would say an opportunist with a bit too little ideological foundation.
On the other hand, that may be the type of politicians we will see more of in the years to come; people and parties with less loyalty to the old left-right axis. Besides, there are also new dimensions that are not always prioritised by the old parties. Environment and climate change have come in, but it took a while, especially in the conservative parties, before it was prioritised. Immigration is still an unclear field also for the parties on the left, and certainly for those on the right.
Trade, aid and international cooperation must all find better future forms.
We all have a responsibility to shape and reshape political parties, old and new, so that they become more relevant to solve better the issues that face us where we live. In USA, there is certainly some way to go to educate electors and parties about how to organise themselves in more democratic parties. In Europe, there is a need to renew the old parties, too. They should emphasise ideology and principles as well as practical, pragmatic politics. Pakistan, too, needs more ideology and principles, less history, and less families and personalities. We also need well-organised civil society organisations, with employers’ associations, workers associations and labour unions. It is a fact that the working life needs better regulations and protection of the workers’ rights. The old left-wing parties in Europe were established precisely to organise the workers so they could gain strength vis-à-vis the private sector, with its many ruthless factory owners, ship owners, land owners, and so on; all those who skim the cream and keep it all the good things themselves if they are not kept under somebody’s watchful eye, notably political parties, unions and the media. But then the private sector must also be given opportunity to grow and develop; this must be done by politicians, civil servants, civil society, employers and workers together.
There are many ways of doing this, not only the social democratic way that we so successfully have developed in Scandinavia, including my home country Norway, but there are lessons to learn from those countries; few countries are as fair and successful as they are, with excellent welfare systems, social mobility and so on. I hope that all immigrants and refugees, too, will experience the ‘Scandinavian dream’, which today is the actual ‘American dream’ for success and a good life. Let me end my article today by underlining the need for good and strong political parties; we can learn from Europe’s history, but there and elsewhere, we must reshape our organisations to be more relevant in the future, with ideology and pragmatism in combination. Everywhere, indeed in Pakistan, there is need for better pay for worker, better work conditions, safer workplaces, equal pay for men and women, and so on, and better welfare systems. We must remember, too, that political parties and better labour unions are for the masses of people, everyone who live in a country, not just leaders and the privileged upper segments. Without the workers at the lower levels, no country can function. Women play a particularly crucial role everywhere, indeed in Pakistan, running the homes, bringing up the children, cultivating the land, being moral and social leaders, and so on. Most men and women in Pakistan are poor but they carry us all on their shoulders. Dear readers, I wish you a Happy International Labour Day on May 1, 2017. The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid. If Sanders had used a better term for his ideology and thinking, such as a social democrat, he might well have gained more support.