Left behind?

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Left behind?

My heart beats on the left. So does yours, but perhaps not in the political sense that I intend.

I used to lean far to the Left. Then I grew up. Now my head is dead center, or perhaps tilting slightly right. Socialism, in the sense of a totally different way of organizing society, simply doesn’t work. When tried it has made things worse, leaving most people poorer and less free.

Yet capitalism is a mess too. Few countries afford all their citizens even the basics: a job and a roof. Regular crises bankrupt and impoverish millions; inequality is rampant. Whatever your politics, nobody can be complacent. In the 21st century we can and must do better than this.

In a democracy, politics first means winning elections. For conservatives, the pitch is obvious. Stability, free enterprise and economic competence tend to be the Right’s policy watchwords.

For the Left it’s harder. Social democrats - or “liberals” in the Korean and U.S. usage - have to offer all the above and more. They need to craft a vision which will both appeal and convince.

Such issues are currently very live both in Korea and my own country. The U.K. held a general election on May 7. Opinion polls had predicted a close race between David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party. But they were wrong. The Conservatives won outright, capturing 331 of the 650 seats. Cameron no longer needs a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, who were decimated. Labour won only 232 seats; its leader Ed Miliband resigned.

Told you, said Miliband. Labor’s debate is in the family. Our former foreign secretary David Miliband was favorite to lead Labor in 2010, but his younger brother Ed grabbed the prize. Ambition aside, their stands differ. David is business-friendly like Tony Blair (prime minister 1997-2007), who led Labour out of their 18 years in the wilderness under Margaret Thatcher.

“Red Ed” by contrast is more socialist. After the 2008 financial crisis, he thought a more anti-capitalist stance would appeal to voters. That was a plausible bet, but it proved a losing one. David Miliband and other Blairites feel vindicated. Now Labour must elect a new leader. He or she has the tough challenge of crafting a policy vision to regain power next time, in 2020.

In Korea, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) also has elections to win: for the National Assembly next April, then the Presidency in December 2017. In theory the NPAD should be well placed. Park Geun-hye has achieved sadly little in the first half of her five year term; her second half may prove the same. After two conservative leaders, voters will surely want a change - as in 2007, when Lee Myung-bak’s landslide ended 10 years of liberal rule.

Or will they? Right now the NPAD looks unelectable. It is mired in open feuding, with rival factions trading insults. This newspaper recently called the opposition “pitiful” for making a public soap opera of its “dirty laundry,” and I can but agree. Are they all out of their minds?

Unity is strength. Liberals, of all people, should know and practice that maxim. Conversely, division spells weakness. This is elementary and obvious, yet the NPAD seems not to get it.

Not being Korean, I confess bewilderment as to why Honam and Yeongnam still can’t rub along. Yes, I know the historical basis of this, but that’s precisely where it belongs: History. Progressives, above all, should be able to transcend such outmoded parochial antagonisms.

Or even if they can’t, the sheer mathematics of getting elected in a first-past-the-post voting system (ours in England is the same) mandates unity as a sine qua non. Kim Dae-jung knew this. Since Gyeongsang outnumbers Jeolla, Kim needed the Chungcheong vote. So in 1997 he allied with Kim Jong-pil, and this unlikely team won. If DJ could embrace the founder of the KCIA which twice tried to kill him, can’t Park Jie-won and Moon Jae-in kiss and make up?

April 29’s by-election results ram the point home. With the ruling camp on the defensive over the latest scandal of many, for the opposition to manage to lose all four seats (even Gwanak-B in Seoul, which had always voted left) beggars belief. Chung Dong-young, former minister of unification, now stands for division. Running against the party whose presidential candidate he had been in 2007, all he achieved was that every liberal lost and Saenuri won. Cui bono?

Former justice minister Chun Jung-bae is another splittist. That worked for him in Gwangju, where Saenuri has no chance. But what next? He and Chung both talk airily about forming a new party. Yet how could such a force win nationwide, not just in Jeolla, in 2016 and 2017?

If progressives unite, they stand a real chance. A recent newspaper poll found 41 percent wanting to vote out Saenuri. 33 percent support the ruling party, while a crucial 26 percent remain undecided. Moon Jae-in ran Park a close race in 2012. Next time the NPAD could do better: The same poll gave them three of the four best-liked potential presidential contenders. Moon led with 14.5 percent, but Seoul mayor Park Won-soon (8 percent) and Ahn Cheol-soo, the former independent liberal hope (7.4 percent), are also each plausible candidates - if only they can all unite behind just one of them.

Unity is just the start. The NPAD or whatever (it may rebrand itself yet again) also has to find a winning policy pitch. More welfare? Trouble is, Park Geun-hye stole those clothes - only to find them costlier than she’d reckoned. Her retreat on welfare, plus the recent pension and tax debacles, will make voters wary in future of anyone promising pie in the sky or a free lunch.

A new Nordpolitik? That’s tricky. With the North as nasty and erratic as ever, there are few if any votes in simply going back to Sunshine. Yet the current stalemate must be broken. Moon Jae-in wisely, if belatedly, has toed the line on the Cheonan. Rather than a retreat to the right, that gives him (or whoever is in charge) a better basis to deal realistically with Pyongyang.

Fed up with corruption and the same old war horses of Right and Left, Koreans yearn for some convincing alternative. 2012’s result shows that liberals can attract votes - but Park’s victory proves that the center ground is where elections are won. If the NPAD grasps this, they could win a parliamentary majority in 2016 and recapture the Blue House in 2017. But if they carry on squabbling, who will trust them to run the country?

*The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, in the U.K.

by Aidan Foster-Carter

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