All is not tranquil in Switzerland

Switzerland's election battle was marked by distortion and xenophobia. For now rightwing populism is

The notion that nothing ever really happens in Switzerland, and certainly not in Swiss politics, was challenged in 2003 by the advent of the millionaire Christoph Blocher to the Federal Council.

The Federal Council is the government of Switzerland and is a sort of permanent coalition of seven members drawn broadly pro rata from the four main political parties who between them poll over 80% of the popular vote.

The composition of the Council which had existed since 1959 was disrupted when in 2003 the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), emerged from the parliamentary election as the largest party (27%) and claimed an additional seat for its leader Blocher at the cost of a seat held by one of the other main parties. It may not have been a revolution, but in Swiss terms it represented a fairly substantial avalanche.

Blocher, like Gordon Brown a son of the manse, made a fortune from his involvement in the Ems-Chemie company and has become one of the richest men in Switzerland.

From the 1970s he has been politically active, at local level and in the capital Berne, and his involvement, both political and financial, in the SVP has transformed the party over the last thirty years from one which spoke for farmers and small businesses in German-speaking Switzerland into a right-wing populist party for the whole of Switzerland which since 1975 has trebled its share of the popular vote.

Its rise coincides with the advent of factors damaging to a traditionalist perception of Swiss identity: international concern in the mid-1990s at Swiss immigration policy during the Second World War and the role of Swiss banks during the Nazi period effectively deconstructed reassuring views of recent Swiss history; large numbers of foreign workers in the Swiss economy, many of them seeking Swiss nationality; the increasing power of the EU with which Switzerland, although not a member, has many formal bi-lateral arrangements.

Blocher never tires of reminding his listeners that traditional Swiss values are under threat but ironically his stance and method of campaigning have been responsible for the introduction of an abrasive polarization quite alien to the Swiss political scene, the central feature of which is decision-making by consensus.

The SVP, strongly anti-welfare but content with the massive subsidies paid by Berne to Swiss farmers and stridently anti-EU despite the huge amount of Swiss trade with the EU, conducted an electoral campaign marked by distortion and xenophobia which led to disturbances in Lausanne and riots in Berne and elicited unfavorable comment from the UN.

But it seems to be in tune with a large section of the Swiss electorate, increasing its share of the vote in Sunday’s election by 2% to 29% and it now has a lead of some 10% over the next largest party, the Socialists (SP). It remains to be seen what influence this will have on the elections to the Federal Council on 12 December. Blocher’s rightwing populism is going to play a major role in Swiss politics for the immediately foreseeable future.

Joy Charnley lectures in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow). Her research focuses on the work of contemporary women writers in French-speaking Switzerland.

Malcolm Pender is Emeritus Professor of German in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Strathclyde. He has published extensively on German-speaking Swiss writers.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times