Show Hide image

Socialism's comeback

At the beginning of the century, the chances of socialism making a return looked close to zero. Yet now, all around Europe, the red flag is flying again.

 

"If socialism signifies a political and economic system in which the government controls a large part of the economy and redistributes wealth to produce social equality, then I think it is safe to say the likelihood of its making a comeback any time in the next generation is close to zero," wrote Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, in Time magazine in 2000.

He should take a trip around Europe today.

Make no mistake, socialism - pure, unadulterated socialism, an ideology that was taken for dead by liberal capitalists - is making a strong comeback. Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not.

The parties in question offer policies which mark a clean break from the Thatcherist agenda that many of Europe's centre-left parties have embraced over the past 20 years. They advocate renationalisation of privatised state enterprises and a halt to further liberalisation of the public sector. They call for new wealth taxes to be imposed and for a radical redistribution of wealth. They defend the welfare state and the rights of all citizens to a decent pension and free health care. They strongly oppose war - and any further expansion of Nato.

Most fundamentally of all, they challenge an economic system in which the interests of ordinary working people are subordinated to those of capital.

Nowhere is this new leftward trend more apparent than in Germany, home to the meteoric rise of Die Linke ("The Left"), a political grouping formed only 18 months ago - and co-led by the veteran socialist "Red" Oskar Lafontaine, a long-standing scourge of big business. The party, already the main opposition to the Christian Democrats in eastern Germany, has made significant inroads into the vote for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in elections to western parliaments this year, gaining representation in Lower Saxony, Hamburg and Hesse. Die Linke's unapologetically socialist policies, which include the renation alisation of electricity and gas, the banning of hedge funds and the introduction of a maximum wage, chime with a population concerned at the dismantling of Germany's mixed economic model and the adoption of Anglo-Saxon capitalism - a shift that occurred while the SPD was in government.

An opinion poll last year showed that 45 per cent of west Germans (and 57 per cent of east Germans) consider socialism "a good idea"; in October, another poll showed that Germans overwhelmingly favour nationalisation of large segments of the economy. Two-thirds of all Germans say they agree with all or some of Die Linke's programme.

It's a similar story of left-wing revival in neighbouring Holland. There the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), which almost trebled its parliamentary representation in the most recent general election (2006), and which made huge gains in last year's provincial elections, continues to make headway.

Led by a charismatic 41-year-old epidemiologist, Agnes Kant, the SP is on course to surpass the Dutch Labour Party, a member of the ruling conservative-led coalition, as the Netherlands' main left-of centre grouping.

The SP has gained popularity by being the only left-wing Dutch parliamentary party to campaign for a "No" vote during the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty and for its opposition to large-scale immigration, which it regards as being part of a neoliberal package that encourages flexible labour markets.

The party calls for a society where the values of "human dignity, equality and solidarity" are most prominent, and has been scathing in its attacks on what it describes as "the culture of greed", brought about by "a capitalism based on inflated bonuses and easy money". Like Die Linke, the SP campaigns on a staunchly anti-war platform - demanding an end to Holland's role as "the US's lapdog".

In Greece, the party on the up is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the surprise package in last year's general election. As public opposition to the neoliberal econo mic policies of the ruling New Democracy government builds, SYRIZA's opinion-poll ratings have risen to almost 20 per cent - putting it within touching distance of PASOK, the historical left-of-centre opposition, which has lurched sharply to the right in recent years. SYRIZA is particularly popular with young voters: its support among those aged 35 and under stands at roughly 30 per cent in the polls, ahead of PASOK.

In Norway, socialists are already in power; the ruling "red-green" coalition consists of the Socialist Left Party, the Labour Party and the Centre Party. Since coming to power three years ago, the coalition - which has been labelled the most left-wing government in Europe, has halted the privatisation of state-owned companies and made further development of the welfare state, public health care and improving care for the elderly its priorities.

The success of such forces shows that there can be an electoral dividend for left-wing parties if voters see them responding to the crisis of modern capitalism by offering boldly socialist solutions. Their success also demonstrates the benefits to electoral support for socialist groupings as they put aside their differences to unite behind a commonly agreed programme.

For example, Die Linke consists of a number of internal caucuses - or forums - including the "Anti-Capitalist Left", "Communist Platform" and "Democratic Socialist Forum". SYRIZA is a coalition of more than ten Greek political groups. And the Dutch Socialist Party - which was originally called the Communist Party of the Netherlands, has successfully brought socialists and communists together to support its collectivist programme.

It is worth noting that those European parties of the centre left which have not fully embraced the neoliberal agenda are retaining their dominant position. In Spain, the governing Socialist Workers' Party has managed to maintain its broad left base and was re-elected for another four-year term in March, with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero promising a "socialist economic policy" that would focus on the needs of workers and the poor.

There are exceptions to the European continent's shift towards socialism. Despite the recent election of leftist Martine Aubry as leader of the French Socialist Party, the French left has been torn apart by divisions, at the very moment when it could be exploiting the growing unpopularity of the Sarkozy administration.

And, in Britain, despite opinion being argu ably more to the left on economic issues than at any time since 1945, few are calling for a return to socialism.

The British left, despite promising initiatives such as September's Convention of the Left in Manchester, which gathered representatives from several socialist groups, still remains fragmented and divided. The left's espousal of unrestricted or loosely controlled immigration is also, arguably, a major vote loser among working-class voters who should provide its core support. No socialist group in Britain has as yet articulated a critique of mass immigration from an anti-capitalist and anti-racist viewpoint in the way the Socialist Party of the Netherlands has.

And even if a Die Linke-style coalition of progressive forces could be built and put on a formal footing in time for the next general election, Britain's first-past-the-post system provides a formidable obstacle to change.

Nevertheless, the prognosis for socialism in Britain and the rest of Europe is good. As the recession bites, and neoliberalism is discredited, the phenomenon of unequivocally socialist parties with clear, anti-capitalist, anti-globalist messages gaining ground, and even replacing "Third Way" parties in Europe, is likely to continue.

Even in Britain, where the electoral system grants huge advantage to the established parties, pressure on Labour to jettison its commitment to neoliberal policies and to adopt a more socialist agenda is sure to intensify.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The dustman and the doctor: fairness and the student fees debate

The idea that education – all education – should be free is intoxicating and liberating. But there's a problem.

The most toxic political imagery of the student fees debate dates from 2010. First, there was Nick Clegg brandishing a sheet of paper bearing his election pledge that the Liberal Democrats would vote against “any increase” in tuition fees. Then, a few months later, there was the sight of protesters scrawling graffiti and urinating on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Churchill was rapidly restored, but Clegg – who, I am told, did not believe in the pledge when he signed it but could not resist the prospect of those student voters in university towns – never properly recovered.

The issue of how to fund English universities had been febrile for years – long before the 2008 financial crisis, the ballooning of the Budget deficit that followed and the 2010 Lib Dem vote for the vertiginous increase in English tuition fees. (University funding is a devolved matter, with the Scots going their own way.)

In 2004, Tony Blair, enfeebled by the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had almost been knocked off his prime ministerial perch when he, too, trebled fees, albeit to a mere £3,000, to be paid back after graduation. Gordon Brown’s allies, smelling post-Iraq weakness, hovered over the Labour leader before allowing him – by a sliver – to survive.

The Conservatives have historically been less troubled by the matter. Students largely have not voted in high enough numbers – certainly not for them – to impinge on their chances of electoral success. Meanwhile, the centre left has had lumps kicked out of it while wrestling with the problem of how best to fund higher education. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto significantly changed Labour’s position, promising to abolish fees altogether; he would also, he told the NME, “deal with” student debt. That half-pledge has now become a vague “ambition” because of its estimated £100bn price tag.

As a piece of campaigning, it worked. By contrast, Ed Miliband got nowhere in 2015 with his promise to reduce fees by a third to £6,000. It was too little, too late to mobilise student voters or their concerned parents, but more than enough for George Osborne, an unrepentant Vince Cable and a nervous higher education sector (sotto voce) to raise questions about Labour’s fiscal rectitude and/or the financial security of universities.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), in its disinterested and peskily rigorous way, joined in – and with a more subtle point, suggesting that cutting fees would benefit higher-earning graduates the most. Those who earned less over their lifetime would, in any event, not have to pay all of the money back.

Until Corbyn’s swashbuckling manifesto simplified matters, or oversimplified them, the left had been tied in knots on the fairness point from the moment that tuition fees were introduced, relatively quietly, in the peak-Blair year of 1998.

The idea that education – all education – should be free is intoxicating and liberating. It is intoxicating because one’s Enlightenment reflexes are happily triggered: the pursuit of knowledge is wonderful; knowledge leads to individual self-fulfilment and should be made available to the largest possible number. We all benefit from a better-educated population, not least by the spread of liberal values. Utilitarians rejoice – the country becomes economically more prosperous, though the evidence for this is irritatingly murky.

It is liberating because it is a beautifully simple proposition, and thus the complexity of nasty trade-offs – between those who go to university and those who don’t, between generations, between different sorts of universities, between disciplines and courses, between funding higher education and funding a zillion other priorities – is washed away by the dazzling premise. Free.

Alas, there is a problem. Once upon a time, a British university education was for the very few. The state, in the form of the general taxpayer, footed the bill. Now, around 40 per cent of 18- to 19-year-olds are at university and nobody in front-line politics is keen on hauling down the number, notwithstanding the occasional hyperventilating headline about useless degrees in golf course management or surfing studies.

The Liberal Democrats’ ill-fated 2010 manifesto had a little-noticed passage that called for scrapping the participation target of 50 per cent – alongside the now ritual aspiration to improve vocational training and apprenticeship schemes, a promise that is yet another reminder of a long-established and debilitating British weakness that nobody seems to know how to reverse. But mass higher education is here to stay – and it’s a good thing, too.

We could have chosen (and could still choose) both to fund increasing numbers of people going to university and to pay for all of their tuition, but that would not have been a self-funding investment – at least, not for a very long time. Other European countries with decent universities have indeed managed without asking graduates to contribute anywhere near as much as ours. The Swedes pay nothing for tuition. Dutch students pay a quarter of their English counterparts. The Germans have proportionately fewer students in tertiary education (though their vocational education is widely known to be heaps better), but their students are at university for longer and they pay very little for the pleasure. You get the picture.

It would require a lot of extra taxation if we were to go down that route – and there are many other competing demands beyond deficit reduction. Yet the issue is not only framed by tax priorities. We can’t easily afford to have the state picking up the tab because – an ugly fact – we are less well off than most northern European countries that charge less. Yes, we are the fifth-largest economy in the world – how could any of us, since the Brexit vote, not know that? – but we are far from being the fifth most economically prosperous country in the EU, once you allow for the intrusion of vulgar reality in the form of GDP per head. On that measure, we sit somewhere in the middle of the pack.

So who pays? Asking students to pay something is not in itself an outrage. The massive social and economic privileges that my generation accrued from our gloriously free university education may now be spread more widely but that has not eliminated the personal advantages that, on average, follow a degree. Graduates are more likely to get jobs, more likely to get better jobs and more likely to keep their jobs in a recession. The Department for Education puts the graduate premium on average at £250,000 before tax over a lifetime for women and £170,000 for men. These figures may be overstated and might not be sustained, but it is overwhelmingly likely that most graduates will still benefit materially from their degrees.

From the starting point in 2004 – long before the deficit soared – Blair and his then education secretary, Charles Clarke, decided that graduates should pay more once they began to earn sufficient money. I remember Blair at the time doing a BBC Newsnight special with an angry audience, packed with students telling him that he was wrecking their lives and had insufficient respect for their contribution to the greater good. A very articulate trainee doctor told Blair that she faced a mountain of debt (those were the days – that would now be several mountains). Blair responded with a range of left-wing arguments – at least, if you are of a redistributive frame of mind. Here are some highlights of the exchange:

Blair: I think it is unfair to ask general taxpayers – 80 per cent of whom have not been to university – when you have got an adult who perhaps wants to get an additional skill and they have to pay for it if they don’t go to university, to say to those people: we are not giving you education for free. And to say to under-fives, where we are desperately short of investment, to say to primary schools, where again we need more money, that we are going to give an even bigger subsidy to university students. Believe me, if I could say to you, “You can have it all for free,” I would love to.

The student, more than matching the prime minister’s passion, was spectacularly unimpressed.

Student: It really infuriates me that you say, “Why should the dustman fund the doctor?” When he has [a] heart attack, he will be pleased that I went to university and graduated as a doctor. Therefore he should contribute towards the cost of my degree.

Blair: But surely there should be a fair balance. He is contributing to the cost of your degree. Five-sixths of the cost of any degree, even after our proposals come in, will be contributed by the general taxpayer.

Not bad for a prime minister who was not often associated with causes dear to the dustmen part of his Labour flock – nor associated with redistribution in general. Of course, the figure of five-sixths paid for by the state is now, since the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees, a great deal smaller. The trainee doctor of 2017 is expected, over the course of their lifetime, to fork out much more. The average student debt is getting on for £50,000.

The current numbers are the result of decisions taken by Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats and David Willetts of the Conservative Party. Unlike Blair, these two men were on the left of their parties, with a firm belief in the importance of education and its positive impact on social mobility. The hike in fees led to protests and occupations but also to universities getting much of the extra money that they needed, even if they were markedly reluctant to say so, doubtless for fear of stirring up their students.

There has been no drop in the participation rate of students from poorer family backgrounds. Quite the reverse – despite Jeremy Corbyn’s personal refusal to believe the evidence. But the repayment of fees means that, in effect, recent graduates pay income tax at a rate of 29 per cent once they earn more than £21,000. (The Department for Education cheerily call this “a contribution”, as if it were voluntary.)

The repayment point could have risen with inflation to ease the load but it hasn’t. That allows the Treasury to recoup more money. Why hasn’t the £21,000 limit been raised? The reason is that, under the current IFS estimates, three-quarters of graduates will not pay back all of their debt after 30 years, at which point it is forgiven. Worse, interest rates on this fee debt are 3 per cent above inflation – and thus nearly 6 per cent above the base rate. That is not quite at Wonga levels but it is patently demoralising and much too steep.

That is far from the end of the matter. Until last September, poorer students received a maintenance grant of up to £3,400 to help with their living costs. For better- off students, the state’s supposition has always been that their parents should and would contribute financially to ensure that their offspring could lead a reasonable life while at university. No government has chosen to make this very explicit: there are only so many enemies you want at any one time on any one issue.

But as the number of students rose, so did the number entitled to the grant, and as part of the strategy to reduce the country’s Budget deficit, those grants were turned into loans, too.

The Labour Party, before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, opposed the change when it was announced but not with much elan. From my Oxford eyrie, I was astonished at how little excitement this generated. Perhaps everyone was exhausted by the failed protests five years earlier.

There is mitigation. It is worth remembering that nobody pays anything for their tuition up front (part of the Blair package, too) and some universities, including mine, have good and reliable schemes to help those from poorer backgrounds and hardship funds for those whose circumstances – normally their parents’ circumstances – change while they are studying.

But I know from direct experience that many students worry a great deal about the debt that awaits them. And if graduates were feather-bedded before 1998 (and that includes me), it is hard not to sympathise now. The debt is too much for too many.

Blair defined the problem correctly – the question of who pays is about striking a fair balance – even if Corbyn seems uninterested in the pain involved in thinking it through and has opted for the easiest answer. But what should that balance be? A graduate tax for those of us who went to university when it was both a much scarcer resource and cheap would offend people who want as little retrospection as possible in the tax system. However, it would do something to deal with generational injustice, a subject on which Corbyn’s credentials are sullied by his fondness for the “triple lock” on pensions.

Labour’s policy of telling English students that they will pay nothing for their tuition is nowhere near as left-wing as it sounds, but it was far too successful a piece of retail politics for anyone in his team to consider going back to the drawing board. So now it is the Tories, facing an energised student vote, who have to engage with the issues for the first time since the tumult of 2010. The least they can do – and they should do it fast – is cut the interest rate. They won’t want to do any of it but, as the man said, the times they are a-changing.

Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror