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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

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The A-Z of the political year

2016 was a wild political year. Thank goodness it’s over.

A is for abortive Tory leader race


In the days after the EU referendum – while the mutinous Labour Party still had its nose buried in its impenetrable rulebook – the Conservatives chose a new leader and prime minister within what seemed like hours. After a fortnight of unedifying machinations, in which the “kamikaze candidate”, Michael Gove, destroyed both his own and Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions (see Y), the competition came down to Theresa May v Andrea Leadsom. Before there could be a final vote, however, Leadsom gave an unflattering interview in the Times in which she said that “being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country”. It felt like a dig at May, who does not have children. May graciously accepted her apology, and the keys to No 10.

 

B is for breaking point


Sore about his exclusion from the official Leave campaign, Nigel Farage (see I) spent the referendum in his usual relentless quest for the oxygen of publicity [Surely “selflessly championing the working man”? – Ed]. The low point came when he unveiled a poster showing a snaking queue of migrants with the legend “BREAKING POINT”. Asked by Robert Peston of ITV if he was stirring up hatred, he replied: “I think I have been a politician who has been a victim of it, to be honest with you. When you challenge the establishment in this country, they come after you, they call you all sorts of things.” What things, sadly, he failed to specify. Perhaps “Pound-shop Enoch Powell” fits the bill?

 

 

C is for chicken coup


In the early hours of Sunday 26 June, the shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn was sacked for saying he had no confidence in the Labour leader. Throughout the morning, a drip-drip-drip of resignations followed. Of the Big Beasts, only Corbyn’s allies Emily Thornberry and Andy Burnham stayed put (the latter with one eye on Manchester’s mayoral primary). The deputy leader, Tom Watson – no stranger to coups – was suspected to be pulling the strings, but was nowhere to be found, having posted a Snapchat photo from a silent disco in Glastonbury just hours earlier. Unfortunately for the rebels, Corbyn refused to resign and it became clear they could not make him do so, which led loyalist bloggers to nickname this a “chicken coup”.

 

 

D is for the Donald


There was a time when Donald Trump’s campaign for president seemed like a joke – the Huffington Post website even announced that it would cover the bid in its “Entertainment” section. But as it turned out, The Donald was deadly serious, and he saw off a slew of rivals to claim the GOP nomination.

His campaign was racist and misogynistic, pledging to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Despite trailing consistently in polling and forecasting models, he won the presidency on 9 November. He secured 306 votes in the US electoral college, helped by support among white, working-class voters in the Midwest, even though Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote by more than two million.

 

E is for Ed Balls


Depending on your point of view, the former shadow chancellor’s stint on Strictly Come Dancing was either the best or the worst thing to happen this year.

Let’s not be under any illusions: Ed Balls is no Fred Astaire. During the American Smooth he heaved his partner Katya Jones around like a sack of flour, nearly dropping her. The sultriness of his tango was marred by a tendency to mouth the steps during the routine.

It was the high-tempo dances, though, where Balls came alive. A minute in to his rendition of “Gangnam Style”, he leapt through the air and landed with Katya between his legs, kicking like a horse. “I nearly passed out,” said the Strictly judge Bruno Tonioli. “It’s the best worst dance I’ve seen.” Sadly, on 27 November, “Glitter Balls” was kicked out of the competition.

F is for f***ing expensive food


It’s been a bad year for the back of kitchen cupboards across the nation. Marmite and Toblerone – big brands no one would miss if they’d never existed – became the first symbols of how Brexit will increase living costs. What next, Brain’s faggots?

 

G is for gobstopper


Owen Smith, the MP who challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, had a formidable record – of uttering gaffes. He once tweeted a picture of gobstoppers, calling them “the perfect present” for Nicola Sturgeon – to shut her up. He wanted to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, he said; he told Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood that she was on Question Time only because of her gender, and he has described the Lib Dems in coalition as domestic abuse victims. He also compared himself to a “Duracell bunny” when asked about Viagra (he has never needed it, apparently), and joked about the size of his penis. Perhaps it’s Smith himself who could have used the gobstopper.

 

H is for hostile (core group)


In March, the Times obtained a list of Labour MPs ranked by loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn. There were just 19 trusties in the “Core Group” on whom Corbyn could rely, plus another 56 in “Core Group Plus” and 71 in “neutral but not hostile”. The remainder, deemed “negative” or “hostile”, included the shadow chief whip Rosie Winterton (since replaced by Nick Brown) and Sadiq Khan, now Mayor of London. David Cameron seized on the list at PMQs, saying his name could be added to the supportive group. “I thought I had problems,” he added.

 

I for Is that Farage again?

Rarely has a man so selflessly heeded the call to public service as Nigel Farage. Whenever, wherever – if there was a TV studio lying empty, he was ready to fill it. And if there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was the hated political establishment. He couldn’t stand them when wondering whether to run for parliament for the eighth time. He couldn’t stand them when celebrating his 17th year as an MEP. He couldn’t stand them when receiving an award from a political magazine for his career in politics in a room full of politicians and journalists. He couldn’t stand them when he reluctantly stepped in as Ukip acting leader (his third crack at the job). God, what it must have cost this humble servant of the people to accede to having a party thrown for him at the Ritz on 23 November, where he mingled with the hotel’s owners, the twins who own the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps most movingly, Farage demonstrated his hatred of foreigners meddling in domestic politics by campaigning for Donald Trump and nobly offering to be the UK’s ambassador to America. Let’s hope that in 2017 this humble radical can have some peace and quiet at last.

J is for Jo Cox

On 16 June – the same day as Nigel Farage unveiled his “Breaking Point” poster (see B), the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in her constituency. Her killer, Thomas Mair, was a white supremacist and terrorist who kept a Nazi eagle in his home, above a bookshelf filled with books about the Second World War. During his first appearance in court, he gave his name as “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain”. On 23 November Mair was given a whole-life tariff, meaning he will never be released.

 

K is for Ken Clarke


Ken Clarke had a surprisingly enjoyable year, considering he lost the political battle of his four decades as king of the Europhiles. Comfortable on his “wild elder statesman” stage, he is preparing to be “the only member of the Conservative Party” to vote against Article 50 in parliament. During the Tory leadership race he was recorded off-air calling Theresa May a “bloody difficult woman”. His response to the leaking of the video? That it was an “extremely funny video clip” and three-quarters of colleagues “agreed with every word”. When May entered No 10, Clarke told the New Statesman she didn’t have the “first idea” about Brexit, and called her regime “a government with no policies”.

 

L is for Lords, lots of them


“Will no one rid me of these turbulent lords?” David Cameron might have cried as the upper house insisted on admitting more child refugees (after kiboshing planned tax-credit cuts). At the start of the year, Cameron was talking about cutting back the power of the Lords – after all, as most of the hereditary peers have been removed, the Conservatives are no longer guaranteed a majority there. He left power before accomplishing this, but there is one obvious legacy of the Cameron era – the bloated size of the Lords. The former PM nominated more than 250 people to the chamber, including 13 in his resignation honours. These last included five Downing Street aides – Gabrielle Bertin, Camilla Cavendish, Ed Llewellyn, Liz Sugg and Laura Wyld – as well as Shami Chakrabarti, who had recently completed an “independent” report into anti-Semitism within Labour.

 

M is for Mike Hookem


You know a party is in a bad way when its biggest driving force is nominative determinism. And so it proved in the case of Mike Hookem, the Ukip MEP accused of delivering the punch that changed politics, in an “altercation” with his fellow MEP Steven Woolfe (then the party’s leadership front-runner) in Strasbourg. Woolfe was hospitalised; Hookem denies hitting him. The front-page pictures of Woolfe spreadeagled on the floor provided an accurate metaphor for the state of Ukip by the end of the year: Woolfe is now an independent MEP, as is Diane James, who was Ukip leader for a grand total of 18 days.

 

N is for Nissan

 

Like many other operators in the UK car industry, Nissan Europe has had a tough year. It even threatened to sue Vote Leave for using its logo in its pro-Brexit literature. So it must have been a very persuasive conversation with Business Secretary Greg Clark that led to it keeping its Sunderland plant open. After “support and assurances” from the UK government, the Japanese company will manufacture the new Qashqai and X-Trail 4x4s in the north-eastern constituency whose Brexit vote was an early referendum-night indicator of the final result. Other industries are now hankering after similar red-carpet treatment from the government.

 

O is for Obama


On a visit to London in April, the outgoing US president urged Britons to vote to stay in the EU, in order to avoid going to “the back of the queue” to strike a trade deal with the US in the event of Brexit. His intervention was welcomed by the Remain campaign, but deplored as “elite interference” by many on the Leave side.

 

P is for Panama Papers


It took a year for journalists from 107 media organisations in 80 countries to analyse the Panama Papers: 11.5 million documents leaked by an anonymous whistleblower, which exposed how companies and individuals used the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to shield their assets from scrutiny (and, often, taxation in their home country). The repercussions were felt around Europe: Iceland’s prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned after it emerged that he had held a stake in one of the country’s bankrupt banks; the former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and the Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko were named in the papers; and David Cameron faced questions over a trust inherited from his father. Sergei Roldugin, a cellist who is godfather to Vladimir Putin’s elder daughter, was shown to have assets of at least $100m.

 

Q is for quitting


“BRITS DON’T QUIT”, Winston Churchill proclaimed from pro-EU campaign posters plastered around London. These were signed: “Sir Winston Churchill, Founder of the European Union”. As if that wasn’t enough of a stretch, David Cameron condemned Brexiteers as quitters in his infamous pre-referendum speech from a lectern outside No 10 – a move that is now seen as a sign of the Remain campaign’s desperation.

 

R is for reserved seats

 

Of all the political scandals, “Traingate” might be the least glamorous yet. On 16 August, a video showed Jeremy Corbyn sitting in a vestibule on a Virgin train as he outlined the problems with rail privatisation that had led to him not being able to find a seat on the “ram-packed” journey. A week later, Virgin released CCTV footage showing him walking past empty, unreserved seats.

His spokesman said it was “nonsense” to suggest that Corbyn had wanted two seats together, but this line was slightly undermined when the Labour leader told a press conference the next day: “Yes, I did walk through the train. Yes, I did look for two empty seats together, so I could sit down with my wife to talk to her.”

Still, Team Corbyn looked on the bright side: his campaign director, Sam Tarry, said the incident had drawn attention to their stance on privatisation.

 

S is for shortest leadership bid

 

The post of Ukip leader increasingly resembled the role of the Have I Got News for You host, with Nigel Farage’s vacant chair filled variously by Diane James, Paul Nuttall and Nigel Farage, though not in that order. Various bids rose and fell, but none ebbed and flowed as fast as that of Farage’s wingman, Chief Lad of the Banter Squadron Raheem Kassam, who threw his hat in the ring with a promise to “make Ukip great again”. Breitbart UK, which employs Kassam, turned cheerleader for his campaign, celebrating every move that he made. “Leftists triggered over Raheem Kassam leadership bid”, roared one headline. “Raheem Kassam first ‘energised’ candidate since Nigel Farage”, said another. Then there was “Kassam in the Times: I could thrash May, Corbyn, and Sturgeon in head to head debates”. Outside the world of Breitbart headlines, however, he failed to win over Ukip members, and brought his campaign to a close just 26 days after launching it, saying that his path to victory was “too narrow”. Oh, Raheem, we hardly wanted to know ye.

 

T is for three hundred and fifty million

During the EU referendum campaign, Iain Duncan Smith was photographed standing next to the Vote Leave battle bus. “We send the EU £350m a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”, the slogan on it read. Mere weeks later, after the Brexiteers had triumphed, the former work and pensions secretary went on the BBC to claim that the figure was just “an extrapolation”, rather than a firm promise. There was another problem: the figure wasn’t correct. Even without taking into account things such as the UK’s EU budget rebate and the Brussels policies from which we benefit, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK has never sent the EU £350m a week.

 

U is for UB40


It was the most surreal political endorsement since Dappy from N-Dubz backed Norman Lamb for the Liberal Democrat leadership: the pseudo-reggae band UB40 backed Jeremy Corbyn in the second Labour contest. Yes, the 1980s singers wanted Her Majesty’s Opposition to be as red, red as their wine. Still – unlike poor Ant and Dec, whose picture elicited no flicker of recognition from the Labour leader when waved before him – at least Corbyn knew who they were.

 

V is for vandalism


In the weeks following the chicken coup (see C) and before the glorious, gaffe-strewn emergence of Owen Smith (see G), Angela Eagle briefly ran for the Labour leadership. There were two main setbacks: first, her launch was ruined when the big beasts of the lobby ran out halfway through to cover Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Tory race. Second, she faced loud personal abuse, both on social media and in the form of a brick thrown through the window of her constituency office. Worse, internet conspiracy theorists decided that she must be making up the latter, leading to the emergence of this year’s strangest internet nutters, the “Angela Eagle Window Truthers”.

 

W is for Witney

 

In normal times, you would expect a by-election in the former prime minister’s old seat to be a routine affair, particularly with the new PM enjoying a thumping poll lead and at the height of her honeymoon. So no one expected any excitement from the by-election in David Cameron’s seat of Witney, left vacant after he stepped down to spend more time giving highly paid speeches and nursing his resentment. Instead, what happened was a remarkable surge for the Liberal Democrats from fourth place to second, showing that, after the EU referendum, a new battle line – Remain or Leave – is developing, particularly in cities and the affluent south.

 

X is for xenophobia


In July, the month after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Home Office statistics showed that the number of hate crimes reported to police had increased by 41 per cent compared with the same period in 2015. The sharp increase – which wasn’t reflected in other kinds of crime – declined in August, but the level remained much higher than before the referendum. Some 79 per cent of incidents were recorded as being motivated by racial hatred. The anti-immigration rhetoric of the pro-Brexit campaign has been cited as one cause.

The most high-profile attack occurred in Harlow, Essex on 27 August, when Arkadiusz Jówik, a 40-year-old Polish man who worked in a sausage factory, was punched in the head on the street. He died of his injuries two days later. The tragedy prompted Polish politicians to travel to the UK to seek assurances that their compatriots can still live in safety here.

 

Y is for “your stubborn best”

On 29 June, rumours were swirling around which Tories would run for the leadership. A “BoGo” ticket had long been touted, but Michael Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, was unsure whether Boris Johnson could be trusted. So she emailed her husband before a critical meeting, and told him to emphasise his support from “[Paul] Dacre/[Rupert] Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris/Gove ticket”. She signed off: “Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best. GOOD LUCK.” There was just one problem: she sent the email to a member of the public, who promptly leaked it to Sky News.

As a wry George Osborne later reflected, “. . . with a single email of only a few sentences, Sarah succeeded in switching the support of the Daily Mail, losing the support of Rupert Murdoch, destroying the leadership campaign of Boris Johnson, preparing the way for Theresa May to become the Prime Minister, beginning the leadership campaign of Michael Gove and ending the leadership campaign of Michael Gove.”

 

Z is for Zac Goldsmith


A busy year for the eco-millionaire, who lost the London mayoral election after a dog-whistle campaign against Sadiq Khan and then resigned his Commons seat in protest over the government’s plans for a third runway at Heathrow. But the contest quickly became about Brexit, and the Lib Dems repeated their surge in Witney (see W) to take the seat. Ukip and the Greens did not stand, and the Labour candidate lost his deposit. Though it’s hard to extrapolate very much from the by-election in Richmond – which voted heavily to stay in the EU, while its MP was a Brexiteer – the result cheered Tim Farron’s party. The loss of another blue seat further eroded Theresa May’s slim majority, making 2017 a challenge for her. 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016