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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

Photo: Getty
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Don't just listen to people's concerns about immigration. Think

Labour must be an alternative political leadership, not advocates for positions in which we don’t actually believe.

A few weeks back the Observer published an article by Jason Langrish, a member of the Canadian team that negotiated the recent CETA trade deal between the EU and Canada. He was unsparing about the utter mess of the government's approach to Brexit and the catastrophe that it risks. The line I found most telling, not least because I think it also partly identifies the hole in which Labour finds itself, is that the government is still in "campaign mode". Ministers are still only giving us, and indeed Brussels, a very general sense of what they intend to do.

Last month some of my colleagues also published a report on social integration that, among other things, advocated the further exploration of a system of regional immigration controls. A few days later, Jeremy Corbyn seemed in quick succession both to accept and to reject further controls on immigration.  

To me, a large part of Labour’s problem comes from a public debate over Brexit that confuses at least three very different issues and very different contexts for any debate on immigration. The first issue is: "What would our immigration policy look like if we started from scratch?"  

The second is: "How much free movement within Europe should we be prepared to accept as part of a Brexit deal" – that is, "how hard do we want our Brexit?". Sadly, this is a question on which we may get very little say as a party, though that does not mean it cannot do us plenty of damage in the interim.

The third and realistically only question with which a Labour government might have to contend is: "After Brexit, what should our immigration policy look like given public sentiment and the nature of our economy?".  It is plain to me that this is where our attention should be focused, and that we should be realistic about how we might get there and what that might look like. It is also plain that we're not really there yet.

On the first issue of what our immigration policy would look like if we started from scratch, opinion polling suggests that a majority of people in Britain would probably agree that skilled migrants who plug identified gaps in our economy, who have family members here already, and who speak English and are keen to get involved in civic life should be allowed in – and should be welcomed. A majority would also probably agree that unskilled migrants who don't speak English and have neither a job nor family here, nor a reasonable expectation of getting a job very soon, should not be allowed in. The devil is very much in the detail. As someone who consistently argued that Britain is better off within the European Union, it is worth reiterating that many of us who believe that the free movement of people within the European Union has been good for Britain and helped our economy do not believe that uncontrolled immigration is a good thing in itself. Were we a new country we would also not have ties to countries all over the world, much further away geographically even if often very close culturally, that come from Britain's imperial past.  

The second issue of how much free movement within Europe we should accept as part of a Brexit deal is one where ultimately Labour has limited capacity to make a difference. It is very clear to me that a majority of people in my constituency and across the country voted to leave the European Union. It is also very clear that attitudes towards immigration were central to this.

My view is that the best deal for Britain is one that keeps as many as possible of (in no particular order): single market membership; customs union membership; European Court of Justice jurisdiction over trade disputes and similar between the United Kingdom and its European partners; continued passporting rights for our financial services industries; technical co-operation on matters of joint interest such as nuclear power and nuclear safety; and the maximum possible freedom of movement rights for British and EU citizens alike.

I am intensely aware that the ability of the Opposition to achieve any of this is not huge, especially given the likelihood that many SNP MPs may take the view that their party interest is better served by a bad deal for their constituents so that separatism becomes a more appealing prospect. This is yet another reason why we should be furious with ourselves for failing to win in 2015, and why we should focus so ruthlessly not just on holding our own seats but also on those of our opponents.

I also believe we should not hesitate to continue to stand up for what we believe is in the best interests of working people in our country, rather than what we think a narrow majority of the British people want to hear right now. We must be an alternative political leadership, not advocates for positions in which we don’t actually believe.

The British public can easily see through politicians who don't themselves believe in what they are saying and who only say what they think voters want to hear. They don't trust them. One of the many lessons from Donald Trump’s victory is that politicians who appear sincere in their belief in transparently catastrophic policies can be more successful than those who display admirable self-doubt. It is an unhappy message for those among us of a cautious disposition who value reason and evidence, but a powerful one nonetheless. I believe that in the medium and long term, the public will reward people who stick to their beliefs.

The third issue on the question of what our immigration policy should be post-Brexit is the one where I think that Labour has to start doing better. I admire the work of colleagues on the APPG on Social Integration, but I hope they will forgive me for saying that my admiration for their efforts is not matched by agreement with their recommendations. I was, for example, genuinely taken aback by their suggestion that the UK could learn from the Canada-Quebec accord on immigration.

There are two obvious reasons why any form of regional control of immigration wouldn't work in Britain. The first is that this is a much smaller country, and therefore travel between major population centres is extremely easy. How, for example, would people who had residency status in Scotland be prevented from turning up in Sunderland?  Are we to rebuild Hadrian's Wall? Will motorway speed cameras be joined by watchtowers?

The second is if anything even more obvious: Quebec is a French-speaking province of an otherwise largely English-speaking country. People are less likely to move to a different province if they cannot get by in the language spoken there.  While we have probably all struggled on occasion with the accents of people born and brought up elsewhere in Britain, almost everyone who has grown up on this island speaks English. Our governmental structures are also markedly different to those of Canada.

The reality too is that our economy is dependent on immigration, and the contribution of migrants has driven our country’s economic success. Our social model, above all the NHS, rests heavily on immigration, but I want to focus here on the economic issues.

One of our export success stories, and one that also gives us tremendous soft power, is higher education – that is until the government started to throttle it. Higher education only works as an export industry if you let people in before asking them to go home. Yet today we see a crackdown on student visas wholly disproportionate to the level of their abuse, and a general failure to understand how crucial higher education is to our economy. You only have to walk around Sunderland to appreciate the impact that international students have made upon the city, and the investment and wider benefits that an expanded university has brought for the entire community.

Another important part of the UK economy is agriculture. For a variety of historical reasons, the United Kingdom has a relatively small agricultural workforce and a high degree of agricultural mechanisation. But that means that for some jobs that have not yet been automated, we have labour requirements that are unusually seasonal. There are not yet mass-market droids for judging the ripeness of a strawberry and then picking it without crushing it. The strawberry-picking season is short, so the sector has seasonal acute labour force requirements for people with fairly easily acquired skills rather than a persistent shortage of people with highly specialist skills.

What's also true is that for these people, who may only pick fruit for a few short summers and spend the rest of their lives overseas, the challenge is much more about preventing their exploitation than it is about ensuring their integration. I am unconvinced that everyone who works picking apples or strawberries on a summer job here needs to know English before they arrive. It's obviously great if they do, and they may well learn the language whilst working, but a degree of realism might usefully intrude into our discussions.

Perhaps the most obvious British economic export is financial services. London is the financial capital of Europe, although that may not continue for much longer. People working in financial services come from all over Europe, and the taxes they and their companies pay in London provide much of the money for the services on which we all depend.

I believe very strongly that we have a desperately unbalanced economy. Geographically we are too focused on London and Edinburgh and sectorally we are too concentrated on finance - but the first step to reduce our dependence on a goose that lays golden eggs cannot be to stab the goose. In the short and medium term, that means we have to make sure that the financial services sector does not suffer disproportionately. London may be the financial capital, but jobs in the sector are spread across every part of our country.

Even after Brexit, we will need to keep financial services - institutions, jobs, and regulatory expertise - in Britain. That will mean being open to people from across Europe working in that sector and ensuring our country remains a global centre for financial services.

Lastly there is the key industry in my own city: car manufacturing, which depends both on access to big markets in which to sell the products and a highly skilled workforce to build them. We don't know exactly what Theresa May has said to Nissan, beyond that they have now made the very welcome announcements about future work at the Sunderland plant, but my fears are threefold. First, I am concerned that the company may have been promised inducements which will not be available to new entrants to the British manufacturing sector, making us more rather than less dependent on current goodwill. My second fear is that restrictions on Nissan's ability to move top-flight engineers here from elsewhere in Europe, even if just in paperwork, may make Sunderland a less attractive destination for future research and development. And my third worry is that a patchwork of deals and site-specific support is so far from being an industrial strategy as to be laughable. It isn't even "picking winners": it's picking companies we'd rather weren't losers.

All of these concerns make me highly receptive to a policy position and a political strategy based on the industries we already have, which of these a Labour government would want to flourish post-Brexit, to what extent they depend upon immigration, and how their labour force requirements are structured across both skills and seasons. Our focus as a party should be on how we reconcile the clearly expressed view of the public for national immigration controls with building an open and successful economy that provides high quality jobs for the people we represent. We need to listen, but we also need to be more candid about the complexity of the challenge we face. 

Bridget Phillipson is Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.