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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

Picture: Ben Jennings
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The Brexit plague

Theresa May is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady that has already destroyed David Cameron and destabilised Britain.

Theresa May thought she had a shrewd plan for how to make Brexit work – first of all, for her. Having said almost nothing during the toxic 2016 EU referendum campaign (much to David Cameron’s dismay), she was well positioned – only superficially, it turned out – to benefit from the political devastation that followed. With Remain defeated and Leave destroying itself, May’s combination of saying nothing while projecting steely competence was artfully presented as just what the country needed.

No more pandering to the 24-hour news cycle, no running commentary, no flashy headline grabbing. That May didn’t chase headlines became the new headline. It was a seductive narrative, given the shouty unpleasantness that had come before. The Prime Minister’s moral authority became subtly bound up with avoiding saying too much: a void had entered a vacuum and it was being presented as a virtue. “He posits a principle,” as Nietzsche quipped, “where he lacks a capacity.”

But the Brexit strategy that won May power during the post-referendum carnage – there’s been an earthquake: everyone lie down very still under a table – turned out to be inadequate as a plan for contesting a general election. The longer the campaign dragged on, the clearer the contours of the gaps and inadequacies became. Conservative MPs, most of whom are Remainers, were asking the country to vote in a parliamentary majority in order to smooth the path of a hard Brexit. Over the course of the campaign, voters sniffed expediency and called it out.

The convenient narrative now in vogue – that the election was scuppered by May’s advisers – is a displacement activity. In fact, May’s advisers had initially done almost too good a job at turning her deficiencies into virtues. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t make enough of May; they had made too much. The shortfall between myth and reality added to the look of a politician who had been rumbled. During the election campaign, an uncomfortable alternative crystallised: the absence of style does not guarantee the presence of substance.

It is hard to imagine a swifter or more complete collapse in political standing. The wild swings in May’s reputation, however, offer a kind of mitigation. She must take responsibility for the campaign, but not for the national mood, especially how it has been coarsened and confused by Brexit. Just as May didn’t deserve her stellar ­pre-election personal polling, she doesn’t deserve the opposite arrangement now.

Is Britain becoming increasingly ungov­ernable? Some argue that the electorate has internally contradictory desires: first it votes for Brexit, then it votes to deprive the government of a majority as it tries to effect Brexit. A rival theory holds that the country has been let down by poor political leadership. But the two explanations, apparently opposed, in fact interact in a compound ­effect: erratic leadership unsettles the judgement of those being led.

***

A friend of mine mischievously likened this to a familiar rural scene: “Anyone who has observed a large flock of sheep being marshalled by a young or incompetent sheepdog will have noticed how, with each badly executed move by the sheepdog, the flock becomes ever more frightened and rebellious.”

Confusion also manifests itself as a thirst for someone to blame, and it has briefly settled on May. She is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady: the Brexit plague.

Given that many of us are getting used to being wrong so much of the time – I anticipated a Remain win and then a May majority – I was pleased to chance upon an old column I wrote for this magazine, the central argument of which I’d almost forgotten: “The Brexit crown won’t stay on anyone’s head for more than a few days . . . Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them. The illness takes a horrible course, first imbuing the victim with great energy and enthusiasm, as though the ailment was in fact a cheering tonic . . .

“To adapt the celebrated lines spoken by ­Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, does Brexit, politically speaking, spot and kill everyone it touches”?

I wrote those lines in July 2016, when Theresa May had been Prime Minister for one week. It was one thing, I argued, to win referendum support for Brexit as a story about what Britain should or could become (or what it once was). But any politician ­trying to make Brexit a political reality would be left “floundering amid tectonic shifts in the political landscape that they helped to initiate”.

During this year’s general election, however, I failed to follow my own logic. If I had done so, I would have seen that May would find it much harder than everyone predicted to win an election while keeping the Brexit Question under control. She tried not talking about Brexit, and that sounded disingenuous. Then she tried talking about Brexit, but there wasn’t much appetite for listening.

May’s Brexit strategy and the rest of her electoral pitch were in contradiction. On the one hand, there were the reassurances to the Brexit constituency: May the steely deliverer of promises, the “bloody difficult” woman of her word, with an unflinching desire to follow things through. Brexit means Brexit; sighs of relief all round.

Then there was the usual play to the bottom line: the Tories are the only people you can trust with the economy. In other circumstances, even a relatively flat and uninspiring Tory leader who promised “strong and stable” leadership amid economic uncertainty – a firm hand on the tiller and all that – would surely have defeated the Corbyn-McDonnell-Abbott axis comfortably.

But these are not normal circumstances, because the economic uncertainty is bound up with a choice and a policy: namely Brexit. So May, in effect, was promising to provide strength and stability in order to deliver certain uncertainty. She made a big play of being just the person who could calmly and unshakeably steer the ship inexorably towards what will surely be a huge storm.

You can be totally confident it’s going to happen, that thing which inspires little confidence, but you can’t trust Labour with the numbers: this was the Tory party’s idea of a trump card. The second part is definitely true, but it loses its lustre after the Brexit bit.

Here there were similarities with the 2016 US presidential election (albeit a different result). Donald Trump was gifted the ­perfect opponent. He is a vulgar fraud who is professionally dodgy, yet his easy defence was: “But what about the Clintons?” For the establishment also had reputational problems, only with the added burden of lacking both the entertainment factor and an outsider narrative. The ideal candidate to beat Trump would have been self-evidently principled, which has never been a strong suit for the Clintons.

***

The Tories, with their strong and stable pursuit of a hard Brexit, were tainted by subliminal economic uncertainty. And Corbyn’s Labour, vide Diane Abbott at the calculator, was also inevitably tainted by economic uncertainty. Labour, however, could sugar the pill with a lot more free stuff. The lesson here is not, as some Conservatives have argued following Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Theresa May’s debacle, that it is no longer possible to win as a stability candidate. But it is true that a stability candidate cannot easily succeed if he or she shares a sufficiently similar weak spot with a more novel and superficially intriguing electoral outsider.

It turned out that Labour had chosen a strangely effective moment to take refuge in frivolous dissent. In these serious times, unseriousness proved a harbour for them. Though it sounds absurd, it is possible that a more credible opposition would have done worse at the polls because the Tory scare story would have felt more plausible. Labour has another advantage: even though the party played its part with its feeble referendum campaign, the electorate doesn’t blame Labour for the Brexit-induced political crisis. Nor should it.

Given that backdrop, my conjecture is that for all the flaws of May’s campaign – the defensive catenaccio, the bleak tone, the lack of wit and charm – the election could never have been properly about the Prime Minister. Ironically, by trying to turn the election into a vote of confidence in her competence, May in fact made it less likely that she would become the personification of Brexit.

Instead, she will now probably end up as a bit-part player in a much bigger story: the tale of Britain’s increasingly ham-fisted attempt to leave the EU on tolerable terms. For a quiet Remainer whose catchphrase became “Brexit means Brexit”, that is an appropriate decline in influence.

When the election was called, initially it seemed like another pragmatic masterstroke; the Tory party, which understands power better than any other party in the world, was doing what it does best: reorganising itself to benefit from the new political reality. Yet there was a different kind of shy Tory during this election: not the shy Tory who doesn’t want to own up to Toryism, but the shy Tory who sought a modest win. Many Conservative supporters I know wanted May to win the election but not too handsomely. They feared a landslide would lead to a resurgent Europhobic Tory right. Far from the original spin that the election was needed to create a bulwark against the hard Brexiteers, Tory-Remain voters feared the opposite. And when lots of your own potential supporters don’t want a big win, you scarcely win at all.

It is often said that early elections backfire because the electorate resents the disruption. In this instance, that resentment was especially deep among Tory-leaning Remainers.

There is always a deeper rhythm and May is not entirely responsible for the beating drum. It is not quite true that, in her words to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, she “got us into this mess”.

The Brexiteers, most of them Conservatives, created the mess. Their relentless obsession with Europe pressed David Cameron into holding a referendum. Strands of the Leave campaign pandered to mob elements that they then couldn’t appease. Then came the Brexiteers’ inability to settle on a realistic candidate after the referendum, leaving a Remainer to do their bidding.

My first instinct after the referendum was that the process of Brexit had to be fronted by a Brexiteer. It was their show: over to them. When that person became Andrea Leadsom, I recoiled and changed my mind. Now I think I was right first time. Brexit must anoint one of its own. I’m also beginning to suspect that the electorate’s desire to see the right people blamed for Brexit will prove stronger than the desire to actually brexit. The superficial logic said: Corbyn can’t be PM, so call an election. A quite different disquiet was revealed: who is to blame for this annoying chaos?

That is an augury for the immediate future of British politics – blame. When a new economic reality bites, there will be a lot of Brexit anger to be redirected. In the process, the old political parties and alignments will be pushed to breaking point.

Perhaps the pull of political justice will demand that the cracks, when they come, ought to be in the appropriate places. That craving for justice may trump the need for competence. If Brexit does turn into a disaster movie, who would be a suitable protagonist? It is hard to escape the logic that the most apposite outcome – even if it is unappealing, especially for the long-term health of the nation – is that Brexit should be delivered by those who initially won the popular argument.

When the mood turns, however, the same movement that craved a populist hero will need a panto villain.

Step forward, Boris Johnson: your country needs you. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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