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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

ANDRÉ CARRILHO FOR NEW STATESMAN
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A progressive's guide to Theresa May

The new Prime Minister has rebranded herself as a champion of social justice and equal rights. Should we believe her?

Over the past two weeks, a strange phenomenon began to afflict Labour MPs, left-wing think tankers and progressives of all sorts. They started to wish fervently that Theresa May would triumph in the Tory leadership election. Yes, the woman who sent vans around north London ordering immigrants who had overstayed their visas to “go home”; she who has long been the darling of the Daily Mail, which praised her lukewarm speech in favour of staying in the EU in terms it normally reserves for actresses who have lost their baby weight freakishly fast; the woman who (erroneously) claimed in 2011 that human rights laws had allowed an asylum-seeker to avoid deportation because he owned a cat.

May’s rivals for the Conservative leadership included the blustering Boris Johnson, the neocon Michael Gove (“I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once,” as Ken Clarke put it), the disgraced Liam Fox, the largely untested Stephen Crabb and, finally, Andrea Leadsom, the brittle Brexiteer who crumbled under scrutiny. May turned out to be the only serious candidate.

When the contest came down to the final two, she continued to pursue a quiet, calm strategy. On the night it was revealed that Andrea Leadsom had suggested that being a mother gave her the edge over May, who does not have children, her rival was on the front page of the Telegraph talking about her “positive vision” for the country and profferring a “clean campaign” pledge.

Then, at lunchtime on 11 July, Leadsom pulled out, saying a nine-week campaign would be “undesirable” and that she could not hope to govern when only 25 per cent of Tory MPs supported her. (This had the happy side effect for Conservatives of delivering a swipe at Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoys the confidence of only 20 per cent of Labour MPs.) Immediately, May rushed back to Westminster from Birmingham, where she had given the first speech of her campaign, to be acclaimed as the new party leader and thus our new prime minister.

With that coronation, the yardstick against which May must be judged has changed. No longer is she merely preferable to the British Tea Party stylings of Leadsom; she must be judged on her own record and professed opinions. As we outline below, these are mixed. Nonetheless, it appears that May intends from the start to differentiate herself from David Cameron and George Osborne’s brand of corporate, chummy, laissez-faire Toryism. In background and temperament, she is already offering something new.

***

The daughter of a vicar, Theresa May attended a grammar school before studying geography at Oxford University (rather than PPE or classics, the usual favourites of aspiring Conservative politicians). She worked at the Bank of England and then, after being elected as MP for Maidenhead in 1997, she was the first of that year’s intake to reach the shadow cabinet, as shadow education and employment secretary. In July 2002, she became the first female chairman of the Conservative Party and at conference that year made her famous “nasty party” speech. A succession of shadow cabinet roles followed, at Transport; Culture, Media and Sport; and Work and Pensions. When Cameron formed a coalition government in 2010, she became home secretary historically a poisoned chalice – and she was the longest-serving holder of that post since Rab Butler in 1962.

The first inklings that May was seriously considering running for the Tory leadership came in 2013, the year after George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget, in which he slashed the 50p income-tax rate and paid for it by raising taxes on grannies and pasties. Addressing the grass-roots organisation ConservativeHome, May delivered a speech that strayed widely from the Home Office brief. It also ranged freely across the political spectrum, borrowing as much from Ed Miliband as it did from David Cameron. She outlined “the three pillars of Conservatism”: freedom, security and opportunity.

When backing May’s candidacy, the right-wing papers inevitably compared her with Britain’s only previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. But a better choice would be Angela Merkel, a purposefully dull technocratic workaholic who has spent 11 years as chancellor of Germany.

May seems to be offering the same pragmatic spirit, which may come as a relief after the ideological fervour of the EU referendum campaign, with its grandiose promises and divisive debates. Had she spent the summer running against Leadsom, she might have had to tack right, stressing her anti-immigration credentials. As it is, given her rival’s early departure, the only substantial statement of her political mission is her launch speech in Birmingham.

This was an astonishing statement for a Conservative to give though perhaps not as unexpected as her speech to the Police Federation in 2014, in which she excoriated a roomful of (mostly male) officers over the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and sexist language used about women who reported domestic violence. “If anybody here questions the need for the police to change, I am here to tell you that it’s time to face up to reality,” she said.

The surprise in Birmingham this week was that she talked about Britain’s problems in a way that was reminiscent of Milibandism. Energy bills were too high (an echo of the former Labour leader’s most popular policy, to freeze bills). Bankers’ bonuses had swollen, while real wages had stagnated. Monetary policy since the economic crisis, which has relied on low interest rates and quantitative easing, helped those who own their homes, at the expense of renters.

“There is a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation,” she added. “And there is a gaping chasm between wealthy London and the rest of the country.” There was even a passage that would not have seemed out of place in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn:

“Right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”

Are these just warm words a social and fiscal conservative appropriating the language of social justice and equal rights? Behind the scenes, May has been a quiet champion of women in the party, co-founding the mentoring group Women2Win in 2005. Her “nasty party” speech of 2002 was a rebuke to an activist base that was socially conservative to the point of indulging racism and homophobia. Sam Gyimah, one of the party’s most prominent black and minority ethnic MPs, supported May’s candidacy because of that. “The reason the Conservative Party now has roughly a third of women MPs and a record number of BME MPs is because front-line politicians like Theresa set the party on that course,” Gyimah says. 

“I backed Theresa because her politics chime with my politics – that delivering on the economy is not enough if it doesn’t work for everyone. But also her track record of standing up for real injustices even where there isn’t an electoral dividend to be had, like on modern slavery and stop-and-search and her determination to confront issues head-on, which she did with our own party when she was party chairman.”

That said, her willingness to criticise her own side should not blind us to the many ways in which Theresa May is a conventional Conservative. Much of her success recalls Bill Clinton’s despairing phone call to Tony Blair about George W Bush, then a candidate for the presidency: “One reason Bush is doing so well is because he criticised one thing on the right. He is making people think he is saving them from the right.” 

"But," Clinton concluded, "It's a fraud because he actually is for them on everything else. I have to find a way to expose the fraud."  He never did. The opposition will hope for better against May. 

Now read the full policy audit on Theresa May

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM