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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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A to Z of the 2017 general election

Our strong and stable guide – for the many, not the few.

A is for the Andrews

Although Theresa May spent the election campaign dodging debates (and, consequently, an unhappy junior reporter from the Mirror in a chicken costume) there were a few live interviews for masochistic audiences. The BBC’s Andrews – Neil and Marr – both had a go.

On 30 April, Marr made it harder for the Prime Minister by telling her before they started that she wasn’t allowed to use the phrase “strong and stable” or other soundbites. (She lasted 30 seconds before cracking.) “People can listen to that sort of thing and think it’s a bit robotic,” he told her, foreshadowing later criticism. By the time of Andrew Neil’s BBC1 interview on 22 May the conversation had moved on. “You started this campaign with a huge double-digit lead in the polls. It’s now down to single digits in some polls. What’s gone wrong?” Mrs May’s answer? “Well, Andrew, there’s only one poll that counts . . .”

B is for Brenda

Brenda, a resident of Bristol, spoke for the nation on 18 April when she heard the news that an election had been called. “You’re joking. Not another one?!” she said, her face a cross between overheated aunt at village fete and Edvard Munch’s Scream. “Oh for God’s sake, I can’t, honestly – I can’t stand this,” she told a BBC reporter. “There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?” Judging by Brenda’s subsequent internet fame, much of the country was asking the same thing.

C is for clinky

Boris Johnson was mostly kept on the bench during the campaign but he did surface from time to time. He began the campaign by insulting Jeremy Corbyn (see M), and on another occasion he put in an awkward appearance at a Sikh temple. “I hope I’m not embarrassing anybody here by saying that when we go to India, we have to bring ‘clinky’ in our luggage,” he told the audience. “We have to bring Johnnie Walker.”

The Foreign Secretary added that, after Brexit, we could reduce the stiff import tax on alcohol. The audience told him that Sikh teachings forbid drinking alcohol. “How dare you talk about alcohol in a Sikh temple?” said one. Johnson’s plan to visit a mosque to talk about the pork trade was presumably cancelled.

D is for dementia tax

David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May – all came a cropper because of a tax that isn’t really a tax. While Cameron and Osborne opted for taxes on spare bedrooms and hot pasties, the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto announced a raid on your ailing granny. The principle of the so-called dementia tax was that those with assets of more than £100,000 would have to pay for their social care. (Those with assets of less than £100,000 would escape paying anything.)

The world quickly turned on its head: the left-wing Momentum group defended the right of the middle classes to large inheritances, and the once-obdurate PM was forced into a hasty U-turn (lamely stating that “nothing has changed”).

E is for Emmanuel Macron

Be still, notre beating coeurs. On 7 May, the pragmatic centrist Emmanuel Macron beat the far-right Marine Le Pen in the run-off of the French presidential election. After Brexit and the success of Donald Trump, it felt like a ray of sunshine to Europe’s weary liberals – proof that Euroscepticism, isolationism and anti-immigrant rhetoric are not the only ways to win.

Since taking office, Macron, 39, has consolidated France’s commitment to the EU and eurozone, naming a minister for “European and foreign affairs”. He has condemned Russian state news outlets as “organs of influence” while standing next to Vladimir Putin, and he shook Trump’s hand (above) for a really, really long time. “My handshake with him – it wasn’t innocent,” Macron said. “It was a moment of truth.”

F is for Fallon

Michael Fallon has many roles: Defence Secretary, “Minister for the Today Programme” and Smearer-in-Chief. An otherwise unremarkable cabinet member, he was happy to be drafted in by CCHQ as an attack dog – unleashed to make personal gibes about the opposition whenever it looked as if the Tory campaign was wobbling.

In 2015, he warned that Ed Miliband had “stabbed his own brother in the back” to become Labour leader and would be “willing to stab the UK in the back” by doing a deal with the SNP to cancel Trident. This time around, Fallon branded Jeremy Corbyn a “security risk” because of his stance on the nuclear weapons. A bit rich, when you consider that the pompous Fallon presided over a failed Trident missile test.

G is for go-karting

“Labour is in pole position to beat the SNP”, proclaimed Scottish Labour’s Twitter account on the day of the party’s manifesto launch. Accompanying this optimistic statement were three pictures showing the regional party’s leader, Kezia Dugdale, as she won a go-kart race against a black-helmeted racer wearing an SNP rosette. If only it were that easy to defeat First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

H is for hairstyles

The Andrew Marr Show is best known for its interviews (and end music) rather than its style tips. Yet during this campaign, two politicians used it to share their grooming tips with a grateful nation. First up, Labour’s Diane Abbott told us that in the 1980s she used to have an afro (and strong opinions about the need for armed struggle in Ireland) but has since “moved on”.

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, then responded by saying that she had “changed her hairstyle a few times in 34 years, too” but her opinions on public safety had not shifted. Let us know if you move away from 2017’s shoulder-grazing blonde bob, Amber. We’re waiting for your update.

I is for ivory sales ban

It isn’t every day that Britain’s “powerful antiques industry lobby” – presumably made up of those interchangeable men in tweed jackets on Antiques Roadshow – makes headlines. However, after the Conservative manifesto launched without a pledge to ban the ivory trade in Britain, Theresa May was accused by animal rights campaigners of U-turning on David Cameron’s previous commitment.

Given that Prince William is one of the ban’s most vocal advocates, you would have thought Theresa the Traditionalist might have happily ditched the antiques dealers in favour of the royal seal of approval.

J is for java

Dark, bitter and scalding: coffee has become the latest accessory of class war. While out in his constituency, the Tory candidate for Wakefield, Antony Calvert, caused outrage by tweeting about a mere proletarian’s audacity in entering a branch of that renowned aristocratic haunt, Costa: “Man recognises me at #Wakefield Westgate. ‘These f*ckin Tories, always looking 2 trample on t’working class, like me’. Man walks into Costa.” Working-class people can’t drink competitively priced caffeine products in popular high-street chains, so the guy must have been a faker, right?

And it’s not just Tories who think an espresso is la-di-da. The Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, suggested that only rich people buy coffee from shops when he condemned the government’s proposed “barista visa” as a Tory plan for avoiding “waiting longer in the morning for their posh coffee”. Workers of the world, percolate!

K is for Katie Hopkins

For the past few years, it seems, no news event has escaped the attention of the former LBC shock jock and Mail Online columnist Katie Hopkins, formerly a candidate on The Apprentice. After expressing her hatred of tattoos, the obese, mobility scooters, maternity leave, the McCanns and redheads, and her admiration for ebola (“Malthusian”), she finally lost her LBC gig after tweeting, then deleting, a call for a “final solution” to Muslim terrorism in Britain after the Manchester bomb.

L is for Lynton Crosby

Nicknamed the Wizard (or Lizard) of Oz by unimaginative Westminster insiders, Lynton Crosby is the Australian election campaign guru who delivered David Cameron’s surprise general election victory in 2015. He is known for his colourful metaphors: the need to “get the barnacles off the boat” (ditch any baggage that might impede a campaign); “you can’t fatten a pig on market day” (voters’ preconceptions are hard to overturn); and, of course, the “dead cat”, which is irrelevant to the argument but nonetheless changes the conversation (often thrown by Michael Fallon; see F).

M is for mugwump

On 27 April, an attention-starved Boris Johnson momentarily forgot that everyone stopped finding his sub-Wodehouse shtick amusing some time ago. Writing in the Sun, he claimed that Labour voters didn’t realise what a grave danger Jeremy Corbyn posed to Britain. “They say to themselves: he may be a mutton-headed old mugwump, but he is probably harmless.” Cue a day of people googling “mugwump”, which turns out to mean: a) someone who left the US Republicans in the 19th century because they found the Democrat Grover Cleveland more appealing; b) the supreme wizard in Harry Potter; c) a predatory species from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch that “have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets”.

In its response, Labour went both high (“It is the sort of look-at-me name-calling that you would expect in an Eton playground,” said the shadow housing secretary, John Healey) and low: “Boris Johnson is a caggie-handed cheese-headed fopdoodle with a talent for slummocking about,” said the deputy leader, Tom Watson.

N is for Natalie

“I’m not Natalie,” said Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, after Ukip’s Paul Nuttall twice got her name wrong in the second-tier leaders’ debate on 18 May. Later, Natalie (Bennett of the Greens) tweeted: “The only time I can recall being in the same room as Paul Nuttall was #BBCAQ in 2014. He clearly hasn’t recovered.” No wonder Ukip wants to ban face coverings (see V). Nuttall already has difficulty telling women apart.

O is for The One Show

After the rigours of the set-piece political interview, Theresa May (with her husband, Philip, above) and, later, a solo Jeremy Corbyn had a chance to show their softer side on BBC’s teatime chatfest The One Show. Revelations from the Mays included that their household has “boy jobs and girl jobs” (ie, Philip puts the bins out), that it was “love at first sight” and that “the Red Box has never made an appearance in the bedroom”.

Poignantly, May recounted how when she was a young Conservative candidate she received a phone call from her shocked mother-in-law, after a local newspaper mistakenly printed that she had a new baby. For his appearance, Corbyn was in full-on affable uncle mode, talking about his allotment and his love of decorative drain covers and presenting the show’s hosts with a jar of his home-made jam.

P is for polling

In the final days of the 2015 campaign, the pollsters were accused of “herding”: massaging their raw figures with turnout filters and other wizardry to produce what they thought was the most plausible election result, and therefore missing the possibility of a Tory majority. No such problem this time: there were double-digit differences between pollsters’ estimations of the Conservative lead over Labour, indicating that they were prepared to go out on a limb and take some risks.

Q is for the Queen

“I had a very nice chat with the Queen,” said Jeremy to Jeremy on 29 May. Paxman had been trying to press Corbyn on why his republican leanings hadn’t led to Labour calling for the abolition of the monarchy. “You don’t like her, though – you don’t like what she represents,” Paxman said. But Monsieur Zen was untroubled. “We got along absolutely fine.” Are you thinking what we were thinking? What a pair of replacements they would make for Paul and Mary on Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off . . .

R is for regressive alliance

In the early stages of the campaign, left-wing idealists and disillusioned tribal politicians alike turned to the prospect of a “progressive alliance” as the only hope of challenging the Tories. (And Theresa May invoked it herself with her line about a “coalition of chaos” propping up Labour.) However, commentators largely ignored the emergence of the Regressive Alliance: that is, a Conservative Party boosted by Ukip’s decision not to run in nearly half of the 650 seats. Forget a progressive realignment – this is the big shift in British politics.

S is for strong and stable

It was Lynton Crosby’s New Coke moment: out with the lame old Conservative brand, in with unfussy Theresa May and her “strong and stable leadership”. The campaign began with May and the cabinet – fresh from unlearning the phrase “long-term economic plan” – dutifully parroting their new line. Destination: landslide? Not quite. “Strong and stable” lost much of its rhetorical power when it turned out that the equivocating May was, in the words of Channel 4’s Michael Crick, more “weak and wobbly”. Soon afterwards, Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the polls began to improve.

T is for terror

The horrifying terror attacks on Manchester and London led to temporary suspensions of the national election campaign. Theresa May and her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, faced questions about cuts to police numbers and the ability of the security services to monitor known extremists.

The Manchester bomb prompted an outpouring of solidarity and fellow feeling, with thousands of people gathering in the city’s Albert Square for a vigil on 23 May. There they listened to Tony Walsh’s moving performance of his poem “This Is the Place”: “And there’s hard times again in these streets of our city/But we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity/Because this is a place where we stand strong together/With a smile on our face, Mancunians for ever.”

U is for Ulster

“Can we ever have too much democracy?” ask the people of Northern Ireland. Having stoically endured decades of tumult and violence, this was their fourth national election in 13 months (after two assembly elections and the EU referendum).

V is for Vitamin D

Ukip’s election manifestos have often been very odd (anyone remember their 2010 pledge to reintroduce “proper dress for major hotels, restaurants and theatres”?) but their 2017 offering surpassed all expectations. Under its “show your face in a public place” policy, Paul Nuttall’s party suggested that the UK should implement a ban on the burqa and niqab: partly because they are a “barrier to integration”, but also because these face coverings “prevent intake of essential Vitamin D from sunlight”. Unsurprisingly, the science was a bit whiffy. Sunlight causes the body to make Vitamin D; we don’t “intake” it from sunrays.

W is for worker bees

The Manchester attack led to a quirky fundraising attempt for the victims’ families as tattooists donated their time to create a permanent symbol of Manchester’s resilience and unity. Among those who got a worker bee tattoo – taken from the city’s coat of arms – was Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds, who was first elected the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde in 2010.

His only worry, he wrote on Facebook, was how his mum would react. Less than quarter of an hour later, we found out. Luckily, although Judith Reynolds expressed shock, she thought her son’s action was for a good cause. “OMG this is your mother!!! I hate tattoos but under the circumstances totally support you.” By early June, the appeal had raised more than £300,000.

X is for xeroxed

As the Labour Party was preparing to launch its general election manifesto, the entire draft was leaked in the Daily Mirror and the Telegraph. This allowed the Daily Mail and other right wing newspapers the opportunity to run pearl-clutching “Back to the 1970s” headlines a few days earlier than they would otherwise have done.

Although the usual accusations of incompetence were levelled at Jeremy Corbyn’s office, the leak might have been deliberate – it gave Labour two days of coverage rather than one for its policies, most of which polled well with the public.

Y is for Yotam Ottolenghi 

When the celebrated restaurateur appeared on the Today programme to discuss the Conservatives’ plan to scrap free school lunches, it was hard to tell what shocked Middle England more: that Theresa May’s favourite chef strongly disagreed with her proposals, or the revelation that he sometimes sends his children to school with ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch, rather than a fancy fattoush salad topped with pomegranate and baba ganoush.

Yotam Ottolenghi argued that a hot school lunch was an important social, as well as nutritional, experience for children. Friends and relatives of the Prime Minister should be on high alert for regifted copies of his cookbook Jerusalem this Christmas.

Z is for Zac Goldsmith

It’s just traditional now, innit? Yes, Z for Zac is standing again, mere months after he lost his Richmond Park seat to the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney in a by-election he had called over the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport. No, he didn’t get the concession he wanted from the Conservatives. Yes, people still remember his dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty, which was run by the “strategic mastermind” Lynton Crosby (see L).

We are caught between admiring Goldsmith’s commitment to public service and wondering whether he should just find a hobby. 

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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