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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

ALEX WILLIAMSON FOR NEW STATESMAN
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From antipasto to zoo, the A to Z of Brexit

We run through the Brexit alphabet.

As for anti-pasto


Is there any greater sign that austerity is not yet over than Boris Johnson getting the maximum value out of each of his jokes? In an interview with the Sun in September 2016, the Foreign Secretary suggested that Britain could control immigration as well as continue to trade freely with the EU in the following terms: “Our policy is having our cake and eating it. We are Pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto.” Very droll. Just as droll as the first time he rolled out the gag, in a July 2008 Telegraph column where he defended his decision to go on holiday abroad by noting that Tony Blair once spent a break “in the Tuscan palazzo of Count Girolamo Strozzi where he forged one of New Labour’s few hard-edged ideological positions: he was pro-sciutto and anti-pasto”. Stop it, Boris! This recycling is pasta joke. If you carry on, Liam Fox will want a pizza the action. Or you’ll be moved to the Minestrone of Defence. [Please, please stop – Ed.]

B is for big blue passports


Last year’s vote to leave the EU was a long time coming for the Tory awkward squad. Now that they’ve won, what exactly do they want? Turns out it’s much simpler than trade deals and migration quotas: just give us back our blue passports! As with most of the Brexit debate, it’s a cause that will be lost on most people under 50 – but, for the Sun and nostalgic headbangers such as the backbencher Andrew Rosindell, replacing the burgundy booklets used since 1988 is the only cause in town. “It’s a matter of identity. Having the pink European passports has been a humiliation,” Rosindell, the MP for Romford and a Proper Bloke who’d never otherwise touch anything “pink” unless he could help it, told the Sun in August. Ministers have since pledged to review the post-Brexit passport design – proof, if any more were needed, that this government serves only the whims of our weirdest MPs.


C is for civil servants


Those poor souls in Whitehall must be missing the days when all they had to fear was the press being nasty about how many biscuits they were eating on the taxpayer’s purse. Now it looks like there won’t be any time for biscuit breaks. The former civil service head and kindly veteran mandarin Bob Kerslake warned Theresa May at the end of last year that Whitehall does not have the capacity to deal with Brexit. “It’s not possible to do that at a point when the civil service is at its lowest numbers since the Second World War and continuing to fall,” he said in November. The Prime Minister shrugged off his concerns. Now disillusioned senior civil servants are planning to go the same way as Ivan Rogers, the EU ambassador who resigned in fury in January. Still, the money’s good: the top trade negotiator will earn £160,000 – more than the Prime Minister.

 

D is for David Davis


It’s little surprise that the Brexit Secretary, David Davis – having run for the Conservative Party leadership twice, represented two constituencies, and been politically active since he was a student in the 1970s – approaches politics with maturity and nuance. Nowhere was his great experience displayed with more finesse than when he reportedly swooped in for an unwanted embrace with Diane Abbott in the Commons bar after the shadow home secretary voted through Article 50 (out of loyalty to her party leader and against her conscience). “I am not blind,” he texted a friend, when asked if this was true. He eventually apologised, and went back to antagonising European politicians instead.

 

E is for Eighth, Henry the

 

Brexit wouldn’t mean Brexit without the resurgence of archaic English legislation and an unelected autocrat inflicting havoc on a divided nation. So Theresa May’s attempt to use 500-year-old powers known as “Henry VIII clauses” to convert EU directives into UK law is pretty unsurprising. As the government website explains, these are provisions added to a bill which enable “primary legislation to be amended or repealed by subordinate legislation with or without further parliamentary scrutiny”. The mechanism, established by the testy Tudor in 1539 to make law by proclamation, could help the PM repeal individual bits of EU legislation without full scrutiny by MPs – to parliament’s outrage. But perhaps it’s for the best. Henry VIII was an expert in divorce, after all.

 

F is for FIFTY (50), article


Oh, Article 50. Who thought that such a small clause could cause such a big fuss? It’s the little bit of the Lisbon Treaty no one thought would ever be relevant – the part that tells member states how to leave the European Union. Not to be spoken of without first using the verb “to trigger”, and not to be confused with its hipster younger sibling Article 49 (the part of the treaty which explains how to join, rather than leave, clung on to by wistful Remainers), Article 50 simply lays out how difficult it will be for any member state that uses it, allowing only two years of negotiating time after notification.

In the end, Article 50 was invoked on 29 March by handing over a letter in public to the European Council president, Donald Tusk, despite dire warnings by the Telegraph, which claimed it would be “hand-delivered at [a] secret time and location amid fears of sabotage by Remainers”. So Peter Mandelson forbore to rugby-tackle the British ambassador on his way to submit the letter, and Tusk decided it wouldn’t be funny, after all, to turn off the lights and pretend he was out.

 

G is for Goldman Sachs


Suddenly, progressives are sad to see the notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs taking its custom elsewhere – or some of it, anyway. It has confirmed that “hundreds” of its employees will be moved out of London and it will base its decision on its future dealings with the UK on the nature of the Brexit deal reached.

 

H is for horses


The Commons Northern Ireland select committee is at the sharp end of the complexities of leaving the EU. In February, Michael Lux, the former head of the European Commission’s customs procedures unit, stunned the committee by casually mentioning that with the UK leaving the customs union, a dog or a horse wandering across the land border with Ireland would need a customs form. After gasps from the committee, the independent unionist MP Sylvia Hermon replied: “I cannot imagine a form has to be filled out when a dog runs from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland. This is just unenforceable.” Let’s hope not.

 

I is for Iraq

 

As promised, Kenneth Clarke was the only Conservative MP to vote against triggering Article 50. He told the Times the atmosphere reminded him of the Iraq War: “That was the last time I stuck my neck out in supporting a really unpopular cause – 70 per cent of the British public were in favour of the invasion and most of the Conservative Party was in a patriotic fury. Within 12 months, you couldn’t meet a member of the public who had ever known anybody who was in favour of it.”

 

J is for Juncker

 

“Arch-federalist” is just about as villainous as one can be made to sound in the context of EU bureaucracy, and Jean-Claude Juncker is the man most often described as such by his Eurosceptic enemies. (He also once said that power was erotic, although he now finds it less so: “Why are you in love with a person? The day you know means that you have stopped being in love,” he mused to the FT in March.)

The European Commission president described Brexit as “a failure and a tragedy” and is riling Brexiteers by insisting that the UK settle its bill with Brussels before embarking on trade negotiations. Although the Luxembourger is reassuring Britain that this “isn’t a punishment”, the “very salty” fee could be as high as €60bn. Somebody pass Bill Cash the smelling salts.

 

K is for Keir (Starmer)


Oh, Keir. Things could have been so different. Running for parliament in 2015, the former director of public prosecutions might have hoped for a safe seat and plum job in Ed Miliband’s cabinet. Now, however, he’s one of the few adults left around the shadow cabinet table and an unhappy poster boy for Labour’s hopeless Brexit bind. With all the verve of a man rehearsing his own eulogy, he told the Commons of the Article 50 bill in January: “It is a very difficult bill for the Labour Party.” And so, despite Sir Keir’s lawyerly turns at the despatch box, it was. Although his competent performances and forensic scrutiny have given Labour hope, his stated ambition – for Labour to “speak not for the 52 Per Cent or 48 Per Cent but the 100 Per Cent” – is looking less achievable by the day.

 

L is for lords getting feisty


Perhaps there is something in the idea that Britain has a fundamentally different culture from its European counterparts. It must be the only country where progressive values are most vehemently defended by an unelected chamber, including hereditary chieftains. Yes, those freedom fighters in mink are the only ones to have provided any meaningful opposition to hard Brexit in parliament, sending the Article 50 bill back to the Commons to urge protection of EU migrant rights and a “meaningful” parliamentary vote on the final deal. They capitulated in the end and the bill passed – but let’s hope they make some more mischief with the Great Repeal Bill.

 

M for “My Maggie”

 

As Britain prepares to sever ties with a trading bloc of 500 million people just 21 miles from its shores, our government understandably needs to look around for new opportunities. And so Theresa May was on a plane to Washington to meet the new US president faster than you could say, “Grab them by the what?” May declined to raise Donald Trump’s history of sexist comments at their meeting, but she did wring a (sort of) guarantee out of him to remain committed to Nato. In any case, she charmed him more than Angela Merkel, who visited in March – not only did Trump not hold the German chancellor’s hand, he even refused to shake it for a photo-op in the Oval Office. To the delight of Tory Brexiteers, May and Trump appeared to get on well, with the president recalling the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Prime Minister May, he is said to have told his aides, is “my Maggie”. (Let’s be honest, she probably doesn’t call him “my Ronnie”.) Trump also returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, an act that brought a couple of right-wing lobby journalists close to shedding tears of patriotic joy.

 

N is for Nazis

 

It wouldn’t be a proper political event without someone making an inappropriate reference to Nazis, and our politicians haven’t disappointed this year. Ever the diplomat, Boris Johnson accused the French president, François Hollande, of wishing to “administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie”. If he wishes to make comparisons to a propaganda-driven insurgency based on scapegoating minority groups, Johnson needn’t look back so far in the past . . .

 

O is for Osborne


The former chancellor George Osborne is enjoying winding up his old cabinet rival Theresa May from the back benches, warning that Brexit will be a “bitter” divorce and accusing the government of choosing “not to make the economy
the priority”. However, this is just another part-time occupation in an increasingly cluttered CV. George “Six Jobs” Osborne is advising the investment firm BlackRock, fulfilling private speaking engagements, working as a McCain Institute fellow, chairing the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, representing the constituents of Tatton (sometimes), and now the editor of the London Evening Standard.

Good for him! Finally, he is delivering on the promise he made at the Treasury of “full employment”.

 

P is for the press

 

The Brexit-supporting press has responded to recent events with the calmness and classiness for which it is famed. The Sun beamed “Dover and out” on to the White Cliffs to celebrate Article 50 being invoked. The Mail wrote “FREEDOM!” in 9,000-point capital letters on its front page (under a headline about Nicola Sturgeon’s and Theresa May’s “Legs-it”). And the Telegraph celebrated a bonfire of red tape that will lead to Britain getting back the ability to use energy-inefficient light bulbs and slaughter insufficiently endangered newts. Suddenly, all the pain seems worthwhile.

 

Q is for queen


“QUEEN BACKS BREXIT” shouted the front page of the Sun three months before the EU referendum. Inevitably. Buckingham Palace swiftly complained about it to the press watchdog. The Sun stood by its story, which consisted of a source relaying Eurosceptic remarks made by the Queen during a lunch at Windsor Castle in 2011. Nick Clegg, said to have attended this lunch, called the story “nonsense”. But the tabloid – ever tenacious in pursuit of dubious news values – ran a similar front page on the eve of the vote: “What Queen asked dinner guests: GIVE ME THREE GOOD REASONS TO STAY IN EUROPE”. The next day, the country gave her its answer.

 

R is for red, white and blue Brexit

 

Suggesting Brexit is nothing more than government by tea towel, Theresa May sent a shudder through the nation in December by describing her chief goal as a “red, white and blue Brexit”. This was in response to commentators characterising the middle ground between a hard and a soft departure as “grey Brexit”. Presumably, given the racial overtones of some of the Leave campaigning, she didn’t want the idea of a “white Brexit” to gain currency.

 

S is for Scotland

 

“Now is not the time” was Theresa May’s response to the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum, in the light of Scotland voting Remain. The Prime Minister believes Scottish voters should have full knowledge of the Brexit deal before going to the polls again. Which is kind of an argument for a second EU referendum on the final terms, but shhhh. During the campaign, top Brexiteers queued up to dismiss the prospect of Scottish independence returning to the table. Nigel Farage called the idea “moonshine”; David Davis said it would happen “under no circumstances”; the Labour Leaver Kate Hoey described it as a “wonderful red herring”; and the failed Tory leadership candidate Michael Gove said there was “no prospect” of it.

 

T is for Singapore model, the


The idea of copying Singapore’s low-tax, low-regulation economic model has long been popular with the kind of Brexiteer who would willingly read Ayn Rand. But has that country provided the blueprint for Brexit Britain? Jeremy Corbyn seems to think so, as he has been trying to get the rest of us to call it “Bargain-Basement Brexit”. And in her Lancaster House speech in January, Theresa May warned the EU27 that the UK would impose “the competitive tax rates and the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors” if they offered the UK a bad deal. Is there a catch? Er, yes: the UK’s corporation tax rate is already low in European terms. And in truth, Singapore’s dirigiste technocratic government would give Douglas Carswell nightmares. Oh, and a quarter of its population are immigrants.

 

U is for Unexpectedly welcome

 

Over the past few months, left-wing Remainers have started to experience an unusual, creeping sensation. Is it . . . are they . . . could it be that they are happy to see Tony Blair? This disconcerting feeling has been helped by the Blessed Toblerone’s decision to give up some of his more whiffy lucrative side hustles (he is also doing up most of his shirt buttons again). In the absence of other strong pro-European voices, Blair has returned to the fray, making the case for liberal internationalism and arguing that the public should have the chance to change its mind on Brexit once it knows the final deal. Stop sounding so reasonable, Tony. It’s unnerving.

 

V is for Verhofstadt


“Get thee behind me, Satan,” was David Davis’s message to Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s gap-toothed chief negotiator, in evidence to the Commons foreign affairs select committee in September. The former Belgian prime minister was all too happy not to oblige – and became a leading player in the pre-divorce phoney war. His contributions to the debate, such as suggesting “associate citizenship” of the EU for disenfranchised Britons post-Brexit, have been catnip for the 48 Per Cent. Equally unhelpful has been his suggestion that an independent Scotland would have no problem retaining EU membership. No wonder Nigel Farage called his appointment a “declaration of war”.

 

W is for WTO terms

 

Hardly anyone knows what it means, but nevertheless “WTO terms” is a magical phrase suddenly being used by everybody on all sides of the Brexit debate to shut opponents up. Basically, if the UK doesn’t strike a trade deal with the EU, then it will trade according to World Trade Organisation rules, which would bring in tariffs or other trade barriers for some of our exports of products and services to EU countries, and vice versa.

 

X is for x-iting the EU


The Department for Exiting the EU, set up by Theresa May after the 23 June referendum, is not Whitehall’s most popular hangout. Civil servants in other departments are frustrated by its existence, as Brexit has repercussions for every policy brief. Some of the ministry’s officials have been characterised as “school bullies”, barging in to take control of everything. Perhaps, like No 10, the Foreign Office and Treasury, it could enhance its reputation with a cat, which could be called DExMew.

 

Y is for yacht

Leavers are ever keen to talk up Britain’s future as a buccaneering trading nation – and some are taking it nauseatingly literally. Up to 100 Conservative MPs are backing a Daily Telegraph campaign to spend £120m on a shiny new replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia, decommissioned by Tony Blair in a fit of Europhile pique in 1997. They believe a new yacht – but not, say, a decent trade deal – is the key to the renewed success of Global Britain’s export sector. And as if this weren’t the perfect imperial nostalgia trip, the MPs Gerald Howarth and Jake Berry have suggested slashing the international aid budget to pay for it. The international trade minister Mark Garnier has warned them off that idea but encouraged them to formulate a business plan. “No one is trying to stop you bringing one forward,” he said. Can somebody please try?

 

Z is for Zoos


No, we didn’t just need a Z entry. About 80 per cent of our animal welfare law originates from the EU, which is praised as an animal-friendly area – compared to, say, the US and China, which have far less regulation. On Britain leaving the EU, our legislation on animal welfare will be up in the air. The only certainty will be mandatory pet British bulldogs for every household. What could be more patriotic? 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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