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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: Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy
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Deep blue

Why Theresa May is only the second most powerful politician in Maidenhead.

The last train to London Paddington left Cookham at 8.31am a couple of Fridays ago. And in this case, last train means last train. The Bourne End Flyer, the direct service from the pretty little branch that veers away from the Great Western main line at Maidenhead, is no more. Henceforth, passengers will have to trudge off one train at Maidenhead station twice a day and on to another: not a catastrophe, but a hindrance, a small loss of douceur de vivre.

There were no fanfares for the final Flyer, no mourners, no anger. Great Western sent a couple of staff members to offer counselling and new timetables to the commuters of Bourne End, Cookham and Furze Platt, who looked weary, resigned and dead-eyed as commuters do on a Friday morning. The arguments had come late last year when the earlier direct train had bitten the dust, coinciding with a decision to charge for parking at Cookham. “I think it’s going to be OK now,” said Barry, the cheery ticket clerk. “But I’ve got a Plan B. If there’s any trouble, I’ll hide in the broom cupboard.”

Protesters were partly mollified by the offer of a dedicated train waiting at Maidenhead for them. “It will be reasonably civilised, but not as civilised,” said Paul Willmott, an old-school Cookham-to-the-City type. “And I suspect it will work fine for about six months.”

Cookham, one of the most beautiful and insanely expensive villages, even by the standards of Thames-side East Berkshire, has had in this case to pay the price of progress: with mainline electrification and the coming of Crossrail two and a half years hence, scabby little branch-line diesels are not welcome on the shiny new railway.

Cookham’s station – with its whispered announcements so as not to annoy the neighbours – is on the outer edge of the Maidenhead constituency, which is already being transformed by the impending new line. Some local people, and not just Cookhamites, suspect the benefits of Crossrail are being overhyped. It will certainly be easier to get from Maidenhead to the City. But the trains will be like those on the Overground: stopping everywhere; seats facing inwards, and not many of them; no tables, and so work will be near impossible; no loos. For many travellers there will be no gain at all.

But it is important to remember the essential and underappreciated genius of railway privatisation. In the days of British Rail, every leaf on the line, every wrong kind of snowflake, had to be explained away by the government. Now ministers just shrug. So no one in Cookham seemed to be blaming the Prime Minister, or the MP for Maidenhead, who, for the past 11 months, just happens to have been the same person.

***

What happy chance that Theresa May was selected as the candidate for Maidenhead! You could almost make a slogan out of it, except for the somewhat dated anatomical connotations of the town’s name. (The name actually comes from “Maiden Hythe”, meaning “new wharf”.) There is something almost virginal about Maidenhead’s image, too: I’d imagined the town as rather tea shoppe‑y, Tunbridge Wellsy maybe. No, Windsor – its partner in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead – may still be a nice-pot-of-tea kind of place; but Maidenhead is very much wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee.

It is clearly proud of its PM-MP. Her elevation last year might not have given the town quite the thrill Leicester got from winning the Premier League, but it could almost be on a par with Maidenhead United being champions of the National League South – which they are. It gives the place a little reflected glory and its voters a warm glow. New prime ministers normally get a local electoral bounce; even Gordon Brown had a swing in his favour in 2010.

And the local people do seem to like, or at least admire, her. On the High Street, practically everyone seemed to have an anecdote to offer and often a selfie to back it up. “She’s a lovely person. And she’s the right person for the country,” Michael Reynolds on the fruit stall insisted. “And we’re open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And she buys her strawberries here. Taste them. They’re beautiful. English.” And if May noticed that Reynolds was selling his cherries by the pound rather than the kilo, she didn’t make a fuss about it. Brexit already seems to mean Brexit in Maidenhead.

You would expect her to be an assiduous constituency member, and she is. She remembers names; she has been spotted queuing at the chemist’s to pick up her own prescription. But there is a school of thought that this was not always so: that she took Maidenhead for granted after winning the newly created seat in 1997 by nearly 12,000 votes, which the Liberal Democrats slashed to 3,000 four years later. After that, according to one source, “she never missed a school fete, and she didn’t wait to be invited – she just turned up”. By 2015 the majority was up to 29,000.

The Liberal Democrats also had control of the unitary council but that, too, is long gone: current line-up – Con 53, Old Windsor Residents’ Association 2, independent 1, LD 1. The upshot is that Theresa May is not the most powerful, nor even the most talked-about politician in Maidenhead. That honour belongs to one Simon Dudley, the leader of the royal borough council.

***

Maidenhead, you must understand, has never been sleepy. The new wharf was an entrepôt and the town around it eventually acquired a surprisingly louche reputation: a sort of ­mini-Brighton. “Are you married, or are you from Maidenhead?” was one expression, and it had nothing to do with virginity. In the early 20th century, Skindles Hotel, just across the river, was famous/infamous for illicit assignations.

But Skindles has lately been demolished and is being replaced by “superb apartments”, as indeed, it seems, is just about every available site in the town itself. Maidenhead is already an extraordinary mix of architectural styles and eras, though aesthetically the path has been downward since soon after Smyth’s almshouses were built along the Great West Road in 1659.

Now Maidenhead’s population of 73,000 is, according to Dudley, on course to rise by between 30 and 50 per cent by the 2030s, as a result of a Crossrail-led boom. The biggest single component of that is ­expected to comprise what is now Maidenhead Golf Club, which has 132 acres leased from the council within walking distance of the train station. The council is buying out the lease and offering a windfall for the 700-odd club members, thought to be roughly £20,000 to £30,000, which may or may not be put towards building a replacement course, though a dozen of the members could just get together and buy themselves a studio flat instead.

The gain for the borough will be far greater. “I’m a golfer,” Simon Dudley says. “Sending JCBs in to dig up golf courses is not my idea of fun. But there is a fiduciary duty on councils to maximise their assets and to meet housing needs. There is an oversupply of golf courses in the south-east and a chronic housing shortage.” He thinks it could be the best property deal for the ratepayer that any council has ever done. There are, almost needless to say, rumours that some councillors are also doing well out of Maidenhead’s boom, as has been the case in English local government since the first planning committee meeting in the ­Witenagemot, circa 600AD.

Dudley is 53, an investment banker and a man who exudes an aura of authority and drive way beyond that of most council leaders in May’s Britain, struggling to decide whether to burn all the library books or reduce dustbin collection to a biannual service. I found him helpful and charming, and he says all the right things about “affordable” homes and the need for infrastructure. But, as one clued-up local put it: “My reading of the development plan is that it will be absolutely fine as long as the population of Maidenhead never go out, never have children, never need a car park and never need any medical attention.”

And Dudley himself is, to say the least, controversial. “Deadly Dudley” is one nickname; I often heard the word “bully”, and not just from opponents. Early this year, the Times reported that Leo Walters, a well-respected Conservative councillor, had been sacked – by Dudley himself, he said – as the chairman of the council’s housing scrutiny panel, after Walters emailed panel members to point out that a Freedom of Information response had shown that 86 per cent of the planned development would be on green-belt land.

“There are suggestions that you are, um, a little over-forceful,” I told Dudley nervously. “Every decision is made by the Conservative group,” he replied. “They have just re-elected me unopposed as leader. Anyone could have stood against me.”

Indeed, Theresa May is not the only person round here to have been chosen unopposed as party leader.

And there is widespread agreement that something needs to be done about the town centre. Maidenhead’s problem, as someone put it, is that it is a riverside town a mile from the river. A beautification scheme has already turned a series of forgotten tributaries into features – and the residents, in a town that has an M&S but not many alternatives, share the council’s enthusiasm for bringing in more big chain stores. The borough is already much admired for its schools. And here is an issue that really does lead straight to the gates of Downing Street.

***

Not merely is there no John Lewis or Debenhams; there are hardly any worthwhile independent shops. One of the exceptions is Goyals, purveyors of uniforms to local schools – and some further afield – for the past 51 years. Seema Goyal, ­daughter-in-law of the founder, and now the boss, very proudly showed me not just her selfies with the Prime Minister but also the PM’s speech as the guest of honour at a recent dinner where the shop’s golden jubilee was celebrated. “I think it shows what hard work and dedication and service to your customers can do,” May told the diners marking the occasion, very Mayishly.

This is very much a school uniform town. Before 9am on Maidenhead station, almost the only people wearing ties were the children, and they all seemed to have their top button done up as well. The blazers hanging round the walls of Goyals make a rather fetching colour scheme: the blues predominate, as is only fitting in Maidenhead, and they certainly outnumber the reds. There are several shades of green but no yellows at all. And yet the schools in the royal borough are comprehensives.

Tony Hill is standing for the Lib Dems the third time but is probably still better known locally as the long-standing former head of Furze Platt Senior School. He knows May of old, which makes him all the more surprised that she is insisting on bringing back grammar schools. “What she will do is sit and listen, and she will listen and she will listen, and she will shift slightly and shift slightly, and she will drop on whatever gives her electoral advantage,” Hill says.

And yet. “We have six comprehensives in the borough, most of them ranked outstanding. There are two mixed, one boys’, one girls’, one church and now even a boarding comprehensive. It’s a terrific system. They compete against each other for customers. And she wants to ruin it. If they bring in a grammar school, all those lovely schools will become secondary moderns. Aspiring young teachers will know that if they want to teach brighter children, they’ll have to go to the grammar school. And they’ll go.”

Simon Dudley says that 130 children cross the nearby county boundary to join the Buckinghamshire selective system, which hardly sounds like overwhelming demand to me. Some of them are said to start being tutored to pass the eleven-plus as five-year-olds, which is a bit late; really pushy Bucks mothers would never be that relaxed. May’s views on grammar schools appear to be uncharacteristically rigid, and that could cause her difficulties even in her own backyard. “I certainly want bright children to flourish,” says Jonathan Romain, rabbi to the town’s Jewish community. “But there isn’t a crying need for a grammar school because bright children are already being well served. There is no popular clamour for one.”

Romain is a respected figure in the town and the chairman of Maidenhead’s traditional election hustings, organised by the various churches. Interfaith dialogue is strong here: Romain has said a prayer at the mosque; the imam has done the same at the synagogue, and the deity unleashed no vengeful thunderbolts on either occasion. This may say a couple of things about Maidenhead. In a footloose, money-oriented town of this kind, religion is more of an optional extra than a fundamental creed. But that perhaps gives the clergy an additional role in compensating for a certain shallowness in civil society: the more time people spend on the London train, the less time they have to spend on community life.

That said, Maidenhead has one advantage unmatched almost anywhere else in Britain. The Maidenhead Advertiser is owned by a charitable trust. In these dark days for local journalism, it is still edited in Maidenhead, not in Manchester or Mumbai. It still employs a fair number of journalists, and it is vigilant, inquisitive and informative. It really ought to have a more community-minded town in which to operate.

***

For what it’s worth, Labour was May’s closest pursuer in 2015. Its candidate this time is an affable and very community-minded bloke called Pat McDonald. He lives on the furthest edge of town in the ex-council-house estate of Woodlands Park, one of Labour’s least worst areas (where a three-bedder has just been advertised for £425,000). He can’t canvass on Thursday evenings because he helps at the youth club.

He was out in his own area that Friday night, though, knocking on doors near his own home: “I’m Pat McDonald, your local local candidate.” Some of his neighbours knew him well enough to laugh at that and take a poster. Other doors opened more narrowly. A few just shook their heads and hissed: “Corbyn.” One woman he had ­interrupted did hairdressing at home. “I’m just doing a colour,” she said apologetically. “I’m just doing something,” said someone else more enigmatically. “I’m just getting in the shower,” said a man, who looked ­fully clothed. “Sorry, I’m standing here half naked,” said a woman, who did not ­offer proof.

It is hard to believe that anyone in Maidenhead has ever opened the door to Theresa May and said that. 

Matthew Engel’s latest book, “That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English”, is newly published by Profile

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

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