The terrible failure of Europe's left

So much for the Third Way. This supposedly forward-looking political philosophy - with its long, abstract nouns, its obeisances to the free market, its technocratic arrogance, its contempt for old social democratic values and policies - has been found out. Just five years ago, the left carried all before it, holding power in 13 out of 15 EU countries. But there was no alternative, we were assured, to a rebranded social democracy; trade unions, public ownership, the whole edifice of collectivism were finished. Now, from Cannes to Copenhagen, from Strasbourg to Saxony, the left beats a humiliating retreat. In France, the Socialist candidate cannot make the final round of the presidential election. In Germany, Gerhard Schroder slides down the opinion polls. The left is nowhere in Spain. In Italy, Denmark, Holland and France, the far right has become a significant political force for the first time in more than half a century. The new social democrats have deliberately travelled light, divesting themselves of ideological baggage. They have cleared the stage for the far right, which holds on to its baggage and offers a sense of conviction, a perverted form of social solidarity and a language that people can understand.

Britain's new Labour leaders may smugly assume that the problem is confined to wayward Continentals, that if only the French or Italian lefts had gone further down the Third Way, or if Lionel Jospin had taken the advice proffered by Tony Blair's polling guru, Philip Gould, none of this would have happened. They are wrong. M Jospin was at least smart enough to spot that the Third Way was pretty thin as a philosophy (the French have higher standards than the British in these things), and so distanced himself from it. But he has privatised as assiduously as anybody in Europe and cut income tax for the rich. Mr Blair, meantime, has been protected by our electoral system and the weakness of the Tories. Where an opportunity to upset new Labour has emerged - in the London mayoral elections, for example - the voters have seized it. Otherwise, they stay at home, as they seem likely to do so in record numbers in local elections next Thursday.

Nevertheless, new Labour can easily avert the disaster that threatens its Continental counterparts. After the most social democratic Budget for a generation, bitterly reviled by the right-wing press, Labour's poll ratings have risen, while Gordon Brown has become the most popular Chancellor in decades. Both Mr Brown and Mr Blair have at last treated the voters as adults: if you want a decent health service, they have said, give us the money and judge us on the outcome. Can they treat voters with as much respect on, say, crime or immigration, the issues which M Le Pen most effectively exploited? Why not try telling the truth and wrapping it in social democratic values? Crime is falling, not rising. The best way of reducing it is to reduce poverty and inequality. Immigration ultimately enriches a society, both culturally and materially. (For what happens when immigration is near zero, look at Japan's plight.) In any case, migration is pretty much inescapable in a globalised economy; if you want kumquat in Tesco and holidays in Thailand, expect brown people down the road. The left should be able to say these things and mean them; it should stop accepting the right's agenda (the streets are not safe to walk, etc) because, on such subjects, the right will always speak with more conviction.

But it is not only new Labour that needs to learn lessons from France. George Bush is US president largely because so many on the American left, wishing to record their principled disgust with the Clinton-Gore regime, supported Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. Margaret Thatcher dominated British politics for so long because Roy Jenkins and others abandoned Labour for the SDP. M Le Pen owes his triumph to the assorted revolutionaries and ecologists who drained away M Jospin's vote. Such divisions, and such electoral frivolity, are historic weaknesses of the left, alongside a juvenile tendency, when things are going badly, to take to the streets. Contrast the British Conservative Party, which mostly still hangs together through the most profound disagreements. Social democratic governments nearly always frustrate their supporters, and that is particularly true of the present crop in Europe. But the left should have learnt its lesson: it can only prosper through democratic politics within mainstream parties. If you are afraid of M Le Pen or of our own BNP, don't sit at home, don't flirt with the Socialist Alliance, don't smash up McDonald's. Join the Labour Party, attend its meetings and persuade it to pursue true left-wing values.

The new look

You will see that we have had the decorators in. And you will know what it's like. Should we have had the other wallpaper? Is that quite the right shade of paint? Is that shelf entirely straight? But after months of agonising, and quarrelling with builders, we think the New Statesman looks better this way: brighter, cleaner, clearer and, dare we say it, younger. We hope in particular that improved labelling and positioning of articles makes it easier for readers to find their way around. What has not changed is the New Statesman's editorial policy: to publish the best-written and most thoughtful pieces on contemporary culture, society and politics; to entertain and amuse; sometimes to infuriate and provoke; and broadly to support what used to be called "progressive values" (as opposed to any particular political programme). We hope you like the new design as much as we do. If not, you will no doubt let us know.

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