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8 December 2015

Can social democracy rise to the challenge of the far right across Europe?

The rise of the populist radical right is an epiphenomenon of a profound crisis of the social-democratic left.

By David Marquand

In the 2010 general election, my wife and I canvassed an elderly lady in the East Oxford constituency where we then lived. We broke the first rule that party canvassers are supposed to obey: instead of passing on to the next house as soon as we had ticked off the lady’s voting intentions on our clipboard, we stopped to talk. It was a disconcerting encounter – sad in many ways but also moving. The elderly lady hadn’t decided whom she would vote for; she may well not have voted in the end. But, in retrospect, her voting (or non-voting) behaviour seems to me beside the point. What mattered – and still matters – about her is that she was, in a profound sense, a lost soul. Her husband was dead; one of her sons was living in Australia; the other lived in the north of England and rarely saw her. Her neighbourhood had become alien. The shops on the other side of her road had once been kept by English people; now the shop-keepers were south Asians. I don’t think she was racially prejudiced. What upset her was that the social milieu in which she had grown up no longer existed, that she felt like a stranger in her own street. And conventional politics had nothing to say to her.

She was not alone. She was one exemplar of a pool of alienation, disaffection and distress which has become much wider and deeper in the past five years. (Gordon Brown’s 2010 encounter with a different ­elderly lady whom he traduced as “bigoted” was another.) The great achievement of Matthew Goodwin’s and Caitlin Milazzo’s path-breaking study is to show that pool as the sea in which Ukip swims. This doesn’t mean that all Ukip voters are nice, distressed and lonely old ladies. There are bigots, racists and what David Cameron once called “fruitcakes” among them. But to start from the premise that civilised, tolerant, educated and liberal-minded New Statesman readers now confront an army of lumpen barbarians with whom no conversation is possible is fatally to misunderstand the single most ominous feature of British politics and European politics in general.

In this year’s general election, Ukip’s share of the popular vote was nearly 10 percentage points higher than in 2010; by numbers of votes, it was the third-largest party in the United Kingdom. Viewers of the leaders’ TV debates rated Nigel Farage’s performance second only to Nicola Sturgeon’s. In mainland Europe, as Goodwin and Milazzo make clear, Ukip-style populist radical-right parties proliferate. Marine Le Pen’s Front National is the best organised and most successful, but there are many other examples: the Italian Northern League and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Danish People’s Party, Geert Wilders’s viciously Islamophobic Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria and Law and Justice in Poland, among others.

Almost by definition, these parties are nationally specific; they draw their strength from perceived threats to nationhood and to the myths, identities and traditions that make up national self-understandings. The Front National belongs to a French tradition that goes back to Vichy, to the anti-Dreyfusards at the start of the 20th century, to General Boulanger in the 1880s and even to Louis Napoléon, whose coup d’état in 1851 destroyed the Second French Republic. The Law and Justice party evokes an ancient, self-pitying, not to say paranoid, myth of Poland as the Christ among nations. With its anti-Semitism and nostalgia for the Third Reich, the Freedom Party harks back to some of the ugliest chapters in Austrian history. Jobbik’s strength in Hungary is reminiscent of Admiral Miklós Horthy’s fascist regime between the wars and his eventual alliance with Hitler. The Italian far right speaks to a mood that brought Mussolini to power in the 1920s.

Ukip’s rhetoric is a distinctly downmarket version of Sir Walter Scott’s “Patriotism”, of Lord Salisbury’s “splendid” isolationism, of Rupert Brooke’s belief that if he died in battle, some corner of a foreign field would be “for ever England” and of Shakespeare’s “precious stone set in the silver sea”.

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Among other things, the rise of the populist radical right is an epiphenomenon of a profound crisis of the social-democratic left. Labour’s 2015 defeat fitted in to a pattern that extends right across Europe. The long Greek agony is the most striking case in point. PASOK, the nearest thing to a social-democratic party in that unfortunate country, accepted the austerity measures forced on Greece by its creditors and proceeded to implode, leaving a vacuum eventually filled by the originally far-left Syriza. “Pasokify” and “pasokification” have become terms of art in the discourse of the left. In France, François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste has haemorrhaged support to a life-threatening degree. It was thrashed both in last year’s European and in this year’s departmental elections. The PS is deeply split and has no discernible governing philosophy or vision for the future.

On the other side of the Rhine, the picture is almost as grim. At the start of this century, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) seemed securely in power, albeit in coalition with the Greens; in the most recent federal election, in 2013, they won only 26 per cent of the vote as against the Christian Democrats’ 41.5 per cent.

The right is also in power in Spain, despite an unemployment level of more than 20 per cent, albeit mitigated by an improving economic performance. The far-left Podemos, a Spanish equivalent of Syriza in Greece, is breathing down the necks of mainstream social democrats. Even in its Scandinavian redoubts, social democracy is in trouble. In the last Danish elections, the “blue” opposition bloc thrashed the “red” bloc led by the Social Democrats, and the social-democratic prime minister (Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law) stepped down. It’s the same story in Sweden. For more than 50 years from the early 1930s the Swedish Social Democrats’ vote share was invariably above 40 per cent. In the most recent general election, in 2014, it was down to 31 per cent. In a telling phrase, Goodwin and Milazzo suggest that Ukip owes its rise to its success in mobilising voters who have been “left behind”. There’s not much doubt that this is true of the populist radical right’s upsurge on the other side of the Channel as well.

But that is only the beginning of the story. Populist radical-right voters have indeed been left behind – by globalisation, by Europeanisation, by technological change, by the gales of creative destruction which have swept through the global economy, by the associated decay of settled communities and ways of life, by the rise of the super-rich and growth of inequality (most marked in the United Kingdom but visible everywhere) and, not least, by the professionalisation and remoteness of mainstream politics.

The last item in that catalogue is the most portentous. What might be called “governmental” social democracy – the social democracy of the British Labour Party, of PASOK, of the SPD in Germany, of the French Socialists and the Scandinavian social-democratic parties – has been professionalised at least as thoroughly as has the moderate centre right, and is at least as remote from its natural constituency.

The point of the preposterous Third Way, once expounded by Anthony Giddens and followed by Gerhard Schröder in Germany and Tony Blair in Britain, was to camouflage the betrayal of the left-behind by their ostensible defenders. In its glory years after the Second World War, governmental social democracy did more than any other political family to tame the harsh, inegalitarian, laissez-faire capitalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries – the capitalism that Ernest Bevin once deemed “red in tooth and claw” – in the name of solidarity and justice.

Unlike the communist parties of the era, social democrats did not attempt to abolish capitalism; they knew that any such attempt would end in tears as it had done in the Soviet Union. But they also knew that, although the capitalist market economy could be a good servant, it was a disastrous master. They were the chief architects of the reformed capitalism – the capitalism of welfare states, mixed economies and capacious public realms – that straddled the developed western world in the postwar period. Today’s governmental social democrats, by contrast, have not just acquiesced in capitalism’s return to the wild; they have connived in it. In doing so, they have spurned the left-behind.

Goodwin and Milazzo argue that economic factors, and even immigration and the spectre of a federal Europe, are only the proximate causes of Ukip’s surge. Behind these, they think, lies a much deeper, inarticulate, almost strangulated anxiety about identity. Ukip voters and potential voters feel that their identities and the traditions and structures that embody and transmit these identities are under threat: that the inherited integument of custom and habit that holds their society together is beginning to fragment. Goodwin and Milazzo do not quote Edmund Burke, but his vision of “the great primeval contract” that links the living to the dead and the unborn lurks between the lines of their analysis. On their showing, in other words, Ukip voters and potential voters are unconscious Burkeans; they sense, as he did, that a nation that turns its back on its past will imperil its future, that a people who forget the history that made them will cease to be a people.

All this poses a profound challenge to the social-democratic left. In times past, the labour movement was rooted in tradition. Memories of struggles – the mass protests that paved the way for the Great Reform Act 1832; the Great Dock Strike of 1889; the General Strike of 1926 and the miners’ sufferings during the lockout that followed – lived in the minds of later generations. Labour leaders as disparate as Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, Ernest Bevin, Aneurin Bevan and Neil Kinnock were acutely conscious of the histories that had shaped them. But those days have gone. Words such as “tradition”, “history” and “roots” have been banished from the social-democratic lexicon. A thin, glib, curiously mechanical presentism, in which the past is not just a foreign country but inconceivably distant, now pervades the discourse of the social-democratic centre left, as the robotic language of Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents in the Labour leadership election made clear.

One result is that suggestions that experience may suggest alternatives to the market fundamentalism of the past three decades are dismissed without examination. Another is that the left-behind have been virtually ignored. Ukip is their only champion. That its siren voices are delusive and dangerous does not weaken its appeal.

If the British social-democratic centre left continues on its present path it is doomed. Market fundamentalism will rule the roost, without an effective ideological or political challenge. The left-behind will sink even further behind. Inequality will go on rising, the state will continue to shrink, the public realm will suffer more depredations, marketisation will race ahead and the civic culture will continue to erode. The notion implicit in the stance of most of the Parliamentary Labour Party and shadow cabinet – that provided Labour does nothing to offend anyone, the swing of the pendulum will carry it to victory in the next election – is absurd. Pendulums don’t swing of their own accord. They have to be pushed. The pendulum failed to swing in 2015, and there is no reason to expect it to swing in 2020.

What is needed is a paradigm shift in the public culture, away from today’s historyless, rootless, cosmopolitan presentism and towards a rediscovery of the traditions that have made us who we are. The social-democratic centre left can’t do this all by ­itself. But it can make a start.

David Marquand’s books include Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now (Allen Lane)

UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics by Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo is published by Oxford University Press (464pp, £18.99)

This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war