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7 September 2016

Only Jeremy Corbyn can save European social democracy from itself

A left-leaning Labour is doing better than social democratic parties on the Continent.

By Michael Chessum

If you want to scare yourself, all you have to do is look at opinion polls. While we are all gripped by a leadership contest whose dynamics force us to focus on the standing orders of the Labour NEC and the purported size of Owen Smith’s penis, the Tories have opened up the kind of polling lead that most parties only achieve in opposition. If a general election were held tomorrow and the polls played out, Labour could well be reduced to less than 200 seats – and that is without taking into account the boundary changes that will hurt the party’s performance even more.

But if you wanted to be even more scared, consider the fact that at a low of 27 points, Labour – wracked with division and music hall-esque farce – is polling much higher than its comparable social democratic sister parties on the continent. In Germany, the SPD is on 22 per cent, the same percentage of the vote that Spain’s PSOE scored in the recent elections. And in France, sitting president François Hollande hovers at between 13 and 15 points in the first round of voting. The different alliances and voting systems mean that the figures aren’t exactly analogous, but they do illustrate the basic process – social democracy, particularly those parts if which have administered the neo-liberal economic project, is being routed across Europe. 

There was a time when Europe looked like it was polarising evenly between the far right and the far left. From afar, the model looked clear – a new generation of left parties would abandon the social democrats and break through. Now, that alternative also looks to have stalled. As I was told by an activist in Athens last summer as it became clear that the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras was not going to uphold the result of the Oxi referendum, “it’s no use the cavalry arriving if the infantry have all been slaughtered”. In Spain, Podemos’ cavalry never even arrived, and the party came third in June’s elections. Unless something changes, the French Front National, the German AfD and UKIP will define this era in our politics. 

And yet, eighteen months ago, as Syriza swept to power, the idea of a radical alternative to austerity coming from the UK, let alone from inside the Labour Party, would have seemed absurd. Jeremy Corbyn represents a break from Labour’s own conventions, but also from the left’s expectations – because here is a movement at the centre, rather than the periphery, of European capitalism, and whose strategy for power is not to split the centre-left electoral coalition, but to give its social base the space to drag it to the left.  

The new landscape will be the cause of some awkwardness for the Labour party’s international affiliations, and its relationship with parties like the Greek social democrats Pasok and Spain’s PSOE. It should also be cause for thought among the activist left in Britain, who have by and large abandoned internationalist links with the dwindling left flanks of Labour’s sister parties and focused, rightly perhaps, on supporting the new European left. Now, if even Labour can be transformed, might it be worth opening a dialogue and rebuilding links with activists inside the main social democratic parties? 

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The weakness and unelectability of centrist social democracy is often dismissed as a disingenuous observation – a gloss of respectability that Corbynites put on their strategy when in fact they are aiming for power in the party, not the country. It is true that, as a Corbyn supporter, this is a theory which I simply have to believe in – but it is also backed up by all available evidence. While an overarching public debate about the economics of austerity is only just reaching the political mainstream, most people support Corbyn on public services, housing, NHS privatisation, fairer taxes and energy policy. 

His overtures to a “soft left” tradition aside, Owen Smith has made his alliances and set out his stall along very recognisable lines. Some policies lean leftwards towards Labour’s new centre of gravity, but policies like graduate tax bear the hallmarks of a deep and continuing compromise between Labour’s establishment and the politics of free market economics and user contributions in public services. Labour members in their overwhelming majority do not want to buy what he, and the majority of the parliamentary Labour party is selling. And there is no reason to believe that voters – who are rejecting it across Europe – would either.

When viewed in this light, Corbyn – or rather the movement behind him – represents not so much a hope for Labour’s electoral chances as its only hope. More than that, what is happening in the British Labour party may – unexpectedly, unbelievably – be both a beacon of hope for the wider European left and an alternative model for its project, a project which may have to start with the task of saving social democracy from itself.