European socialists are following Labour's lead on radical change

In alliance with other left and green parties, social democrats are forging a transformative programme. 

NS

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There was a renewed determination to focus on real change in Europe at last week’s meeting of European socialist parties, the first since the European elections. I was there as Labour’s representative on the Party of European Socialists’ “Presidency” — the ruling body. And no, I don’t have any idea why it’s called that either. 

Obscure as the workings of the European Union are to many British voters, the institutions of European socialism are even less well-known. That is partly because European socialists have effectively been in coalition with the centre right in Europe for decades now, making them hard to distinguish in the rough and tumble of doorstep politics. But so much has changed in the last few years. My role was to bring the UK’s perspective to the discussions and share a message from Jeremy which called on European socialists to remember that “as internationalists we must stand as one as we seek to overcome our common challenges” and set out our commitment to a public vote on a Brexit deal.

The European elections did not deliver great results for socialist parties, though they were not as bad as painted by some of the press. But strange as it may seem, the fact that the European socialists came second overall may be good for socialism in Europe. Whilst the centre right won the most seats in the European parliament, they are not able to form the alliances necessary to command a majority.

The socialist grouping, by contrast, will be able to do so by working with other left and green parties — hence the socialist group's candidate being one of the names under consideration as  European Commission president. The alliance will be based on a platform of social and climate justice, making the European Socialists more visibly radical. 

In fairness, this was a process which had already started, following the breakdown of “the grand coalition” in 2017 and which culminated in the manifesto on which Europe’s socialist and progressive parties — with the exception of Labour — stood. The chaotic timing of our own European elections meant we were unable to adopt it, ironic given that so much was based on Labour’s 2017 election manifesto, down to the language of change “for the many, not the few”. 

That manifesto included key policies like enforcing tax justice and introducing a Europe-wide minimum wage as well as recognition that Europe has not been seen to be working for the many. Required to compromise and negotiate in coalition with the centre right, many of the hard-won European policies on workers’ rights and a social Europe were viewed not as successes for the left but as concessions from the right. 

The compromises that created the European Union put democratic values into its charter, but also right-wing economics and anti-democratic features that transpired to contain serious flaws. Under EU fiscal policy, individual countries are structurally handcuffed in terms of their ability to run deficits in recessions. Any help they might receive from Brussels must be decided on a case-by-case basis through a cumbersome process that any one country can block. During the 2008 financial crisis, we saw the disproportionate influence the big banks wield over Europe. As in the UK and the US, the banks and their investors were protected while ordinary people suffered, particularly in the south of Europe.

The Remain and reform agenda — or, as I prefer, transform, not self-harm — has been handicapped by genuine and/or inflated concerns over the difficulties in realising real change in Europe. But the PES manifesto showed how socialism can make a real difference to real people’s lives, without treaty change. The momentum for change is further strengthened by the fact that in some countries, like Spain and Denmark, socialists won in national elections and now lead governments who will be allies in Brussels in delivering real change.

The change agenda is also given urgency by the recognition amongst our European partners that Brexit is not a little local difficulty but the frontline in the fight against a resurgent populist right wing across Europe. The shambolic Brexit stalemate delivered by the Tories may have killed off campaigns to leave the EU in most other countries, but it has not killed off the right.  

There are those whose vision of Europe is small-minded, racist and nationalist, not open, equal and social. We must not be the socialists of the 1930s, who thought they could fight among themselves while the right did the same. We have to fight for our vision of Europe, and we have to know who our allies are and where they are.

In his message, Jeremy said: “Labour are clear we will do all we can in the UK to stop a damaging no deal scenario and we have now said any Brexit deal that can be reached in Westminster must now go back to the British people for a vote with an option to Remain in the EU.”

Many in Labour are excited by the prospect of working with our European comrades to build a genuinely left, socialist EU that can deliver on the promise of Europe for the many. At the PES presidency it was clear our European allies are excited by that too.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.