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Reality check for the left

If the collapse of capitalism can't improve the left's chances, what will? {Red Pepper's} Europe correspondent, Leigh Phillips, surveys the political landscape after the European elections

June 28, 2009
9 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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A few months after the global economic rumpus crashed through the portcullises of Europe’s chancelleries, following its debauched night out stateside, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and current head of the Party of European Socialists, challenged David Rennie, the pseudonymous journalist behind the Economist’s Charlemagne column and Luis Rego, European correspondent for the Portugese Diário Económico, to a debate on the left and the crisis at the Bibliotheque Solvay in Brussels.

The Dane, peacock-like, declared not a number of times that social democracy’s hour was at hand. Neoliberal capitalism and the ideologists who had promoted it over the last 30 years had been exposed for the ruinous fraud that they are, he proclaimed. The left would march away triumphant from the upcoming European electoral battlefield – the bankers and their toadies vanquished.

And what would they put in its place? What stirring, wonder-striking replacement could be contained in their presumably equally formidable manifesto that will make European voters rush to the polls like a flock of middle-aged BBC 6 Music listeners to a Morrissey concert?

Flexible Flexicurity

‘Flexicurity’ is the ballyhooed Danish employment model that is supposed to allow greater freedom to hire and fire – and thus, allegedly, engender greater innovation – in return for a stronger safety net. Meaning that while it might be easier to lose a job, a strong education and welfare system is there to protect until you have found a new position. (As many have elsewhere pointed out, the emphasis in its application has always tended more to the flexi than to the curity.) Brussels loves the idea of flexicurity. Right and left, it’s this year (and last and the year before) policy iPhone.

Mr Rennie and Mr Rego were unimpressed with the response. It’s not that Mr Rego was not a fan of further lubing-up business’s already slicked employee-boot-o-matic machine, but he argued that whether he liked it or not, there was a category of voter that continued to exist that quite liked well-paid jobs with security, decent public education for their kids, healthcare for when they were sick and pensions for when they retired. And Mr Rennie decidedly did not like it. But there was no use denying the unavoidable fact that for much of the last century plus, social democracy had captured this part of the electoral market.

In recent years, social democracy had started to sell a new product, an inferior copy of what those to their right had been selling, and, he said, the punters weren’t buying. Mr Rasmussen may have been saying that it was all over for capitalism, but he was still hawking the same shoddy knock-off.

It was odd to hear this argument made by a pair of classical liberal writers, who in effect were diagnosing the left’s problem as having abandoned the left. In fairness, the polls were already showing that social democrats were on course to lose the European elections.

After the debate, Mr Rego told me that he reckoned the centre-right would win, somewhat diminished, but the centre-left would lose quite a chunk of their representation and both the far left and the far right would make some sharp gains. He got the bit about the far right correct

The countdown, down, down

It’s quite clear that the elections were a massive defeat for social democracy. The loss is much, much worse than even the Party of European Socialists (PES) was aware it could be in the final days of the campaign. Socialists on the night were ashen-faced.

Most PES officials were expecting a drop in the house from the party’s outgoing 217 to around 200 or perhaps a little less. In the end, the group won just 183 seats. To be fair, under a rule change, the number of seats overall dropped from 785 to 736, and so all political groupings in the chamber dropped their seat count apart from the Greens.

Social democratic parties participating in government in Britain, Germany, Bulgaria, Portugal, Hungary, Estonia and Spain were beaten by the respective opposition centre-right parties. But the centre-left was also defeated in countries where the parties were in opposition, such as Italy, France, Poland and the Netherlands, so it cannot be chalked up to voters punishing whoever was at the helm during when the crisis hit.

The European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right formation dropped as well, but only slightly, from 284 to 264, a second rightist grouping in the chamber, the Union for Europe of the Nations clocked up another 28 seats, underscoring the scale of the defeat for the left.

The far right, which has been unable to club together in a group in the parliament – a move that unlocks thousands of funds for research, staff and other activities – did grow as predicted, although not on the scale that some had feared. Although at the same time, part of the presence of the far right in the parliament is now hidden, as two Italian parties, the ‘post fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale and the Azione Sociale of Alessandra Mussolini, have joined Silvio Berlusconi’s new umbrella party, ‘Il Popolo della Liberta’, thus taking them inside the centre-right EPP.

More worrying is the breadth of the far right advance, which notched up extra seats or entered the parliament for the first time in ten member states. Even in many countries, such as Sweden, where the far right was not able to win any seats, their support increased.

However, in the Netherlands and Austria their advance is truly worrying, even if Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO), a descendent of the country’s Nazi party, did not perform as well as they did in the country’s recent general elections, when the FPO and the Alliance for the Future of Austria of the late Joerg Haider jointly tallied 29 per cent.

In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party of anti-immigrant Islamophobe Geert Wilders came second only to the centre-right Christian Democrats of Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkanende, pushing the Labour Party into third place.

At the same time, it was a bittersweet night for the radical right, as the Vlaams Belang, Belgium’s Flemish separatists with a fascist heritage, and France’s Front National each saw sharp falls in their support. In both cases, this resulted from splits and internal rivalries damaging their ability to campaign, rather than a more organic loss in popularity. Nevertheless, these were the two most professional of parties to the right of the European conservative mainstream. Without them, they are unlikely to be able to co-ordinate much together, whatever the influence on the continent the freshly elected BNP’s Nick Griffin claims he has.

Green shoots and roots

The real victors of the night were the Greens, who went from 43 to, at the latest count, 51 deputies. The bulk of the growth came from France, where the opposition Parti Socialiste (PS) is in backbiting disarray. The grizzled soixante-huitard, Daniel Cohn-Bendit led a dynamic campaign with McDonalds-bulldozing alter-globalisation farmer José Bové heading the Green list in France’s southwest. The new PS leader, Martine Aubry, from the left of the party, has been utterly unable to inspire voters despite the scale of the anti-Sarkozy feeling, which has entailed three general strikes, an extremely militant student occupation movement, and even a wave of highly popular ‘bossnappings’. Elsewhere in Europe, backing for the Greens was more mixed, with additional seats in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Finland and Sweden and no extra seats but many extra votes in the UK.

The grouping also lost two seats in Italy, and one in Spain and was, again, locked out of the new member states, despite hopes that they might establish something of a beachhead in the Czech Republic.

Perhaps most disappointing for the parliamentary expression of the nigh-on ten-year-old altermondialist [alter-globalisation] was the decline in the fortunes of the far left. Commentators across the political spectrum were convinced that parties to the left of social democrats would profit considerably from the crisis, but despite a few interesting results such as the election of the Socialist Party’s Jim Higgins in Dublin, in the end they dropped from 40 MEPs down to 34.

Both the centre-left and the far left can console themselves with the knowledge that turnout dropped to an all-time low of 43 per cent. In Slovakia and Lithuania, as few as 19 per cent of citizens headed to the voting booth, while in Lithuania just 15.7 per cent cast a ballot. The left rarely benefits when turnout is low.

Left out in Europe

Yet this is far from a sufficient alibi. After years of steady growth, a number of far left parties have made a series of spectacular errors, wiping themselves out, from the Scottish Socialist Party’s swinging shenanigans through Respect’s milk-licking cat-suited deputy to Rifondazione Communista’s participation in Romano Prodi’s neoliberal centre-left coalition. But elsewhere the left had seemingly made all the right moves. The Netherlands’ Socialistische Partij, with its humourous modern media relations and personable representatives is regularly predicted to be on the verge of eclipsing the country’s Labour Party and the ‘mediatique’ Olivier Besancenot’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste was supposed to have galvanised a generation of young militants.

There has been a wave of strikes, demonstrations and the occasional riot across the continent since the economic crisis broke. French president Nicolas Sarkozy even withdrew two contentious pieces of legislation at Christmas out of fear, as he put it at the time, of a return of May ’68 in December.

It is clear from the elections that this discontent is – by no means – everywhere being channelled into progressive avenues.

The day after the vote, the Party of European Socialists were so dejected that they elected not to have a press conference, unlike the other groups. Instead, the party issued a terse press release saying: ‘We need to reflect, and for our common European party to come forward with a renewed strategy and new ideas.’

The left of the left – parliamentary and beyond – needs to reflect just as much. The journalist from the Economist should have been right, but he wasn’t.

If the ‘collapse’ of neoliberal capitalism doesn’t improve the chances for radical change, what on earth will?

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Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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