Friday, 12 June 2009

Time for the left to face reality

So how on earth did a crisis of capitalism become a crisis of the left? In France, Spain, Germany, Italy and in the UK the major parties of the left suffered a trouncing in the European elections last week. The global financial meltdown was supposed to usher in a new social democratic renaissance. Neo-liberalism as a creed was meant to have failed. Where would voters turn? To the left. Only they didn't.

Philip Stephens in the Financial Times sees the left's travails as a series of tactical defeats but also cautions against a naive adoption of command and control economics. He is right that the leadership of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have moved smartly onto ground opened up by the financial crisis. What this has meant in practice is that there has been very little wriggle room for the PS in France and the SPD in Germany- even if they wanted it. However, I don't see a new wave of statism in Europe's mainstream leftist parties as Stephens seems to suggest. They have simply been outmanoeuvred.

In the case of the British Labour party, as the party of government they have been left carrying the can. Labour's message and identity had become woven into neo-liberal globalisation. That is partly down to London's position as leading global financial centre- a cash cow that Labour just didn't want to scare. So when the whole thing came crashing down with the consequence that the British taxpayer has been left to shoulder a monumental burden for global collapse, it was inevitable that the government would suffer politically. There are other well established local factors- expenses etc- for the collapse in the government's support.

However, there does seem to be one common factor behind the left's decline across Europe. Its social foundation is melting beneath its feet making it ever more difficult to sustain winning coalitions. Martin Kettle in the Guardian points to the same factors mentioned by Eric Hobsbawm in the Guardian on Tuesday. I also mentioned the same thing in my LabourList piece earlier this week. Here is Hobsbawm on this:
The European left relied on a working class that no longer exists in its old form, and in order to recover it will need to find a new constituency.
Kettle's conclusion is:
Labour is behaving in the same historically demoralised way as most centre-left parties across Europe. Blair's solutions to this fatalism belonged to a different conjuncture from ours. He produced no eternal programmatic template. But in the end, New Labour was far more right than wrong. The centre-left will have few days in the sun over the next decade unless and until it rediscovers the instinct for creative adaptation that Blair taught it.
This is exactly right and I argued on Wednesday that:
A political project that combines social democracy with environmentalism and liberalism seems to be the best hope. It would seek to reach, for want of better descriptions, both the working class and liberal professionals. It is not about the Labour Party alone. It has to be based around a broad movement for social and environmental justice and rooted in the bonding institutions of civil society: trade unions, churches, community and environmental groups. Democratic reform will be essential to the emergence of such a force.
Of course, there is more than an element of guesswork in this. I don't know anymore than the next person whether such a programme can work to build a sufficient coalition for the left. Instinctively, it feels right and such a programme and approach worked for Obama when disseminated using the force of a movement based party. What I do know, as Kettle argues, is that the Labour party has reached a point where fundamental renewal is now a necessity. From the broadest tent imaginable in 1997, it has been reduced to a rump. Like the rest of Europe there not is an easy demographic for it to reignite and lean on- the error made by those who argue for a 'core vote' strategy. The traditional working class has shrunk and become fragmented.

And as Philip Stephens argues, the parties of the right in Europe are becoming pretty adept at consuming the oxygen of the mainstream left- in Sweden, France, Germany, and, yes, the UK's 'progressive conservative' Cameron Tories. The New Labour coalition doesn't provide the answer either strategically or politically- the point of this is to combat climate change, economic volatility, and social inequality and alienation. So a new politics based around a new coalition has to be constructed. Ground can not be conceded to the right. This is a New Labour insight but the answer is not New Labour.

Sound like an enormous task? Yes, it is. Who has the answers? Nobody at this stage. I would be very suspicious indeed about anyone who claimed to have the answers. We are at the very beginning of the discussion but we must adopt the attitude that the left has to fundamentally reconfigure itself. If it does not then the future will be conceded to the tactically lithe right. That just won't be enough to confront the massive issues that we as a society are facing. Time for change? You betcha.

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