I want to beg the question: has Europe abandoned the left? It was a theme that was widely discussed at the Fabian Society’s recent conference – Social Europe: worth fighting for? There seemed to be an intellectual gloom that at this time of crisis it is the centre right governments that are in power.
In her keynote speech Labour’s Shadow Europe Minister Emma Reynolds stated: “... let me say something about the crisis of European social democracy. In the 27 member states of the European Union, centre left parties are only leading in 3 member states and in coalition in 3 others. In contrast in 1999, 11 out of 15 government in the then EU were on the centre left
“But as social democrats we cannot be content to be successful only in times of economic growth and prosperity, we have to develop a narrative and policies which start to resonate with people in difficult economic times too.
“We must combine fiscal credibility, a strategy for growth and social justice. The centre right have demonstrated that austerity alone is self defeating.”
Now of course politicians and political parties see success solely as being in government: hence the hard figures presented by Emma Reynolds. However if we are concerned whether the people of Europe have abandoned the left these heads of government counts are rather misleading.
I would argue that in many cases the voters have not rejected socialism but the government that was in power when the economic crisis hit. In 2009 in the early days of the on-going world-wide crisis Labour was defeated in the UK. There is much breast beating about it being Labour’s worst showing since God knows when or 1983. True but I wonder if this is being dwelt on because it suits a renewal agenda rather than the true situation with the electorate.
The Labour Government was unpopular because of the crisis and because voters did not like Gordon Brown. Yet even in this scenario the Conservatives under David Cameron could not win an outright majority; they had to rely on a centre left party to take power and indeed there is widespread political opposition amongst the electorate to much of their right wing agenda. It is significant that this opposition is articulated more by the trade unions from the more radical Unite to the conservative BMA than by the Labour Party. It is also arguable that had Labour been led by a new leader in 2010 and lost then the party would have had enough seats to still govern in a coalition with the Lib Dems. So is socialism and progressive politics dead in Britain? Hardly. If you add the poll percentages for Labour and the Lib Dems at the 2010 general election “the left” had 52 per cent, a clear majority over the Conservatives on 36.1 per cent.
In Spain in November it was no surprise that the centre right Partido Popular came to power. The writing had been on the wall for a long time. The PP now governs with a clear majority but let us look at the facts. The PP’s vote rose only by 4.69 per cent. The reason the socialists lost is that four million or 15.11 per cent of its supporters abandoned the party. Only a few voted for the PP, others switched to the far left Izquierda Unida alliance which picked up new seats, some voted for minority parties but the majority simply did not vote.
So is socialism dead in Spain? Certainly not. On Sunday February 19 the PP and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy were shocked when there were major demonstrations in 58 cities, including thousands marching through the centre of Madrid, all protesting against the government’s new employment laws. As the Partido Popular held a triumphalist congress in Sevilla ahead of the Andalucía regional government elections Rajoy was forced to rush on to the stage to defend his government’s changes to these laws. The protestors are not going to go away and the UGT with CC.OO unions have promised widespread protests which will probably culminate in a national general strike in the months to come.
It must be the shortest honeymoon in political history. The fact is the electorate punished the PSOE government for presiding over the economic collapse of the country but it is giving no slack to the PP government either. Traditional socialist and left wing forces are at work but as in Britain it is the trade unions that are speaking for them. People are angry over having no jobs. They want to be able to put food on their families’ tables. They want to be able to pay their mortgage and rent. They want to heat and light their homes. They are furious that the finance companies are repossessing homes, making people homeless, yet these unfortunate people still owe the banks over 100,000 euros for a home they no longer have: instead they are on the streets. Yet these same banks are handed massive bailouts and their sacked executives seek millions of euros in compensation. It may be the unions and not PSOE that are leading the fight: but it is certainly a socialist left of centre battle.
In her speech to the Fabians Emma Reynolds stated: “The presidential election in France in May presents a great opportunity for Francois Hollande to spark a revival of the centre left in Europe. Only then will social democrats have the chance to start shaping the debate about Social Europe and return Europe back to growth and prosperity.”
For France to elect a socialist president would certainly change the face of European politics given the central role the country plays in the EU. It would also give social democrats a new impetus: yet the socialist heart still beats strong in Europe and socialists are shaping the debate: it is just that they have given up on the traditional socialist parties and are taking the fight in to their own hands.
It is only the arrogance of political leaders and their parties that see a defeat for Brown and Labour along with that of Zapatero and PSOE as signalling the death of socialism. Socialism and progressive politics burns in the hearts of the people of Britain and Spain, the majority of people in fact - perhaps now more than ever.
There are many “Christians” in Europe who reject outright organised religion: in the same way there are millions of socialists who will still fight for their beliefs but see organised parties as part of the problem not the solution. European socialists may have abandoned their parties but they have not abandoned socialism.
(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on March 8 2012).