from the Morning Star 28 February 2019
If Labour is to govern to transformative effect, it must become the mechanism that mobilises millions of working people, says NICK WRIGHT
IT’S not looking good for European social democracy. With its emblematic parties suffering unprecedented electoral defeats, the essential foundations of its post-war grip on government are fast disappearing.
The electoral statistics are revealing. In the 2017 election the German Social Democratic party attracted just one in five voters, suffering a 5.2 per cent fall in votes.
Over a five-year period the French Socialist Party suffered a 32.4 per cent drop in its votes, shedding 286 seats.
Its feeble 6.4 per cent barely surpasses the 6 per cent vote of the terminally ill Greek Pasok.
The Dutch Party of Labour lost 19.1 per cent of its votes. The fragmentation of the Partito Democratico in Italy goes with its abandoned working-class base. In Hungary and Poland the local affiliates of the Party of European Socialists barely survive.
Scandinavian social democratic parties, Spain’s PSOE and the Belgian parties are barely holding up, while the Portuguese Socialists govern now with conditional support from the Portuguese Communists, its Green allies and the Bloco Esquerda.
Against this trend, Britain’s Labour Party — under a new kind of left-wing leadership — overcame a 20 per cent deficit to reduce the ruling Conservative Party to minority government status.
Jeremy Corbyn’s persisting popularity is a mystery — to a biggish section of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and to the clutch of “centre-left” figures who still dominate Europe’s social democratic formations — if only because they cannot comprehend political existence or purpose outside of the capitalist consensus.
It is sometimes hard to explain to our continental sisters and brothers on the left the remorseless logic of Britain’s political system, of first past-the-post which means the highest-scoring candidate in each of the country’s 600-plus constituencies is elected even if the votes of other candidates taken together are greater.
The nation’s political culture is thus shaped by the circumstance in which government alternates between two large class-based parties even though, or perhaps because, hitherto not enough has distinguished them and despite the existence of large tranches of political opinion not contained within them.
The system is fraying at the edges under the strains imposed by the Brexit vote which compelled both major parties to promise to respect the referendum result even though the majority of the MPs in each of them want Britain to remain in the EU and are unceasing in their efforts to contrive this outcome.
So desperate is the political Establishment to convince Labour opinion that EU membership is compatible with Labour’s radical agenda that the ex-deputy director at the International Monetary Fund was pressed into service to offer Corbyn the “leadership” of centre-left parties supposedly looking for a new policy strategy.
In an echo of Labour’s in-house ultra-left, the IMF functionary suggested that a “pan-European leftist agenda” was likely to be more rewarding than trying to carry out “socialism in one country.”
The conventional explanations for the decline of social democracy centre on changes in the way in which capitalism is organised and has developed.
Neil Lawson of the Compass think tank argues that the crisis is not tactical or cyclical but existential because it is cultural and structural.
Wrong-footed by neoliberalism, disorientated by identity politics and disarmed by neoliberalism’s post-Thatcherite refashioning of the state, middle-of-the-road social democrats are desperately searching for new strategies.
Labour MP Lisa Nandy gives voice to such anxieties: “It’s no surprise then that in the last decade many social democratic parties have found their support squeezed by a new and emerging radical left on the one hand, and liberals and conservatives on the other. While in some countries short-term tactical decisions have helped to stem the tide, none have escaped the waves.”
The obvious but often unstated starting point is that social democracy is a capitalist project and its renewal must be within that framework. Or as Lawson puts it: “The social democratic project is in essence focused on equality of material ends, that is, sufficient and fair redistribution of income and wealth. It is a fight within capitalism for a more just capitalism.”
In this vein much of contemporary social democratic thinking is concerned with finding a formula to replace the Blairite model which crashed and burned with the financial crisis of 2008.
Inevitably, rather utopian notions of a return to the politics and economics of the post war years of Keynesian reconstruction appear, sometimes inflected with romantic notions of recreating an ideal cultural world of working-class communities comfortable in their homogeneity and embedded in a harmonious world of productive labour.
Another variant sees technological advance and the digital economy as presenting new opportunities for a more rational organisation of society while low-growth notions of a de-energised green economy appeal to others.
The problem is that the world, not just Britain, is in the grip of a crisis unparalleled since before the second world war.
The conditions which allowed for post-war social peace: expanding production, a growing social wage, socialised health and housing policies and widening educational opportunities have eroded with frightening speed.
The global balance of power has shifted decisively in favour of big capital. The scope of capital’s exploitation of wage labour is vastly expanded with the incorporation of the labour force of the former socialist countries into the global labour market, the vastly expanded participation of women in waged work and China’s integration into global markets.
Technological advance and the intensification of the labour process has raised the rate of exploitation so that capital-intensive and highly skilled (and thus highly profitable) work exists alongside a super-exploited sweated sector of low-paid insecure work, resulting in sharp social inequalities within the working class that are intensified by austerity policies that accompany the neoliberal order.
Today the notion of slow incremental reforms that gently modify markets while leaving ownership untouched seems quite quaint.
Mass opposition to war and to austerity has changed politics and transformed Labour. The party’s renewed ranks contain many returning veterans and masses of new members and in many affiliated unions there is a new appetite for an active role in shaping Labour’s radical agenda.
This is a material force that cannot be confined to routine electoral campaigning but, if Labour is to govern to transformative effect, must become the mechanism that mobilises millions of working people.
The question is not whether traditional social democratic approaches might work — not even the dwindling band of social democrats think that is possible.
Rather the issue is, what measures will a socialist Labour government take to effect “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.”