Mike Phipps

The crisis of democratic socialism in Europe

Mike Phipps
The crisis of democratic socialism in Europe

LAST SEPTEMBER, the German SPD, once the jewel of European democratic socialism, got its lowest vote since the Second World War - just 20%. The German far right made huge gains as the SPD paid the price for four years of coalition with Merkel. After much internal soul-searching, the party went back into coalition to continue the policies of labour flexibility that so alienated its base. There is no reason to suppose the SPD won’t continue to decline and the far right won’t continue its surge.

In March, the Italian Democratic Party, the inheritor of the once mighty Communist Party, polled just 19% of the vote after leading a coalition that foisted EU-directed austerity measures on its core voters. Rejecting this an estimated two million plus voters switched to the Five Star Movement, who offered some escape from the EU straitjacket, with better pensions and a proposed citizen’s income scheme - very popular in the impoverished south. Now they are forming a ‘populist’ coalition, with the racist League, whose leader Matteo Salvini is the new interior minister in charge of immigration - a terrifying prospect, given his threat of mass deportations.

Across western Europe, the evidence of collapse is inescapable. The Netherlands’ Labour Party, which produced several of the country’s post-war prime ministers, is a broken shell. After five years alongside the conservatives in an austerity coalition which it promised not to join, Labour got its worst showing ever in the 2017 general election, reduced from 29 to nine seats, making it the seventh largest grouping in Parliament. In local elections in March 2018, the party got just 7% of the vote.

In France, last year’s legislative elections saw the Socialist Party reduced to 6% of the vote and just 29 seats! Since 2007, the party’s membership has plummeted from 260,000 to 102,000, and of those left, only 37,000 voted for new leader Olivier Faure.

In Ireland, the Labour Party, formerly the junior party in coalition government with Fine Gael after getting its best ever showing of 37 seats in 2011, fell to just seven deputies in 2016’s general election, its lowest-ever share in the Dáil.

In Greece, the democratic socialist PASOK got 6% of the vote in the September 2015 general election. At that point, the radical left Syriza, first elected earlier that year, imposed a programme of harsh austerity at the demand of the European ‘troika’. Now opinion polls show the government trailing ten points behind the right wing New Democracy, with the openly fascist New Dawn third.

The Pasokification of western European democratic socialist parties is happening. Years of implementing austerity have thrown them into electoral and organisational meltdown. In western Europe’s larger countries only two parties are bucking the trend.

One is Portugal, where a €78bn bailout in 2011 was accompanied by brutal austerity, inflicted by a centre-right coalition. Education spending was cut by 23% and unemployment reached 18%. But this failed policy ended two and a half years ago when a Socialist-led coalition of the left began an anti-austerity programme, which within the year halved the budget deficit and created sustained economic growth and falling unemployment. The Socialists have gained ten points in opinion polls since the 2013 general election, opening up a 13 point margin over their right wing opponents. In local elections last year, they won 160 mayors, 10 more than in 2013, and 38% of the votes - the first time since 1985 that the governing party had won nationwide local elections.

The other case is Britain’s Labour Party. Here a similar decline was underway following New Labour’s defeat in 2010. Had any of the centrist contenders for the party leadership in 2015 succeeded, there is every reason to suppose this decline would have accelerated into a full-blown crisis. Fortunately, Labour members were smart enough to see from the evidence, especially in Scotland, where Labour, once the majority party, was reduced to just one seat in 2015, that breaking the austerity consensus was key to growing the membership and winning more votes.

Last year’s election result confirmed that. It also saw the collapse of UKIP’s right wing ‘populism’.

The crisis in European democratic socialist parties began long before they became recent purveyors of austerity. From the 1990s on, many of them embraced the free market and the rampant individualism that underpinned it. Social solidarity, the guiding principle of the welfare state, was abandoned in favour of workfare targeted at an ‘underclass’, created by preceding waves of attacks on the working class.

Commitments to social equality were reduced to equal opportunities. Even in the boom years New Labour failed to eradicate child poverty.

The economic crash, a priceless opportunity to demonstrate the perils of unfettered capitalism, found all these parties ideologically bankrupt. They had nothing to say - but others did. Right wing narratives about ‘living beyond our means’ and the burden of immigration became the dominant response, in Europe as in the US, where the clear Democrat lead at the start of 2018 is evaporating.

If the democratic socialist parties of western Europe are to return from the political fringe, they will need to undergo an ideological and organisational revolution similar to that engulfing the UK Labour Party. Anti-austerity may not be enough if it’s not part of a convincing narrative of how we got here and how to get out of it. One of the important aspects of the 2015 Labour manifesto was its break from the Thatcherite individualism championed by New Labour and its reassertion of collective values.

For the first time in decades, these ideas are beginning to seep into the wider social consciousness. Support for public ownership in rail and energy is now running three to one in favour - even Tories are beginning to endorse it.

 But this is just the beginning of a bolder attempt to remake society, a point noted in a recent essay on Corbynomics in The Economist. The author observed: “Thatcher declared: ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.’ The Corbynites have something similar in mind.”

That’s right. Ideas on alternative models of ownership, dismissed as barmy until recently, are now entering the mainstream.

The opportunity to transform society is not problem-free, however. The internal ructions within Labour, the unremitting attacks from its opponents and the demonisation of its leader are all part of the price to be paid to make any of this remotely possible. But what alternative is there? The road taken by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is the only one that offers a way back to power to the socialist parties of Europe - and more importantly a path out of the crisis for society.

In early June there was another general election, this time in Slovenia. Right wing nationalists, supporters of Hungary’s authoritarian regime, came first with 25% of the vote - although only 52% voted. Slovenia’s a small country - but one bordering on Italy and Austria, both countries where the racist right are now in government - and another sign of Europe’s rightward lurch. The choices are clear.

  • Mike Phipps’ For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power is published by OR Books.