Thursday 25 November 2010

The crisis of social democracy and the search for the next European left

Former Europe Minister Denis MacShane MP, in a guest post based on his speech to South-East London Fabians on Wednesday, says that Europe's social democratic left has never been short of obituarists but that the next social democracy will need to be more than a national project. (Offers of blogposts in response on the future for the European left are welcome at


That there is a crisis of Social Democracy in Europe is not in doubt. The question is whether it is terminal. The symptoms are worrying. In Vienna, home city a century ago to anti-semitic, brownshirt politcs, 27 per cent of voters supported the extremism of the late and unlamented Jorg Haider’s party in autumn elections. For the first time in a century the Swedish social democrats were defeated in two successive elections. The Swedish Democrats Party – a liberal title for a deeply illiberal anti-Muslim party – won 20 seats in the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament.

Nothing seems to work. The Swedish Social Democrats held their nose and entered into a triple alliance with a further left party and the Greens. The party called for higher state spending and support for public employees. The voters turned away.

In Spain and Greece, the socialist governments face strikes and protests as they desperately seek to regain control of public finances. But it is too late. The reforms needed were put off because it meant telling the truth to power in trade unions or professional corporations who traded their votes for the left in exchange for no challenge to their comfort zone agreements on pay and taxes.

Those shut out of the labour market by corporatist protectionism inherited from the Franco years for those who had full-time work have deserted the left en masse. Organised social democratic parties in the new EU member states are weak and marginalised to the point of governing irrelevance.

In the past the left debated the future. Now it debates identity. The de-alignment of class politics into a mush of a monoclass kaleidoscope interest group politics has left the left without a voice. You cannot square anti-nuclear greens and those who believe in industry and the right of citizens to press a switch and get light, heat and power. You cannot square the Muslim-hating right or those who preach “Dutch jobs for Dutch people” with any of the anti-racist liberal traditions that the European left painfully acquired in recent generations.

Wikicapitalism is endlessly morphing and changing. One British Labour MP who could not find an ordinary job after the May defeat has been trading shares on her computer and made a tidy £32,000 in the last six months. Yes, it is casino capitalism but the ways of making money are no longer traceable nor can they be easily reduced to a discreet group the left can appeal to.

There are 14.2 million holders of ISAs (Individual Savings Accounts) in Britain alone. 500,000 social housing council tenants bought their council homes after Labour took power in 1997. Many of these homes are let out to new incomers or to asylum or social cases that local authorities pay for to keep people from sleeping in parks and streets.

From council tenant to rentier landlord without even moving a generation. These are the new capitalism(s) the left has to understand. The three great glue-pots of the 20th century social democratic left – the nation, the working class and its unions, and the creation of the welfare state make less and less sense in the 21st century.

In Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Britain the unitary nation is under threat. Spanish socialists have to make pacts with Catalan socialists but they do not see the Iberian peninsula through the same eyes. Labour after 1979 became heavily influenced by Scottish and Welsh Labour. Labour had a policy for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It had no policy for England.

The great people movement that accelerated after the end of communism’s border controls in 1990 has brought into scores of thousands of settled towns and communities, where a historical social democratic settlement has long reigned, the force-field of new people, new cultures, new religion, and new demands for rights. Asylum seekers who never went home, relatives who demanded the right to settle, and more recently hard-working, skilled, white Catholics from East Europe came in and changed townscapes. In big cities, they were absorbed but when every small town had to absorb the incomers keen to make a new full life the tensions became unbearable and opened the way to the new politics of identity.

For most of Europe's populist nationalist right, Muslims have replaced the pre-war Jews targeted by the right as the new enemy or non-indigenous presence owing external allegiances. The myth of "Eurabia" - the idea that Europe is coming under Muslim control is the new fashion. Geert Wilders, the Dutch Islamaphobe, told a rally in Berlin recently that "Germany full of mosques and veiled women is no longer the Germany of Schiller, Bach and Mendelssohn." This is drivel. Many Muslims in Germany are Turkish fashionistas or third generation Turkish-Germans. In contrast to Wilders’ wild assertions, Germany has re-created a Jewish community with subsidies for synagogues and an open door to any Russian Jew who claims some German ancestry dating back centuries. Despite Wilders’ extreme rants, the Conservatives and Liberals in the Netherlands have accepted Wilder's support to form a coalition government.

In that sense European social democracy has been too successful. The long era of welfare state capitalism with open borders has proved sensationally attractive to those in poorer counties, both among the 47 member states of the Council of Europe (Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan etc) as well to the poor in Africa and Asia and the conflict-ridden oppressions of the Middle East.

The welfare state paid for over generations by local people buckled as it had to support new citizens, and arrivals. Social housing which was social democracy’s great gift to its supporters after 1950 had dried up by 2000. As voters moved from renting to owning and saw little hope for their own children to get rented social housing they wondered if their interests were any longer represented by the left.

Many of these problems and most of these incomers could be absorbed by strongly growing job-creating economies. But social democracy in Europe has shunned the liberalism of dynamic markets because of their unfairness. Gerhard Schröder became Chancellor of Germany in 1998 with four million unemployed and left office in 2005 with four million unemployed. Purchasing power of German workers stagnated under the last social democratic government. The European left has policies for women, for gays, for children, for artists but does it have one for the working class? But what is the working class today? The IG Metall VW worker? Or the Ganz Unten described 20 years ago by Gunter Wallraff?

Unions in all European countries have long given up confronting capitalism. Instead they confront the pubic with strikes that deny the poor access to transport, to council services, or to schooling. The rich drive past the picket lines of public sector union strikes and feel no impact. It is not the fault of unions. The public sector is where recruitment is possible. Which union leader has the organising hunger to get up at three in the morning to try and recruit Lithuanian fruit pickers or greet the new female proletariat coming off the dawn cleaning shift? European social democracy is trapped between a nativist working class which feels heavily taxed and under threat from incomers and the new proletariat of non-unionised minimum wage and part-time workers essential to keep the 7/24 service economy functioning. There are now as many cleaners, nannies, old-age care workers, or Starbucks slaves as there were maids and other domestic servants before 1939. A left-wing intellectual can be easily recognised by his or her habit of outsourcing child care and denouncing American imperialism while simultaneously applying for scholarships or teaching posts in the United States.

There are no commonly read European social democratic thinkers. The German, French or British left intellectual writes for his fellow commentators in his own country.

Whereas the right can unite across borders around a few themes – smaller state, curbs on Muslims, reduction of trade union rights, the left produces long shopping lists of demands and wishes and refuses to create priorities and a running order. The left appears genetically incapable of supporting the compromises of power. In Britain, the main left-liberal papers, the Guardian, began digging Labour’s grave soon after Blair and Brown won power in 1997. By May 2010, the main paper of the left was urging a vote for Liberal Democrats on the eve of that party ditching its principles and purpose to provide a few ministerial salaries for its chieftains. In the United States, the left-liberal commentariat has patiently used its columns and blogs to undermine the tortuous efforts of Obama to get any progressive legislation through the thickets of the US political-legislative system. Now Britain has a Conservative-Liberal government and the US Congress is controlled by the right. Merci, la gauche!

Social democratic party organisation remains national. Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin, Gerhard Schröder, Wim Kok and Massimo d’Alema were all prime ministers along with a cluster of social democratic leaders a decade ago. But this dominance in office was never shaped into a common philosophy or confidence in power. The nationalisms of the indigenous left always trumped the hopes of a common European social democracy.

Pan-European social democracy operates at the lowest common denominator level. In the 2009 socialist manifesto for the European Parliament what was left out was more important than what was put in. The SPD banned any reference to nuclear power. The Swedish social democrats blocked the concept of an EU legal minimum wage. The French socialists prevented calls for a reform of agricultural protectionism. The Labour Party opposed demands for banking and labour regulation. Even the Luxembourg socialists watered down calls for an end to banking secrecy rather than face a challenge to the Luxembourg banking system. Few national parties are willing to concede to the Party of European Socialists the right to individual membership. The PES depends on subsidies from the EU and at times appears simply to be an adjunct of the declining Socialist Group in the European Parliament. At each election to the EP since 1979 the participation has got smaller and smaller. The Lisbon Treaty gives new powers to the European Parliament but MEPs have less and less democratic legitimacy as fewer and fewer voters turn out to support them.

Is it all over? There are plenty of grave-diggers of the left. But for 50 years after the war it was assumed the Christian democratic right would be in permanent power in Italy. Germany and France spent decades under rightist control before Willy Brandt and Francois Mitterrand arrived. Labour spent two decades in the wilderness after 1979.

Change can happen. It will need brave leaders willing to alter the way we see the world. The newly elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was right to say that Labour was always at its best when it challenged the conventional wisdom. There is too much conventional wisdom in the higher council of European social democracy. But to challenge this is to take risks. When European social democracy is ready to bury its past myths, it will again be ready to give birth to a new future.

And at the core of this new Europe must be Europe. Yet Europe is too comfortable and too self-satisfied. Great progress has been made. No more fascism, no more communism. Good roads, good schools and good hospitals are to be found everywhere in Europe. But do we now mark time, and gently decline into irrelevance even as we enjoy our present comfortable way of life? Is Europe becoming a new Ottoman empire - big, rich, and arrogant when we need a hungry, leaner Europe ready to take risks and make sacrifices to achieve greatness? Europe cannot borrow its way to a better tomorrow. The bankers have plunged Europe into a crisis as grave as any since the time of Marx. But the bankers are us. They are our savings, insurance and pension funds, and salaries. They are under our democratic control. Social democracy has no effective theory of banking or of money-power.

Finally, after politics and policies comes personalities. Where is the next generation of makers of Europe? Where are the Willy Brandts or Felipe Gonzalez’s ready to challenge the orthodoxies of their parties? Is there a new Monnet or a new Delors somewhere to be found? Can Germany and France overcome their differences and create a new Treaty of the Rhine to relaunch a core Europe based on a real merger of some decisions? Is the Europe of 27, soon maybe 30 or more, too big, becoming like the United Nations, a place of debate not of real decisions? Can Europe handle a Turkey that wants to join the EU? Or will Europe become increasingly hostile to Muslim Europeans — which is unacceptable—and fail to tackle political Islamism with its assault on democratic, media, legal, women and gay rights which have been won by Europeans and are now under threat by religious fundamentalism? What are Europe's enemies? Is not the idea of an external threat what creates unity of purpose in politics? If so, what is the real threat Europe faces?

European social democracy will always be tempted by a fall-back on national solutions. It is tempting and easy to denounce Brussels if the Commission or Council does not conform to social democratic demands. Tempting but wrong. Europe offers a world model of reconciliation between nationalisms and an open economics which allows hope for workers otherwise trapped by stupid nationalist economic models. Europe is both a child of globalisation – indeed the European Community, not EU, was a proto-globalizer avant la lettre – but the EU is also the answer to globalisation with its rules on welfare, labour rights, legally enforceable supranational laws and human rights conventions. Europe, for all its faults, is the only world region where society has (almost) the same status as economics. Money is not yet master in Europe in the way it is in the Americas and Asia.

Therefore, whatever specific national thinking and policy the next generation of European social democrats produce, support for European integration must be at the heart of any 21st century concept of progressive politics.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.


donpaskini said...

One good idea for the future of European social democracy is "social democrats should not denounce their supporters in hyperbolic terms".

Why would left-wing trade unionists, intellectuals, public sector workers and all of the other people denounced in this article want to support someone who clearly loathes them as much as MacShane does?

As for this "death of social democracy" stuff - of the Big Five the centre left is ahead in the polls in France (where it runs all but one of the regions) and Germany, level in the UK, and in government in Spain. And the Right wing government in Italy is on the verge of collapse.

Of the countries most affected by economic crisis to date, the centre left is in power in Iceland and Greece (where PASOK is still ahead in the polls even after imposing massive cuts), and poised to make big gains in Ireland.

Looking outside of Europe, the centre left is in power in Brazil, India and South Africa. I think those of us in Europe have a lot to learn from the PT, Congress and the ANC, and learning those lessons takes us in exactly the opposite direction from the one which Denis MacShane advocates.

Sunder Katwala said...


thanks. open to a response post, or happy to link one if you happen to write elsewhere.

I agree the misery is pretty (n/w) eurocentric, as we saw in this blog's exhaustive World Cup coverage last summer.

I am less immediately clear about say, the success of the Latin American left translates to lessons for a west European context, but I would be interested in anybody trying to suggest how to develop that line of thought practically, in terms of public arguments, organisation, political participation, etc.

Silent Hunter said...

Yet another epistle of dubious integrity, written from "the garage'.

Is this the only blog left for "honest" (sic) Dennis to write for since he was found wanting, in the 'squeaky clean' department . . . again!

Niels Georg Bach said...

One of the problems is of course that the public sector
which before the second world war was if not an enemy
then something you gave to fight, now is the core of the trade unions; MacShane is right that the public unions strikes mostly hit other employes, but the problem is also, that the public sector is a problem; it's simply to costly in the existing organization. It's simply to difficult to distinguish between fight for privileges
and real problems.
Regarding migration. No matter what MacShane says
it's a problem that many northern europeans societies finance a costly 'reserve army' of low educated (often muslim) labour because of immigrations rules. Where earlier immigration movements has been educated by an active working class movement, this is not happening today. And with disastrous results.