Labour’s current turmoil is a symptom of a disease that’s ravaging social democratic parties across the continent
The May General Election was a trauma to Britain’s Labour Party from it will not quickly recover. Instead of being carried aloft into Downing Street by an austerity weary electorate, Labour not only lost seats, but the would-be Chancellor and Foreign Secretary couldn’t even hold their own constituencies. Labour failed to take their number one target seat from what was meant to be a reviled Tory regime.
It would be easy to pin the blame on a damp squib leader, but the Labour Party are suffering from an illness that’s tearing through Europe’s Left like a political Dutch Elm disease. In France the socialist government is trailing third in opinion polls with President Hollande’s approval rating at 24 percent. In Greece the Center Left Pasok Party was obliterated in January while its replacement, Syriza, has had its reputation dashed on the unmoving rocks of economic reality. In Spain the Socialist Party is struggling to make headway even against corruption scandal ravaged conservative incumbents. In the Netherlands the once all conquering Labour Party is facing extinction while in Italy Prime Minister Matteo Renzi limps from confidence vote to confidence vote. Even in progressive Scandinavia Left Wing parties are performing poorly, with Finland being the most recent casualty, and in Denmark anti-immigration legislation continues apace
What’s happening? We were told the Credit Crunch subsequent financial crash were heralding the collapse of casino capitalism and the dawn of new age of redistributive and enlightened social justice. Yet the uncomfortable truth for Europe’s Left is that they find themselves intellectually ill equipped to operate in a world of populist parties, globalisation and tightened purse strings.
The economic history of post war Europe has been one of disappearing heavy industry and the mass organised labour movements they created. Born of the industrial revolution and the social upheavals new industries created, these unions formed a symbiotic relationship with social democratic parties which dominated European politics for a century. Millions of members not only poured money in central coffers, but could be relied upon to vote, canvas and spread the social democratic gospel in both their closed shops and their communities. But today Western economies are characterised by flexible, dynamic service orientated industries for which old school shop stewards and picket lines are ill suited. Communities are less and less shackled to one local factory or mine. Labour is more mobile, more independent, and less receptive to ideological dogma than at any point in history.
What remains of the trade union movement is a rump, dominated and subsequently skewed by reform-phobic Public Sectors. Much to the chagrin of the Left, there’s a quite acknowledgement among the broader electorate that State employees enjoy pensions and privileges those in the private sector can only dream of, and so sympathy during cuts or industrial action understandably thin on the ground. Nurses, firemen (and generally anybody in a uniform) are universally respected, but greater scrutiny, made infinitely easier by the internet, has enabled taxpayers to see that for every overworked bobby and ambulance driver there’s half a dozen cosseted administrators and managers making work for one another. For example it’s hard to justify a defence budget when there’s one civil servant in the MoD for every two people in uniform. And when the union paymasters of the continent’s social democratic parties are dominated by the Public Sector, policy debate and formulation suffers. Discussions on how to appeal to small business and encourage foreign investment drowned out demands to shield departments from reforms or cuts, with the result that manifestos are lopsided and say nothing to entrepreneurs or the self employed.
Linked to the previous point is a broader question of resources – namely what are Left Wing parties for when there’s no money to splash around? If Center Right parties can feel smug about anything, it’s that they’ve succeeded in making fiscal conservatism and budget surpluses the default aim across a continent. Tax and Spend is no longer seen as an investment in the future but rather profligacy. Public’s are no longer willing to countenance spendaholic administrations indulging pet projects and clientelism at a time when households struggling to make ends meet. Barring a few tweaks and headline grabbing initiatives against the rich (which generate relatively small amounts), taxes are as high as they’re going to get. Multinationals and the super-rich, the historic low-hanging fruit of the taxman’s avarice, can relocate in less time than it takes to renew a passport in Italy.
Europe is also graying, and as any anthropologist will tell you, people become more conservative as they get older. Combine this with the fact that over 65’s are far more likely to vote than any other age group, and you’ve got some very unpleasant numbers that will only worsen as demographic trends continue their glacial but indefatigable advance.
And the Left can’t even rely on the young like they used to. Tech savvy Generation Y are less likely to subscribe to the view that the blind fist of Leviathan is the only way to change society. Faux anarchists demanding more tax, more regulation and more State grab the headlines, but most of today’s young grew up under New Labour and are just a likely to associate government with snooping and stifling inertia as they are seeing government as a vehicle for progressive change.
The traditional political landscape is being unceremoniously disrupted by a smorgasbord of populist parties biting into territory the Center Left used to regard as its own. The Sweden Democrats mirrored UKIP in taking 13 percent of the popular vote in their respective General Election campaigns, drawing much of their support from white Working Class, post industrial towns which had hitherto bastions of the Center Left. In a particularly uncomfortable twist of the knife, parties like Labour are labelled as part of the Establishment, just as aloof and remote as their traditional foes in the Conservative Party. Populist parties combine a heady mix of economic protectionism with social conservatism which is difficult to counter without sacrificing sacred cows. Indeed, hardening attitudes to welfare, debt and immigration among the Center Left’s traditional core vote present arguable the greatest challenge facing Europe’s Left – for what do you do when your core principles are the very things making you unelectable?