(This piece originally appeared in Counterfire)
Across Europe the political space of the centre is continuing to collapse. Labour-type parties that remain committed to occupying the discredited and rejected positions associated with Tony Blair and similar figures are spiralling deeper into trouble.
There are a few flickers among European social democrats of the need to reconsider and reposition. But in Britain, a voluble section of Labour MPs are not just bent on fanatical opposition to Jeremy Corbyn and the party leadership. They seem hell-bent on returning to the politics which elsewhere is leading to electoral oblivion.
A general election in the Spanish state has been called for 26 June. The political fragmentation arising from the last one six months ago has led to no coalition being formed. The combination that would have produced a seemingly stable parliamentary majority would have been between the centre-right PP and the centre-left PSOE.
That was the coalition many establishment and business figures in the Spanish state favoured. But the Spanish social democratic party PSOE took a good look at the outcome that kind of arrangement has led to in Greece, the European country whose political history and party system in the last 40 years is most similar to Spain’s.
The grand coalition in Greece from 2012 to 2015 saw a decline in support for both the traditional parties of government that came together to form it, but especially for the social democratic Pasok. It went from being the party that had largely governed Greece for the previous 35 years to now polling about 5 percent.
That was a key context for the rise of the radical left Syriza party to be the main political expression of the sustained social opposition in Greece to austerity and to racism and fascism. The Spanish radical left Podemos polled just behind PSOE last year. A grand coalition would create very good conditions for it to totally eclipse the social democrats.
PSOE and its leader Pedro Sanchez have seen the fate also of the SPD in Germany. Its participation in the grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU – from which it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish – has seen support for both traditional governing parties fall to just over 50 percent over the last three years. With a general election due next year, the SPD is on just 19.5 percent.
The grand coalition has also been the key political context for the rise of the far right AfD, which is now polling 13.5 percent. This process was well under way before last year’s refugee flows. The radical left Die Linke, while it has hit a plateau, continues to occupy a place to the left of the SPD.
In Ireland the two traditional parties of government (two and a half, if we include the Labour Party) have also seen a slump in support with a rise of both the radical left, Sinn Fein, and the anti-capitalist left, the AAA-PBP. The mainstream parties face the dilemma of whether to form a grand coalition, some other arrangement or to head for new elections, as in Spain.
Decades of collaboration and frequent coalitions between the centre left and centre right in Austria saw the combined vote of their candidates for the presidency slump to 23 percent a week and a half ago. The far right FPO polled 36 percent. The second, run-off round is in three weeks’ time.
Just new bottles, or new wine as well?
Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau is one of the most astute mainstream journalists commenting on the politics of the European crisis. He fears that if the German elections in September of next year produce a second grand coalition – which they will do, on current polling figures – then the AfD will be the main opposition and in a strong position to enter government four years after that.
He talks of the “the extremes”, lumping together the radical left with the radical or far, racist right. But his fear is much more that the far right will break through into either governing alone or heading a government, not the far left. He suggests that that is now going to happen in Austria. He is absolutely right to fear that.
If not as the solution, then as a part of one, he suggests that social democratic parties in Europe need to break with the politics, or rather at least the style, of the Blair era. They need to move to the left, not to the centre. Munchau is a mainstream journalist, and cannot be dismissed as some leftist ideologue.
It was not just Tony Blair. Two decades ago Greece’s Costas Simitis, France’s Lionel Jospin, Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder and Italy’s Romano Prodi all went down the Blair road of taking the centre left so far rightwards that it was barely distinguishable, particularly on economic policy, from the centre right. Britain had New Labour; Greece, New Pasok; Germany, Die Neue Mitte – the New Middle/Centre.
It seemed to be the panacea for electoral success. In fact, the electoral advances of the centre left in the latter half of the 1990s had much more to do with rising disenchantment with the effects of neoliberalism, which even in the boom years led to downward pressure on wages, longer working hours and the unpicking of the social safety net of the 1960s and 1970s.
So in Britain, for example, the Tories were already heavily behind Labour before Blair became leader in 1994. In Greece, an upsurge of working class militancy shattered the Mitsotakis government.
But in any case, the old Blair/Bill Clinton political template has broken down. Referring to the malaise in the SPD in Germany, Munchau writes:
“Its leadership clings to the view that it can only win elections from the centre. That worked for previous SPD leaders — Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s and Gerhard Schröder either side of the millennium. But this is no longer true when your coalition partner already occupies the centre ground. The smart strategy for the party would be to appoint a leader of the left, somebody who is ready to forgo ministerial limousines.”
He does not say it, but I am sure he has in mind the two well known left wing politicians who eschew limousines: Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain (remember the picture that went viral of Jeremy during the leadership campaign heading home on a night bus after a long day’s campaigning). Or there is Alexis Tsipras, who was famed in the run-up to the January 2015 election in Greece for living modestly, unlike the old political leaderships.
It is a modest proposal. It is for a change, primarily, in style: a leader who comes from the left with the popular touch. That certainly is proving attractive on both sides of the Atlantic. But what about the policies to be pursued? What of the politics? We need new bottles. But is it old or new wine that is to be poured into them?
Presentational technique can only get you so far. Having a leader who comes from the left and is not of the multi-millionaire set is one thing. But are the parties that they lead also to stand on left wing policies?
Alexis Tsipras and Syriza did. But then they reached a crisis point and abandoned the central anti-austerity programme they had been elected on. The collapse in support that has resulted is masked by the continuing crisis of the old parties. Though the centre-right New Democracy is not simply going to tip-toe away, and is trying to stage a recovery under its new supposedly telegenic leader.
Podemos saw its support decline when its leadership made great play of not being “of the left”. It recovered in the run-up to last year’s election by swinging back and burnishing its left wing credentials.
More importantly, what is all this for? That is a question in Britain for the whole of the labour movement, for the trade unions, progressive organisations, people of the left – whether or not they are actual members of the Labour Party or affiliated to it.
Is it mainly about calibrating very carefully the precise position to occupy in the public imagination, in the widespread “anti-billionaire, anti-tax avoidance” mood, in the considerable space that exists between the old Blairite/centre-right consensus and the kind of left wing politics that Corbyn represents?
If that is so, then some political resting point may be found significantly to the right of Corbyn or Sanders, with them – or with someone like them – pulling the left wing, anti-establishment sentiment behind largely on the basis of a reputation for being on the left, sincerity, life-style and political style.
Now – there is no doubt that the radical left faces a big task in popularising our ideas and politics. Nowhere is that more sharply seen than over racism, migration and Islamophobia. The hardened racist right remains a minority. But so does the clear, anti-racist left. And in most countries it is a smaller minority than the equivalent on the right.
There is a vast middle ground. The permanent pumping out of anti-migrant, anti-Muslim propaganda and themes from the mainstream of politics and the media means that the racist right have a big advantage in influencing that middle ground.
Positions of the radical left over issues such as the tax avoidance exposed by the leak of the Panama Papers are very widely held in Britain. The same is true over support for the junior doctors’ strike. But not all of our positions are so popular. This is not a new situation. The radical left and the movements that have been central to the anti-establishment swing leftwards have had to deal with these contradictions for some years.
The Iraq War remains enormously unpopular in Britain. It is the reason why Tony Blair, who I am sure would love to be leading the pro-EU Remain campaign, is sidelined. Anyone who wants to win that campaign for British capitalist interests would be mad to allow him off the subs bench. It is also the reason why publication of the Chilcot inquiry into the decision to go to war is being delayed until the normally quieter days of summer.
But the bombing of Syria is not as unpopular as the Iraq war. People are pretty evenly divided – though there is no strong support. So the Stop the War Coalition and opponents of the Syria intervention – and of the probably forthcoming second intervention in Libya, which may involve ground forces – have had to develop arguments, strategies and initiatives to bridge that gap. Their aim has been not just to win public opinion but also to have political effect in finally breaking from the 15-year cycle of the War on Terror.
The anti-racist movement and a range of refugee charities and NGOs have had to do the same for years now over the gap exposed by the fact that most people do not consider themselves racist but do buy in to one degree or another to anti-refugee and anti-migrant arguments. A great deal of this work has been done in localities, particularly those where – thanks to government dispersal polices and refusal to plan for population changes – there have been rapid and sudden changes in migration patterns.
The experience of the movement so far
Given the weight of the right wing media offensive, there is a huge amount to do to counter its impact and win support for the left more effectively. But it is important to recognise two things.
The first is that it is not the case that we start with a blank sheet. It has not been true that the last 10 to 15 years have been characterised by the radical left being content to have its pure arguments and not trying to find ways to win the middle ground.
Recently, disability activists have been both very radical and have led the way in winning now majority opinion against the government’s welfare cuts. It is only this year that the polls have shown that more people are opposed to them than support them. The argument in support of the Palestinians has gone from the radical left deep into the mainstream. That is why there is such concern by the Israeli government and frenzied efforts to halt and disrupt that shift.
We can always do better and do more. And we need to, concerting all the collective efforts of the left. But we do that best by building on the very considerable efforts so far, which have had some successes. The fact that there have been diverse movements and organised groupings of activists – campaigning and political – means that there is an additional challenge to draw together the experiences in a spirit of openness and unity. Movements such as the People’s Assembly and the widening Stand Up To Racism initiative are proving to be good mechanisms for doing so.
There are many, many thousands of people who are active on many fronts (not enough, but still…) and who have good ideas arising from real experiences of these different struggles.
One of the things that proved such a powerful attraction in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign is that it articulated very well the desire not just for new policies but for a new politics. That is, for a new way of doing politics, different from the machine parliamentarism of leaders, who come up with the policies, and activists, who hand out leaflets containing them or percolate the links through social media.
That was a great gain last summer. It led to the formation of the Momentum initiative in the Labour Party. It is paramount that the “insurgent politics” – which is radical in the way people participate, not just in its policies – is developed.
Ed Miliband and the path to the 2010 defeat
The second thing to recognise is that there is a world of difference between the left rising to the challenge of convincing the middle ground, and the left abandoning its positions to move to the middle ground. The latter is not new. And it has not worked before.
After Labour’s election defeat in 2010 a section of the party’s right wing – styled at the time, Blue Labour – endorsed the idea that it was principally because Gordon Brown had not been sufficiently “hard” over (ie anti-) immigration. There was scant evidence that immigration played any significant role in actually shifting votes from Labour to the Tories. Central was the overwhelming feeling that Labour had abandoned working class people in the Blair and Brown years.
Brown’s successor, Ed Miliband, did not agree with the Blue Labour diagnosis and tried in a small way to undo some of the damage of the previous leaders. But he was under constant pressure, from the beginning, from a section of the Labour Party to speak out over immigration – to address people’s “real concerns”.
What the Labour right meant by these “real concerns” were the prejudices that a lot of people had absorbed from the Tory media. They did not mean the real issue of, for example, planning by central government and local councils – particularly in areas which had had up to that point a declining population, such as North Lincolnshire – for new arrivals.
Miliband made three major speeches on immigration. The first was not bad at all. He reminded people that he was the son of a Jewish refugee from Europe who fled the advancing darkness of Nazism in the 1930s. Diane Abbott – now playing a leading role in Labour’s shadow cabinet – fleshed out Miliband’s case that the way to deal with employers super-exploiting migrant labour and undercutting existing wage rates was through rigorous enforcement of a living wage and through strong trade unions.
The response, predictably, from the right wing media was to highlight Miliband’s background. We actually saw some real, serious, anti-semitic innuendo directed against “the Jewish” Labour leader by papers such as the Daily Mail. That backfired. There was widespread support for Miliband. In the row with the Tory media a wider number of people began to see that its obsession with immigration was not about Britain “being full” or about “real concerns” but was about racism.
But that was not where powerful forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party – where Miliband had got only minority support in his leadership election – wanted to be. They wanted the resting point to be further to the right, more accommodating of the racist, anti-immigration sentiment pumped out by the Sun and Mail.
So the next two speeches moved further to the right. And so did Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. She sought to attack the Tory/Lib Dem coalition for not doing enough to “control Britain’s borders”.
The result did nothing either to help Labour win the election or to provide a principled and popular opposition to the Tories whipping up of racism. The Tory lesson drawn from that can be seen in the full-on racist campaign they are running in London now.
What started as a reasonable effort to craft arguments to win the middle ground against the rabid, racist right ended up losing that ground and giving confidence to the racists.
How the left can win the centre ground
There is a great lesson from that experience for today. It is absolutely right to find all sorts of imaginative arguments and initiatives to engage the swathes of people who are to the right of the radical left on issues where the right wing are strong.
One of the great things about the immensely popular junior doctors’ strikes is that on all the picket lines and protests they have been pointing out that many of them – and large numbers of NHS workers generally – are migrants or the children of immigrants.
But you can reach out to your right only if you are absolutely firmly anchored to the left and to core principles and policies of the left. Diane Abbott has done a great job in doing that over refugees and migrants. Miliband was not so anchored, and the left was weak.
Reaching out to the right became, under pressure from inside the Labour Party and from a media onslaught, moving to the right. That strategy failed badly. It failed for Labour at the general election. It failed in pushing back racism in society.
It is out of the failure of that strategy that Jeremy Corbyn soared to win the Labour leadership with the overwhelming support of Labour Party members – leading to a huge influx into the party and a rising left as a whole. That presents the great challenge, and opportunity, now of how to move from there to win wider layers. That involves two separate questions.
The first is how to win wider public support. The second is how to win wider support among Labour MPs, who in their great majority opposed Corbyn’s victory. The two are connected. But they are different.
The reason is that, thanks to the accumulated impact of the Blair and Brown years – only modestly reversed under Miliband, the Parliamentary Labour Party over many issues is, in its majority, to the right of not only solid Labour supporters but in many cases of majority opinion also.
So while majority opinion was turning against the Tories’ welfare cuts, the vast majority of Labour MPs last year did not vote against them. Public support for the junior doctors’ strikes is overwhelming. When visiting picket lines, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others are firmly with majority public opinion. But there are lots of Labour MPs who are not and who refuse to support the strikes publicly.
Other issues are not as clear-cut. Renewing Britain’s nuclear weapons is one of them. But even here, public opinion is very divided. There is a large – and very committed – minority opposition to Trident renewal. There is a middle ground. And there is a large number who say they think Britain needs nuclear weapons.
But there’s no evidence that a significant number of people will not vote Labour on principle if it is opposed to nuclear weapons. There are less people proportionately in society who are as fanatical about keeping them as a lot of the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party are.
So there is a real challenge for the left to win public opinion. That is not news – least of all to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which has a significant base of very effective activists. Its campaign against Trident renewal has been successful in gaining support – far wider than the established left – over the last two years.
There is still a way to go to win majority opinion. But opinion has been shifting our way over the last three years – before we had a Labour leadership that is opposed to nuclear weapons. Does it really make sense for the left to move its fundamental position in the opposite direction now?
That was the proposal made recently by my friend Paul Mason. I think it was mistaken, and for this main reason. Paul surveyed the positions of Labour MPs and those trade unions that have members in the arms industry, where the argument against nuclear weapons and for producing other things instead still has a long way to go in winning the majority support of workers.
He concluded that the only position that would enjoy consensus among Labour MPs was to go along with spending vast amounts of money on new nuclear weapons. He tried to give what he described as a left wing case for them.
But there is no left wing case for nuclear weapons themselves. What Paul really outlined was a tactical case for the minority of Labour MPs who share Jeremy Corbyn’s left wing politics or who support him to navigate the hostile majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the issue of Trident.
I do not agree that the proposal to drop opposition to Trident is a sensible way to do so. But we should be clear that convincing the Parliamentary Labour Party to support the leadership is a different thing from convincing public opinion to support the policies of Jeremy Corbyn and the left. And ditching a policy is not the same as finding the right language and arguments to explain it convincingly.
The average of Parliamentary Labour Party opinion is on so many issues to the right of the average of public opinion. Not only that, it is more fixed than public opinion, which is pretty volatile. That is shown by the reckless behaviour of various Blairite MPs who would like to launch a coup against Corbyn following this Thursday’s elections.
Their position on things like Trident, supporting every military action by Britain and the US, and as defenders of the Israeli government is not about what they think might be electorally popular. It is what they ideologically believe in and will fight for – to the detriment, if necessary, of electoral success. That is what they have done for the last week.
That, after all, is what their hero Tony Blair did when he went to war on Iraq, despite public opinion.
The key battleground
While different, there is of course a connection between the left winning public support and the left wing leadership of the Labour Party winning at least sufficient support from MPs to stop attempts to destabilise it.
The rancour and division inside the Parliamentary Labour Party does hurt Labour electorally. And because it is directed against Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and other left MPs, it undermines the left, the labour movement and all of our efforts to fight the Tories and win radical change.
That is what it is designed to do. The Labour right in the early 1980s was prepared to split the Labour Party, to lose the Bermondsey by-election and to see Margret Thatcher re-elected in 1983 to conduct the most destructive period of her rule. The whole of the left and the working class movement suffered huge damage.
Everyone who has the interests of the labour movement truly at heart is supporting the Labour leadership in its efforts to find ways to quell the hardcore Blairite opposition. That battle is taking place in every arena – in and outside of Westminster.
It is important to recognise the nature of the terrain. In the Parliamentary Labour Party and the machine inherited from the Blair/Brown/Miliband years the Blairite ultras, with some others, can feel very confident to pressure the left.
The kind of compromises which centrist MPs – the kind of people who supported Ed Miliband – can feel need to be made are way to the right of the kind of tactical shifts or compromises which may be necessary in the wider movement. So while the left needs to engage in and win those battles in Westminster, it is a mistake to make those the starting place for engaging in them.
Outside of Westminster, and the closely attached London media, the left is often much stronger and its ideas are much more in tune with what people are thinking than the Labour right’s are. This is the great difference between the situation now and back in the early 1980s, when the Labour right last ran amok.
It is there that we need a huge collective effort. It is both about building the direct struggles against the government, such as the junior doctors and the teachers’ and parents’ campaign to save state schooling.
And it is about developing the arguments, the effective strategies and alliances which can win people to the ideas of the left and present them in ways that can appeal to the vast mass of those who are angry with the Tories.
It is that way round that the pressure on the Labour right can be best brought to bear in Westminster, forcing them into some kind of compromise with the Corbyn leadership, at least enough of one to leave the irreconcilable Blairites totally isolated.
But if it is attempted the other way around – starting with appeasing right wing Labour MPs, and confusing polishing the presentation of left wing positions to a mass audience with abandoning those positions to meet the demands of that small audience of MPs – then the left will end up on very weak ground.
The electoral fortunes of the Labour Party are also likely to suffer. That is the lesson of both the Miliband era Labour Party and of its counterparts right now across the European continent. It has been born out in the London election campaign also.
The move by Sadiq Khan to distance himself from Jeremy Corbyn and to run a conventional, centrist campaign left the base of Labour members and others in London distinctly underwhelmed.
Zac Goldsmith’s campaign was even more underwhelming. It was the Tories’ vicious racist strategy to turn that around, in the last week especially, which changed that.
Its BNP imagery was designed to motivate the hard, racist Tory core and win the election on a low turnout. That has also given the tens of thousands of Labour Party members who joined the party on the Corbyn surge, and the left as a whole, a reason to fight in a way that Khan’s electoral platform did not.
Let’s hope it is enough to win on Thursday. Whatever the result and the outcome of the immediate frenzied efforts of the Blairites to create a coup atmosphere, the pressure to move sharply to the right will not go away.
It is not arising mainly from the serious, strategic and debateable questions of how the left can win majority public support, and improve the clarity of our arguments and the presentation of our policies.
It is coming largely from the demands of Labour MPs – including those such as Liz Kendall who polled just 4.5 percent in the leadership contest – to move not towards “public opinion”, but towards their opinion and the Westminster consensus.
That is the kind of consensus that has shrunk Labour’s counterpart in Germany to under 20 percent and has all but destroyed its Greek equivalent.
The whole left should welcome and contribute to the discussions about how we win the kind of mass support needed to beat the Tories.
And the whole left should resist the pressure from the Labour right to abandon the positions for which we hope to win that support, which are needed to bring radical change for working people and which constitute the radical left in the first place – that is: what we are actually fighting for.