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Developments on the European Left

CorbynAtPESConfIt is not altogether surprising that Corbyn’s intention to hold a conference of socialist and progressive parties to discuss Brexit, in London announced in February in October and December last year, has been met with little comment. He made the announcement to the PES which is the Party of European Socialists, an umbrella group of European social democratic parties, not to be confused with the PEL, the Party of the European Left which is formed from more left wing parties like Die Linke and Syriza. The proposed conference is highlighted by John Palmer in the current edition of Chartist. It is, at first glance at least, surprising that Corbyn has chosen to promote such an event, given his relative lack of enthusiasm for the EU.

For people such as myself who see little prospect of advance for the left except via a thoroughly reformed EU such an event is obviously important, although there are no details available as far as I am aware, and my requests for information from the Labour Party have not been answered.

However, most of the left in the UK do not share my attitude, not necessarily because they are among the minority who think that a socialist UK independent of Europe is a viable proposition, which I do not, but mainly because while they recognise that we probably shouldn’t leave the EU they don’t conceive of it as a battleground between left and right, and therefore don’t see that there is any particular reason to build links with the left in the EU. I find such an attitude quite wrong, but it reflects, in part, an anti-EU tradition on the left, and a longer tradition of ‘building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’, encapsulated in the powerful evocations of Blake and Morris.

I thought the position might have changed with the publication of Kate Hudson’s book The New European Left in 2012, an account of the rise of new left wing parties in Europe, mainly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites in 1990. I even wrote a review of it, but there was no response and little apparent interest in the book elsewhere, even within Left Unity, founded by Hudson and others the following year as a British version of this phenomenon. Besides, that organisation failed to make any headway, partly as a reflection of our electoral system, and then the ascent of Corbyn effectively rendered it redundant.

I mention this because before Christmas I bought a few books from Mark Perryman’s excellent survey, including Europe in Revolt, written by various contributors, but almost all based in Europe, and published by Haymarket, an American publisher, (Book cheap, shipping expensive) suggesting that there was more interest in the European left in the US than in the UK and appearing to confirm that this had not changed since Hudson’s book was published.

It should change. There is no doubt that the politics of the EU and Europe, notwithstanding Brexit, will have a far greater influence on what happens here in the next few years than those of anywhere else in the world.

The book is recently published and as one would expect deals with developments in the major countries (Germany, France, Italy and the UK), flashpoints (Greece and Spain), and some smaller countries (Cyprus, Holland, Ireland, Portugal and Iceland).

As in Hudson’s book the parties dealt with here are mainly grouped within the PEL although some are also members of the Anticapitalist Left, a grouping of mainly Trotskyist groups. Their size and influence varies, but the biggest are worth about 10% or more of the vote, in Germany, (Die Linke), Greece (Syriza), Spain (Podemos), Finland (Left Alliance), Portugal (Left Bloc), Holland (Dutch Socialist) and Denmark (Red Green Alliance). There are also substantial Green parties that are mainly grouped within the European Green party, again with around 10% of the vote in Austria, France, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland.

However, the left remains weak in both Italy and France. In Italy the Communist Refoundation movement suffered disastrously through its support for the Prodi government, and left support appears to have gone to the Five Star movement which defies easy political categorisation. In France the Parti de Gauche has failed to make much headway. Nevertheless the parties of the left have grown overall, increasing their representation in the Left group in the EU parliament in the 2014 elections by 16 seats to 51, despite the social democrats holding their own. The big losers were the centre right, to the right wing nationalist/populists.

Not all the left parties are in favour of EU membership, including the Dutch Socialists, the Swedish Left Party and a number of the more traditional Communist parties, but the PEL position is that while the EU needs to be completely recast it should not be dismembered. Indeed even the French NF want out of the Euro and control of migration, but not out of a reformed EU. (Documents from the PEL’s recent fifth congress are worth reading, here).

So what awaits us in 2017? Will the combined forces of Brexit and populist nationalism herald the beginning of the end of the EU, or will its problems start to be tackled? None of the major social democratic parties has shown much sign of breaking with a neoliberal approach, particularly in France. However, it is worth noting that the Spanish Socialists were split in 2016 over whether to join with Podemos or to support a minority right wing government, although they opted  for the latter. Next door in Portugal, however, a minority Socialist government is being supported, although not as a formal coalition, by two left wing parties. More significantly perhaps, the German elections in September could bring about a left coalition of the Social Democrats, Die Linke and the Greens which could oust Merkel and establish not only a left government in the EU’s biggest and most powerful state but also begin to transform the EU along left wing lines.

Wishful thinking, you may say. I hope not, and I hope that the conference takes place  and has a positive outcome. Whatever happens with Brexit is dependent on what happens in the EU. We must follow developments there very closely.


  1. John Penney says:

    In the best of all worlds , a newly Left radicalised “Corbynite” Labour Party would build ever greater connections with a range of “Left oriented” European parties , as part of that “turning the EU into a worker’s Europe” project so beloved of the UK Left, which suddenly seems to have got cold feet at the challenges faced by a UK about to fulfil Tony Benn’s hopes, by leaving the entirely neoliberal EU .

    Unfortunately all the various sub-sets of “social democracy” and the supposed more radical “more radical democratic Left” across Europe are in no political or organisational state to meet the , now very rapidly approaching , breakdown of the entire EU political status quo and EU project.

    For a start we can discount pretty much ALL of the politically bankrupt, and electorally dying, parties of traditional European Social Democracy , within the PES grouping. Corbyn is associating himself with a movement of the politically “walking dead” there. And of course, all current indications so far are that UK Labour is so dominated by the utter neoliberal status quo supporting Right , both at PLP, local council, and Party Machine, levels , that a coherent break-out to the anti austerity, comprehensive state-led Left planning, radicalism required today, is looking impossible.

    And what of Kate Hudson’s Left Unity allied , “more radical ” Left Party grouping in Europe, PEL, Party of the European Left, of the likes of Syriza, Die Linke, Podemos, etc ? As an ex Left Unity member myself, I have to sadly announce that the promise of all the leading contenders for “breakout radical Left mass party” heralded a couple of years ago, now surely must be seen by any dispassionate observer as lying dead in the water. Germany’s Die Linke (with its very dodgy roots in the uber Stalinist East German Communist Party) has constantly done dodgy concessionery deals with Austerity wherever it has had influence. Spain’s Podemos has proved to be a typical undemocratic populist top-down shambles, moving Right at a rate of knots in policy terms . And Syriza has purged its entire radical Left wing, and now largely composed in its leadership of ex Pasok and old Greek CP stalwarts (like Alex Tsipras) , is acting as a loyal agent of the Troika in administering the ransacking of the Greek economy and people for the German and French banks.

    No-one can reasonably criticise your hopes that a EU-wide Left Party coalition (plus the ever unreliable Greens across Europe) , and the UK staying in the Single Market awhile to collectively work with said parties to create that ” utterly transformed , Workers Social Europe” , Peter. A fine hope we can surely all share in, emotionally at least.

    Unfortunately that fond hope is an unachievable pipedream. There is no meaningful radical Left alliance of genuine radical Left/socialist parties anywhere on the horizon . Instead we have before us the ever-deepening meltdown of the EU as an institution, and its profoundly collaborationist “Social Democratic” Parties. and the now quite apparent growing failure of its supposed “alternative radical Left” parties too.

    Yet domestically the reality is that , within the UK nation state, that self-identifying “arena of struggle ” of the UK population AND its entire working class, the UK is now set for a complete break with both EU and its totally intertwined Single Market/Customs Union structures. The Tory neoliberal fanatic Right see this, rightly as a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn the UK into an offshore freeport/tax haven, deregulated, enterprise zone of Libertarian “Ayn Randite” wet dreams.

    It is this UK , nation state “arena of struggle, that the Left needs now to relate to, and offer a comprehensive Left programme of radical action for.

    Instead the Left is now becoming a shill for the illusion of the neoliberal EU as a “bastion of workers rights and “liberal value”. It is the UK Left which now holds dear to that vital plank of the entire neoliberal structure – ” total freedom of labour movement/unlimited labour supply”, on an entirely moralistic liberal basis – completely disassociated from socialist traditions of comprehensive planning to replace all of the EU’s capitalist “four freedoms”!

    The consequences of this collapse of Left politics over the EU will be dire. Come the next General election and the TORIES (with UKIP as their Far Right outriders) will be able to pose as the defenders of the expressed democratic wishes of the UK majority voters in the Referendum. The Tories who will be able to cynically posture as the Party that is committed to tackling “unlimited immigration/unlimited labour supply. They are utterly lying of course, but this will not yet be evident in 2019/2020.

    Labour, in contrast, is increasingly looking like a “party determined to undermine the Referendum decision “, and with a commitment to continuing unlimited labour supply/membership of the Single Market, which will prove toxic to an electoral “wipeout “extent across our Labour heartlands. And the empty “we need to look again at unlimited migration” rhetoric coming from a few Right Labourites, will fool no-one, when the apparent determination to stay within the neoliberal Single Market is factored in by the electorate.

    Time is running out fast for the EU as an institution and the entire European political structure status quo. Far Right opportunist “strasserite” populism (of which the Italian “Five Star Movement” is actually increasingly clearly a classic example, Peter) is always much “quicker on its political feet” to sieze the opportunities of political structure meltdown produced by profound socio-economic crisis. The dominant narratives of xenophobia and petty nationalism, are always present to feed off – whereas the Left has the task of challenging all the key narratives.

    Unless the UK, and European Left generally, quickly recovers its transformational anti capitalist political “bottle” the European Left is going to be elbowed aside by the pseudo “anti Big Capital” Right populism so familiar from the 1930’s. In the UK, we embrace the challenges of leaving the EU wholesale, and offer a radical Left programme to meet it, or we are sidelined into irrelevance by , on the one side the forces of the globalised neoliberal Right (the Tory Brexiter free traders), and on the other a new “statist” , xenophobic nationalist, “anti globalised capitalism” radical Populist Far Right, (similar the French National Front).

    1. Jim Denham says:

      Do you not realise the profoundly reactionary nature of the break-up of the EU, that you advocate? You have witnessed the racism resulting from Brexit, and appear unworried. The break-up (as advocated by Trump, superannuated Bennites and Stalinists) can only result in protectionism, racism … and war. Yet the idiot-“left” continue to welcome it.

  2. Rob Green says:

    The wages of sin is death and the pay off for marching your troops halfway up the hill and then back down again is fascist reaction. The failure of the Arab Spring to consummate itself, the failure of Sanders to take his movement forward in America and the failure of the various left parties and factions that emerged in Europe to properly take on the right social democrats was sufficient to scare the shit out of the ruling class without really challenging it and thereby provoke a fascistic reaction from ISIS/Assad to Trump to this far right locust Tory government. All is not lost if we learn the lessons of this first wave of political opposition to dying capitalism and how the opportunists, sectarians and anarchists have screwed it over.

  3. Tim Pendry says:

    He is saying little about it because there is little to say … the Labour Leavers are getting increasingly irritated by the trimming of the leadership and I suspect any publicity outside the Guardian and the Independent for the calls for European Socialist solidarity on pro-EU terms would merely ensure that the Party’s polling stayed bouncing along at the bottom.

    If organisations fail to make headway, there is usually a good reason for that …

    … and the idea that the German Social Democrats are in any serious way ‘left’ as opposed to a variant of the American (liiberal) Democrat Party is laughable. Any coalition they led (and I think they will win in Germany in the Autumn and turn around the European Project) would be the death knell of the sort of socialism most Labour Leavers want to see in the United Kingdom if we were still to be stuck inside it. Roll on Article 50!

  4. C MacMackin says:

    I agree with much of what John Penny says, although I’m less optimistic that Labour presenting a solid plan for Brexit will be enough to ensure electoral success. Given that a significant portion of Labour voters are extremely pro-EU (in a knee-jerk way rather than in a strategic way as is Peter Rowlands), any movement along these lines will likely drive them into the arms of the Lib-Dems. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to see how Labour can possibly unite the pro- and anti-EU components of its coalition. Let’s not forget that the result of the referendum was very close, so it’s not as though the vast majority of people can be mobilised around a hard left exit stance.

    I think John is absolutely right that we should have little hope of anything good coming from the Party of European Socialists. With the (very partial) exception of Portugal, all of these parties are neoliberal and suffer the same lack of internal democracy as does Labour. To be honest, similar criticisms apply to many of Europe’s green parties (“neoliberals on bikes”, as they’ve been called). I also have very little hope for a red-red-green coalition in Germany. The numbers were such that this could have happened after the last election, but the SPD generally doesn’t want much to do with Die Linke. If they do go into coalition it will be because Die Linke has sufficiently watered down its demands to satisfy the SPD. And let’s not forget that the SPD has been extremely vicious in its demands on Greece, so I don’t think we can expect any coalition led by them to do much to reform the EU in a progressive direction.

    Much of John’s criticism of PEL members is also warranted, although there is still some room for solidarity. We can add to his list the Communist Party of France, which has a tendency to concede to Socialist austerity, much as Die Linke does with the SPD. Ironically, two of the parties which have done the best job at retaining some radicalism are Bloco de Esquerda (Portugal) and the Red Green Alliance (Denmark), both of which are Eurosceptic.

    I’m not sure that the lack of interest on the British Left in building links with the European Left and in viewing the EU as a location for class struggle arises due to the parochialism that Peter suggests. Perhaps it plays a part, but I think it has much more to do with the the generally poor state of the Left in the UK and its failure to critically engage with policy questions of any kind. Just as we don’t see people seriously thinking about, e.g., what an educational policy should be beyond opposing new grammar schools, people aren’t thinking in serious terms about what should be done about the EU.

    Something I find is that both left leavers and left remainers have a tendency to state their view on the impossibility of socialism in/out of the EU as a matter of fact. We really need to dig down into these questions. What should our policy be if the EU prevents, say, a public investment program on the grounds that it amounts to state-aid? To what extent should we force a confrontation? What would the consequences of this be? What are the problems that the UK will face if it tries to “go it alone”, at least for the time being? Are there any ways to overcome them? We need to be asking these sorts of detailed questions and not confining ourselves to slogans about how there is “little prospect of advance for the left except via a thoroughly reformed EU” (Peter Rowlands) or that the EU’s “laws rule out not only a socialist programme but even a radical Keynesian one” (Danny Nicol).

    1. Danny Nicol says:

      C Mac – I gave bullet points intended to justify my position but if you want detail then obtain via your library my tome The Constitutional Protection of Capitalism (2010, Hart), chapter 3 of which is about EU law ruling out a socialist programme.

  5. Susan O'Neill says:

    The article by Peter Rowlands threw up some interesting observations. What was even more edifying were the comments. Each of them offering a different perspective. The last one by C MacMakin was the one that threw up the biggest issue we in the UK must tackle. Corbyn got my vote, not because I am a socialist, I’m not, but his ideology was what captured the votes. Unfortunately Corbyn seems to lack direction, any strong commitment to policy objectives and a total lack of cohesion. It seems to me he does not have the people around him who fully understand the intricacies of the different approaches to socialism. There are three good minds here able to demonstrate the subtleties confronting socialism in the UK who would better serve socialism if they were to get on board with Corbyn and Lucas(who at times, offers a better understanding of what a socialist ideology and agenda can offer the masses than even Corbyn does) and drag Labour Party Members(kicking and screaming if necessary)to a better understanding of what a well grounded policy agenda can achieve for them. Of course in order to do that, you would need to become Labour Party members and stand as MP’s. What a shame, then, that those minds are not available to many more people than the followers of Left Futures.

  6. Jim Denham says:

    The referendum result represents no fixed-forever “decision of the British public” which obliges Labour to give away the rights of migrant workers (and British workers and young people who want to work, study, or live in Europe) by abandoning the EU and freedom of movement. In fact, since some Leave voters wanted something like EEA status, even on 23 June there was probably a majority for keeping freedom of movement. Plebiscitary democracy — democracy via referendum snap votes, on questions shaped and timed by the established powers — is the thinnest form of democracy. Usually it just serves those already in office. This time a strong sub-section of those in office (Johnson, Gove, etc.) were able to surprise Cameron, in a public debate which was essentially Johnson-Tory plus UKIP versus Cameron-Tory, with Labour voices weak and unconvincing (Corbyn) or ignored by the media (Alan Johnson and Labour’s official Remain campaign).

    That does not make it more democratic. The referendum excluded 16-17 year olds, excluded EU citizens living in the UK (though they can vote in local authority elections), was run on poor registers missing out seven million people; and such a narrow snap vote is no democratic authority to deprive millions of freedom of movement and probably impose new borders between England and Scotland and between Northern Ireland and the South.

    All but the thinnest democracy includes a process of the formation, refinement, revision, and re-formation of a collective majority opinion. Without such a process, and without organised democratic political parties which collectively distill ideas and fight for them, democracy means only rule by whatever faction of the rich and well-placed can sustain itself through judiciously-chosen successive snap popular votes. It has almost no element of collective self-rule.

    Labour must oppose Article 50 and demand a second referendum, at which we advocate remaining in the EU. Yes to freedom of movement! No to racism!

    1. Rob Green says:

      Such a whore to corporate capitalism.

  7. Peter Rowlands says:

    Time for some comment.My piece was aimed at raising awareness of developments and possibilities in the EU, rather than asserting that huge progress is being made, although I do somewhat object to John’s relentless pessimism, which given that he applies it to the UK as well can only mean that we are all doomed! No, the left is not as strong or united in the EU as we would want,but all parties are in a state of flux to some degree and can change dramatically as any member of the Labour Party knows.I think it is fair to say that there is a stand off at the moment between left and right in the EU which the important elections of 2017 will help to clarify.
    I prefer CMac’s more balanced comments, and he is quite right to pose the questions that he does, which to some extent we have all debated on this blog and no doubt elsewhere.
    In the event of a hard Brexit being pushed through, then yes, the left would fight for a programme unconstrained by EU regulation, but its ultimate success would be dependent in large measure on what happens in the EU.
    Is the 5star movement Strasserite? I would hasve thought that applied more to the FN.

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