The German elections a fortnight ago brought a bit of cheer to the British left. Die Linke increased its representation in the Bundestag from 54 to 76 seats and secured 11.9 per cent of the national poll (up three per cent from 2005's 3.7 million to almost 4.8 million votes in the constituency and 4.1 to 5.1 million in the list vote). In the mean time the traditional party of the (West) German working class continued its historic decline. The SPD's vote tumbled over 11 per cent and lost 76 seats. Their decision to take part in Angela Merkel's grand coalition with the CDU/CSU has left them badly mauled - and rightly so.
What can socialists in Britain campaigning for a new left party take from these results, aside from a sense of satisfaction? Do Die Linke's results show that potential exists for a similar formation in Britain, as the Socialist Party's Peter Taaffe argues? Yes and no.
Die Linke's results do not indicate a political space is opening up for a mass Marxist party. As Andy Newman rightly argues, the success of Die Linke stems from presenting a traditional set of social democratic policies to the German electorate and appearing credible enough to deliver them. Prior to the banking bail out New Labour had spent the previous 13 years putting clear neoliberal water between it and Labourism. And now, when traditional Labourist policies are finding support among the wider electorate, the party will only countenance the weakest of social democratic measures. An 'old Labour' political space exists to Labour's left, and not a revolutionary Marxist one - no doubt to the disappointment of some ultra lefts who think we can substitute a revolutionary party for a broad new workers' party.
But the nature of this political space to Labour's left is extremely problematic. Again, Andy is right to note minor parties' votes are likely to be squeezed (outside a few constituencies) as the mainstream of the labour movement swing behind Labour and right-wing voters return to the Tory fold.
Here is the problem. While Labour has travelled to the right since Blair became leader in 1994, the opening political space on the left has, despite everything, been smothered organisationally by the party and the affiliated trade unions. Blair's calculation that Labour's trade union backers would support it come hell or high water, even when his and Brown's policies were kicking them in the teeth, has proven accurate. Even now with Unite apparently running the party there's little evidence of pro-trade union and pro-worker policies. When anger has risen pro-Labour elements of union bureaucracies have moved to diffuse it. Take Unison for example. Opposition to the wave of hospital cuts in 2006-7 was effectively derailed by the leadership's refusal to build a national campaign against the measures. Every time a motion to discuss disaffiliation has been submitted to conference it was ruled out of order. The result of this has tended to be disillusionment and apathy. More trade unionists have been turned off politics altogether rather than join the real but so far weak movement for a new left alternative. Fewer still are actively pushing their unions to "reclaim" Labour. For the time being, the custom and practice of bureaucratic inertia rules the day.
The political space is simultaneously open and closed. One can speculate what will happen to this after the next election. If Labour loses (as seems virtually certain), a stronger social democratic turn in response to the Tory cuts agenda is possible - even if only at the level of rhetoric. On the surface this would close what opportunities exist for socialists who want a new party, but then again maybe not. In Greece, the coalition of the radical left, Syriza, founded in 2004, has grown in stature while the main party of the centre left, PASOK was in opposition. It is possible in the highly charged political atmosphere of outright trade union opposition to Tory cuts a new opportunity for the left may arise - especially as Labour has done its best to alienate all but the most committed and careerist among younger organised workers.
It all depends if the heirs apparent in Labour have learned the lessons of the Blair/Brown years and whether the unions are prepared to act more politically through the party's structures. If the answer to either is no, the political space for the left cannot be smothered forever. Either Labour accommodates it, or gives way to something else. What is it to be?