Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Socialist Strategy After the Third Way

It may be too early to tell, but last week's monthly ICM poll for the Graun suggests the government will be dumped out of office at the next election. It puts the Tories on 42% while Labour trails at a miserable 29%. The LibDems and Others clock up 21% and 8% respectively. The 17th March YouGov poll for the London Evening Standard makes grim reading for Livingstone supporters too. Boris Johnson leads on 49% while Ken languishes way behind on 37%. Paddick posts 12% support and the rest have 3% to split between them.

Interestingly, there is an international dimension to New Labour's woes. According to Ernst Hillebrand writing in March's issue of Prospect Magazine, the centre left across the EU (including Norway) are in trouble; it "looks set to lose out in Italy and has lost direction in Britain. Four of the five Nordic countries - social democratic societies par excellence - now have conservative heads of government. The German SPD is in power as a junior coalition partner but threatened by a new party to its left; in France the Socialists are in a mess. Is this merely the normal swing of the pendulum, or is it the result of something deeper and more worrying for the centre left?"

Hillebrand's answer is yes. The turn toward the centre right across Europe is symptomatic of the exhaustion of Third Way-style politics, here defined as mild neoliberal economics married to a broadly progressive socio-political agenda. This is the politics not of wealth redistribution (well, not in favour of the least well off anyway) but of producing the skills and knowledge bases European economies need to compete with and for markets in the emerging Far East. It is an overly technocratic project about managing and encouraging globalisation for the benefit of capital. What it is not is a means of solving long standing social problems. Where they are acknowledged, the interlinking promise of education/training, job creation and trickle down was supposed to deal with them.

Everyone but the most blinkered Blairite/Brownite knows the traditional working class base of labourism and social democracy have not been the winners in Third Way politics. The proportion of income across the EU has fallen from 72.1% to 68.4% over the last 25 years - and this is despite employment rising from 61.2% to 64.5% from the mid-90s to today! The education, education, education promise made by Blair was also taken up across the EU, and failed to deliver. Hillebrand argues school graduation rates remain unchanged, the quality of HE institutions has declined along with their ability to secure favourable returns in Europe's labour markets. As a rule upward social mobility has remained static. Under pressure and scattered to the four winds by widespread deindustrialisation, tensions have been rising from actual and perceived competition between 'indigenous' and immigrant workers. It has been further stoked up by 'get tough' policies on illegals and the free movements of the emerging EU-wide labour market. And to crown it all off European social democracy believes it has no alternative but to pursue this course.

With this disconnect between the centre left and its base the parties have become rootless and beholden to policy by focus group, opinion polls and newspaper headlines. They are not in a position to respond to what Hillebrand sees as a creeping conservatisation of social values - a reaction against social liberalism probably best exemplified by Britain's 'official' multiculturalism. Conservatives, on the other hand, are very well placed. Though it may be difficult getting a credit card between Blair/Brown and Cameron on economic issues, their "new" soft conservative social agenda is a blend of the traditional and the liberal. This compares more favourably to Labour's petty authoritarianism of ASBOs and cigarette bans. The main beneficiaries of this state of affairs on the continent so far, as well as the centre right, has been the far right populists and neo-fascists, and to a lesser extent emerging new left formations.

These chickens haven't fully come home to roost in Britain just yet, so what can the centre left do? Hillebrand's solution is an inversion of their present strategic direction. Labour and other social democratic parties should be more conservative regards social values, and more left wing on economics and social justice issues. It has to retain the centre ground of politics and speak to the aspirations of society's middling layers, but also rebuild its working class base. Hillebrand also rules out a return to the "old, failed statism" of the past. The centre left has to make its politics relevant by speaking to people on lifestyle issues and crucially matters of work/life balance. The trumpeting of low inflation figures, employment and economic growth statistics excite only the few. But what makes the pursuit of such an orientation particularly challenging is that the right have already travelled some way down this road. The battle with them will be on the ground of their choosing.

As things stand and New Labour remains on its present course, the Tories will win the next election. But is there anything the far left can learn from Hillebrand's forecast analysis? Yes, but I fear his strategic arguments are beyond our movement as presently constituted. But what we can do (and some sections of the far left are doing) is develop a strategy encouraging cooperation among instead of competition between our meagre components. And the second part is to connect with those sections of our class abandoned by New Labour. The Socialist Party, Respect Renewal, the SWP and some parts of the Labour left have limited but noteworthy successes in this regard. But beyond this we have to do what the centre left has done in the past and appeal to all sections of our class, from the poor and disenfranchised to the aspirational and better off. There is no problem talking about quality of life issues either, after all it is often a (silent) component of the campaigns we routinely engage in. And we have to make clear democracy is at the heart of our politics. Through practice we can convince our audiences that the authoritarianism of the Stalinist and social democratic stripes are alien to socialism.

Unlike Labour and the other mainstream parties, our principles are not for sale. We cannot dispense with the socialist case for expediency's sake. This won't be easy, but they don't call it a struggle for nothing.


Frank Partisan said...

I'm sure we will see CHANGE from Labor, real CHANGE. positive Change. A can do atitude.

Phil said...

Speaking of change, if Labour do lose the general election next time round, I wonder if any incoming leadership will dump the neoliberal baggage? It would mean a massive overhaul of the party - there's not one present front bencher I can see who has an alternative vision to Brown.

Karl-Marx-Stra├če said...

The German SPD are currently on 23% in the polls - meaning that the headline "SPD's lowest ever opinion-poll rating" has now been used around 1000 times in the last few years, and each time has been correct. In Saxony, they were on 9% a while back, behind the neonazi NPD (on 11%, if I remember rightly).

Of course, some other social democrats are on around 12% as well. But compared to the Germans, New Labour are doing pretty well...

What would the British poll percentages actually mean when put in the number Westminster seats?

Anonymous said...

I don't know on percentages as per KMS.

But what could be interesting is discussion recently about the gov favouring a limited form of PR for future elections (could it be in place for the next one - I doubt it).

The view is that such will hinder the Tories so maybe Labour, self-serving as always will push it.

Which as it did in Scotland - and I'm pretty sure did elsewhere in Europe could open a space for the Left (although anti-democratic minimums may preclude this - if say 2% of the population are communists - we should have 13? seats already).

It'd been nice to enter parliament sat on the turret of a tank, but if it will be by a minor bit of constitutional change - so be it

Tom Powdrill said...

Interesting post. The really strange thing about the swing to the Tories in the UK is that, even more than Labour in 1997, it seems to be driven far more by a desire to turf the current govt out than enthusiasm for the other lot.

What are the big Cameron policy ideas? Are there any? I read Nu Dave's 'big speech' on the economy today and I am genuinely confused about what he is trying to say. The BBC report of the speech was even worse - it didn't seem to have any meaningful content.

I'm a moderate Labour-supporting lefty, but I am interested in what the far left is up to. I don't really see any evidence of a move forward there (in the UK that is). If you want mass appeal I would banish any references to Marxism on websites etc (you can still talk about it amongst yourselves if you have to), let alone any of the more obscure theoretical ideas. It sounds too much like religion.

Also you need a handful of easily understood practical policies. ie Things that actually appeal to the punters, not your own activists.

Phil said...

I don't think the far left needs to banish Marxism into the broom cupboards. But the way it makes the Marxist case does need to be looked at. Dave Osler's thread on left populism has been useful in this regard.

I can only really speak for my organisation. We have a tradition of being able to connect with "ordinary" working class people, which means putting our ideas across skilfully without alienating our desired constituency. However, sometimes I think our paper can lapse into lefty cliches too - though on this I would say we're not the worst offenders.