What’s Wrong with the Left in Europe?

The Occupy London march on 1st May 2012 to mark International Workers' DayThe Occupy London march on 1st May 2012 to mark International Workers' Day (Source: Haydn)

It comes to something when an article on the left in Europe must start with the success of the far-right, once again, in this tumultuous continent. The dust from the three days of terror in Paris, in which gunmen killed 17 people across the French capital, has barely settled on an uneasy and increasingly polarised Europe. Far right and nationalist parties are making their move, capitalising on a tense continent with stagnant growth and sky-high unemployment. On 1 February, the French Front National came top under Sophie Montel in the first round of a by-election in Doubs, near the German border. On the other side of that frontier, the PEGIDA (a German acronym for ‘Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West’) brought thousands of supporters to the streets of Dresden and cities across Germany, with support from the far-right ‘National Democratic Party of Germany’. Opposition to this mounting intolerance and hostility towards minorities, in most other German cities, overwhelmed the protestors and hooligans of the PEGIDA marches. In Berlin, the 400 far-right protestors who took to the streets were met by 4,000 anti-far right protestors. At Oxford University in February, students delayed a speech by Marine Le Pen at the Union, claiming that extreme-right politicians have no place at the university. But where, you might be asking, is the left in all of this? What is the left doing to combat fascism? We know from that age-old formula that economic recessions can lead to increasing insecurity and a growth in the popularity of the far-right. So where, exactly, is the left’s economic alternative? What exactly is wrong with the left in Europe?

Love Thy Neighbour

It is clear that the far-right is on the rise in Europe, but this is only half the story. Movements for tolerance and opposition to fascism are also increasing. The most unlikely of groups are taking to the streets to oppose intolerance; including, for example, Newcastle United fans protesting against PEGIDA. In the Greek capital, equally, thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators took to the streets last month to protest a march by the Greek far-right party Golden Dawn, particularly following the murder of the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013. Instead of challenging this anti-immigrant and anti-minority discourse that seems to be popular, politicians are taking the slippery slope towards the right, showing that they too are tough on immigration, are supporters of integration and defenders of national values.  François Hollande, in the wake of the Paris attacks, has called for France to tackle ‘ghettoisation’ in parts of the country and the ‘kind of apartheid’ appearing in areas with a high concentration of immigrant communities, such as the infamous French ‘banlieues’. More than three years ago, the far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik bombed Oslo, and then shot dozens of young people on the island of Utøya. The response of the Labour Party Prime Minister in Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, was the opposite to François Hollande in this respect, responding not with revenge or clampdowns, but justice by the book, respect for due process and an insistence on collective liberal, progressive values rather than pandering to the post-massacre hysteria. The left in France, Britain, Germany and across Europe should take note. It should not mirror or lurch to the right amid the hysteria; instead, it should have confidence in its own voice and remain progressive and tolerant. Not only would people be clearer about the left’s values, but it could build on the expanding coalition of actors repelling the rise of the far-right, including perhaps Newcastle United fans.

The recent story of the left in Europe is a tale of two halves of the continent. The view from Southern Europe is the opposite of the North; it is the far left who are gaining ground in Spain and Greece, as John McAuliffe has illustrated in The Globalist. Countries in Southern Europe have experimented and experienced right-wing governments and have seen their devastating impact first hand: Greece was ruled under hard-right anti-communist colonels from 1967 to 1974, and Spain suffered under Franco’s fascist dictatorship until 1975. The recent election of the left-wing coalition Syriza in Greece marks a watershed in European politics, as the Greeks seek to renegotiate the severe and heavy-handed austerity measures imposed upon them by the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund). The Spanish electorate is likely to return a favourable response for Podemos in the election in November, a party only established last year but born from the 2011-12 protests against inequality and corruption. In Northern Europe, despite the mood for reform, left-wing parties are not tapping into the movements and protests for political and economic alternatives. ‘Occupy London’ set up shop outside St Paul’s Cathedral for eight months and received some sympathy from the Labour Party, and in Brussels the Occupy demonstration involved 6,500 to 8,000 participants with support from the socialist party and calls for a tax on the super-rich. This demand for greater equality and reforms of capitalism, however, has not been taken up by mainstream left-wing parties. Instead, left-wing parties across Europe are following Tony Blair’s mantra that elections are won on the centre ground. By focussing on the centre ground, left-wing parties are missing the opportunity to reform capitalism, reduce inequality and capture the mood for change. The left thus risks losing its values in a bid for political expediency; it should offer a real alternative that showcases the potential success of left-wing government.

The David and Goliath Austerity Problem

There is no doubt about it: the left is on the back foot in Europe. The political response and discourse following the recession has been dominated by austerity, small government and private-sector led growth, all ideals of the right. The response across the continent to the worst recession since the 1930s has been classic neoliberal austerity: cut public services, public sector jobs and welfare, and hope the private sector in some way compensates. Neoliberal thinking and institutions have dominated the response to the financial crisis. At the start of the crisis, a key mechanism for preventing deeper economic recession was bailing out banks. The German government was forced to bail out the IKB Deutsche Industriebank in 2007, shortly followed by the European Central Bank providing nearly €100 billion in short-term financing to banks to ensure orderly conditions in the Euro-area markets, and culminating in the high-profile bailing out of Northern Rock in 2008, following the first run on a UK bank since 1866. After large banks were bailed out, Hungary became the first country to seek external financial assistance. In 2008, the IMF, the EU and the World Bank put in place a comprehensive rescue package for the Hungarian monetary authority worth €20 billion. Greece was bailed out in 2010 to the tune of €240 billion, making it the biggest financial rescue in history. These bail-outs, however, all came with the bitter pill of austerity measures. Austerity in the Republic of Ireland has seen government spending slashed by €4 billion, public servants’ pay cut by at least 5% and police stations closing across the country. The dominance of the neoliberal Troika, the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank (outside of Europe, the equivalent is seen as the World Bank) has meant that austerity has become the default response. Thomas Piketty, author of the best-selling economics book Capital, has argued that austerity has backfired and killed off growth and is likely to ensure that stagnation continues across the continent, despite the Spanish government’s insistence that the crisis is over. The Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis, equally, has argued that austerity shaved off 6% from the country’s gross domestic product from 2010 to 2013, costing each household nearly US$5,400 (£3,500). While there is consensus that debts should be paid, the pace of austerity measures and public sector cuts is debated. Neoliberal responses to the financial crisis have dominated, propped up by the Troika insistent on small government and rapid debt repayment. The left, in this context of an international economic framework set by the EU, IMF and World Bank, has its hands tied and is limited in its ability to suggest and implement alternatives. Syriza, following its electoral success in Greece, is hard at work at the negotiation table on austerity measures with Germany and the rest of the EU. Left-wing alternative parties are in a David and Goliath situation with the international economic consensus for austerity.

An anti-austerity protest in Dublin, Ireland, on 24 November 2012, organised by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions

An anti-austerity protest in Dublin, Ireland, on 24 November 2012, organised by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions (Source: William Murphy)


The Image Problem

In the context of an international economic system dominated by austerity, left-wing governments should better communicate their economic alternatives. Credible and sensible economic alternatives are at the heart of Syriza and should be central to mainstream left-wing parties’ platforms. No, the party is not rejecting outright to repay its debts. Instead, it is advocating slower austerity measures, with a focus on investment in technology, education and full-employment is not only more humane, but makes economic sense. The 50% of youths out of work in Greece and the 45% in Italy are not only at risk of long-term unemployment, but they are costing the taxpayer in welfare payments. The vast majority of people do not know about, and are not concerned with, the details of Marxist ideology. The left has alternatives, and these should be made clear to the electorate; these are the things that really matter, including jobs, the cost of living, social mobility and healthcare. The Troika, for example, has imposed major cuts to the Portuguese health budget, as well as large increases in the rate of co-payment for many services as part of its conditions for a financial rescue package. For example, attendance at an emergency department in a major hospital now incurs a cost of €20 instead of €9.60 previously. Political and media commentators have therefore attributed a peak in deaths in early 2012 to the austerity policies. Austerity measures are false economics: every pound cut in public sector spending takes a pound out of circulation in the real economy, reduces consumption and forces people into unemployment, in times when private sector employment becomes increasingly scarce.

Ed Miliband is standing up to exploitative monopolies, such as the ‘Big Six’ Energy companies who hike up prices and rail companies who charge extortionate rates. Left-wing parties should translate this into real change for ordinary people, reducing the cost of living (for example by building social housing) and delivering greater value for money from public services (for example by engaging local communities and charities in governance and management). François Hollande, shifting the French establishment to the left following Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, came to power promising high taxation for high-income earners; two years later, his 13% approval rating before the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ murders was an all-time low for any French President. His vision of a fall in unemployment by the end of 2013 and more progressive taxation has been quietly disposed of; some calling it a ‘U-Turn’, others calling it a betrayal of the left. Hollande’s ‘new way’, however, turned out to be the same old profligate way that had caused the debt crisis in the first place. Mr Hollande’s spending succeeded only in stimulating the French national debt. He promised to introduce 75 per cent tax rates, and at the outset his approval rating stood at 63 per cent. But the economy did not move, unemployment surged and his popularity plummeted. Yet, as Piketty has pointed out, the debt of French and German governments at the end of the Second World War stood at 200% of GDP. Debt, particularly during a recession, should be seen as investment; the left needs to communicate this message against the grain of the austerity institutions. Hollande’s approval ratings are case in point: he should be confident in following Keynesian economics and investing the economy, despite high debt levels. This offers a more humane, long-term and sustainable solution to the economic recession. The left must use ‘kitchen table’ economic policies, ones that improve the lives of ordinary people, and be confident in both rhetoric and reality of going against the grain of the dominant neoliberal global economic framework.

It is a cliché, but one that bears repeating: in a recession, with high levels of unemployment and economic instability, an electorate looks towards its immigrant communities for a scape-goat and apparently ‘easy’ solutions. Europe, of all places, does not need reminding of the grim consequences of the far right in the 1930s, which capitalised on high unemployment and insecurity and emphasised nationalism as some kind of solution. This time is different, but not hugely so. We have had the worst economic recession since the 1930s. But this time, we have also seen a crisis of neoliberal capitalism. It was the excessively liberal and deregulated American mortgage market that caused the recession. It is state regulation and co-ordination of the market that will prevent such a crisis from happening again. The parties of the left should engage with popular movements to reform capitalism. It must not be fearful of alternatives to austerity, which is decimating public services, and instead emphasise slower austerity, investment and full-employment. It should also vocalise its solidarity with minority groups and be proud of its tolerant ethos. The left is facing an uphill struggle, but it also has a great opportunity to reset the market, and create a more equal and dynamic economy with regulated capitalism at its centre. The left should communicate a positive, sensible economic alternative that focusses on the cost of living, jobs and healthcare, and set capitalism alongside social progress.