Left to europe

Henry McCubbin looks at the development of new left parties and the manifestos of left groupings to see what potential there is for European socialists. So long as they don’t live in Britain of course.

2009, the year for elections to the European Parliament, promises to be a year to be remembered for the existing political order driving their respective economies into a massive slump. Large sections of the population of Europe feel themselves to be unrepresented as these dire developments unfold and people are left by the media with more reports on the American Presidential political process than that at home. Where previously we had parties competing on ideas we now have them fighting over one idea, that surrounding the Washington consensus. There is clearly a wide vacuum in official politics, which has proved itself incapable of defending peace, jobs and democracy. But alternatives are beginning to emerge. From its beginnings in Germany, the movement to create Left Parties which can represent this fundamental disquiet about the effects of gathering slump, and official militarism, has been steadily advancing. Die Linke, the German Left Party, is led by Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD’s candidate for Federal Chancellor in 1990, and Lothar Bisky, former Chairman of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which grew up in East Germany during the 1990s after the Berlin Wall came down. Die Linke has been advancing with phenomenal speed from one regional election to the next – its Federal Parliamentary group includes 54 deputies, making it the fourth largest in the Bundestag. Now there has been an initiative in France to create an answering response to developments in Germany, with the formation of a new Party of the Left (Parti de Gauche). Three thousand people joined in the founding conference in Paris, and already they have some presence in sixty different departements. Left Parties are now appearing all over the place. In Greece, Syriza, a federation led by Alecos Alavanos won fourteen seats in the Greek General Election of 2007, and has gathered substantial support among young people. In Portugal and the Netherlands strong Left Parties are already establishing themselves. These and similar developments will give especial importance to the European Elections which are to be held in June 2009. What will be the response of the British Left to these developments?

Of course, it takes time to form a new Party from the fragments of old struggles. The French, and the Germans, have both built their alliance from movements within the old political system. It is hard to foretell what will happen in the British Labour Party as the slump gathers its crushing momentum, and the effects of past and continuing wars continue to shock large numbers of people. There does not appear to be a cadre of activists within the Labour Party prepared to make the move that Lafontaine made in Germany or Jean-Luc-Mélenchon previously of the SP has made in France. The nature of the French electoral system is such that the newly formed New Anti-Capitalist Party formed after the Revolutionary Communist League dissolved itself into the NPA could come into play were there to be a presidential election. In Scotland, the demise of the SSP prior to it acquiring the critical mass necessary for its challenge to be sustainable has left supporters of socialism with no choices at a point in history when a challenge to the status quo could be politically fruitful. Do we have anything to learn from the organisational manner in which Die Linke and Parti de Gauche Formed? Possibly not; for a start, the relations between trade unions and the constituent parties in France and Germany are quite different. Further, German unification has complicated the historical party structures, but this leaves us with what I see as the most interesting part of politics, namely the platform that these parties proclaim to stand on and there from the section of the electorate they are aiming their appeal at.

Lafontaine admits that it is evident that the constitution of a new party of the left could not succeed if the external conditions, that is to say the social and political situation in Germany, hadn’t been favourable to the project. But because all the West German political parties dispute the ‘centre’ and advocate a neoliberal economic policy, a majority of the German population deplore the resulting lack of social equilibrium. The empty space on the left of the political spectrum demands to be filled. Is there anyone who could dispute his frustration at the past “The history of West European socialist parties in power is a long list of rotten compromises. Dear comrades, we must leave behind this dilemma, and break with this fatal tradition of rotten compromises. For a party of the left, the principles of government must always be the same as the principles of opposition. If not, it will disappear more quickly than it arrived.” Next in a statement we are unlikely to here from New Labour with regards to organisation and political funding the new Linke party will make decisions on the major principles of their programme by the activists of the party all together, and not only by an assembly of delegates. Besides, they will not accept donations above a certain level, which is relatively low. This is simply because we do not want to be corrupted. Political corruption is the scourge of our time. And the so-called ‘donation’ is often a legal means of corruption.

Of course while studying the activities of new political formations at the European level I continually ask myself if I could support the programmes being evolved by these formations. As Lafontaine’s speech progresses you feel that he is challenging you to make such decisions policy by policy. First on foreign and security policy he declares “More than ever anti-capitalism is at stake, because imperialism, at the beginning of the 21st century, remains entirely real. And NATO is instrumental in its service. Long ago conceived as a defensive alliance, in our time NATO has become an alliance of intervention under the direction of the United States. But the left cannot advocate a foreign policy which has as its objective the military conquest of resources and markets. We do not accept NATO’s belligerent imperialism, which intervenes throughout the world, contrary to international law. We are for a system of collective security where the partners support each other reciprocally if they are attacked, but abstain from all violence which does not conform to international law.” We’ve been here before as Lafontaine quotes the calls of Jean Jaurès, the French socialist leader that ‘capitalism carries war within itself, as storm clouds carry the storm’ which reminds me that historically Scottish socialists were also active internationally as Keir Hardy in 1914 shared an anti war platform in Brussels with Jaurès who was assassinated forty eight hours later on his return to Paris.

But it is when the joint chair of Die Linke turns to their economic policy that he starts to ring the bells of arguments discarded by the UK Labour Party but proving by the day to have been the only foundation prudence and sustainability. “Contrary to the ideology of privatisation preached by the spokesmen of neoliberalism,” Lafontaine says “we safeguard the idea of a public economy under democratic control. We advocate a mixed economy where private enterprises, by far the majority, exist side by side with nationalised enterprises. Above all, enterprises which meet society’s fundamental needs of existence – the energy sector, for example, or the banking sector insofar as it is indispensable to the functioning of all the economy – must be nationalised.”

Could a New Labour Prime Minister ever rally his troops for the Euro Elections thus?:

“We struggle against a policy of social dismantling which gives priority to investors’ interests and scoffs at increasing social injustice, at the poverty of many children, low salaries, redundancies in the public services, at the destruction of the eco-system. We struggle against a policy which sacrifices the demands of public opinion to the returns on finance capital. We do not accept the privatisation of social security systems, nor that of public transport. Nor do we accept the further privatisation of the energy sector, and even more so, the privatisation of public education and culture.

“In the United States and Great Britain, the political elites judged uncontrolled speculation to be useful; Continental Europe is inclined against this judgement. Yet no corrective measure has been taken during these times when the majority of European governments were formed by parties affiliated to the Socialist International.

“A critical dimension with respect to capitalism has been lamentably absent in the opportunistic policy embraced by socialist and social democratic parties all along the line. If proof of this failure is needed, then the current crisis of the financial markets delivers it. The logic of globalisation was not compatible with regulation, they told us; above all, we must not impede free exchange and free movement of capital transnationally, they preached to us; all regulation is outdated, regressive. And now, what are the neoliberals in North America and England doing, what are the conservatives in Germany and France doing? Those who accused us of political regression when we demanded the nationalisation of certain banking sectors to avoid crisis, what are they doing now? They are pretending to nationalise the banks for the sake of the future. Now the losses are socialised and the most vulnerable groups in society must pay for the failure of the system. Pompous international summits are organised to regulate the financial markets. But we are not dupes: the elephants are going to give birth to a mouse. Are they going to close the casino? Don’t even think of it! Are they going to radically change the rules of play inside the casino? No! What they are going to do is to elaborate, with great fanfare, a new code of conduct for the croupiers. Nothing is really going to change.

“If you want changes, comrades, it is necessary to reconstruct the left in Germany, in France, all over Europe. The German experience shows us that a European left, reorganised and strong can change the choices and force the other parties to react. Let us build this new left together, a left that refuses rotten compromises!”

OK, OK, I’ll vote for that! If only I had the chance.

Two manifestos

“The elections to the European Parliament on 4th June 2009 will be an opportunity to change the foundations of the European Union (EU), and to open a new perspective for Europe. We are facing financial, economic and social crises, a crisis of the whole system, which continues to propagate day by day. This crisis only further amplifies the problems the world community is experiencing in reference to the food, energy and ecological issues. It deepens the gender gap. Everywhere in the European Union the shock is tremendous. The crisis is caused by the globalisation of hazardous neo-liberal capitalism, which is namely being pushed ahead by irresponsible elites in charge of politics and economics. The price for this irresponsibility will have to be paid by the people. These actions endanger peace, international security and coexistence.”

So starts the manifesto of the European Left party a party of the left which we in Scotland will not be allowed to vote for. Till today there have been only two of the left groups in the European Parliament to have published their manifestos. The European Left, and the Party of European Socialists to which the British Labour party is affiliated. A short comparison of three policy areas from these lengthy documents is illuminating.

First is their attitudes to the Neo-Liberal Lisbon Treaty where a true political difference occurs. The PES is not as unified on this as would at first appear. They have member parties who approved the treaty in council and therefore feel constrained, out of loyalty, to give support. The EL has greater freedom to criticise. This is not to criticise the two groups of reaching their positions purely based on narrow party lines but to draw attention to the clarity of the European Left’s message untrammelled by, as Oscar Lafontaine, their leader, has put it, “rotten compromises”.
I have laid out extracts from the relevant sections of the two manifestos and also provided the web addresses for those who wish to pursue the issue further. I hope to have illustrated where differences and similarities appear in the texts.

  • PES position: “We propose a European strategy for smart green growth and jobs which will create 10 million new jobs by 2020 – with two million in the renewable energies sector alone – and help make Europe a world leader in innovation, new green technologies and products. This would build upon the EU’s existing Lisbon Strategy to make Europe into the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion. In the EU, all levels of government can work together to stimulate smart green growth, notably through structural reform and fiscal policies. EU-funded investment projects should be swiftly implemented to help achieve these goals.”
  • EL position: “The crisis is once more demonstrating the failure of neo-liberal globalisation, which has, on a global scale, maximised the profits of the financial market’s main players without any state control and intervention. Politics, states and entire societies are subordinated to uncontrolled financial markets. The result is clear: a lack of democracy and the end of the welfare state. Policies of low wages and precarious labour, as consequences of the deflationary measures applied by the governments of the developed countries, have put the financial and credit system at risk. We reaffirm our ‘No’ to the Lisbon treaty. The democratic expression of the people’s will must be respected within a new democratic process, based on active participation by the people and the national and European parliaments. Democratic participation and parliaments’ powers must be strengthened through norms on popular petitions, co-decision enlargement and the relations between national parliaments and the European Parliament. The EU citizens must discuss and decide on an alternative to the Lisbon Treaty.”

Next the two manifestos address the financial crisis. Both latch on to need to close down tax havens with the EL calling for a Tobin Tax. Also they are not frightened to use the “N” word – nationalisation – in regard to the banks and common goods. Both manifestos also recognise that improved benefits and pensions are a necessary booster for an ailing economy. Two further points regarding the PES statement. The British Labour party has been one of the national groups supporting the European Court of Justices’ anti trade union positions and the Scottish Labour Party failed to support the Green’s proposal on house insulation yet they have signed up to the opposite policies in the PES manifesto.

  • EL Position: “The European Left stands for a policy that is based on economic and social development, and the protection of the environment. It aims at the defence and development of social achievements. Contrary to the Lisbon strategy, we strive for a strategy based on the values of solidarity and cooperation, full employment, and a rational relationship with nature. This is possible only by changing the existing rules of the international economic and financial system. In matters of financing, the crisis clearly showed the determinant part taken by credit. Credit must be redirected to the productive sectors of the economy and collectively, to employment, social and environmental priorities, from the cities and the regions to the European Central Bank System. To realize this reorientation of credit and money, we stand for public and social control over the banking and financial system. We need to tax financial transactions and income in Europe and to abolish tax havens. It is also necessary to introduce taxation for speculative capital, in order to feed the creation of a European fund. The common goods and economic strategic sectors, including the credit and financial system, must be socialised (nationalised) while there is the need to rebuild a general welfare system on a European scale. The privatisation of public services must be reversed. We need to raise workers’ wages and incomes. We reject the EU directive that extends working time up to 65 hours per week, which allows total flexibility and boosting the individualization of work. For us, maximum weekly working hours permitted by law, on average, must not exceed 40 hours. All EU regulations and national laws on working hours must be changed accordingly. We struggle for 35 hours per week on a Europe-wide level. We demand a European minimum wage that represents at least 60 per cent of the national average wage and does not put at risk the collective agreements. A minimum income for unemployed people, as well as a minimum pension linked to the minimum wage, and automatically adjusted to the price evolution, is necessary to guarantee a life with dignity. Flexible retirement ages should be guaranteed, taking into account existing regulations in the EU member countries.”
  • PES Position: “The turmoil in the financial markets revealed the true importance of European cooperation to prevent a collapse of the banking system and stabilise the markets. Coordinated action in the EU has helped to protect people’s savings, pensions and homes. But the financial crisis has revealed deep-seated flaws in the market system that need to be tackled to prevent such crises happening again. All financial players should have clear responsibilities when they operate in our countries. We propose to put an end to tax havens, tax avoidance scams and tax evasion, and step up the fight against money laundering in the European Union and globally so that all market actors pay their fair share of tax to the countries in which they operate. Energy efficiency is one of the best ways to lower people’s fuel bills and create new jobs, for example in the building-insulation sector. We will act to prevent the exploitation of workers and strengthen their rights to collective bargaining. Recent European Court judgements have created uncertainty about workers’ rights and collective agreements. Together with the social partners we will examine the impact of the Viking, Laval and other judgements to ensure that rights are not undermined. A review of the EU Posting of Workers Directive is essential. To encourage collective bargaining at European level, we want to develop a European framework for cross-border collective bargaining and collective agreements. In addition, we will work to promote decent working time, meeting health and safety standards, and a fair work-life balance.”

Try as I did I could find nowhere a reference to Afghanistan or Iraq in the PES manifesto. The two positions are at their most contrary when it comes to NATO. If the European Left had been standing in the UK for the first time we would have had a party opposing the nuclear alliance we could vote for.

  • EL position: “No war should ever start from Europe’s soil again. We do not consider war and militarization to be political instruments and want a strategy where security for all is granted. Emerging conflicts on the European continent – in particular after the refusal by governments to rethink the cooperation of all European states on a just and equal basis since 1990 – are pointing out the necessity of creating a new collective security system on the European continent. From a regional crisis to a war situation, the Caucasus conflict in August 2008 eventually became an international crisis that involved the United States. We call for civil society in Europe and for the European Union to strive for a political solution. The danger of such conflicts spreading out into other European regions remains extremely relevant. At the same time, the deployment of NATO forces in Afghanistan and growing demands from the US administration to increase the European participation show the failure of the military intervention strategy followed by the Bush administration. It demonstrates the growing contradiction between the European interest in security and the military intervention strategy and NATO expansion. The withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan of NATO troops and the Western coalition led by the United States is necessary. The international community as well as the EU must support Afghanistan’s population in finding a political solution through non-military ways on the basis of the respect of international law and human rights. As further measures we demand the closing of all NATO and US bases in Europe. We are against the US (and any European) Satellite Defence Installations with European and non European deployments, and fully support the Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, and Romanian citizens who fight against them. We reject any military misuse of the European Galileo Navigation System.”
  • PES position: “The EU should be a frontrunner in advancing peace and sustainable social and economic development worldwide, as a cornerstone for human security. Citizens still face threats in today’s uncertain world. EU member states must work more closely together to ensure the security of our countries and our peoples. We believe that Europe needs a stronger common voice in the world to shape a better future for our citizens and the planet. We must work together for peace and partnership, and to eradicate poverty, in solidarity with people across the world. We propose to step up European efforts to support international disarmament, including strengthening international agreements on arms control and nonproliferation, and making the EU Code of Conduct on weapons exports more restrictive and transparent. We want a world without nuclear weapons. We propose to increase defence cooperation amongst European member states, without affecting the characteristics of individual Member States’ defence and security policies. The new European defence initiative should be developed in coordination with NATO. “

For the interest of readers I did try to get manifestos from the Scottish Green and the SNP. Both are in the same group in the European Parliament ‘Greens/ European Free Alliance’. This is not a real political group but an administrative construct to gain more seats in the bureau and to collect more taxpayers’ money for their administration. It also means that they do not issue a single European manifesto but eventually, I am told, they will throw a kilt around a few words of wisdom for home consumption.