Brits in the EU

A View from Europe - The Left's Resurrection

With Trump in the White House and an oncoming hard-right Brexit, combined with the disintegration of last century's labour movements and their political wings, this could be seen as a bleak time for progressive politics. Not so, argues Adam Mathews in the second of his articles on the European Left.

In January 2015, the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left was elected into power as the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament. In a country which had been in crisis for a decade, the party of the protesters was now in government. On the other flank of Europe, the Indignados who'd met in the occupied squares of Spain during the 15-M movement had formed their own coalition, and Podemos were flying high in the polls. Having contested their first elections in 2015, the next year they became the third largest party in the Spanish Congress of Deputies. Had the country been dragged into a third election in 12 months, there's a good possibility the alliance of left wing parties which sit under the Unidos-Podemos umbrella would've become the official opposition.

Given the unprecedented recent upsurge of support for GroenLinks in the Netherlands, the presidential candidate for La France insoumise almost surpassing his mainstream centre-right opponent, and that oft-recited lament that "Bernie Sanders would've won", now could be seen as a time of great possibilities for the left. Many are coming to see the truth in what others have been saying for years; that we're living on borrowed time, striding across climate change thresholds while denying they exist, building up walls of debt for our children and their children to pay off, ramping up the threat of global conflict.

In reality of course, things are not quite so rosy. Europe's banking elites have taken enough forced haircuts from Greece, and as Syriza have few friends in high finance they likewise have little wiggle room for renegotiations. Which leaves the 'radical left' Greek government cutting pensions and selling off state assets, while shutting down street protests just like their political predecessors. Our financialised world does not allow for alternatives, especially when they come out of movements in which monetary interests have had no say, when the country in question is in dire economic circumstances and when the vulture capitalists are already gnawing away at its flesh.

This new left suffers from many of the same afflictions as their ideological compatriots in history. As the right line up behind their appointed leader, the left bicker among themselves, join splinter parties or challenge the leadership, distracting from the main arguments for personal gain. As with Corbyn in England, who has paid more than most for his handling of the Brexit crisis, so with Podemos's ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, whose electoral success led within six months to a leadership challenge from an even more youthful man in a contest intertwined with personal as well as political intrigue. Then there's that unfortunate habit of assuming your adversaries to be stupid, racist or one of many other flavours of social denigration. Contempt breeds contempt, and our friends on the left have been as guilty of this as anyone in the aftermath of recent popular votes.

And while all this is going on, we should not forget that any mainstream electoral success the new left parties might enjoy is almost entirely at the expense of their establishment 'allies', without making any major dent in the majorities of their ideological opponents. As France's Socialist Party lost eight million first-round votes over the course of François Hollande's presidency, there's an argument that Jean-Luc Mélenchon's new 'Ecosocialist' coalition should've been able to garner more than the 7 million votes they did receive.

See Also

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The Aimless Wanderer

Brits in the EU: a video project to collect the views of British people living and working in Europe.

Pap: my latest novel is a futuristic dystopia on the perils of neo-liberal monopolisation. Available now

Audiovisuals: Aimless Wanderer Podcasts and videos of Adam.

Scribblings: analysis and original research from the Aimless Wanderer

Teaching: a collection of English as a Foreign Language lessons and courses I have developed.

All political parties are coalitions, marriages of convenience between individuals and groups who come together to make their voices heard more strongly. In a country like Britain, whose governing party was formed over two hundred years ago (from a schism among the Whigs rather than from the old Tory party, whose name they share), it's difficult to imagine how a new party could rise out of nothing to take the reigns of government. It took the might of the late 19th century trade union movement to create the Labour party, but it was only in 1923 that they had their first breath of power, and even that was just a peek through the backdoor of a hung parliament. It was not until they'd pulled out of Churchill's wartime coalition government to trigger the 1945 election that Labour first won a clear mandate with a majority in the House of Commons.

In times when our media is as social as our upheavals, political parties don't need half a century to win power. But they likewise don't pop up overnight. Messers Machon and Mélenchon may have built themselves a big enough base for successful presidential campaigns, but whether they'll be able to muster up the relevant party machinery in time for the National Assembly elections in June remains to be seen. Syriza has been around for over fifteen years, coming out of the 2001 'Space for Dialogue for the Unity and Common Action of the Left'. 'The Space' brought together a coalition of existing leftist groups to fight the 2004 general elections on an anti-neoliberal reform platform. That time around they won quarter of a million votes and six of the 300 parliamentary seats. By the first of 2015's general elections, the two and a quarter million voters they gathered left them just shy of an absolute majority in the Greek National Assembly.

On a narrower but wealthier supporter base, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has even older origins. It came about following a meeting of the Eurosceptic Anti-Federalist League at the LSE in 1993. With the 1997 death of James Goldsmith (father of disgraced London mayoral candidate Zac), and the disbanding of his Referendum Party, UKIP won their first elected seats, ironically to the same European Parliament from which they wanted liberty, but whose cash they were happy to accept. In the 2015 General Election they won almost four million votes, an eighth of all those cast, which resulted in a single place on the House of Common's 650 seats. Their 20-year campaign to leave the EU, however, turned the discussion from political treason to reality.

If winning the confidence of voters is difficult enough, playing the electoral games whose rules were set up by the establishment is even harder. Working through electoral cycles, or on a Prime Minister's 'snap' decision, saps away at the time and energies of the politically aware. Canvasing and discussions of someone else's agenda distracts from the issues which they want to raise.

A resurrected Left cannot suddenly rise out of the charred remains of the trade union movement, which brought about the last large-scale opposition to the right in western Europe. It needs years of effort from thousands of volunteers to build a base from which their arguments may be heard. That means forming a coalition of people who share certain ideals and long-term goals. In the case of the 'Anglo-Saxon' nations, the political centre has moved so far right that there is plenty of field for a new, untainted Left to play on. Even one-time conservative principles like providing for future generations or conservation of nature have got lost in the long grass behind 24-hour news cycles of terrorism and the threat from the 'other'. Environmentalism, as with so much else in our skewed politics, has become de-facto left wing.

Like the stuttering Trump presidency, Britain's latest Conservative government have routinely shown themselves to be economically inept, missing one budgetary target after another while causing misery and hardship to millions of their fellow citizens. At the same time, they've served their mates with billions of pounds in subsidies, bailouts, and gifts of undervalued stock market flotations of former state assets. Economic pragmatism has apparently been trampled under the tracks of the neoliberal tank, and is a concept that the Left would do well to grasp before the far Right can get their grubby mitts on it and claim it for themselves, as I pointed out in a previous article on the Death of the European Left.

Because away from the corridors of power, the towers of consultancy firms and corporate boardrooms, there is still a general hunger for a bit of common sense in the running of a country's economic affairs. There are only so many times you can kick the sand of migration and terrorism in someone's face before they realise you're trying to hide something. If Britain has the money for a new nuclear arsenal and a high speed rail line that'll most likely be given away to a foreign company as soon as it's built, she surely has the resources to run hospitals and schools in the manner her population craves. If she can negotiate her way out of the European Union in 2 years, less two months for election campaigning, she can surely take back control of her bus lines and train companies from their foreign state-owned operators, limit the expensive façade of competition in energy markets and overcome the reluctance of government to interfere with the City. All of this today counts as left wing. Some of it may bizarrely be considered extreme.

The resurrection of the radical Left is however about more than just economics. It has a wider perspective, encompassing environmentalism and the preservation of the remaining commons as much as financial regulation and the provision for all in society. Local yet global, this left is internationalist at heart but localist in the head, able to realise that supporting local and ethical producers in favour of the multinationals brings benefits to the wider community, at the same time as being open to people from other places and the positive effects and ideas they bring with them. In favour of being a member of the European Union, against the block's support for big business and capital.

The Left has always been the side of the rule of law and its application to all citizens equally, no matter their personal standing or wealth. Alongside respect for the truth, the new left should continue their tradition of transparency, should allow anyone and everyone to challenge the law whenever they have a case, regardless of their personal or financial circumstances. In the 2010s this must specifically mean the regulatory oversight of financial, commodity and exchange markets, as well as obligatory reporting of 'Over the Counter' trades. It means punishing the frauds that go on at the highest levels of society and the end to tax havens and off-shore avoidance schemes.

In Spain, various citizens' platforms have been used to pursue cases of financial crime, and several high profile individuals have been found guilty in 2017. The King's brother in law (husband of the disgraced Infanta) was condemned to six years and three months behind bars for tax fraud, although he was then allowed to go 'home' to Switzerland after politics intervened. The former Finance Minister and Managing Director of the IMF has not been quite so lucky, and he may well have to serve at least some of his four and a half year sentence for embezzlement. While members of all political parties have been implicated in one kind of fraud or another, the governing PP have been hardest hit of all. In late April 2017 party grandee and long-time President of the Community of Madrid Esperanza Aguirre, whose honours are numerous and include being the first Spanish woman ever to be named an Honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), was forced to resign from all her positions in the party following the imprisonment of her former right-hand man, Ignacio González (who was also her successor as President of Madrid) for misappropriation of public funds.

If we can still remember anything from our ancestors in popular movements over history, it's that that the Left is on the side of the worker, that we fight for better wages and higher job security. It's not a communist plot to demand improved conditions and we therefore want laws to protect workers from abusive labour conditions, the outlawing of zero-hours contracts and a genuine living wage. Some in the coalition will push for unconditional basic income for all, which would need a great deal of figuring out and testing before it could be put into practice, and could distract uninspired commentators and interviews from the bigger causes. The Left must mean many things at once, and should not be drawn into discussion of fringe manifesto pledges.

What the right wing has done so brilliantly is to persuade great swathes of their populations that the media has a left-wing bias. It means when the opposite is called out those cries are lost in waves of laughter. But while we're now used to getting our news for free, it means the only way many publications have been able to stay afloat is on the backs of wealthy oligarchs. As such their value is now less about circulation figures or advertising revenues, it is more the influence they can have through news selection and headline writing to push forward their own elitist interests while claiming to be speaking for the man in the street.

The internet allows everyone a voice, and the likes of Another Angry Voice have found a ready audience - almost 300,000 people follow his facebook page. The Canary is a more traditional news source, relying on donations to pay its writers, yet without multi-million pound budgets and a print publication they will remain with a readership in the hundreds of thousands, rather than the tens of millions who read the Sun and the Daily Mail.

So the radical Left needs other means to get out its message. Filter bubbles around social media and online searches tailor what we see to such a degree that they censor out the memes of our political foes, meaning our modern internet has an entrenching rather than an enlightening effect. Sharing posts online therefore does not count as political activism as it does nothing to challenge the opinions of a wider audience. That means other channels of communication are necessary. Bus advertising seems an effective new way of getting out an idea, while Hungary's 'Dog with two Tails' party in particular has used billboards and stickers to mimic and mock the propaganda of the state. The fundraising for the party's campaigns regularly meet and surpass their crowdfunding targets, and the pool of funds has enabled the party's leader NAME to spread his messages across the country and even on the streets of London.

And while it may no longer be a fashionable thing to do in a country like England, taking to the streets in mass protest often brings about changes which are only picked up on by historians studying events in hindsight. Occupy was largely derided as aimless and without meaning, as a crowd of ungrateful children shouting incoherently for something they didn't understand. But one of the recurring topics of discussion within the movement was the limiting of financial power, of bringing to justice those guilty of gross financial misconduct. In Europe and the United States, much of that has revolved around enquiries into price fixing of various markets, and has led to record fines for the firms involved. Before Occupy in 2011 this would've been unthinkable.

Adam R. Mathews,
Madrid, Spain, 26 April 2017

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