In the absence of major class struggles in the UK, the European elections provide us with a snapshot view of the current state of politics. The following analysis looks at the election results in Europe, the UK & Ireland and, in a bit more detail, in Scotland, in order to identify some significant political trends.
1) The Mainstream
a) Mainstream Right
Despite the ongoing unresolved economic crisis, following the ‘Credit Crunch’, the main beneficiaries in the Euro-election have been those Mainstream Right parties belonging to the wider European Peoples Party (EPP).
Right Centrists have traditionally been pro-business, drawing their support from the middle class, and upholding conservative values. At times, in the past, these parties have accepted pragmatic state intervention in the economy and social welfare measures. This phase of Right Centre politics was most associated with overlapping Christian Democratic/Social Democratic and Butskellite Conservative/Labour support for social market policies, from the late 1940’s to the mid 1970’s, and later in mainland Europe.
In response to capitalism’s crisis of profitability in the mid-1970’s, Mainstream Right parties, beginning with the British Conservatives, have moved to the neo-liberal economic policies aggressively pushed by corporate capital, sometimes supplemented by Right populist appeals to social conservatism, defending ‘family values’ and ‘national traditions’.
The parties of the EPP, which made the biggest electoral gains in the Euro-election, currently hold office, either with other Mainstream Right forces or, in Merkel’s case, in a coalition with the Social Democrats. They gained 20 seats overall(1). Today, the dominant politics of this grouping stretches from the Right Centrism of parties like Merkel’s CDU/CSU to the Right populism of Berlusconi’s PdL. In between lies Sarkozy’s(2) UDM.
Until the ‘Credit Crunch’, these Mainstream Right governments were pushing neo-liberal measures to further deregulate their economies and to roll back their own state’s social-market welfare provisions.
Nevertheless, despite a strongly shared commitment to the European Union, further political integration and neo-liberal deregulation measures, these Mainstream Right-led governments quickly took action in breach of EU rules and neo-liberal orthodoxy. Faced with the possibility that the unfolding ‘Credit Crunch’ could undermine capitalism itself, these governing parties protected their countries’ perceived national interests, and reassured domestic voters that they were prepared to intervene in the economy to ward off the economic chaos brought about by the previous ‘free market’ free-for-all they had supported.
Government intervention by such Mainstream Right parties is largely seen as a pragmatic response to the current economic crisis, and does not raise any unwanted spectres of creeping state control in business circles. So most Mainstream Right-led governments could make their economic policy adjustments in response to the economic crisis relatively easily, without having to look over their shoulders.
Thus, for all those voters, especially the majority of the middle class still in reasonably secure jobs (for the present), but with some nagging doubts (for the future), a vote for this pragmatic Mainstream Right appeared to be a safe option.
Berlusconi’s PdL and Sarkozy’s UDM made substantial gains in this Euro-election – 16 and 11 seats respectively. Merkel’s CDU/CSU did lose 7 seats (its Social Democratic government coalition partners managed to hold on to theirs), but 5 of these were picked up by the pro-business FDP. Whilst currently benefiting from being in opposition, the FDP as often formed a coalition partner with the other Mainstream parties in the past.
However, a further deepening of the economic crisis could undermine the current complacency of the middle class, which, at present, leads them to look to minimal changes and for a ‘safe pair of hands on the tiller’. Italy provides us with an example of the likely trajectory of the Right, if the Right Centrist policies, currently pursued by Merkel and others, are unable to hold the line.
Despite, the poor economic situation in Italy, Berlusconi’s Right populist PdL-led government has enhanced its hold, both in the 2008 Italian general election and the 2009 Euro-election. It has done through the increasing big business hold on the state (most obviously by Berlusconi’s media companies) and by a barrage of public attacks on migrants. Berlusconi’s Right populist allies, the anti-migrant (and anti-Southern Italian) Northern League also made big gains in the election (+5 seats). Together, these parties have created a political climate that allows physical attacks (including murders), particularly upon Roma and African immigrants to occur, without much official challenge.
In this particular election, Italy has gone further Right than any other western European country, eliminating not only any official Communist/Socialist Left (3), but also any independent Social Democratic and Green electoral presence in the European Parliament. The corporate capitalist ‘Americanisation’ of politics, (where the Republicans and Democrats form two wings of the ‘Business Party’) is now quite far advanced in Italy.
b) Social Democratic/Labour Centre
Many commentators thought that Social Democrat/Labour parties should do well in this first post-‘Credit Crunch’ election, now that neo-liberalism is discredited. A return to the pre-1980’s mixed economy, based on Keynesian economics, very much associated with earlier Social Democratic/Labour parties, and maybe even a recommitment to social welfare was briefly touted. The neo-Keynesian (i.e. capitalist) case for government intervention in the economy is so widely acknowledged(4), that it has even been adopted in the USA – first, very shame-facedly by Bush’s Republican government, then with more enthusiasm by Obama’s new Democrat government.
However, both the new US Democrat government, and the longstanding New Labour government in the UK, have been quick to claim that those nationalisations, they have reluctantly been forced to adopt, are merely temporary expedients. The new nationalised companies have been left under their previous bosses’ control, with promises to reprivatise later, no doubt on very favourable terms. Most bosses can hardly believe their luck, and are rapidly returning to awarding themselves big bonus payments and other perks.
The fact that the traditionally pro-business Mainstream Right were the main beneficiaries of the European election will only reinforce most sitting Social Democrat/Labour governments in seeing neo-Keynesian measures as being short lived. Indeed, the enforced nationalisations are very definitely not being used to provide greater economic security for their workforce in the ongoing economic crisis. These recently nationalised companies are still being run by figures from the corporate business world, who are forcing through redundancies, short-time working, pay, conditions and pension cuts for their workers, so these companies can be returned to private hands in a more profitable state (e.g. Chrysler in the USA and the Royal Bank of Scotland in the UK).
If, as is very likely, the current economic recession further deepens, governments may be forced to resort to much more comprehensive neo-Keynesian measures. However, any final abandonment of neo-liberalism and more general acceptance of neo-Keynesianism does not represent creeping socialism, as some Socialists still seem to believe. In today’s competitive global economy, any governments adoption of such a strategy can only mean the state taking on even greater responsibility for implementing austerity measures, increased beggar-thy-neighbour protectionist policies and preparations for war – in other words not socialism but state capitalism.
Ironically, Social Democratic/Labour governments have found it more difficult than the continental Mainstream Right to respond to the current economic crisis. Social Democratic/Labour leaders are now more cautious about moving away from neo-liberal non-interventionism. They fear the ending of their recently won big business and media backing, if seen to pursue neo-Keynesian interventionist policies too keenly. These leaders have also gained much better access to the spoils of office, as well as to very lucrative business patronage.
Furthermore, Social Democratic/Labour politicians not only call upon the working class to pay for ‘its share’ of the costs of the crisis, but actively pursue measures to ensure this happens. They use their links with the compliant trade unions to help them, e.g. through social partnerships in the UK and Ireland. In contrast, any pleas these same politicians make, suggesting that bosses should shoulder some share of the costs of the crisis, remain pious calls not backed by any effective measures of enforcement. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of previous Social Democratic/Labour working class voters now think these parties have little to offer in the current crisis, so they either abstain or look elsewhere to register their protest.
Meanwhile, sensing the unpopularity of existing Social Democratic/Labour governments, and realising their decreased ability to deliver a ‘bound and gagged’ working class, big business backers are turning back to the Mainstream Right parties, which appear to hold more immediate electoral promise.
However, even when existing Social Democratic/Labour parties are ousted from office, big business will still continue to exert pressure on them to defend their interests, when called upon later. The neo-liberal Right wing of Social Democracy will regroup and not just disappear, as many on the Labour Left hope. The advantages to business of achieving an ‘Americanisation’ of politics are too great(5). Thus, despite the biggest crisis seen in the British Labour Party for 80 years, it is still the Right that calls the shots, with Lord Mandelson firmly in control. The parliamentary Left has been virtually silent over the current crisis in the party.
Thus, a striking trend in this Euro-election has been the very poor performance of Social Democratic and Labour Parties. Overall, the European Socialist Party (ESP) lost 35 members. Compared with the successes of incumbent Right governments in Italy and France, sitting Social Democratic/Labour governments (whether alone, or in coalition) fared particularly badly, losing seats in Austria (-3 seats), Belgium (-2 seats), Estonia (-2 seats), Hungary (-5 seats), Netherlands (-4 seats), Portugal (-5 seats), Slovenia (-1 seat), Spain (-3 seats) and the UK (-6 seats).
Social Democratic parties also did badly in Denmark (-1 seat) Finland (-1 seat), Poland (-1 seat), where they don’t hold office, but are also committed to neo-liberal policies. Two examples of Social Democratic parties doing spectacularly badly, despite not being in office, are to be found in France (-9 seats) and in Italy(6) (-12 seats). Again these particular parties are committed to the neo-liberalism, which has hit their own working class voters hardest. In Italy, the majority Social Democrats no longer even stand independently, but form part of the liberal Democratic Party (DP).
iii) Liberal Centre
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) (which includes the British Liberal Democrats) also fell back 5 seats in the European Parliament (despite 5 gains by the affiliated oppositional FDP in Germany). Such parties often form parts of wider coalitions, and hence, with little different to offer, they have suffered electorally from a combined incumbency/irrelevancy factor during the current economic crisis. Furthermore, most Liberal parties have largely abandoned their earlier social liberalism for neo-liberalism.
In Ireland, Fianna Fail also now forms part of ALDE. It leads the West European government responsible for the biggest attacks on workers in response to the current crisis so far. It lost 3 seats in the Euro-election.
2) Beyond the Mainstream Centre
For those most badly affected by the current economic crisis, the Euro-election provided an opportunity to show their disapproval. Many of the most disillusioned just abstained. This European election had the lowest overall turnout ever, down from 45.5% in 2004 to 43.1% in 2009(7). The overall participation rate continued to decline in the majority of EU member countries. However, the striking feature of this election was the relatively limited political scope of the shifts in electoral choices made by most of those who did vote for non-Mainstream parties.
i) Nationalist parties
Indeed, in the case of Catalunya, Euskadi, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it could be argued that votes given to the following nationalist parties – CiU, PNV, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein – are now, in effect, being awarded to alternative but specific local Mainstream parties. All these parties are now well established in the machinery of their particular states, forming the leaderships of, or joining coalitions in devolved administrations(8). These parties all accept, either enthusiastically or pragmatically, the existing corporate capitalist order, whatever limited constitutional and social reforms they might put forward, which continue to upset the Mainstream unionist governments and parties in their particular states – Spain and the UK.
A resurgent Right British nationalism has been a strong feature of this election in Wales and Northern Ireland (see later UK and Ireland section). Something similar can be seen in Spain, where the ultra-unionist Union for Progress and Democracy(9), drawing support from both the Right and Left, has gained a seat. They want to abolish all the devolved national and regional administrations in Spain.
Whilst the up-and-down political battles between unionism and nationalism in Wales and Euskadi may explain these particular resurgences of unionism, there is also perhaps a fear amongst many voters that solutions to deal with the ongoing economic crisis can not be met at a small nation level.
Populism is a politics that appeals to the more economically and politically marginalised, without situating itself firmly on the grounds of class. At one time this meant populism drew its main support from the petit bourgeoisie – small farmers, small business owners, e.g. shopkeepers, artisans, etc. However, where effective working class organisation has fallen apart, leaving many workers atomised and feeling unable to alter the course of events by their own actions, populism is able to make inroads here too.
Thus, populism has both Right and Left variants. To its Right, populism merges with Fascism based on the petty bourgeoisie, the economically threatened sections of the middle class, and the atomised sections of the working class. To its Left it merges with Socialist (or Labour Left) politics based on the organised (or would-be organised) working class.
Populism has been the main overall winner of the votes of those wishing to express their discontent with the Mainstream Centre in the current economic crisis. Many disenchanted people were prepared to vote for the populists’ eye-catching political, economic and social proposals, despite these being essentially minimalist or dangerously diversionary.
iii) Right populism
In most cases, it has been Right populism that has benefited in these elections. It has already been pointed out that, despite being an Italian Mainstream party and a constituent of the largely Centre Right EPP, Berlusconi’s PdL and its Northern League ally has successfully made Right populist, anti-migrant appeals to the Italian electorate.
Another big electoral winner was the Right populist and national chauvinist UKIP in Britain(10) (+2 seats). UKIP emerged in this election with the second biggest number of votes after the Tories. UKIP’s electoral advance was all the more remarkable given the early defection of its most well known spokesperson, Kilroy-Silk, and the jailing of one of its first MEPs for corruption, after the 2004 Euro-election. In Austria (+2 seats), Finland (+1 seat), Greece (+1 seat), and particularly in the Netherlands (+4 seats), anti-migrant Right populists have all made considerable gains.
iv) Fascist/Right populist alliances
However, to these constitutional Right populist parties, it is also necessary to add the votes and seats won by those former Fascist and those still Fascist parties, which have now either fully adopted Right populist politics (e.g. Fini’s National Alliance component of the PdL), or which use such politics to mask their own continuing support for a full-blown fascist project (e.g. the BNP). This is because where these parties have been electorally successful, it has been by making Right populist, and not openly Fascist appeals.
Ironically, the political compromises, which have led some Fascist organisations to adopt Right populist clothing (and an acceptance of constitutionalism), have produced parallel tensions amongst the Fascists, to those found amongst Socialists, where the pull of Left populism can be just as strong.
One hallmark of a fully developed Socialist organisation is its readiness to use mass democratic action in defiance of the existing anti-democratic constitutional order to advance its aims. In today’s non-revolutionary situation, still largely marked by a continuing Capitalist Offensive, the Communists/Socialists can only to aspire to such levels of opposition and organisation. Instead, we try to build for such future action by promoting, for example, independent (‘unofficial’) strikes or occupations. In the meantime, though, many on the Left get drawn into the central running of bodies, which by their very nature are involved in the day-to-day running of capitalism, e.g. trade unions, quangoes, etc. This can lead many to accept gradualist Reformism and/or a resort to Left populism.
In comparison, the hallmark of fully developed Fascist organisations is the use of goon squads and/or paramilitary forces to win control of the streets, and to deny any political (or public) space for Socialists and others (e.g. ethnic minorities, gays, etc.). However, present day Fascists do not currently enjoy the support of their ruling classes, so such activities, when exposed, can lead to spells in jail. Therefore, recently such parties have tried to downplay this particular characteristic and appear ‘respectable’.
In the absence of concerted working class resistance, European ruling classes can still bring about the counter-reforms they need, by resort to legal attacks on workers’ livelihoods, rights and organisations (e.g, anti-trade union laws), with the help of the existing Mainstream parties. These all try to meet the needs of the existing corporate capitalist order, whatever other policy differences may divide them. Thus, the extra-legal services of the Fascists are not yet required. In the meantime, Fascists get drawn into working on community and local councils, and parliaments. Some mellow in the process, becoming subordinate partners in wider Broad Right alliances, and pushing Right populist politics.
This means that those Fascists not just satisfied with just moving Mainstream politics further to the Right (which could lead to their cooption or marginalisation in the future), want to maintain their hardcore cadre through attacks on migrants, gays and others (these attacks can still be publicly disowned by the official leadership).
For these Fascists, new anti-migrant laws are not ends in themselves, but a means to create a wider climate of racism and chauvinism in which the Fascists can move ‘like fish in water’. Today, attacks on individuals, or on small marginalied groups, particularly in areas where Fascists have some electoral support, are the main type of activity giving them the initial training they require, for a time in the future, when they may yet be called upon by sections of the ruling class and the employers to physically crush workers’ organisations.
In the current political situation, Italy shows us the most likely political impact of the rise of Fascist and other xenophobic Far Right forces on the politics of other western European countries. There is not going to be any immediate ‘March on Rome’. Fascists have been able to move the Mainstream parties to the Right, by promoting anti-migrant and anti-sexual liberation policies. These help to keep the working class divided.
Thatcher contributed to the demise of the National Front by adopting some of their racist rhetoric herself, and Sarkozy has tried the same in France. However, Berlusconi’s Italy is also instructive. The Right populist PdL has absorbed two former fascist organisations, Fini’s National Alliance and Alessandra Mussolini’s Social Action.
Germany, like Italy, has its own fascist past. However, in marked contrast to the Italian Fascists, most present day German Fascists remain full-blooded Fascists, i.e. Nazis. Consequently they have been unable to make any breakthrough into national politics (whilst still remaining a grave physical threat to migrant workers, particularly in the many of the depressed parts of former East Germany).
Parties spanning the Fascist/Right populist spectrum did well in Eastern Europe, where nearly all the Mainstream parties are to the right of their western equivalents, reflecting their continuing reaction to the legacy of Russian ‘Communist’ domination(11). In Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, seats have been won by the violently chauvinist, anti-Roma, anti-gay, Jobbik (+ 3 seats), Greater Romania (+ 3 seats) and Attak (+2 seats) parties. The current economic crisis has hit Eastern Europe particularly hard, and Socialism (at least in its genuine internationalist form) is still associated in many minds with old-style Stalinism, so the political situation here is looking increasingly grim.
v) Left populism and Socialism
The Greens are the best example of a populist politics that makes most (but not all of) of its appeal to left of centre voters. The Greens made small, but nevertheless significant advances in Belgium (+1 seat), Denmark (+1 seat), Finland (+1 seat), Germany (+1 seat) (where they have been out of coalition governments long enough for people to forget their past record in office). Overall, they gained 13 seats in the European Parliament, only losing seats in Italy and the Netherlands, where Right populism made significant advances instead. Elsewhere, the Greens increased their vote, except in Portugal (where they are in the same party – the CDU – as the official Communists) – and in Ireland, where they have paid the cost of being in an unpopular governmental coalition with Fianna Fail.
Furthermore, Greens have made serious inroads into the voting base of certain Socialist groups, whether ex-official Communist or Left Social Democrat/Labour, which also adopt Left populist politics This is apparent in the election results, for example, in France, Britain (including Scotland), but perhaps most spectacularly in Denmark, where the 2 MEPs (+1 seat) of the Socialist Peoples Party (SPP) now sit as observers in the Green Euro-group.
France has seen some of the biggest class struggles in Europe in recent years, with massive strikes and actions by migrant workers. This has resulted in a willingness to vote left of the Mainstream Centre in the Euro-election. The Fascist/Right populist National Front lost 3 seats showing how class struggle can shift the terms of political debate.
However, despite some favourable opinion polls, the Trotskyist, LCR-initiated, New Anti-Capitalist Party, a very recent Socialist formation, just failed to get MEPs elected. This was partly because a major push was made by the French establishment to marginalise this latest challenge (just as it did, when the National Front’s Le Pen emerged as the main alternative when the Right Centrist Chirac in the 2007 French Presidential election).
Thus the Greens(12) in France were seen to be a relatively safe alternative, and they managed to corral the majority of the left of Centre protest votes. They won another 8 seats bringing them up to 14 (3 more than the British Labour Party!)
Furthermore, the Left Front, consisting of the French Communist Party (PCF), the Left Party (a breakaway from the French Socialist Party, which hopes to emulate Germany’s Die Linke) and the Unitarian Left (a rightist breakaway from the Trotskyist LCR, which did not join the NAP) formed another Left populist electoral alliance, united around Left nationalist politics(13).
The Left Front managed to gain 2 more seats (albeit on less than a 1% increase in the voting for the 2004 PCF-led Euro-slate). Therefore, although they contributed to just stopping the NAP from winning any seats, the overall 6.5% vote gained for this Left Front populist slate merely disguised the continued downward spiral of its main component, the PCF. It also highlighted the lack of support for those Left Social Democratic forces who joined them, and whom the PCF and others have long sought to woo.
In Germany, as in France, most of the protest vote went not to the right but to the left, albeit more weakly, with one new seat won by the Greens and one by Die Linke(14) (which was expected to do better). Die Linke is an alliance of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) (the former official East German Communist Party) and the Labour and Social Justice Electoral Campaign (WASG), Lafontaine’s Left breakaway from the German Social Democratic Party.
Where it holds offices in the local administrations (in the former East Germany), the SED behaves like other Social Democratic Parties, implementing cuts. The western-based WASG has resisted this course so far. However, the new Die Linke leadership supported the bail-out of German banks in the Reichstag, and tacitly supported Israel in its Gaza invasion, so, in the longer term, Die Linke looks fated to follow a similar path to Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and the United Left in Spain, where working class support slumped after these parties gave their support to cuts-implementing Social Democratic governments.
vi) The long term decline of official Communism and the EUL/NGL
Any examination of the official Communist-led EUL/NGL Euro-group shows that, despite the current economic crisis, it is a largely declining force, mainly due to the Communist parties’ one-time links with the failed USSR, but also to their member parties’ willingness to join, or prop up Social Democratic Centre governments administering cuts or promoting imperial wars. Overall the EUL/NGL lost 5 of the Euro-seats that it held in 2004. In Italy, Rifondazione Comunista representation in the European Parliament was wiped out (following a similar setback in the Italian general election in 2008).
In Spain, the CP-led United Left also lost a seat. Even in Greece, despite the recent massive upheavals, the local Communist Party, the KKE, still lost a seat. The SYRIZA alliance, its newly formed rival, also fell back on the % vote won by its largest constituent organisation, Synaspismos, in the 2004 Euro-election (as well as that it gained in the 2007 Greek general election). In Greece, against the grain, the Social Democratic PASOK has held its own and emerged as the main winner in the Euro-election. This is probably due to a combination of being in opposition, and a longstanding ability to adopt Left populist (and Left nationalist) rhetoric when necessary.
Only in Cyprus has the local Communist Party, AKEL, really held its own, retaining its 2 seats. Uniquely for the EU, a Communist Party forms the elected government in Cyprus. However, this is more due to it being seen as the best bet for reuniting a country, still partly occupied by Turkish armed forces. Much of AKEL’s appeal is Cypriot nationalist.
In both Sweden and Denmark, Left nationalism is the declared principle of the two the Left populist EUL/NGL affiliates in these particular countries – the anti-EU Left Party and the Peoples Movement Against the EU, respectively. Both of these parties include former official Communists, now that their parties have dissolved.
The Left Party lost a seat in Sweden, where the Centre Right, Moderate Party, leader of the sitting government, and the libertarian populist Pirate Party, made the biggest advances. In Denmark, the parties forming the sitting Liberal/Right Centre/Right populist government all advanced, whilst the Social Democrats fell back sharply. The EUL/NGL affiliated Peoples Movement against the EU(principally backed by the Red Green Alliance in Denmark) was able to substantially increase its vote in these propitious circumstances, but without gaining an extra seat(15). A much bigger proportion of the Left vote in Denmark went to the non-EUL/NGL Socialist Peoples Party, which did gain an extra seat.
In the Czech Republic, the local Communist Party, KSCM, lost 2 seats. Here however, in one of the few exceptions to the trouncing of Social Democrats, the Czech SD party gained 5 seats. This was partly due to the continued decline of the KSC, once of course, the ruling party in the whole of Czechslovakia. The KSCM is the last official Communist Party from Eastern Europe with European Parliament representation to remain in the EUL/NGL16.
So, although in France and Denmark, official CP backed, Left populist alliances – the Left Front and the Peoples Movement against the EU – have increased their votes, as part of a general Left populist swing in these countries, in both these countries other Left populist parties did better – the Greens and the SPP respectively.
vii) An emerging Socialist alternative to official CP Left populism?
The two countries where local EUL/NGL affiliates did best are the Netherlands and Portugal. In the Netherlands, the Socialist Party’s vote largely held up, and it retained its 2 Euro-seats, despite the unnerving slide by most protesting voters to anti-migrant, Right populists. However, the Socialist Party does not come from the official Communist tradition. It comes from a Maoist background, long abandoned and is part of the Socialist Left, standing on an openly socialist platform, based on working class politics.
The results in Portugal of the Left Bloc, another Socialist organisation, were remarkable. The Left Bloc, like the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, has Maoist roots, which it has abandoned. However, it has opened itself to other Socialist forces, and unlike the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, it also forms part of the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance (EACL). Nor is the Left Bloc the only EUL/NGL affiliate in Portugal. There is also the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU), the permanent Left populist alliance between the official Communists and the Greens, which stand together under this name in European, national and local elections.
In a situation where the incumbent Portuguese Socialist Party (Social Democratic) government lost spectacularly in the Euro-elections, most of the non-Mainstream vote went left. However, it was not the initially better placed CDU, which gained. Its vote fell back slightly, whilst retaining its 2 Euro-seats. It was the Left Bloc that hugely increased its vote and won 2 more seats.
The failure of the NPA in France to win any Euro-seats is hopefully a temporary setback in the formation of an alternative, anti-Left populist, Socialist Left alliance in Europe. Relating to the rising level of class struggle, the NPA stood on the basis of working class politics – ‘Make the Bosses Pay for Their Crisis’. That is the way to give a political lead to workers involved in current class struggles, where the official trade union leaders and Social Democratic parties try to limit the purpose of any action to ‘sharing’ the costs around – workers should accept some cuts as an example for the bosses to follow!
It will be interesting to see the political direction taken another representative of the Socialist Left – Joe Higgins of the CWI-affiliated Socialist Party. He won the Dublin seat previously held by the Irish EUL/NGL affiliate, Sinn Fein17. Will Joe Higgins take an active part in the European Anti-Capitalist Left (EACL), and help contribute to the formation of a distinct international Socialist Left group within the EUL/NGL? Or, will he behave like another Trotskyist group, Lutte Ouvriere from France, which won 3 seats in the 1999 Euro-election (with another 2 going to its then electoral allies, the LCR), but then proceeded to try and advance its own group’s interests above those of the wider international Socialist Left? It lost all of its seats in the 2004 Euro-election.
For the moment, it is the Left Bloc in Portugal, rather than the NPA in France, which could have the greater role in helping to further the EACL’s international political presence. Many Socialists might be critical of the politically ambiguous names of the NPA or Left Bloc. Nevertheless, so long as they remain democratic organisations, positively engaged in the class struggles of their countries, with an unwavering commitment to internationalism, those on the Socialist Left, who really want to influence events, should be participating.
B) THE UK AND IRELAND
In keeping with the ‘internationalism from below’ approach linking events and politics in the UK and Ireland, which the RCN has adopted (see earlier articles), the following section covers the whole of these islands. Because the most significant advances for Socialists in the 2009 European election were made in ‘26 counties’ Ireland, section B begins its analysis here.
Results of the main parties standing in Ireland in 2009 and 2004
Party 2009 % 2004 %
Fine Gael 29.1 27.8
Fianna Fail 24.1 29.5
Labour 13.9 10.5
Sinn Fein 11.2 11.1
Socialist Party 2.8* 1.3*
Green 1.9 4.3
% voting 57.5 59
* The Socialist Party only put forward a candidate in the Dublin Euro- constituency in the two elections. In Dublin, the SP’s share of the vote was 12.4%, ahead of Sinn Fein’s 11.8%.
The most talked about feature of the 2009 Euro-election in Ireland was the winning of one of the three Dublin seats by Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party, and Sinn Fein losing theirs. The governing party, Fianna Fail, were also wiped out in Dublin, with Labour taking a seat instead, alongside Fine Gael, which already held the other seat.
There was only a small drop in the participation rate from 59% t0 57.5%. The electoral results in Ireland were the most encouraging in these islands. The parties of the sitting Fianna Fail/Green government coalition in the Dail, Fianna Fail (-5.4%) and the Greens (-2.4%) did deservedly badly, after implementing one of the most draconian anti-worker budgets seen in western Europe.
Furthermore, the Right Centre, opposition Fine Gael (+1.3%) only managed a small increase in its share of the vote. Against the trend elsewhere in Europe, the Social Democrat, opposition Irish Labour Party (+3.4%) substantially increased its vote. People do not have recent experience of Labour in office in Ireland, and the party leadership has been cultivating a more Left public image (e.g. opposing bank bail-outs).
However, Labour has made such Left noises in the past before frittering away its electoral gains in coalitions, with Fianna Fail, in the 1990’s, and Fine Gael in the 1970’s and ‘80s. In the recent past, some have talked of an alternative Left coalition involving Labour, Sinn Fein and the Greens. However, past political antipathies, the parliamentary arithmetic, and the declining fortunes of the Greens (and Sinn Fein in a number of key areas) makes this unlikely. Labour is only too likely to end up in another Fine Gael-led coalition.
Therefore, the current increased vote for Labour (+3.4%) only represents a small shift to the left within the Mainstream Centre. Ireland’s Mainstream Right, Fine Gael, only made a marginal gain (+ 1.3%). Furthermore, Declan Ganley’s Right populist, Eurosceptic, Libertas (the equivalent of UKIP), failed to make any electoral breakthrough. There were no Fascist parties standing in any Irish constituencies.
To the left of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein only made the most marginal 0.2% gain in its vote, by increasing its support in areas where it has just started organising properly. However, this has been largely offset by its losses in older established areas, particularly Dublin, where it lost its only Euro-seat.
Furthermore, Sinn Fein, busily angling for the patriotic Irish business vote, is trying to drop its Left populist credentials, and move into the Mainstream. The once touted Sinn Fein/Labour/Green Left coalition seems to have been quietly parked. Sinn Fein, like Labour, has been looking instead for another Mainstream coalition partner, as evidenced by its rightward moves to placate Fianna Fail during last year’s Irish general election. However, Sinn Fein’s hoped for pan-nationalist coalition is unlikely to materialise. Fianna Fail looks keener on getting the Queen over to Ireland, than ever promoting a united republican Ireland. Fianna Fail’s occasionally threatens to merge with Northern Ireland’s SDLP, but this would only be undertaken to help out the UK and Irish governments and to undermine Sinn Fein.
If the Sinn Fein leadership should now be seen as Mainstream aspirants, much of their remaining base in the Republic probably still votes for them in the same manner as many Old Labour voters often still vote New Labour. In this sense, then, the vote for Sinn Fein in the Euro-election can still be seen mainly as left of Centre, even if the leadership is moving in quite another direction.
Joe Higgin’s win for the Socialist Party represents a real gain for the Socialists. Furthermore, unlike their CWI comrades in England, Wales or Scotland, the Socialist Party in Ireland did not lose itself in a Europhobic, Left populist/Left nationalist electoral alliance. Nor was any mention made of Ireland leaving the EU!
Another feature of the Euro-elections in Ireland was that they coincided with local council elections. Here too, the Socialists also performed well, with the Socialist Party winning 7 seats in the urban area of north Dublin and beyond to Drogheda. Meantime, the SWP, still in Respect-mode and hiding behind its Left populist front, People before Profit, won 5 seats in the urban area south of Dublin. Furthermore, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group won 1 council seat in the Carrick-on-Suir ward of South Tipperary County Council, and emerged as the biggest group on Clonmel Urban Council.
Clearly, unlike in Britain, Socialist parties and organisations in Ireland can at least come to an agreement about not standing against each other. However, given the new opportunities, the challenge is to see whether Socialists in Ireland can create a wider united and principled party in Ireland. This will mean overcoming deep-seated political sectarian traditions.
2. Northern Ireland
Results for the biggest parties in Northern Ireland in 2009 and 2004
Party % vote 2009 % vote 2004
Sinn Fein 26.0 26.3
UUP** 17.1 16.6
DUP 16.2 31.9
SDLP 16.2 15.9
Alliance 5.5 6.6*
% voting 42.8 51.5
• In 2004, Alliance backed an Independent candidate.
• In 2009, the UUP stood as the Conservatives and Unionists, marking their new alliance with the British Conservative Party. This does not bode well for Scotland, with its Irish-Scottish and Orange traditions in the Central Belt. This move by the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party could well reintroduce the sectarian factor into Mainstream politics.
The two most talked about features of the 2009 Euro-election in Northern Ireland were Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party, and the large vote for the ultra-sectarian, Right populist, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a split away from the very sectarian, Right populist, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
In the longer term it is the second factor that is likely to be more significant. Sinn Fein has moved from being a Left nationalist party much more into the Mainstream, now that it is a coalition partner in the devolved Northern Ireland Executive (NIE). It is responsible for implementing cuts and delivering privatisations, just like any Mainstream Social Democrat party holding office.
Therefore, as an incumbent party in the NIE, it might have been expected that Sinn Fein’s vote would have declined by more than 0.3%. However, the overriding factor in Northern Ireland is the constitutionally entrenched sectarian divide left by the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements. This is underscored by the obvious destination for most of those lost Sinn Fein votes. The other largely Catholic nationalist party, the SDLP increased its vote by exactly 0.3%!
Now, of course the spectacular 15.9 % fall in the vote of the other NIE coalition partner, the DUP, is largely accounted for by the remarkable and worrying 13.7% rise in the vote by the new TUV, an even more thoroughly reactionary force than its parent organisation. This represents nearly 30% of the Unionist vote. TUV wants an end to any Catholic nationalist participation in government, and a return to Protestant unionist majority rule, with all that entails. Not even the DUP’s warnings of a split allowing Sinn Fein to emerge as the first party stopped the TUV making its large gains.
In the longer run there is an increasing possibility that Jim Allister’s TUV will do to the DUP what Ian Paisley’s DUP did to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and kill off the St. Andrews Agreement in the process. This will make Sinn Fein’s appearance as the first party in Northern Ireland, a rather hollow victory.
Despite the fact that the genteely sectarian UUP now having the added appeal of British Conservative support, as well as not holding office in the NIE government in these difficult times, it still only managed to increase its vote by 0.5%. Neither did the Alliance Party benefit at all by its alliance with the British Lib Dems. Its vote fell 1.1% compared to the vote received by the independent candidate it backed in 2004. Some of this vote probably went to the Conservative and Unionists. However, the Alliance’s 5.5% vote shows that liberal Unionism is a very limited phenomenon in this institutionally sectarian statelet.
Furthermore, Northern Ireland followed Wales in showing a large decline in voter participation, falling from 51.7% to 42.8%. In this case, though, it would appear that the DUP lost out to the greatest degree.
Given that more politics occur on the streets in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK or Ireland, these Euro-elections have also to be seen in this wider context. The recent re-emergence of pure physical force Republicanism, amongst the dissidents in the Real and Continuity IRAs, with the killings of members of the British Army and PSNI (and associated shootings of civilians) in Antrim and Craigavon represents a real political deadend.
The sectarian killing of a Catholic man, and the severe injuring of his Protestant wife in Coleraine, also highlights the continued malevolent presence of loyalism in Northern Ireland. The hounding out of more than a hundred migrant Roma in South Belfast by loyalists, equally adept at racist as sectarian attacks, will be looked at with envy by the BNP.
Quite clearly, in Northern Ireland, we already have the ‘Italian’ political situation mentioned earlier, where the nature and in/action of the state actively encourages such attacks. When the Roma families made desperate phone calls for help to the PSNI, the police just bided their time. Later, they offered to ‘help’ the victims to move out. A few ‘teenage delinquents’ will carry all the blame if there are any subsequent court cases.
The Socialist and Green vote in Northern Ireland in 2004
Party/Coalition 2004 votes and %
Socialist Environmental Association 9,172/1.6
The Green vote in Northern Ireland in 2009
Party 2009 votes and %
Of course, some would argue that Sinn Fein, a member of the official Communist led, UEL/NGL Euro-group, is the main Left party in Northern Ireland, and with 26% of the vote, one of the largest Left populist forces in Europe. Nevertheless, it has already been pointed out that ‘Left populist’ hardly describes much of Sinn Fein’s conduct in office today. Now, whilst a considerable number of Catholic nationalist voters probably still vote for Sinn Fein on Left nationalist grounds, few can doubt Sinn Fein’s rightwards drift since signing the Good Friday Agreement. The political gap between ‘Old’ Sinn Fein and ‘New’ Sinn Fein thinking can only grow bigger.
So far, the political manifestation of this gap has only taken the appearance of the pure physical force road found amongst dissident Republicans. The IRSP, which is on ceasefire, did not offer a political alternative, with a socialist republican slate in the election; neither did Eirigi, the socialist republican breakaway from Sinn Fein.
Looking beyond the Republican Movement, the striking feature of the 2009 Euro-election in Northern Ireland is the total collapse of any Socialist alternative. In 2004, the SWP front organisation, the Socialist Environmental Association (SEA) (which included independent Greens), easily outpolled (1.6%) the official Greens (0.6%). Now, it has disappeared. The Socialist Party, riding high in the South, also offered nothing in the North.
The only section of the 2009 vote in Northern Ireland that can be assigned mainly to the left of Centre (and not very far at that) is the increase in that of the Green Party (+2.4%). The increase in their vote from 2004, can probably be partly attributed to winning over many from the defunct SEA. Certainly the very name ‘Green’ probably acts as a barrier to getting votes across the sectarian divide.
As long as there appears to be little chance of replacing the British state promoted ‘Peace (pacification) Process’, and its constitutionally entrenched sectarianism, it is probable that Sinn Fein will largely maintain its vote in Northern Ireland, to prevent the institutionally sectarian Unionist parties from exercising more control over the UK’s devolved Stormont machinery.
3. All Britain
Results of the parties gaining seats and standing throughout Britain in 2009 and 2004
Party 2009 % 2004 %
Conservatives* 27.7 + 1.0 26.7
UKIP 16.5 + 0.4 16.1
Labour 15.7 – 6.9 22.6
Lib Dems** 13.7 – 1.2 14.9
Greens 8.6 + 2.3 6.3
BNP 4.2 + 1.7 3.9
% voting 34 37.6
* The Conservatives also stood in an alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party, whose votes are not counted in this all-Britain total.
** The Lib Dems stood in alliance with the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland. Again, these are not counted in this all-Britain total.
As in most EU member countries the voter participation rate fell. In Britain most abstentions were probably former Labour voters, disgusted with the sitting New Labour government, and unable to find an attractive enough alternative, especially with Socialists divided.
Amongst the Mainstream parties standing throughout Britain the shift was to the Centre Right, represented by the Conservatives, although hardly by a very big margin (+1%) (although come a general election most of the Right populist UKIP vote will return to the Conservatives). The sitting Labour government did very badly (-6.9%) (its best hope for a future general election is the return of those supporters who have abstained this time). The Lib Dems also lost out (-1.2%) (although they traditionally do less well in Euro-elections with a generally Eurosceptic electorate).
Although, the talk of the election in Britain has been the 2 seats won by the Fascist/Right populist BNP, and the emergence of the Right populist UKIP as the second party, the combined % voting gains by these two parties (+2.1%) did not equal that of the Left populist Greens (+2.3%).
Results for Socialists in Britain in 2004
Party 2004 votes
Respect Unity Coalition* 252,216
* Although Respect the Unity Coalition stood in Wales, where it trailed the Left populist, Wales Forward, it did not stand in Scotland, where Respect’s promoters, the SWP advocated a vote for the SSP. Therefore, for comparative purposes in 2009, the SSP’s 61,256 votes should also be added, giving an overall all-Britain Left vote of 313,472. Furthermore, despite being in competition with Respect in Wales, the 17,280 votes for Wales Forward (which had collapsed by 2009) should also be added giving an overall all- Britain total of 330,752 votes for the Left in 2004.
Results for Socialists in Britain in 2009
Party/Coalition 2009 votes/%
Socialist Labour Party 173,115/1.1
* In addition, the SSP, standing only in Scotland, received 10,404 votes.
When the overall Left vote in the 2009 Euro-election (313,472 + 10,404 = 323,876) is compared with that of 2004 (326,351), it can be seen there has been a small overall decline. However, given the opportunities that should have presented themselves with the current economic crisis and a sitting Labour government (c.f. the Left Bloc in Portugal), or considering the harder task where the sitting government is of the Right (c.f. the NPA in France), quite clearly the Left’s overall decline in Britain in 2009 is tragic. This can largely be put down to the sectarian antics of the two major components of the Respect and the pre-split SSP – the SWP and the CWI-Socialist Party.
The current Socialist weakness is underscored by the advance of the Left populist Greens (who undoubtedly received some Left votes in England as a way of keeping out the BNP), and of course the ability of the Fascist/Right populist BNP to cross the electoral threshold for winning seats in England.
However, the political situation is even worse, when the adoption of Left populist colours by some British Socialists, e.g. the Socialist Party (and some Scottish Socialists e.g. Solidarity) is considered. In 2004, certainly both the Socialist leaderships of the Respect Unity Coalition and Forward Wales hid behind non-socialist labels, making Left populist electoral appeals. But, in 2009, No2EU, backed by the CPB, the Socialist Party and Reepect Renewal, moved even further right, both in its name and its electoral appeal. No2EU adopted the racist Right’s ‘No social dumping’ wording for one of its policies, emulating the attempt of Gordon Brown’s to pinch the ‘British jobs for British workers’, slogan from the Fascists.
Due to the antics of the SWP, the Respect Unity coalition had already broken up by 2009, leaving only Respect Renewal behind, fronted by George Galloway. Respect Renewal follows in the celebrity populist pattern first established by Arthur Scargill in the SLP, and then copied by Tommy Sheridan in Solidarity. The main political organisation behind Respect Renewal is the Trotskyist, International Socialist Group, which has a long record of Left populist adaptations.
Despite having Galloway as an MP, though, Respect Renewal did not have the courage to stand any candidates in the 2009 Euro-election (in say, London). After an internal debate (with some advocating a tactical anti-BNP vote for the Greens), the ISG majority ended up backing the British Left nationalist, Left populist, Europhobic, No2EU campaign. This is in marked contrast to its USFI affiliate in France, the former LCR, now leading the NPA. The NPA put forward an internationalist campaign linking up with Socialists in other countries – Belgium, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Scotland.
Furthermore, these tensions were already anticipated by the ISG’s failure to publicly back the SSP against New Labour in the Glasgow East by-election, when the Left unionist Galloway gave his very public backing in the Daily Record to the New Labour candidate.
Scargill’s phantom Socialist Labour Party (SLP) sensed the opportunities provided by a now hopelessly divided Left, and re-entered the electoral arena in 2009. At first glance the SLP appears to be a Socialist party, with ‘Socialist’ in its name. However, in reality the SLP is no longer anything but one man’s vanity party. Therefore, the SLP is also populist, depending on a Left celebrity leader. Although the SLP performed better than any of the other Socialist parties contesting the 2009 Euro-election (not a major achievement), it has no visible organisation on the ground behind it, just leaving its voters as unorganised individuals.
It is also probable that a considerable proportion of the SLP vote did not come from the previous Left voters in 2004, but from that shrinking band of Old Labour adherents. Furthermore, policy-wise, there is little to distinguish the SLP from No2EU, given that their politics come from the same old official Communist Party ‘British Road to Socialism’ stable.
Results of the parties gaining seats and standing in Wales in 2009 and 2004
Party 2009 % 2004 %
Conservatives 21.2 19.4 + 1.8
Labour 20.3 32.5 – 12.2
Plaid Cymru 18.5 17.4 + 1.1
UKIP 12.8 7.4 + 5.4
Lib Dems 10.7 10.5 + 0.2
% voting 41.4 30.4
The most talked about feature of the election in Wales was the Conservatives emerging as the largest party for the first time ever. Wales has traditionally been seen as the most Left-inclined part of the UK. Whilst it is now a moot point whether a vote for the Lib Dems is really a vote to the right of New Labour, the Lib Dems hardly registered any change in its vote (+ 0.2%), despite not being in the Welsh Assembly government coalition.
The staggering 12.2% drop in the vote for Labour in Wales was nearly twice its British average loss. Much of this is explained by the massive fall in voter participation in Wales, from being the highest in Britain in 2004 to the second lowest in 2009.
Plaid Cymru, which probably suffered from being part of the Welsh Assembly coalition in Wales, only gained a 1.1% increase its share of the vote (despite the demise of the Left populist, Forward Wales, with its Left nationalist appeal, which gained 1.9% of the vote in 2004 – see below). Indeed, Plaid Cymru has still not returned to its 1999 voting level in the European Parliament.
The Greens did more poorly in Wales in the 2009 European compared to their sister organisations in England. The Welsh Greens only increased their share by 2% compared to +2.3% for the British Green average vote. This may partially be explained by the feeling amongst some, that the BNP were unlikely to take a seat in Wales.
Furthermore, there has been a real surge in British unionism in Wales, with the Right populist and British chauvinist UKIP making the biggest gains in the share of the vote (+5.4%), and taking a seat from Labour. Add this to the next biggest vote gainer in Wales – the Fascist/Right populist BNP (+2.4%).
Results for Socialists in Wales in 2004
Party/Coalition 2004 votes and %
Wales Forward 17,280/1.9
Respect Unity Coalition 5,427/0.6
Results for Socialists in Wales in 2009
Party/Coalition 2009 votes and %
Socialist Labour Party 12, 402/1.8
When the Socialist vote is compared between 2004 (22,707) and 2009 (21,002) the significance of its decline is clear, given the greater opportunities that have been provided by Labour’s more spectacular collapse in Wales. The % of the share going to the SLP (1.8%) and No2EU (1.3%) was marginally higher than in England, but given the spectacular collapse in Labour’s vote in Wales, hardly encouraging. The loss in the Socialist vote since 2004 and its small size in 2009 was not even ‘compensated’ by a big increase in the Left populist vote going to Plaid Cymru, which sometimes adopts Left populist colours in industrial Wales
Results for the larger parties in Scotland
Party 2009 % 2004 %
SNP 29.1 19.7
Labour 20.8 26.4
Conservatives 16.8 17.7
Lib Dems 11.5 13.1
Greens 7.3 6.8
UKIP 5.2 1.3
Scottish Socialist Party 0.9 5.2
% vote 28.5 30.9
The most talked about feature of the 2009 Euro-election in Scotland was the SNP emerging as the largest party. The spectacular fall in the SSP from 5.2% to 0.9% of the share of the votes should have been the second most talked about feature, but the SSP has now long sunk well below the media parapet.
In 2004, Scotland had the lowest turnout in the UK. This was a time when the SNP was in the doldrums. Some of its vote went to the SSP, whilst some of its more right wing voters probably abstained in 2004. However, in 2009, Labour abstentions probably account for the further drop in voter turnout in Scotland Euro-elections. Scotland remains the nation with the lowest voter turnout rate across these islands.
The SNP has been in office in a minority Scottish government since 2008. The limitations this imposes at national level appears to be understood by the Scottish electorate, although the SNP can still take hits, if a national vote can be linked to their particular performance at local council level, as the November 2008 Glenrothes by-election revealed.
To characterise the SNP’s voting appeal as Left populist is to overstate the case, despite some keynote policies – opposition to the war in Iraq, to Trident, and to nuclear power. These are the policies that have won over some of the softer Socialist vote since 2004. However, even these Left populist policies coexist with vocal SNP support for the Scottish regiments of the British Army!
Probably more important for the SNP, and the key to their winning many Labour votes, has been its adoption of what would once have been as very mild Social Democratic measures (e.g. keeping open certain hospitals, more free school meals and introducing free prescription charges). New Labour in Scotland has large abandoned such policies. Thus, in relative terms, the SNP appears more Centre Left than New Labour.
However, the SNP is also undergoing a similar process to that undergone by New Labour. Having won a toehold of support amongst a previously overwhelmingly unionist-supporting business community (c.f. New Labour and the previously overwhelmingly Conservative-supporting business community), the SNP feels the need to increasingly court this support. Hence its now embarrassed support for even more banking deregulation, its continued support for lower business taxes, and its fawning before the likes of the anti-gay Stagecoach transport multinational owner, Brain Souter, and the crass American property tycoon, Donald Trump.
Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the SNP will be able to move rapidly towards its declared reason for existence – Scottish independence from the UK state. The once far more radical Sinn Fein has not been able to get ‘the Six Counties’ to break away from the UK and join a united Ireland. More directly comparable constitutional nationalist parties, like the CIU in Catalunya, the PNV in Euskadi, and the PQ in Quebec, have largely settled for gradualist constitutional change within their existing union states, whilst acting as a political voice for their particular national business communities, defending and advancing their interests in an accepted corporate world order.
Thus, although the electoral break from Labour in Scotland has been more to the left than elsewhere in the UK, this is only a marginal move along the political spectrum. The Greens (+ 1.5%) have improved their largely Left populist vote, and along with the SNP, have probably also taken a section of soft 2004 SSP vote, particularly amongst students and young graduates.
To the Mainstream Right, the Lib Dems (-1.6%) and the Conservatives (-1%), have fallen back in their % share of the votes. The Right populist UKIP (+3.9%) has not made any comparable % vote breakthrough compared to Wales (+5.4%), or to the even more reactionary TUV (+13.7%) in Northern Ireland. The Fascist/Right populist BNP only advanced their share by 0.8%.
The Socialist vote in Scotland in 2004
Party 2004 vote /%
In 2004, the SSP’s vote was by far the most impressive vote on the Left in the UK and Ireland, following its 2003 achievement winning 6 MSPs in the Holyrood parliamentary election.
The Socialist vote in Scotland in 2009
Party/Coalition 2009 vote/%
Socialist Labour Party 22,135/2.0
The extent of the Socialist setback in Scotland in 2009 is far greater even than for England and Wales. The combined Left vote in Scotland was 19,114 less than in 2004. Even this underestimates the decline, because the SLP, as an avowedly Left unionist party, which did not stand in 2004, probably did not take most of its votes from the previous SSP supporters, but from Old Labour supporters.
UKIP has easily overtaken (with its 5.2% share of the 2009 vote) the combined Socialist share of the vote of 3.8%. The Fascist/Right populist BNP share of the vote (2.5%) has not yet exceeded the combined Socialist vote, but it did increase marginally (+0.8%), despite the undoubted limits to this party’s appeal where voter identification with ‘Britishness’ is declining. Embarrassingly, the Scottish Christians have also outpolled the SSP and Solidarity (+1.5%).
It is only now that we can see the full consequences of the crisis which first hit the SSP in late 2004, and the completely misguided Solidarity split in 2007, jointly encouraged by the sectarian SWP and CWI (who still hardly talk to each other in England, Wales or Ireland, and certainly are not in the same political organisation there).
In the 2008 Holyrood election, it was not only the former SSP MSPs who faced a wipeout, the previously untroubled Greens lost 5 of their MSPs too. The SSP and Greens suffered from the wider failure of the Left internationally to successfully challenge the Mainstream parties, particularly over the Iraq war, after the massive 2003 anti-war demonstrations. In 2008, Joe Higgins lost his Dail seat too in Ireland, whilst Rifondazione Comunista was wiped out in the Italian general election.
In the 2009 Euroelection, however, the united Greens have been able to take advantage of the crisis faced by the sitting British Labour government. The now split SSP/Solidarity though has been unable to do this, and has fallen back very badly.
Furthermore, the SLP, which headed the poll amongst the Socialists standing in Scotland, promotes itself as a celebrity leader populist party. In this it also competes with Solidarity. However, Solidarity has also made the additional political retreat into Left (and not so Left) populism by becoming part of the No2EU campaign – an unprincipled lash-up between unreformed official Communists and sectarian Trotskyists; and between Left British and Left Scottish nationalists. This further dilution of Solidarity’s politics in the NO2EU campaign, in order to win wider electoral support has proved even less successful than for the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Solidarity has fallen back from being the first placed (but still badly battered) Socialist organisation in the 2008 Holyrood election, to being the third and last in the 2009 European election.
There is another comparison that can be made between the SLP and Solidarity. Electoral support for the SLP has not converted into any organisation on the ground. Whilst Solidarity does have some levels of organisation, much of it is dissipated through the SWP and CWI, which usually prefer to organise independently, leaving many other Solidarity members inactive, and providing little national focus, e.g. no paper.
C. THE NEED FOR SOCIALIST UNITY
In Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales the main lesson of the 2009 European elections is clear – we need Socialist unity. In Ireland, this is needed to take some of the impressive gains just made to an altogether higher level – especially those of the Socialist Party (SP), but also by People before Profit (SWP) and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG).
This will not be easy, given past political sectarian divisions, the continued pull towards Left populism, and the usually unacknowledged political significance of the partition of Ireland, which both the SP and the SWP downplay. Thus, for example, despite the electoral successes in ‘The 26 Counties’, Socialists vacated the electoral terrain altogether in ‘The Six Counties’.
There are independent Socialist groups beyond the SP and SWP in Ireland, such as the Irish Socialist Network, as well as journals to promote debate between Socialists and with Republicans – Red Banner and Fourthwrite. They may find some difficulty being heard in the face of the likely triumphalist clamour coming from the SP and SWP after their recent successes. Nevertheless, the job of promoting principled unity needs to be undertaken now, even if it does not bear fruit until sometime later.
Very soon, the Irish ruling class is likely to want to organise a rerun of the Lisbon Treaty referendum. Given that Eurosceptic Libertas leader, Declan Ganley, seems to have thrown in the towel, after failing to win a Euro-seat in North West Ireland, the responsibility for opposing this neo-liberal treaty falls much more squarely upon Socialists. The reactions of Sinn Fein (previously opposed to the Treaty) and Labour (previously supportive) will be interesting. This could provide Socialists with real opportunities to make their mark on Irish national politics.
However, this will mean striving for real Socialist unity, if the whole of Ireland, not just Dublin, are to be covered properly. The ability of the WUAG to organise effectively in small town Ireland (in County Tipperary) shows the possibilities. Furthermore, it is to be hoped that Irish Socialists take a leaf out of the French NPA, and organise an internationalist campaign against the neo-liberal Lisbon Treaty.
In England, Respect, which provided the main Socialist Euro-election challenge in England in 2004, albeit in Left populist colours, had already split and then dropped out of the 2009 Euro-election. There is also a warning here for ‘People before Profit’ in Ireland, which is still following the Left populist strategy now abandoned by their SWP comrades in Britain, at least for elections, after the fiasco involving Respect councillors in Tower Hamlets.
Furthermore, in the context of more direct action by workers and communities facing draconian service cuts (e.g. the Glasgow Save Our Schools campaign), there is an increasing possibility that the Mainstream parties, holding council office, will victimise Socialist councillors, who identify strongly with such actions. The SSP has already had this experience with Jim Bollan suspended for nine months by SNP controlled West Dumbarton Council. So the pressures on Socialist councillors (and trade union activists) will be considerable.
The demise of a once more united Respect allowed their now vacated 2004 electoral space to be contested by others in the recent Euro-election. Scargill’s SLP made a pitch for the Left celebrity vote, whilst the openly Europhobic, Left nationalist and populist No2EU, tried to appeal to some of the same chauvinist sentiments as the Right populists.
Wales Forward provided the main Socialist challenge in Wales in 2004; the Left unionist, Respect was a poor second. Both presented themselves in Left populist colours. There was debate in Wales Forward over how Socialists should address the national issue. After Wales Forward’s demise, it split between its Left nationalist component, most going into Plaid Cymru, and its Left unionist, mainly former Labour component. The two Socialist slates in the 2009 Euro-election in Wales, the SLP and No2EU, had nothing to say on the Welsh national issue, and confined their appeals to largely English-speaking South Wales.
The resurgence of British Right nationalism represented by the Conservatives becoming the first party in Wales, UKIP taking their first seat, and the BNP making their largest % increase in the vote, highlights the need for Welsh Socialists to unite to more effectively to counter British chauvinism. The recent production of a Celyn, a magazine emulating Scottish Left Review, and involving debate between Welsh Socialists from different backgrounds and in different political organisations, is a tentative first step.
Unfortunately, the current dire political situation, throughout the UK, could well lead to a further retreat into Left populism amongst the existing divided Socialists here . The SWP looks as if it wants to draw others into another Left unity campaign against the BNP, shifting the focus away from the Mainstream parties. However, it is these parties, especially New Labour, which have largely been responsible for creating the economic and social crisis that has allowed the Fascists to emerge into the limelight in the first place.
In the late 1970’s, the old Anti-Nazi League (ANL) adopted this same Left populist approach, invoking Second World War, British opposition to the German Nazi menace. Whilst making some contribution to the demise of the National Front, the ANL completely failed to mobilise to defend those Irish victims of the very British, Union Jack waving, Fascism of the loyalist paramilitaries and their ‘mainland’ supporters. Furthermore, this very British Fascism had the behind-the-scenes support of the British state,
The ANL failed to offer any challenge to the sitting Callaghan Labour government, which had inflicted pay restraints and cuts under the Social Contract, thus creating the situation in which Fascists can thrive. It was the Thatcher’s incoming Conservative government that finally halted the rise of the National Front, after she resorted to Right populist, racist rhetoric about being “swamped by people of a different culture”.
The prospect of rolling back the current BNP electoral advance, by means of another Conservative (or, unlikely true, New Labour) government, is hardly a very inviting prospect.
The Socialist Party (SP) in England and Wales, and its International Socialist (IS) outrider inside Solidarity in Scotland, offer another road to Left unity, which needs to be questioned. They do want to build a political alternative to New Labour, but by further developing the bureaucratic, Left British nationalist, European electoral front, No2EU. They want to merge it with the SP’s own Campaign for a New Workers Party to form a new party based on the existing undemocratic, bureaucrat-dominated trade unions – in other words, an Old Labour Party mark 2. They also hope to win over whatever sections of the Labour Left still show any life. This is the current French Left Front and the German Die Linke approach, which has already been attempted by Rifondazione Comunista and Left Unity in Spain, with predictable results.
There may be critical analyses going on amongst members inside the bureaucratically centralised SWP and SP. How has the SWP become so marginalised and how did the Socialist Party end up inside the politically suspect No2EU project? These parties’ internal regimes do not encourage much independent thinking. Nevertheless, there are also a good number of Socialists outside the two largest British Socialist organisations, some of whom gathered last September as the Convention of the Left. So, it is to be hoped that together with any critical voices inside the SWP and SP, independent voices advocating principled Socialist Unity can yet emerge. Any ‘red’ shoots need to be encouraged.
The need for Socialist unity is most starkly demonstrated in Scotland, where the Socialist vote fell from 5.2% in 2004 to 3.8% (on the most optimistic interpretation, which includes the SLP vote) or 1.8% (if the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity votes alone are considered).
Furthermore, despite the SSP’s considerable achievement in winning Socialist unity in Scotland in 2003, attempts to recreate this unity today may prove very hard, given the impact of the past, and likely future court case (involving Tommy Sheridan, and both SSP and Solidarity members) and the subsequent acrimonious split.
The political decline of Solidarity was demonstrated, by a section of its members’ involvement in the Left British nationalist (with its ill-fitting Left Scottish nationalist bolt-on) bureaucratic, Europhobic, No2EU campaign. However, it is a good sign that sections of the Solidarity membership refused to go along with this. Socialist unity was discussed at Solidarity’s first post Euro-election Scottish Council meeting. It remains to be seen how much this mirrors the political manoeuvrings of the SWP and SP HQs in England, and how much this represents genuine new thinking.
The SSP remains divided between a more outward looking wing, which wants to get involved at all levels of politics, and understands the need for wider Socialist unity, involving other political groups; and those, mainly, but not exclusively in Glasgow, who are still suffering from the traumas of the previous court case and the split. They believe that the SSP can ignore other political groups, particularly Solidarity, and build itself as the dominant force in Scotland, mainly by working in local campaigns. Some appear to see the SSP as little more than a political and social network for Socialists in Scotland, with most debates conducted on the electronic media – a sort of virtual party.
Therefore, it represented an important advance when the decision was finally, if belatedly, taken, for the SSP to stand in the 2009 Euro-election, in the face of this internal opposition,. Even better was the fact that, despite the differences between those for and against standing, this debate was conducted in a comradely manner in all public party arenas (let’s leave aside website discussions dominated by the virtual Socialists!).
Furthermore, the biggest gain, agreed by Conference, after the decision to stand was won, was the unanimous vote to campaign as part of the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance. This motion was presented by the RCN and backed by Frontline, who invited a French NPA speaker, Virginia de la Siega, to address Conference. During the Euro-election campaign itself, the SSP then brought over another NPA speaker, Joaquin Reymond, to address public meetings in Dundee and Edinburgh and Glasgow.
However, Left populism also surfaced during the SSP’s election campaign. This came about due to the decision, taken after the Conference, to launch a ‘Make Greed History’ campaign. Originally conceived as a way to attack the bankers and others responsible for the economic crisis, this perhaps had greater purchase when the Westminster MPs’ expenses scandal broke out. However, the essentially populist nature of this slogan was highlighted when even Gordon Brown and David Cameron (hypocritically) promised to deal with their own “greedy MPs”.
The overall focus of the SSP campaign, should have been the ‘Make the Bosses Pay for Their Crisis’, put forward by our alliance partners, the French NPA. It could then have been supplemented by the much more specific, ‘A Workers’ MEP on a Workers Wage’, once the expenses scandal broke. Given that our former SSP MSPs actually implemented this policy, when in the devolved Holyrood parliament between 1999 and 2007, this could have made a lot more impact.
The SSP’s back up materials and meetings should have drawn potential supporters to our full politics, summed up by, ‘Make Capitalism History, Make Socialism the Future’. However, one problem here is that there is no unified understanding within the SSP of what constitutes socialism, or even capitalism for that matter! Developing our theory and furthering this debate is a no. 1 priority. The RCN, for example, is beginning this very necessary work, hoping to work with others, such as The Commune group, which has members in England and Wales.
Now, although 10,404 people do not represent many votes, they do represent a lot of Socialists whom the SSP needs to actively draw to the party. Unlike the SLP or Solidarity, the SSP still has the organisation on the ground, a vibrant website, and a paper to build for the future. The main task is to create a new generation of committed, knowledgeable and engaged Socialists, who can show the way through this serious and developing, economic, social and political crisis. This means an ability to highlight, not only the dead end represented by neo-liberalism, but that other weapon in capitalism’s armoury – neo-Keynesiansism.
The ‘Make Greed History’ campaign could have been a temporary feature of the Euro-election, but it appears to have taken on new legs. It seems to have provided a definite Left populist focus inside the party. Furthermore, support now given by some of these comrades to the SSP standing in elections appears mainly to be for the purpose of countering Solidarity!
This is not helpful when key sections of the wider working class appreciate the need for Socialist unity. The SSP needs to welcome moves made by others to promote greater Socialist unity, even if some of these people have sometimes previously promoted disunity. People can learn from their mistakes. Each unity initiative needs to properly discussed and assessed. We need to show patience and diplomacy, whilst also ensuring that any Socialist unity is established on a principled basis. This unity does not mean an unprincipled stitch-up, pretending that nothing has happened in the past.
Dire, though the consequences of the split have been, there have been important lessons we have learned. First, Socialists can only make permanent gains by abandoning celebrity politics. The evidence for this comes, not only from the attempted promotion of Solidarity as the Tommy Sheridan Party, but of Respect as the George Galloway Party and the SLP as the Arthur Scargill Party. Any united socialist organisation needs to be thoroughly democratic and treat all members as equals.
Future Socialist unity must be thoroughly internationalist, offering support to all workers (or would-be workers) living here – not just those deemed to be ‘subjects of the Crown’. International working class unity is central to principled Socialist unity at this time. This means opposing both Left British and Left Scottish nationalism. The SSP has become increasingly Scottish internationalist and republican socialist in its politics. These gains need to be defended.
When it comes to proposals for joint action, we should avoid being panicked by the SWP into pretended threats of a Fascist takeover. There will be no BNP ‘March on London’, far less Edinburgh or Glasgow. Those at the sharp end of BNP/loyalist attacks will mainly be individual migrant workers. This is why it was so important to oppose No2EU, with its thinly disguised racist opposition to ‘social dumping’. Support for ‘No One Is Illegal’ allows us to come to the help of all those migrant workers, legal or illegal, who face either BNP attacks or state persecution.
Furthermore, there could be a rise in loyalist sectarian/racist attacks in Scotland, in the future, following recent attacks in Northern Ireland, and the new Mainstream political alliance on the Conservative and Unionist Right. The SWP’s equation of Fascism with German Nazism, and the SP/IS ‘a plague on both your camps’ stances, are not the ways to confront this particular prospect. The loyalist paramilitaries are very British Fascists, and they are the active upholders of the British state and promoters of sectarianism. Their victims need defended and any non-sectarian Republican opposition supported.
Socialists do need to make more active links with trade unions, but unlike the SP, this does not mean making concessions to union bureaucrats, no matter how Left-talking. Alongside a ‘Workers’ MP on a Workers’ Wage’, we also need to see ‘Trade Union Representatives on a Workers’ Wage’, and subject to regular election. Just as important is the building of a new rank and file movement that sees sovereignty lying amongst the members in their workplaces, not in the bureaucrat-controlled head offices. Workers need to be able to take independent action whenever needed, with the aim of building enough support to defy the anti-democratic anti-trade union laws.
Given the difficulties of uniting Socialists within each of their respective nations – Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland – we face considerable difficulties uniting Socialists from all these countries together. Yet, the British and Irish ruling classes are united in promoting the interests of corporate capital in these islands. Their agreed political strategy involves the continued promotion of the ‘Peace Process’ in the ‘Six Counties’, closer cooperation between the UK and Irish governments, and ‘Devolution-all-round’, all to create the optimum conditions for capitalist profitability. It also involves them giving open (British government) and tacit (Irish government) support for continued US imperialist war drives.
Nor, is it surprising that much of this strategy has the open or tacit support of the British, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh trade union bureaucrats, through ‘social partnerships’. These have rendered trade unions almost completely ineffective as a means to defend their members. Trade union leaders now ask, as a means of countering the current economic crisis, that bosses accept their share of the pain too, in return for workers being prepared to accept massive job losses, pay cuts and reduced social spending. No wonder the bosses are ‘laughing all the way to the banks’ (now, of course, protected at our expense, by their political friends).
The British and Irish ruling class strategy can not be opposed successfully by means of the organisational model pushed by the parties of the British Left, and their Irish satellites – one state/one party. Clearly this model is useless, when the nation itself is divided, as in the case of Ireland, where it leads to the acceptance of partitionist politics.
However, the problem is much wider than that, and is highlighted by the British and Irish SPs’ inability to offer a coordinated strategy to confront both the UK and Irish states. The two SPs have a record of adapting to local circumstances in a way that produces glaring contradictions. Thus in Britain, they support an ‘independent socialist Scotland’, but merely a Welsh Assembly with more powers. In Ireland, they virtually ignore partition in their everyday politics and election material in ‘The 26 Counties’, whilst in ‘The Six Counties’ they have flirted with working class loyalists. Thus, the problems associated with the ‘one state/one party’ model have become more evident.
The SSP made the first small steps towards an alternative ‘internationalism from below’ approach, when it organised the Republican Socialist Convention last November, involving socialists from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. The SSP will need to vigorously defend this ‘internationalism from below’ principle in any future, wider, Socialist unity discussions, both against any Left Scottish nationalist isolationists in our own (and Solidarity’s) ranks and, against the Left British nationalists who also figure prominently in Solidarity, especially the SWP and SP. These two organisations have already brought about so much disunity with their top down bureaucratic attempts at imposing ‘unity’, which just mirror the methods of the British state.
The UK remains an imperial state, albeit a junior partner with the USA. There can be no ‘British road to socialism’, only a ‘break-up of the UK state and British Empire road to communism’, where communism means not total state control, but the end of wage slavery, in a society based on the principle of “from each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs” and “where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.