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The Slow Death of European Social Democracy: How Corbynism Bucked the Trend

Following Labour’s disastrous election results last month and Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to stand down as leader, the party’s Blairite wing, backed by their mates in the Tory press, is doing everything in its power to impress their own interpretation onto the loss in order to put a pro-capitalist back in the driving seat.

The blame lies with Corbyn and the radical manifesto, claims the former deputy leader Tom Watson. Mary Creagh, a Labour MP who lost her Wakefield seat, told Channel 4 News that she berated the leader for having “enabled a hard Brexit” and “five years of austerity”. Creagh would rather we forget the fact that she supported Tory-lite austerity policies for five years under Ed Miliband.

The remedy? A return to the political “centre”, or else Labour is destined to spend a lifetime in the wilderness. The Tory-funded Yougov poll now places Keir Starmer, a centrist, as an early frontrunner in the upcoming leadership contest – trust them at your peril!

But Labour members should think twice before backing a candidate on account of their “moderation”. Not only might they wake up with yet another anti-worker government, but they may not end up with a Labour government at all – especially if the performance of so-called “centrist” social democratic parties across the EU is considered.

In reality, centrism has been in terminal decline across Europe over the last 30 years, as illustrated by the following graph which plots the electoral trajectory of right-wing social democratic parties in eight of the largest economies in the EU:

A close up of a map Description automatically generated

From the SPD in Germany, PASOK in Greece, the Socialist Party in France… the pattern across the EU indicates a complete hollowing out of electoral support for the political centre.

In fact, the only party to buck this trend was the Labour Party in 2017.[1] This is why Labour members must go all out to defend and build on the socialist manifesto.

Labour’s return to socialism

So what happened in the run up to 2017? The most decisive change that took place was in the leadership of the Labour Party.

The introduction of the “one member one vote” system in 2015, a rule change that was intended to weaken the influence of the trade unions in determining the leader, ironically led to the election of a life-long trade unionist and socialist: Jeremy Corbyn.

This was at a time when the Blairites were busy drawing all the wrong conclusions about why they lost the general election in 2015. An independent review led by Jon Cruddas laughably claimed that Labour lost because voters were concerned that Labour was going to oppose austerity. The official Beckett Report, written by right wing Labour MPs in the aftermath of the election, was little better.

Nevertheless, the Labour Party’s membership rocketed to half a million members and Corbyn’s popularity amongst the members, if not among its pro-austerity MPs, surged.

On a programme of reversing austerity, repealing the Tories’ draconian Trade Union Act, nationalising rail, mail, water and post, a £10/hour minimum wage, and other socialist measures, in 2017 Labour recorded the biggest swing in more than 70 years!

This was achieved in spite of relentless smears from the right of the party: claims that Corbyn was anti-Semitic, a terrorist sympathiser and a threat to national security. It was also achieved in spite of a backward election strategy which saw the party pour resources into safe seats because the Blairites believed their own bullshit about Corbyn being unelectable.

But one of the most important elements of the 2017 manifesto was undoubtedly the pledge to honour the result of the Brexit referendum – something which the Labour right and soft left subsequently did everything to overturn.

If the party was united behind the party programme and Corbyn’s leadership at this stage then Labour would have undoubtedly won. The idea, currently put about by Tom Watson and his ilk, that Labour’s loss in 2019 was a betrayal of the millions of working class people suffering at the hands of the Tories rings completely hollow in this context.

Slow death of “centrism”

So if Labour was the exception, what is the rule?

One of the principal reasons for the ongoing erosion in the social base of centrism has been the tendency, in practice if not always in words, for them to act in the same way as the parties of big business.

During the Cold War, social-democratic welfare-capitalism was accepted by the capitalists as a strategy for defeating the Soviet Union and neutralising the threat of socialist revolution spreading across Europe. Swathes of industry was taken under public ownership as a consequence.

Importantly, this was not motivated by generosity or any commitment to justice or equality. It was the fear that to do any less could lead to mass uprisings. The relative strength of the European working class, alongside the systemic threat of the planned economies (although emptied of all democratic content) of the USSR and Eastern Europe, compelled the capitalist class to make major concessions to workers.

But setbacks and defeats for the international labour movement (including the global revolutionary movements of the late 1960s and 70s and, in the UK, the defeat of the miners) accompanied by the collapse of Soviet Communism in the 80s and 90s, brought all of this to an end. Traditional social democratic parties across the world shifted rapidly to the right, abandoning not only the idea of the planned economy, but also socialism itself.

This period was hailed by the establishment commentators as the final victory for capitalism, or, as Francis Fukuyama put it, the “end of history”.

Social democratic parties adopted the so-called “third-way” approach, which attempted to reconcile opposing class forces. Initially this gained support across sections of society. It was particularly popular amongst the capitalists, with the billionaire press baron, Rupert Murdoch, explicitly backing Tony Blair in the UK. But as its implications became clear – that “moderates” would consistently come down on the side of big business – the support base for these parties began to wither.

This process was sharply accelerated in the period following the global economic crash of 2007-2008, when the response of third-way social democrats was to impose austerity on workers rather than make the capitalists pay. Workers responded by abandoning these parties en masse, sometimes migrating to newer anti-austerity formations, some to right-wing populist organisations, but more often to not voting.

This has played out differently in different countries, but the pattern is undeniable: right wing social democracy has been in terminal decline for many years. The only party to have bucked this trend was the Labour Party in the 2017 General Election.

The idea, therefore, that the Labour Heartlands was lost because of Corbyn or the radical manifesto is demonstrably false. The following chart shows the decline in Labour votes in almost all those constituencies considered marginal at the 2019 election over the past 22 years. It shows decisively that Labour was in the process of losing the Heartlands for many years and that 2017 was the first time that this trend went into anything like a serious reverse:

A close up of a map Description automatically generated

Speed on to 2019: Corbyn, a lifelong critic of the capitalist EU since entering parliament in 1983, is forced into a fudged position on the Brexit (with a second referendum now on the table), largely as a result of pressure from the right and soft-left, and Labour suffered damaging losses.

Of course, the loss of the Labour heartlands was not to do with Brexit alone. The role of Labour councils in administering Tory cuts with little to no resistance has been a serious obstacle to the party being able to develop roots in local communities; Laura Pidcock and Ian Lavery are correct to point out the toxic legacy of Tony Blair as a factor; and even the manifesto too became something like a shopping list of policies which, while costed, appeared abstract without the backing of combative trade union leaders and mass social movements.

But the perceived betrayal over Brexit was a decisive issue on the doorstep, in the press and, ultimately, at the ballot box. The 2016 Brexit referendum was, at root, an elemental protest against the capitalist status quo by those disenfranchised by decades of unequivocal capitalist rule – when there was little to no difference between the ruling parties. Any attempt to reverse this vote, no matter how caveated, was understandably seen as a continuation of this “third way” legacy.

What next for the Labour left?

Any new leader, if they are to withstand the stormy period ahead, which on current projections includes a new global economic downturn in the near future, must be uncompromisingly socialist. Corbyn lost partly because of his fudged position on Brexit, but also because he was extremely weak in opposing the Blairites, who sabotaged him at every turn.

But if opposing the right wing of Labour is difficult, it will be nothing compared to the fight against the full weight of the capitalist class. If a left-led Labour government were to come to power it would have to deal with the possibility of massive economic sabotage, including unprecedented propaganda, capital flight and a threat on the currency.

If the left is to prevail, the new leader must, first of all, lead a fight to democratise the party. This means campaigning for the reintroduction of mandatory reselection to enable members to have a democratic say over their own parliamentary and council representatives. The Blairite third column has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will always act in the interests of the super-rich. They have to go.

If the Blairites are successful in regaining control of the party, they will drive into the abyss. But there is also no room for those who abandon principals when the going gets tough.

Below is a list of the 184 Labour MPs who didn’t vote against the second reading of the Tories’ disgraceful Welfare Reform and Work Bill in 2015. Leadership contenders Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer are on it.

Whether they are Blairites through and through, or just not able to stand up to the pressures exerted by the ruling class, Labour members must ask questions about what side these people are likely to take in the grip of a new recession.

Notes.

1. PSOE in Spain has also experienced something of a revival. In this case, it had to do with the failure of the newly formed PODEMOS to forge a genuinely left alternative rather than a serious growth in the social base for PSOE. Notwithstanding this example, the tendency has amongst social democratic parties has undoubtedly toward their decline.

 

More articles by:

Thomas Barker is an independent journalist and PhD student in Aesthetics and Politics. He can be reached at https://durham.academia.edu/ThomasBarker

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