Joyce McMillan: In the twilight of social democracy

Syriza's success at the ballot box in Greece came unstuck in the face of neo-liberal ideology at EU's heart. Picture: Getty
Syriza's success at the ballot box in Greece came unstuck in the face of neo-liberal ideology at EU's heart. Picture: Getty
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Labour party’s travails are part of wider retreat from politics of social justice, warns Joyce McMillan

LET’S not mince words: for many of the political opponents of the Labour party, there has been plenty of pure pleasure, this week, in watching the party’s leadership election spiral downwards into something like a total meltdown of Labour’s image as a coherent political force.

That the three “mainstream” candidates for the leadership were a strikingly uninspiring bunch had already been widely noted, of course. All terrified of the assumed rightward drift of public opinion, and incapable of uttering a sentence not riddled with the most deadly political banalities, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham are hard to like, and even harder to imagine winning a UK general election; particularly following their craven failure, this week, to oppose the government’s latest round of cruel and incoherent welfare cuts.

Now, though, this lacklustre leadership campaign has been galvanised by the apparent popularity, among individual party members, of the fourth candidate, veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. Cue panic among the long-dominant right of the Labour party; and the sound of many prominent party figures dismissing Corbyn’s candidacy in the kind of high-handed, bullying and dismissive establishment language of which we have recently heard far too much in European politics. Small wonder the SNP has been visibly revelling, this week, in its apparent emergence as the only party at Westminster willing to oppose the present government with any vigour.

In truth, though, only the Tories, and their allies, have much to cheer about in this story of Labour confusion and disintegration. All across Europe – and even in those hugely successful countries where social democratic systems still prevail – the cause of social democratic parties is on the ropes, caught between a hugely powerful global financial system mainly run by people who embrace a strict anti-state neoliberal orthodoxy, and an electorate who, even when they express a broad preference for centre-left solutions, often seem to have little faith that they can actually ever be implemented.

Hence the paradox of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy, apparently now supported by more than 40 per cent of Labour party members. Polls show that a majority of British people actually share many of Jeremy Corbyn’s views, on subjects like tax, Trident, and a real living wage; but his opponents are probably right to suggest that whether they agree with him or not, voters will not actually support a Corbyn-led Labour party, because they will see its aspirations as “unrealistic”. This paradox closely mirrors the experience of Syriza in Greece, which succeeded in winning an impressive 60 per cent majority for a rejection of austerity, only for the EU to insist that, in the “real world”, no alternative would be permitted. And it also mirrors the experience of the SNP in Scotland, which lost last year’s referendum to an alliance of the fearful, the cautious and the comfortable which dismissed the idea of a fair and prosperous independent Scotland as a mere pipe-dream, far too risky to pursue in reality.

So what has gone wrong, for parties that try to speak for reasonable social justice, jobs, decent wages, and the kind of social decencies people in western Europe generally took for granted for 40 years after the Second World War? Last week in the House of Commons, the Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard rightly pointed out that more than 63 per cent of those who turned out to vote on 8 May, across the UK, rejected David Cameron, his party and their austerity policies.

Yet it’s in the insidious division and disempowerment of that non-Conservative majority that the true success of the New Right political project has lain, over the last generation. There are the barrages of divisive propaganda which demonise the poor, the unemployed, immigrants and the disabled, and stop people seeing the truth that these people are not “others” to be shunned and starved, but part of their community, mirror-images of their own past and future selves. There is the annexing of ever greater proportions of our national wealth by the super-rich, and the growth of a tax system which offers them generous concessions, throwing the burden of paying for public services onto hard-pressed ordinary workers. And there is the steady undermining of security, in employment and in housing, which corrodes generous attitudes, and makes people cling fiercely and defensively to what little material security they have.

And it’s this ugly climate of opinion that needs to be challenged, if we are to see any real revival of successful centre-left politics in the West. What is hugely difficult, though, is to transform the occasional glimpse of an alternative future into something credible, sustainable, and backed by a serious and well-organised popular movement. The SNP’s success in achieving this in Scotland has so far been striking. But the difficulties ahead are formidable, as the party’s often vague social-democratic aspirations begin to hit the rocks of Scotland’s relative economic powerlessness; and it’s sometimes difficult to see how the SNP, half a decade down the line, can avoid the same bitter split that now plagues the Labour party, between centre-right system politicians, and serious social democrats.

And as for the Labour party – well, who can imagine any of its three mainstream candidates even beginning to address and challenge the unpleasant cultural climate that underpinned this year’s Tory victory? Every time Labour party speakers echo the idea that the world can be divided into “workers”and “shirkers”, every time they frame immigration as a “problem”, every time they talk as if they could not represent both benefit claimants and “aspirational” people – as if no-one who is unemployed ever aspired to better things, as if all aspirations was purely material – they reinforce the divisive right-wing ideology that leads to their defeat.

And until all our centre-left parties understand that, and can produce 21st century leaders with the imagination, the language and the vision not only to challenge the policies of the Right, but to expose, transform and argue out of existence the ugly and divisive ideological ground on which those policies rest, then their attempts to win elections will lack conviction; or their victories, when they win them, will mean far less than they should, to the lives of the great mass of ordinary people they claim to speak for, to care for, and to represent.