Hard-right and far-right parties surged forward in several countries in May’s Euro-elections.
France’s Front National, which has a clear fascist lineage; Britain’s “zombie-Thatcherite” anti-immigrant Ukip; and the Ukip-like Danish People’s Party, all topped the polls in their countries.
That does not mean that things are hopeless for those who value democracy, equality, and liberty. It is a loud alarm call for the left.
Since the 2004 Euro-election, the last one before the world economic crisis broke in 2008, the parties of mainstream neo-liberal orthodoxy have sunk from 75.6% of the vote across Europe to 62.4%. Most of the drop came between the 2009 election (which came just after the financial crisis of 2008 had segued into debt crisis for several European states) and 2014.
Syriza triumphed in Greece. In Spain, Izquierda Unida went up from 3.7% to 10%, and the new Podemos movement got 8%. In Ireland, Sinn Fein, which would predominantly have attracted a leftish vote, went up from 11.2% to 19.5%.
But the hard right gained most.
Broadly speaking, the right-wing nationalists gained most in the richer countries, less hard-hit by the economic crisis, and the left-wing or leftish parties gained most in the poorer and harder-hit countries.
In Portugal, the Left Bloc lost ground, and in Italy a coalition of groups to the left of the Democratic Party got fewer votes than the total of its components in 2009. But the gainers in those hard-hit countries were not the far right. The Socialist Party (similar to Labour) and a green party gained in Portugal, and the Democratic Party in Italy.
Why has the hard right scooped so much of the discontent? Because the “official” left — the Labour Party leaders in Britain, the Socialist Party which runs Francois Hollande’s administration in France, and the others — is wretched.
Because too many people of left-wing sympathies have been cowed by the aggressive power of global capital, and fear to campaign boldly for their ideas in public.
Because the left-wing oppositionists who still exist within the “official” left parties have been too weak and timid.
Because the activist left has not found a way to cohere the tens of thousands of the left-minded into a political force which offers a grand narrative to broader millions.
Too often our activists are submerged in detailed campaign or trade union work. Too often our public profile is mediated through catchpenny campaigns and “fronts”. Too often we opt for bland and limited messages for fear that more radical ideas will isolate us. Too often all the socialist groups roll along in parallel, each with its favoured set of little schemes and tactics, without discussing and arguing with each other, and without uniting in the large areas where we agree.
The discontented, looking for a grand narrative, hear a seductive scapegoating story from the right which appeals to basic feelings of identity and territory.
The right proposes to blame and exclude worse-off, insecure people who have no entrenched power. To soured and demoralised people, that sounds like an easier way of “doing something” than battle against global capital.
In the 1930s, fascist parties used much social demagogy. The Nazis in Germany, for example, after stating their nationalist and anti-Jewish aims, called for full employment, “abolition of unearned incomes”, “breaking of debt-slavery”, “confiscation of all war profits”, extensive nationalisations, division of profits, and “expansion of old age welfare”.
Ukip, by contrast, offered no social demagogy. Only now is Nigel Farage scrambling to collate a little. The Front National offered relatively little.
These far-right parties promise not to solve social ills, or even to challenge the EU’s neo-liberal policies, but only to penalise immigrants.
Few Ukip, FN, or DPP voters can really think that battening down the borders is a “practical” solution.
Migrant workers contribute disproportionately to the public services and housing construction which xenophobic myth portrays as “overstretched” by migrants. Areas with fewer migrant workers generally have lower wages than those with many. Migrant workers are an enlivening part of the potential for a working-class fightback against the bosses and bankers.
But the far-right voters listen to the noise about restoring national identity and national culture and “taking control of our own borders”, and think that in that direction at least “something will be done”.
The Front National in France has a clear fascist lineage, and many hardened fascist cadres, though it has softened its image in recent years. Ukip and the DPP are more orthodox hard-right nationalist parties.
A fascist seizure of power, as in the 1930s, would mean the crushing of the labour movement and the suppression of free speech and debate.
That is not just round the corner. None of the far-right parties, except on a small scale Golden Dawn in Greece and maybe Jobbik in Hungary, has the militant street-fighting base that the fascists of the 1920s and 30s had.
And there are no irresistible demographic trends propelling the far right.
In May, where social destruction is worse, the sour scapegoating of the far right had less grip, and people were driven more to look for real solutions which involve combatting capitalism.
With Ukip we also see a common pattern for far-right parties: its supporters are disproportionately male, elderly, little-educated, and they live outside big cities and the main areas of migrant population.
It does not follow that the far-right parties are sure to decline as the elderly fade, education levels rise, and more people live in cosmopolitan big cities. Far-right parties can extend their support beyond an initial base much faster than demography marginalises that base.
The Front National in France has been building its base, with ups and downs but an overall upward trend, for over 30 years now since it first made its electoral breakthrough, in 1983. Its electorate is now younger than the average, and almost gender-equal.
This or that right-wing group may rise or fall. This year the Lega Nord, the main hard-right party, went down from 10% to 6%. In Britain, the BNP lost the two Euro-seats it won in 2009, and is marginalised.
But without active and adequate intervention by the left, the far right can continue to advance overall. And advances by a more “moderate” far right can provide a strong base for later advances by outright and militant fascist forces. (The Nazis in Germany in the 1930s built on previous advances by the more mainstream conservative, nationalist, and anti-semitic DNVP).
The mainstream parties are responding to the surge of the nationalist right by anti-immigrant gestures.
Soon after the Euro-poll France’s Socialist Party government evicted a migrant camp at Calais, and a group of Labour MPs (some with left-wing backgrounds) called for a harsher anti-migrant line from Ed Miliband. Such anti-migrant gestures will feed, not deflect, the desire of far-right voters for “something to be done”.
There remains time and political space for the left to regain the initiative, if only we have the energy and confidence to do so.
The political implications of the economic crisis have not yet played out. Nor even has the crisis itself. It is usual in history for the political implications of an economic crisis to develop with large delays and through twists and turns.
In the same period as the electoral surge of the far right has developed, the Occupy movement “against the one per cent” won sympathy from many millions. At the same time as the right’s triumph in May, Thomas Piketty’s 600-plus-page tirade against spiralling inequality and plea for a drastic global wealth tax became a best-seller.
But the left has been unable to organise adequately. The revolutionary socialist left in France is probably the strongest in Europe, and has sustained a more consistent profile than the revolutionary socialist left in Britain.
Yet it slumped from 6.1% of the vote in the 2009 Euro-election to only 1.6% this May. One of the major organisations of the French revolutionary socialist left, Lutte Ouvriere, has retreated into appealing to voters to support it “in order to reconnect with revolutionary communist traditions”. The other, the NPA, failed to educate and tighten up after being formed by a self-expansion of the old LCR in 2009. Large chunks of its activists have split away to join the Front de Gauche, an alliance around the French Communist Party. The FG itself stagnated, getting a little over 6% as it did in 2009.
In Britain, the short-sighted search for “broadness” and gimmickry which drove the NPA splits has affected much of the left. There was the Respect fiasco. Then the Socialist Party scrapped its independent political presence in favour of a limited anti-cuts platform (TUSC). This May TUSC, standing in the council elections, was tainted by its association with No2EU’s candidacy in the Euro-poll.
No2EU was theoretically distinct from TUSC, but in fact the same people, the SP and leaders of the RMT union, just wearing a different hat. For immediate anti-cuts resistance, they offered TUSC; if you wanted general political answers or broad political philosophy, they offered No2EU.
No2EU got only a joke-candidate score of 0.2%, one-fifth of the already-poor 1% it got in 2009.
Left Unity, which in 2013 claimed it could catapult the left to fortune through clever soft-soaping able to win large electoral support from people who would be “put off” by talk of socialism or working-class interests, did nothing in the Euro-elections. It stood just 12 candidates in the council elections, seven of them in Wigan, and none got good votes.
We start on the back foot. We also start in a situation where tens of thousands of people, currently politically inactive or only minimally active, are responsive to the vision they see in movements like Occupy or books like Piketty’s.
All precedent tells us that the drastic squeeze on wages since 2008 will, some time soon, generate a backlash and an explosion of wage struggles. Those wage struggles will not automatically push people to the left, but they will reinstate solidarity as an option.
Workers’ Liberty and Solidarity will do three things. We will step up our agitation for social ownership of productive wealth and for a workers’ government, and resist the pressure on us to scale down to exclusive focus on more “realistic” demands.
We will get ourselves out on the streets and doorsteps more, and resist also the pressure to “hide” in small-scale political and trade-union busy-work.
We will approach the rest of the left with a demand for discussions about unity in action — unity not only in piecemeal campaigns, but in joint activity to assert the basic ideas of socialism.