Friday 1 February 2008

Broad left parties - lessons from Germany

by Andy Newman from Socialist Unity 26 August, 2008 There has been some recent discussion on this blog about whether or not the circumstances over the last decade have been favourable for building the left. If we look at England alone, and judge by results then we would reasonably deduce that the situation has been unfavourable. But let us compare ourselves with Germany. Christian Rickens new book “The Left! The revival of an attitude to life” simply couldn’t have been written in Britain. As it says on the back cover: “The left is fashionable again – that is evidenced not only in the electoral success of Lafontaine and co [the Left party], but also the [right wing] CDU, SPD and Greens have rediscovered their social conscience and demand more equality, a greater role for the state and more security. So what actually is the left? And why at the moment are left-wing positions making a surprising comeback?” The Left Party has transformed German politics. In the last national elections they broke through with a remarkable 8.7% nationally and won 54 seats in parliament. As Victor Grossman reports: “Last spring it won seven seats in the city-state of Bremen, finally breaking the East-West spell. However, Bremen is small, strictly urban, and always a bit more liberal. But then came Lower Saxony, where the Christian Democrats had a popular winning candidate, the Social Democrat got walloped - and the Left won eleven seats, creating, for the first time, a genuine opposition.At the same time, in the state of Hesse (where Frankfurt/Main is located), a far more bitter battle was waged. The ruling Christian Democrat Ronald Koch used every dirty anti-foreigner trick in the bag to keep his ruling position, while the attractive young Social Democrat, Andrea Ypsilanti, stole most of the demands of the Left - like calls for a minimum wage and a return to free college education - to steal its thunder and win against Koch. She gained greatly, Koch lost significantly, but in the end he still had a plus margin of a single tenth of one percentage point and earlier this year for the first time the Left crossed the 5% hurdle to win seats in Hesse – in the West.” So for the left there was a win-win situation – a credible and electable left alternative not only won seats, but also moved the whole political climate to the left. It is plausible that the Left Party may emerge as the third party in Germany next year. So what is different in Germany? Certainly there are differences from Britain in term of specific history, but the overall pattern is similar – the transformation of the mass social-democratic party into an unashamed party of neo- liberalism, and a low level of trade union struggle. But whereas the transformation of the British Labour Party has created no national, credible left opposition, in Germany the SPD split and merged with the regional, Eastern based PDS to create a sensational left revival. What is different is that the Left Party in Germany has embraced a broad understanding of what we could describe as coalition politics. We need to understand the political diversity of the Left. Again, as Victor Grossman explains: “For years, the little PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) was confined almost entirely to the five eastern provinces of Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, and to some extent to Berlin. It had hardly a tiny toe-hold in the far more populous ten western provinces, limiting it to the role of a rarely-needed extra in a B-Film. But then it merged with a small but dynamic new West German party, made up largely of disgusted ex-members of the Social Democrats and Greens, who rejected the miserable anti-social, pro-corporation positions and the growing military readiness of both their two parties. Add to this mixture the people’s rapidly-growing dissatisfaction with the whole economy, with the wealthy perching atop more and more millions and billions while working people and the jobless had more and more debts to sit on. The new, merged party started chalking up gains in both the west and the east.” So what do I mean by coalition politics? In the narrow sense, then whether or not the Left are prepared to form coalition administrations with the SPD or the Greens is clearly a dividing line within the Left Party. In some Eastern cities the Left are already in coalition, whereas other members are completely against this in principle. But in the broader sense, the whole of the Left Party believes in forming a broad coalition of all those who oppose foreign military intervention, who call for a minimum wage, for preserving the weakening medical insurance system, for winning back free education, for saving the many unemployed from compulsory, menial jobs at starvation wages, and for ending discrimination against immigrant minorities. Coalition politics means working with everone who is broadly on the left to build an ideological and political alternative to neo-liberalism. They are creating a national mood that expects a change towards greater social justice. This involves a mass, popular re-imagining of what is politically possible, and the rebirth of a credible, mainstream political alternative to neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. In contrast, in Britain the left is locked into a quarrelsome decline, fighting like ferrets drowning in a sack. The fallacy is that if the left can somehow engage with trade union struggle and local activism then this can build an alternative from the bottom up.This is impossible, and most damagingly is doesn’t connect with the 200000 members who have left New Labour since 1997, or the five million voters who have abandoned Labour over the same period. In the absence of a credible, mainstream national political challenge to neo-liberalism then trade union and community struggles will remain constrained by sectionalism and localism, and those left groups who base their political perspectives on these struggles are doomed to a treadmill of chasing one campaign after another while building nothing significant. What we urgently need to do is build a political vision of an alternative to neo-liberalism, that popularises economic alternatives to the market, and promotes the ideals of social justice and equality. If it is to be effective this must be wider than the activist left, and must connect with the much wider layer who wish there to be a social democratic government – which of course includes the trade unions. Tragically, even the proposed left contender for the leadership of the Labour Party last year did not appear as a credible alternative Prime Minister, which meant that he got little support among the affiliated unions and MPs. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Are the political conditions more favourable for the rebirth of the left in Germany or England? Are trade unions struggles in Germany or Britain more likely to connect with a national mood that social justice is achievable? In truth the left in England have largely squandered an opportunity, where there was a real crisis in social democracy that coincided with a mass movement against imperialist war. The resulting space simply couldn’t be and cannot be filled with politics derived from “Leninism”, however this is dressed up as different flavours of “united front”. The gap between that set of politics and the potential audience is too large. The opportunity that is perhaps still just within our fingers’ grasp is to start to build a radical but pragmatic alternative – an alternative that allows millions to believe that a better world is not only possible, but is also credible and achievable.

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