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Europe’s left is failing to gain from the crisis

By John Lloyd

Published: April 19 2009 19:15 | Last updated: April 19 2009 19:15

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It is still natural to think that leftwing politics will gain from a crisis in capitalism: why, after all, did the left come into existence if not to abolish capitalism, or at least tame it? That natural thought has not always been right in the past: it certainly is not now in Europe.

In no big European country is the main party of the left, in or out of government, surging ahead. The Burson-Marsteller forecast for the European elections in June shows that the centre-right European People’s party will remain the largest group in the European parliament – even if the British Conservatives and the Czech ODS fulfil their aim to leave the EPP.

The best showing for the left among Europe’s larger states is that of the ruling Socialist party in Spain, which won last May’s general election and where President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is, if not popular, not more unpopular than Mariano Rajoy, leader of the centre-right Popular party. But unemployment at around 14 per cent has meant that the government is sliding: the Socialists lost control of Galicia to the PP last month.

Of the smaller countries, Denmark’s opposition Social Democrats are now sweeping ahead of the centre-right government. Lars Loekke Rasmussen, the new prime minister, had only a 16 per cent approval rating in an opinion poll by the Jyllands-Posten newspaper earlier this month: Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the Social Democrats, enjoyed a 37 per cent backing.

Elsewhere, even in Scandinavia, the trend is adverse. Sweden’s Social Democrats, in the unusual role of opposition, were more than 10 per cent ahead of the centre-right coalition government last year, but the most recent polls show the centre-left party trailing. Niklas Ekdal, a political commentator, said the fall in popularity happened when, late in 2008, the Social Democrats’ leader Mona Salin was pressured by her left wing into including the Left party (former Communists) as a coalition partner in her programme for a future government. “The Social Democrats have historically been strong when they ensured that the Communists, and their own left, were weak. The financial crisis hasn’t changed that: people still don’t trust the far left.”

The far left does do well elsewhere – notably in France. The newly formed Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has, in its leader Olivier Besancenot, a telegenic and forceful spokesman. His party benefited from the infighting over leadership in the Socialist party at the end of last year, and he has had poll ratings as high as 47 per cent – far ahead of the presently lacklustre ratings for President Nicolas Sarkozy and Martine Aubry, the Socialists’ leader.

Germany holds a general election in the autumn, with a recent poll in Stern magazine showing the right coalition parties – the senior partner in the left-right government – holding steady at 34 per cent, with the Social Democrats also stuck at 25 per cent. The relative popularity of France’s far left parties is not repeated in Germany: die Linke (the Left) has about 10 per cent of the vote, slightly down on earlier this year. By contrast, the Free Democrats – the most pro-free-market party in Germany – have seen their share in the polls rise from 10 per cent at the 2005 general election to about 17 per cent now.

In two of Europe’s largest countries, the polls have given a clear message for some months. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition is consistently ahead of a left that recently lost its leader, Walter Veltroni, who resigned in February. In the UK, David Cameron’s Conservatives have been consistently ahead of the ruling Labour party for the past 18 months – by a margin, in the latest opinion poll, of about 13 points.

What has gone wrong for the left? In a recent column on the Open Democracy website, Tibor Dessewffy, a Hungarian commentator, argues that “fears of terrorism, and subsequent anxieties caused by immigration and the sustainability issues of welfare and social systems, [have] brought the progressive left under increasing pressure”. Wouter Bos, leader of the Dutch Labour party and deputy prime minister in the Netherlands’ right-left coalition government, said in a speech in London last year that these issues, and the pressures of globalisation, “reduce the effectiveness of the kind of policies we [the left] favour. It affects the cohesion which is our lifeblood. It hurts our international orientation that has always been the core to our mission”.

Olaf Cramme, director of the UK-based Policy Network, a centre-left global policy forum, believes that “despite the scale of the crisis of neo-liberalism, leftwing proposals about how to remake capitalism aren’t being received well. The centre left finds it difficult to offer a credible alternative to how to ensure wealth and security. In fact, in many countries, the conservative parties have been less enthusiastic about the growth of finance capitalism and tougher on regulating the financial sector than the left”.

There is a cloud of rhetoric on the end of capitalism – or, more often, “free-market capitalism”, as if that were a wholly separate entity. Beneath it, however, lies a public mood that is deeply sceptical of a left whose governing parties in the past decade have used the surpluses generated by successful finance capital to fund their social programmes, and, in general, is even more sceptical of a far left which apportions blame but has little experience of, or programmes for, government. A comfort that leftwingers take from this is that there is little evidence of a far-right surge, though the more cautious give warning that, like a flash flood, such a shift can come suddenly.

The writer is an FT columnist

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