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|Where now for the crisis-hit European Left?|
The Times - June 14th 2010
Try looking at the heel of Italy, where you can find a refreshing combination of old values and capitalism
Political labels such as left and right, we told ourselves when the Cold War ended two decades ago, are now meaningless. Yet we still use them, pondering endlessly which of the Eds, Miliband or Balls, is the most “left-wing” of the candidates to lead Labour. This may be a generational problem — too many of the ponderers grew up under Harold Wilson — or it may be for want of anything better. But the economic crisis should give us a further explanation: it is that until the Left (as it were) works out what it actually stands for, no new label will be forthcoming or, more important, convincing.
For the parties traditionally known as left-wing have had a stinker of a crisis. Rising unemployment, an apparent “crisis of capitalism”, as Marx used to say, clear culpability for the forces of high finance, all against a backdrop of increasing inequality in virtually all the rich countries, ought to have been a perfect recipe for a left-wing revival. But it hasn’t been, even in places where the Left did not have the disadvantage of incumbency, such as Italy or the Netherlands. The political beneficiaries have either been simply oppositions, or else populist anti-immigrant groups such as the Northern League in Italy and the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders.
Admittedly, electoral results have not been unambiguously bad for the Left. Labour did well in the Netherlands, just not as well as Mr Wilders’ Islam-bashers. France’s Socialist Party has been bouncing back in regional polls, and in Germany both the fairly new Left Party and the older Social Democrats have been gaining a bit of ground. But given the economic and social backdrop, the trend has still been surprising and the ideological vacuum still evident.
When Lehman Brothers collapsed two Septembers ago, it looked for a while as if, at least in ideological terms, old left-wing ideas might revive. Government was back, markets were in the dustbin. The Reagan-Thatcher era of deregulation and market liberalism was surely over. Interventionism and state-led rescues were the name of the game. China was the last man standing.
Now, few would be so sure. The central task of governments on both sides of the Atlantic is cutting public debts and spending; the central debate is about how quickly it should be done, not even about how. The troubles of the eurozone are the troubles of costly welfare states and cosseted public sectors more than of failed markets or collapsed capitalism. Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, faces a general strike organised by his own supporters, in protest at his budget cuts and proposed labour reforms.
Labour’s leadership candidates find themselves squealing shamefully about immigration while sitting cluelessly silent about fiscal retrenchment.
Moreover, since the only current models of state-led development are such progressive paragons as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, few even on the Left can look at them with blinkered affection, as some socialists used to with the Soviet Union.
So what can be done? The central problem at least of the European Left remains that it thinks of itself as progressive but that the electorate sees it as conservative. In Italy, for example, the country I have been visiting most often lately (for book research, since you ask), opinion polls show that the left-wing Democratic Party is associated with preserving the status quo while both Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing Prime Minister, and his allies, the Northern League, are seen as standing for change or dynamism of some sort. The Left are protectors of privilege — partly their own political privileges, but also of the recipients of public money and of legal protection, such as bureaucrats and trade unions. The unemployed and underemployed seem not to matter.
If the Left stands for anything, it must surely be for helping the losers in modern, developed economies: helping them to survive, certainly, but also giving them the chance of social mobility and opportunity. An important part of the solution needs, in my view, to be a final reconciliation on the Left with two words still considered by many to need handling with rubber gloves: markets and competition. Not unregulated markets, not unfettered competition, as the financial debacle has shown.
But throttling markets and stifling competition is not the alternative to that.
The reason is twofold: first, that even if a principal tool of left-wing governments may remain public money, so that public services can help the losers and deliver social goods, markets continue to be the only known way to generate such tax revenues. But second, because mobility and opportunity must mean rewarding merit and ability regardless of background or of inherited disadvantage. Meritocracy should be a left-wing word. So, therefore, should selection in schools and tuition fees for universities that are balanced by means-tested support for the able poor.
Oddly and surprisingly, I have just seen some elements of this change at work in the south of Italy, in Puglia, at the country’s heel. Not all, for sure, but they make a man called Nichi Vendola, twice-elected governor of the region, the man to watch in Italian left-wing politics. He is a gay ex-communist, neither of which is naturally popular in the South, though he is also a devout Catholic, and in March saw off an effort by the national establishment of the Democratic Party to dislodge him.
Most of all, Mr Vendola is an Obama-style mobiliser of the Pugliese masses, with the oratory and charisma to conjure up dreams, and he is building a national movement too.
As governor, he has at least partly accepted that southern Italy’s problem has been too much state and too little market (“Brezhnevismo”, he calls it refreshingly), and has shifted his own interventionism towards local infrastructure, to providing grants to 10,000 students to help them to study outside the region, and to environmentalism.
If I were running a left-wing political party, that is the sort of combination I would go for: acceptance of the market, social mobility, the environment, plus attacks on privileged groups or vested interests in whatever country I was operating in. Whether I would be elected must remain, of course, a matter for speculation.