Traditional political parties in Europe are in long term decline. Membership rolls decrease unabated. Turnout is depressed, and when people do come out to vote it is often more out of hostility to other political parties than an impassioned belief in the platform and vision of their own. Trust, both in the honesty of politicians themselves and in the transformative power of political projects has been eroded rapidly and in its place a spirit of embittered apathy has come to dominate popular consciousness. This is not a problem unique to the left, but Europe’s governments are dominated by the centre-right as the cruelly ironic spectacle of establishment parties selling an ostensibly ‘anti-politics’ message to advance a distinctly political neoliberal agenda has repeatedly proved more resonant with the public than whatever the left can come up with.
And yet at the same time there are countless examples that prove that people have not become naturally more apathetic, or that they do not care about the future of their country, or that any of this is inevitable. From the volatile revolutions in Egypt and Ukraine to the brief but vibrant flowering of the Occupy Movement or the growing participation in groups like 38 Degrees, evidence of the enduring desire for a better world is everywhere. Defeatism or, far worse than that, blaming the people for their disengagement is therefore entirely the wrong approach.
In the age of economic crisis, neoliberalism and its central dogma of rolling back the state is sustained by a lack of belief in the state and the power of politics. It is only logical then, that if we are to overturn the economic hegemony of neoliberalism, a political solution is first required. The Third Way strategy of trying to find an economic solution within the confines of neoliberal discourse in the hope that this will then lead to the solution of the political problem is rapidly losing credibility. This blind alley has meant Social Democrats are inevitably boxed into tighter and tighter spaces (see the endless dithering on Labour’s response to the Bedroom Tax), leaving their core support hollowed out and a vacuum of political radicalism where the left once was.
The opportunity for whatever sort of social movement can fill that vacuum first is great, and we should be concerned about the possibility of right-wing reaction occupying this territory as well as optimistic about doing so ourselves. Italy’s ‘Five Star Movement’ built around the charismatic personality of comedian Beppe Grillo, populism and a ‘big tent’ ethos has perhaps come closest to achieving this aim, although many doubt the ability of M5S to hold on to its popularity if the time comes when they are required to govern effectively. Perhaps a more ideologically coherent and consonant example is the left-wing Greek coalition SYRIZA which has come from virtually nothing to a level of support at the last election that, were it not for the peculiarities of Greek election law, could well have seen them enter government.
Whilst neither are perfect examples by any means (M5S has been accused of far-right tendencies and SYRIZA is undoubtedly partially a product of the specific economic catastrophe in Greece), both these cases point tentatively towards a general model of how to buck the trend of disengagement in the 21st Century. Broadly then, what should such a model look like in the UK?
Firstly, there must be a new offer to members. It is no surprise that membership rates are as low as they are when you consider what being a member actually entails: giving significant sums of money to be treated by the party as a faceless leaflet machine, with nothing more than tokenistic power to influence policy and set the political priorities of the organisation. Alongside genuine internal democracy, local parties need to be social hubs, centres of political education and real debate. It is in political parties’ electoral self-interest to do this, as the activist base will only continue to atrophy otherwise.
Secondly, the ‘safety first’ communication cultures that dominate spin operations must be relaxed. Spin will also inevitably be decentralised by the growth of social media. The risks of allowing politicians to speak their mind are far outweighed by the risks of clinging to the robotic, stultifying language so beloved of most politicians. That a sense of humour and honesty is enough to damn a political career must change.
Lastly, socialists must find a way to once more offer a convincing vision of fundamental change as Thatcher did in the 80s. Too often cosmetic fixes have been the order of the day and a deep analysis of the nature of the problem (which today must surely include the pressures of globalisation) has been side lined. Part of this process must involve the building of alternative progressive narratives that shouldn’t be afraid of being seen as ‘populist’ so long as they avoid demagoguery.
In a recent piece in the Guardian Leo Pantich, editor of the Socialist Register said “The left used to beat itself up, sometimes quite literally, with debates over reform v revolution, parliamentarianism v extra-parliamentarianism, party v movement – as if one ruled out the other. The question for the 21st century is not reform v revolution, but rather what kinds of reforms, with what kinds of popular movements behind them engaging in the kinds of mobilisations that can inspire similar developments elsewhere, can prove revolutionary enough to withstand the pressures of capitalism.”
The long, complicated task of building such a movement must begin in haste.