As already related, this last election wasn’t terribly good for the South Down and Londonderry Party. They could only stand still in percentage terms compared with their terrible result in the last Euros five years back, and this despite Allbran being a much more convincing candidate than Martin Morgan ever was. This isn’t surprising when you consider the actual dynamics of the SDLP outside their two or three strongholds. The paradigmatic SDLP presence in a rural northern town would centre around one prominent individual – a solicitor, GP or head teacher – who did something in the civil rights movement and has been dining out on it ever since. This personality would have enough name recognition to get elected to the council in his own right, but would absolutely refuse to build a branch in case he built up a rival. With the founding generation retiring or dying, it’s no wonder the party has a jaded look.
But, as always, one amusing feature has been the SDLP’s inordinate pride in belonging to the Party of European Socialists, even though they aren’t really much of a fit there. So, turning to the broader scene, we may notice that the social democrats have done remarkably badly across most of the continent, whether in government or opposition. Why is this? Well, Denis MacShane has some ideas. He reckons that Europe’s social democrats have been more content to strike radical poses than deal with the hard questions of power, and are totally mired in anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. In Denis’ view, European social democracy needs to be more pro-market, more pro-war and more pro-Israel. Only thus can the Europeans emulate the soaraway success of Gordon Brown’s New Labour. I don’t know about you, but that certainly sounds convincing to me.
What was perhaps more convincing was the explanation put forward by a German Christian Democrat, whose name escapes me, on the BBC coverage. On being asked why the centre-right parties were doing reasonably well and the centre-left badly, in a situation of economic crisis where the left might have been expected to be roaring ahead, he argued that the social democrats were putting forward the same programme as the right. This is especially clear in Germany, where the SPD have been Merkel’s junior coalition partners. It’s clear in the ideological sense in France – if the PS is simply putting forward sarkozysme with a human face, why bother with them when you can vote for Sarko himself? One may also note the Italian Democratic Party’s remarkable track record of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Britain was especially bad, of course, as was Hungary. Generally, it was the most thoroughly Blairised parties that did worst.
There’s a bit of a straw in the wind in terms of what the population would expect a party even nominally of the left to be doing. There were goodish returns for social democracy in Greece and Malta, where social democrats in opposition have managed to at least appear slightly combative. (The same may be said of Irish Labour – granted that Éamon Gilmore has been more than a bit vague about his own prescriptions, but he would give us to understand that he’s got a plan, and he’s a fairly plausible guy.) For a governing social democratic party that’s done well, I can only point you towards the Smer party in Slovakia, which still has a strong populist streak and which has been a pariah party inside the PES for coalescing with some boisterous nationalists of the type that would cause Caroline Lucas sleepless nights.
Some more evidence along these lines is that the further left, whether unreconstructed communist parties, French Trotskyists or Dutch Maoists, did reasonable business. In France, we see over 6% for the Front de Gauche and just under 5% for Postman Pat’s NPA. 7.5% for Die Linke in Germany, which is perfectly decent even if a little below what the polls were predicting. In Portugal, the Left Bloc and the Communist Party getting a combined 21%; a good solid 15% for the Czech Communists; the Greek left doing reasonably well; the famously fractious Italian left wouldn’t have slipped much had they managed to put up a single slate. And of course Joe’s victory in Dublin. I’ll have more to say separately about the British left, but will just say now that I appreciate Dave’s closing quip.
Not that any of these parties are seriously challenging for power, but what they have in common is that they offer some kind of systemic alternative. The abolition of capitalism isn’t yet a majority position by a long way, but a party standing on that ground can do pretty well under certain conditions, like putting down solid roots in working-class communities, trying to have a dialogue (not a monologue) with a mass audience, and not tearing itself apart over dopey factional disputes. In this connection, I’d also mention gains for the Greens, especially their spectacular performance in France. Daniel Cohn-Bendit may be an untrustworthy asshole, but he’s a past master at looking kinda sorta radical.
What do we make of New Labour, then? The performance in the Euros was of course atrocious. Fifteen percent is an absolute disgrace. Being beaten by UKIP? Sinking to sixth place in Cornwall, beneath the upstarts of Mebyon Kernow? Even in 1983 it would be unimaginable. But does this actually mean the Labour Party can be written off as a force?
I don’t think so, in electoral terms, although there are longer-term trends working against it. On the flip side, you have to consider that the turnout at the general election will be twice that for the Euros. Moreover, under the FPTP system you won’t see the small parties having much of an impact. Even the more substantial of these – the Greens, UKIP, the BNP – could at most hope for one or two seats, if any. The Greens have taken thirty years of hard slog to build up a reasonable number of credible candidates and critical mass in a handful of local bases, and are still a long way from being players at the general election. Other small parties have even less going for them – I like Nigel Farage personally, as opposed to agreeing with him politically, but you don’t need to go far beyond him to reach UKIP’s wingnut tendency, and again they won’t be serious players outside of a Euro-election that could be tailor-made for them.
And ultimately, big political parties with over a century of existence don’t lose their sociological base overnight. There are still very big numbers of Labour supporters out there, even if at the moment they are so pissed off as to be staying away in droves. There is a serious question as to how they can be reached, in a situation where Labour seem to have lost either the will or the ability to do so. Unfortunately, the fash are ahead of the left in this race.
Finally, there are some signs out there that maybe the general election won’t be as much a walkover for Lord Snooty as you might think. There’s a failure to advance in the Euros, only gaining relatively as the Labour vote collapsed. (Noticeable that Labour held up fairly well in London, which I would guess has something to do with the Boris factor.) Projections from the locals show a Tory majority of around 30, which is a long way from the 200 you’d get from a reading of the headline polls. There’s not much sign of the British electorate, as opposed to the London media, falling in love with Cameron. It’s just that the Labour collapse is likely to let him in by default.
Rud eile: on perusing this week’s offering from the World’s Worst Columnist, I am struck by Gail’s idea that Caroline Flint is some kind of feminist heroine. Given Gail’s strident Toryism, and her reliance in her column on slagging off other women, this is a bit rich. Then again, it’s no sillier than the last time Gail developed a massive girl-crush on a female politician.
Rud eile fós: Justin is in good form this week.