Saturday, 31 January 2015

New Labour has failed. We need a new political formation which will survive the demise of the Labour Party, argued Andy Pearmain in 2006.

I simply don’t think that the current Labour leadership understands that its political fate depends on whether or not it can construct a politics, in the next 20 years, which is able to address itself, not to one, but to a diversity of different points of antagonism in society; unifying them, in their differences, within a common project. I don’t think they have grasped that Labour’s capacity to grow as a political force depends absolutely on its capacity to draw from the popular energies of very different movements; movements outside the party which it did not — could not — set in play, and which it cannot therefore “administer”.
‘It retains an entirely bureaucratic conception of politics. If the word doesn't proceed out of the mouths of the Labour leadership, there must be something subversive about it. If politics energises people to develop new demands, that is a sure sign that the natives are getting restless. You must expel or depose a few. You must get back to that fiction, the “traditional Labour voter”: to that pacified, Fabian notion of politics, where the masses hijack the experts into power, and then the experts do something for the masses: later … much later. The hydraulic conception of politics.’ 
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So said Stuart Hall, in ‘Gramsci and Us’, nearly 20 years ago now. New Labour was a response of sorts to that critique, drawing heavily on the late 1980s ‘New Times’/Marxism Today analyses (with which Stuart Hall was himself associated) and attempting a kind of virtual, heavily mediated connection with some of those emerging social ‘movements outside the party’. Many of us now feel that it was a peculiarly selective and distorted response. The de-classed ‘identity politics’ we contributed to the New Labour project, with its worthy emphasis on race and gender and sexuality and sometimes giddy consumerism, came out the other end as Philip Gould’s ‘suburban populism’. Our disintegrating industrial proletariat was reconstituted as their Home Counties petty bourgeoisie.
It may seem now that ‘New Labour is unraveling’, but with the prospect of Brownite renewal offering a variant strain, we should remind ourselves that it’s still there and in government. Gould and others are insisting that the project’s achievements are deep and permanent, in changing the terrain on which their New Tory opponents have to operate and in ‘transforming’ the Labour Party (albeit effectively out of existence). Whatever, New Labour needs to be historically accounted for, even if only so we don’t fall for something like it again. It’s time to ask — what was New Labour all about? Beneath the bossy spin and the rising, scummy tide of sleaze, what has happened in the 15-odd years since New Times?
If we look beyond the glossy rhetoric of ministers and advisers, and the Blair/Brown Punch and Judy show, two particular components of New Labour seem to have come to the fore , and squeezed out the far richer mix which the best of late-period Marxism Today represented:
  • An odd kind of shallow, quasi-Marxist determinism, which argues the ‘historical inevitability’ of capitalist globalization with just the same dogmatic fervour and disregard for politics and ideological conflict or real human agency of any kind that marked 2nd International social democracy and later forms of (mainly Stalinist or Trotskyist) leftism. Socialism (or now, globalisation) is coming — all we can or need do is ready ourselves for the new dawn.
  • A nerdy awe of information technology, characteristic of people who don’t really understand its scientific or logical bases and that it’s only ever as good as the creative uses that people put it to. This combines, in the writings of Leadbeater, Mulgan et al., with a taste for way-out and ultimately empty ‘new age’ management theory to create an approach to government (or should I say ‘governance’?) more suited to a millenarian cult than a modern, secular political party. The future is coming. It is bright and shiny. If you don’t embrace it you will die… Prepare for lift-off!
But is New Labour really that new? It likes to think and insistently tell the rest of us that it is. The project’s ‘visions’ and ‘models’ are supposedly written on a historical blank sheet. But it incorporates far more old-fashioned, horny-handed Labourism than it cares to admit, even if only because it is grudgingly dependent on the Labour Party electoral machine to “get out the vote” every few years and on the likes of John Prescott to keep the North of England in line. And is New Labour’s “technocratic managerialism” really all that different from the “hydraulic” Fabian expert-ism Stuart Hall referred to in 1987? The cumbersome, room-size, calculating machine may have given way to a palm-top computer, but it’s still churning out the same old exhortation to “trust the experts” on everything from macro-economics to public sector reform and so-called ‘social exclusion’.
I would argue that, within the history of the Labour Party and the ‘broader’ democratic left in Britain, New Labour is simply the latest manifestation of Labourism, that inert, stodgy, defence-mechanism of a fractious, fissured working class firmly, grimly entrenched within capitalism. For all of its hundred-plus years, it has drawn on the energies of more dynamic but marginal and ephemeral social movements to renew itself and in particular to get its professional cadres re-elected to parliament. That is the real, thoroughly dispiriting, historical outcome of ‘Labour’s capacity … to draw from the popular energies of very different movements outside the party’.
The Labour Party was founded on the back of the great upsurge in mass, ‘national-popular’, democratic activism in late-Victorian, still overwhelmingly industrial Britain. Even then, it managed to combine all sorts of other ideological components from what was at that time an extraordinarily rich ‘civil society’, such as radical Liberalism and Marxism, Methodism and pacifism, feminism and male chauvinism, imperialism and internationalism, voluntarism and statism, municipalism and parliamentarism — all these and more, in often dynamic contradiction. This was the celebrated (and much admired elsewhere) ‘broad church’ approach to working class politics, with deep roots in daily life and about as close as Labour ever came to a genuinely ‘hegemonic’ strategy for taking and exercising power. Then came Ramsay MacDonald, the first in an almost pathological pattern of ‘betrayal’ and dashed expectations, which forms the sorry emotional leitmotif of Labour history.
The travails of the 1920s and ’30s at least helped to focus and popularise the party, to lay the basis for the post-war heyday of Labourism. This culminated in the highest ever popular Labour vote in 1951. Even then, there were ‘betrayals’ and disappointments along the way (Oswald Mosley and his ‘New Party’, Stafford ‘austerity’ Cripps and eventually the labourist patron saint Nye Bevan himself). Labour’s failures were barely offset by the great (similarly mythologically resonant and seriously flawed) labourist achievements of the NHS and the welfare state. And of course, though Labour got its highest ever vote in 1951, it lost the general election to the new ‘one nation’ Conservatives. Labour’s most ambitious attempt at ‘technocratic managerialism’ by Harold Wilson, underpinned and propelled by Crosland’s social-democratic ‘revisionism’ and the corporatism represented by ‘beer and sandwiches at number 10’ for trade union barons, foundered on its own internal contradictions amid the capitalist crises of the 1960s and 70s.
Along the way, there were repeated attempts by Labour to tap into new popular energies, such as the war-time ‘Dunkirk spirit’ of national togetherness; or the ‘scholarship generation’ of 1950s working class intellectuals borne along on their parents’ hard-won affluence and aspirations; or their younger brothers and sisters ebulliently engaged in the evenements of 1968 and after. I have a particular interest in the latter, as the final example of the ‘broad’ left attempting a truly hegemonic take on British political economy, via the social contract and the alternative economic strategy in its first, pre-Bennite form. It swiftly retreated from mass politics into the far more comfortable settings of trade union office, seminar room and ‘left-leaning’ newspaper columns.
In the 1980s, Labourism tried several different takes on the ‘new social forces’ derived from ‘the politics of identity’ which Stuart Hall and others were helping to articulate. Bennism had a go first, with an opening to the non-Labour left of feminists, black and gay activists. This generally ended in tears when they rubbed other, more straight-laced members of ‘the broad church’ up the wrong way, so to speak. As Thatcher embarked on her full-frontal mid-80s assault on ‘loony leftism’, we embarked on yet another round of recrimination and disillusionment. The ‘soft left’ was in part an honest attempt to salvage something from the wreckage. Egged on by Kinnock’s ‘favourite Marxist’ Eric Hobsbawm, and by the Euro-communists’ favourite Labourist Bryan Gould, it came perilously close to a thoughtfully reformist, outward looking and alliance building politics, but at its big soppy heart Labour remained a party of tribalists. All talk of pacts and alliances fell away when they sensed that with professional advertising and media management to gloss up the product, Labour could go it alone just like in 1945. Finally, as we’ve seen, New Labour took off on its own messianic journey into ‘New Times’.

My analysis is open to challenge on a number of counts. Labour has in its hundred-plus years achieved some genuine amelioration in the living conditions of the industrial working class. Imagine what the last century would have been like if capitalism had been able to exercise the free hand it has now. Unemployment and related benefits, state pensions, some measure of protection against injury and discrimination at work, comprehensive education (even post-war access to grammar schools for bright poor kids like me) and social housing are all real consolations for the miseries inflicted by the ‘free market’.
New Labour continues to devise and to offer its own consolations. Just recently I heard one of its advocates argue that the slush-funds of ‘local regeneration’ and ‘social inclusion’ represented a further, proud example of Labour providing compensatory ‘access to the state’ in addressing ‘market failure’. Throw money at anything, I would respond, and it will undoubtedly feel better for a while. Ask any lottery winner. But, as is all too obvious now, these schemes and fixes are easily undermined or even swept away when they are judged ‘unaffordable’. All the ‘new deals’ and ‘sure starts’ will not survive the next serious recession and round of public spending cuts, let alone a New Tory sweep-out. Besides, they have never provided any basis for a real challenge for power, or rather in Gramsci’s much more resonant term ‘hegemony’.
Then there’s the historical absence of much else of value in British working class politics. Even Labour’s staunchest critics have felt forced to accept that it has historically been ‘the mass party of the British working class’. They have usually campaigned for some wider social ferment, which would force the party to adopt ‘more progressive policies’. For much of its history, Labour’s only semi-serious political rival, the Communist Party of Great Britain, worked to a strategy of ‘militant labourism’. This would (in ways never entirely spelt out) bring along ‘a Labour government of a new type’. Even Hall’s (and especially his Marxism Today stable-mate Hobsbawm’s) 1980s critiques were aimed (however tetchily) at eventually restoring Labour’s political vigour. What is most striking now about the history of the CPGB is just how deferential it was towards Labour, in all its phases and across all its factions, rather than seeking seriously and strategically (like other more effective European communist parties) to displace their labourist rivals or at least force them to develop a coherent social democracy.
There have been, as I’ve already noted, some genuinely interesting and creative attempts to connect the Labour Party with wider movements and trends in British society, even if they remained isolated and tentative and have almost always resulted in bad feeling all round. And there was always the powerful argument that any political initiative outside of the Labour Party would inevitably end in narrow, shrinking sectarianism and ‘being confined to the political wilderness’. There are plenty of generally very depressing examples of this too, including the CPGB, and thus a serious pro-Labour case to answer. Apart from anything else, there are plenty of ‘good people’ still in and around the Labour Party (many of them clustered around Compass) who would place themselves within our self-styled ‘democratic left’ but still need persuading that Labour is really and truly dying.
I would argue now that, for a whole range of reasons, Labour is no longer the mass party of the British working class, not least because its leadership has decided (understandably) that it doesn’t want it to be. This sounds obvious but it needs spelling out, and in historical terms is the primary explanation for Labourism’s long decline. The long-term retreat and fragmentation of the working class and the breakdown of its tribal habits and loyalties was one of the primary reasons for the New Labour manoeuvre. Voting and (especially) membership figures attest to the party’s decline as an active political (or even social and cultural) presence in the real, everyday world. Hence the reliance by New Labour on ‘spin’, through a generally compliant or appeased media, as the only remaining means of reaching its ‘public’. In a very practical sense the Labour Party barely any longer exists ‘on the ground’ where most of us spend our daily, increasingly de-politicised, lives.
This surely is the real but barely commented-upon reason for Labour’s fawning reliance on rich businessmen’s money, donated or loaned. Labour is simply not receiving enough in membership fees to pay for the operation of a modern, media-dependent political party, let alone making up for dwindling and politically uncomfortable trade union support. The Jowell/Mills and ‘loans for peerages’ affairs attest to the real sorry organisational state of the party, but also to the residual ethical framework of labourism — a large part of the public revulsion with Labour is made up of scorn for the bosses’ ill-gotten gains. How can ‘our people’ be so cosy with ‘them’? That’s why nobody’s much bothered about the Tories’ much greater reliance on handouts from the plutocrats of bandit capitalism, because it’s what we expect. New Labour’s ultimate failure lies in being unable to shake off the ethical straitjacket of labourism, while the real political agency of the party continues to shrivel.
So what do we do now? We could usefully revisit one of the central arguments of the first, late-1950s New Left — that Labourism is an obstacle to the wider social ferment we need in order to bring about progressive change in Britain. The modern democratic impulses at work in Britain, beyond the sterile pantomime of parliament and its regional and local clones, are going on despite not because of Labour. Tribally, instinctively, mythologically, it remains deeply suspicious of Hall’s ‘movements outside the party which it did not — could not — set in play, and which it cannot therefore administer’. It pains me to say it, but the examples of genuinely democratic developments I am most professionally familiar with from the last 20 years (health and social care for people with HIV/AIDS, for instance, or tenant participation in housing) received far more government support, financial and moral, under the Tories than Labour.
Thatcherism was (and remains, in its ‘transformist’ adaptations) a many-faceted beast . In its urge to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’, it left quite a lot of space for new ways of providing and receiving services, not just in the deregulated private market but also in the remaining, generally battered public sector. It was possible to deploy Thatcherism’s anti-statist thrust in some surprisingly creative, invigorating and genuinely innovative ways. We felt ‘freer’, even if only to harm ourselves and those around us. We could be ‘who we really are’, even if that ultimately meant being confined to particular, comfortable, sealed boxes of sexual, gender, ‘cultural’ or ethnic identity, locked in an uneasy stand-off in our supposedly diversifying society. We could choose our lifestyles and circumstances, even if the very exercise of choice consigned others to deeper subordination. We could take pretty much exclusive responsibility for the upbringing of our children, even if it took extraordinary dedication and sacrifice to do it half-well, and the class-status and confidence to avoid the ‘protective’ scrutiny of the moral agents of the soft state. We could purchase anything — any kind of pleasure, our own homes and cars, shares in privatised utilities, high quality education and health care, ‘fancy foreign holidays’, above all our own social identities, that is, who those around us thought we were.
New Labour of course accepts all this, but in an oddly joyless, fastidious and ultimately begrudging spirit. The ‘celebration’ of Thatcherism is the aspect of the ‘New Times’ legacy they bridle most at. New Labour accepted the invitation to the party, but they’re still standing in the corner with their ties and belts done up tight, watching everyone else enjoy themselves. Really and truly, New Labour disapproves of Thatcherism’s freedoms, what Stuart Hall has called its license to ‘hustle’. It has, by contrast, rushed to accommodate and deepen all the ‘regressive’ elements of Thatcherite ‘modernisation’ — globalisation above all, but also its closely related project of ‘authoritarian populism’. In its drive to get us all ‘ready for market’, it shows growing disregard not just for the traditional niceties of the liberal state but for any kind of difference or dissent beyond those officially sanctioned within its own ‘respect agenda’ . It is even more inclined than in 1987, when Stuart Hall wrote these words, to regard as ‘subversive’ anything which ‘doesn’t proceed out of the mouths of the Labour leadership.’ And again, why should we be surprised? Personal liberty, in its deeply English (and highly, even globally, attractive) form of comic irreverence and wilful individualism, has always been inimical to the Labourist tradition of dour conformity.

The problem for the democratic left is that the actual, final death of the Labour Party, as an organisation of people with deep vested interests in its survival, doesn’t look like happening any time soon. Labourism as an ideological strand is clearly exhausted but the Labour Party itself has powerful organisational life-support systems, not least the networks of local and national state patronage it still controls. The Labour Party simply is, even if it has lost any sense of where it might be going and any historic mission beyond the vacuities of the Third Way. The real question for us then is — what can we do to help kill it off?
There are epochal processes at work within British politics, which seriously threaten the Labour Party’s survival. The decline of popular faith and involvement in electoral politics is eroding its own popular base. Very few local Labour Parties nowadays are capable of a ‘total canvass’ of their wards, which was always the pre-requisite for the regular, well-oiled Labour ritual of ‘getting out the vote’. The party has officially lost more than half its membership since 1997, over and above all those members (like my wife) who stopped paying dues years ago but still receive members’ mailings and are presumably still counted as members because they never got round to actively resigning. As it loses local council seats, not to mention local ‘activists’, there are fewer local councillors to do the actual donkey work. The policy/lobby group Compass shows signs of intelligent life, but they are about the only ones around the Labour Party. It remains to be seen how much long-term impact or influence they have.
The decline of interest in electoral and party politics among younger people has been well documented. They are simply not acquiring the habits of ‘civic duty’ of previous generations. However, that’s not to say they are politically uninterested. In my experience of parenting and teaching some of them, I find a hunger for insight and explanation to help make sense of the bewildering world around us. They very often end up looking in the wrong places, embarking on forms of ‘political tourism’ and returning from their global gap years with the simplistic, unsustainable pieties of ‘anti-capitalism’. But they are not in any numbers going anywhere near the Labour Party or anything else which might engage them in the hum-drum but utterly crucial routines of national-popular politics.
We may just at the next election, by a fortuitous combination of luck and tactical design, arrive at a hung Parliament. That’s assuming that the imminent deterioration in economic and political circumstances, which have so far spared New Labour any serious test, doesn’t deliver something nastier. Then, if the notoriously slippery Lib Dems can hold their nerve and insist on Proportional Representation, we might just see the beginnings of a properly democratic, modern political system, which genuinely reflects the real currents of popular feeling. That would include all those of us on the democratic left who finally, historically, have had enough of Labourism, the Labour Party and all its ways and works.
That’s a relatively optimistic short-term view. I don’t share it — far more likely is a New Tory Cameron government, sooner or later displaced by some form of neo-Thatcherism, which remains the strongest ideological impulse in Britain. But all of that should be of secondary concern to anyone who wants to see real, deep, meaningfully left wing transformation of British society in all its cultural, social, political and economic aspects. We need a new political formation, which will survive the demise of the Labour Party, and hopefully play an active, purposeful part in the long overdue historical ‘project’ of killing it off.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Must Labour Die?

Nearly ten years ago, Andy Pearmain wrote that ‘Labour Must Die’[i], an analysis of the dead-end called New Labour. He suggested that at the 2010 election we might “by a fortuitous combination of luck and tactical design, arrive at a hung Parliament” in which the Lib Dems might push through some kind of proportional representation leading, at lastto the beginnings of a properly democratic, modern political system, which genuinely reflects the real currents of popular feeling.” 

Unfortunately, he overestimated the moral fibre of the Lib Dems and the degree to which Labour and the Conservatives together would sabotage even the minor shift to AV voting. He was right to suggest that “far more likely is a New Tory Cameron government, sooner or later displaced by some form of neo-Thatcherism, which remains the strongest ideological impulse in Britain.” So, right on the money there.

His conclusion then was that Labour had to be replaced by a new political formation; that Labour must die. As we approach the May election the same question arises; vote Labour to get the Tories out or vote for a better alternative on the left to push Labour down and look to a more distant horizon. A sudden surge in belief in the Green Party as such an alternative makes the question even sharper. In 2010, Labour’s share of the vote was just 29%, only just above its lowest ever share (27.6%) in 1983 when the vote was split following the formation of the Social Democrats and the defection of a number of its MP’s. In fact, 2010 can be seen as the continuance of a long-term trend since 1945 as the Labour share of the vote drifted steadily down from the high 40%s in the 1950s, with the thirty years since 1983 an aberration after the reshuffling of the Liberal, Labour and Social Democrat votes. 1983 to 1997 now looks rather like the shocked reaction of an electorate to a new neo-liberal agenda and 1997 to 2010 a growing realisation that Labour was not much different.

                Share of vote at UK general elections since 1945: Labour, Conservative, Liberal and Other

The hope, indeed the prayer, of the Labour apparatus is that the Lib Dem 2010 share at 23% will collapse and flow to Labour whilst the ‘Others’, notably UKIP, will eat the Tory vote. And such was the general view of the political commentariat until first the SNP and then the Greens poked up their tousled heads. The Labour nightmare is that the SNP (1.7% of the national vote in 2010) might claim, say 5% of Scotland’s roughly 8.5% share of the national vote and the Greens (0.9%) perhaps another 5%, all out of Labour, whilst the Lib Dem vote could either stay firm or go to the Greens. 

If Labour’s national share did continue the trend down towards 25% or so then it really would be in trouble.

The Greens and the SNP are not the only possible ways that Labour will be hit. In late 2014, Paul Salveson[ii], a long-time Labour stalwart and councillor, joined Yorkshire First, a quirky regional party aiming to do what the label says. The defection of such a figure suggests, as Salveson did, that At the end of the day Labour have had a long time in which to push forward with devolution and other issues concerning greater social justice that I’m campaigning for. We don’t know what will happen with next year’s vote but we live in a democratic society so it’s time that we got away from the idea that we must vote for Labour as the progressive vote. We believe that we are the new alternative.” 

He put forward Scotland as the inspiration for his move and will be standing in Colne Valley, a seat which must be high on the list of Labour target seats. If Labour starts to die in strongholds such as Yorkshire as well as being wiped out in Scotland and being challenged by the Green vote then the political landscape would indeed be shifting.

What makes the 2015 election quite different to anything seen since the 1920s is that it does offer a real choice on the left: either to vote for a discredited centre party clinging to the shreds of a long-past reputation for progressive social change on the grounds that this is the only way to keep out the Tories or to register a protest against the current political structure and cause the Labour Party to finally relinquish its grip on left politics. Ironically, it is the threat posed by a populist English party which will also strip away Labour votes which makes this latter alternative a good deal more plausible. The likelihood that in Scotland, the SNP will actually win seats from Labour will, as the example of Paul Salveson shows, give an important moral push to all those who have been on the brink of jumping ship for years.

It would be unsafe to draw too many conclusions from the victory of Syriza in Greece. However, what it does demonstrate how quickly apparently dominant parties can collapse. After a muted first effort in 1974 when it received only 13.5% of the national vote, PASOK, the Greek equivalent of Labour, bounced up to the 40%’s in 1981, a level held through to 2009. In 2015, PASOK gained just 4.7% of the national vote.  Labour is unlikely to collapse so dramatically but, on the other hand, it is already a long way down the path to effective oblivion.

The form of the coalition of groups and parties, for such it would have to be, which might replace Labour is not clear. The lack of any clear alternative organisational form is one reason why Labour has held on for so long. But perhaps we need to stop thinking in terms of national parties and instead focus upon forms of power in which different groups of people could exercise choice; locally, regionally, in different sectors, collaborating in ways which are at present unthinkable in our centralised monolithic system in which winner takes all. But one thing is clear. Andy had it right. Labour must die.

Monday, 26 January 2015


Early in 2014 in a South African journal,The Thinker (Q1, 2014), Thabo Mbeki laid out his vision for the future of the progressive movement in Africa. The core of this agenda, was “establishing genuinely democratic systems of government, including accountable State systems”. He is harsh about the reality of democracy in many African countries in which “State systems have been reduced to a patrimony of a predatory elite, controlled by its self-serving ‘professional political class’” “Thus”, he continues, “does the putative democratic state become a social institution which serves the interests of a ‘rent-seeking’ elite whose goals amount to no more than preserving its political power and using this power to extract the ‘rent’ which ensures its enrichment”

Harsh words indeed, though ones which have become almost a cliché with respect to the governance of many African states. Yet, by an odd coincidence, at around same time, The Economist, august journal of the western business elite, had a front-page splash “What’s gone wrong with democracy?”,[i] the title of a long essay inside which opened by suggesting “that democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven from office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes. Even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife. Yet a few years ago democracy looked as though it would dominate the world.” The piece ends with the quotation from a past US President often found in The Economist that “democracy never lasts long. It wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide” John Adams wrote this in 1814 and it is unclear as to precisely what he was referring. There had been a brief flourishing of democratic intent in France a few years before, quickly snuffed out, and there had been the original ‘democracy’ in Athens copied by a few other Greek city-states around the fourth century BC in which, it is believed, around 15% of the population took part. There was, of course, the Roman Republic which we know ended badly on the Ides of March and also the Republic of Geneva about which the less said the better. Adams in fact had precious little evidence on which to base his assertion and, of course, it would not have occurred to him that a country whose franchise excluded all women and those males held in servitude could not be seen as a democracy. Even so, recent history suggests that he had a point given that in 2014 alone, three elected governments were overthrown and replaced by self-appointed cliques.

Doubts about the state of democracy are not confined to right-wing journals. The eminent left historian, Perry Anderson, recently published a coruscating essay mainly about the corruption of Italian democracy but which opened with a lament for European democracy in general.[ii]
Europe is ill. How seriously, and why, are matters not always easy to judge. But among the symptoms three are conspicuous and inter-related. The first, and most familiar, is the degenerative drift of democracy across the continent, ... Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will of the rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally represents them, turnout falling with each successive election... executives domesticate or manipulate legislatures with greater ease; parties lose members; voters lose belief that they count, as political choices narrow and promises of difference on the hustings dwindle or vanish in office.

He continues with a roll-call of distinguished European politicians who have been implicated in various ways in huge corruption scandals amongst them Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, Horst Köhler (former head of the IMF), Christine Lagarde (current head of the IMF), Bertie Ahern, (past Irish prime-minister), Mariano Rajoy (current Spanish prime-minister) and on through Greece, Turkey and the U.K. The sums involved are not small: Helmut Kohl was found to have amassed some two million Deutschmarks from donors whose names he refused to reveal. Not one of this illustrious roll-call has so far been called to account though Lagarde is currently under criminal investigation, something which seems not to impede her job ruling the global financial system.

Nor is the problem of dynastic political elites any preserve of Africa. Arguably the most important democracy in the world, certainly the largest, is India in which 814 million people went to the polls in May, 2014. These elections were widely publicised as resulting in the overthrow of the Gandhi family which had ruled India for four generations and bringing the Bharatiya Janata Party to power led by a man of humble origins with no family connections to assist him. However, as Patrick French has shown in a recent book, India: a Portrait,[iii] nearly 30% of members of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, were connected directly by family to their political posts whilst, startlingly, all members under 30 were the children of former politicians. There is little sign of voter disillusion with electoral democracy in India with the 2014 election showing the highest ever turnout at 66.4%, a respectably high figure for a country with such a huge, poor rural sector. However, the importance of dynastic connections suggests that even in this vibrant democracy there are some problems.

In the USA, the democratic problem is, as always, money and its connections with power. Efforts to limit the amount of money which individuals or corporations could spend supporting political candidates have been regularly ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. According to the respected journalist, Gary Younge:
In a system where money is considered speech, and corporations are people, this trend is inevitable. Elections become not a system of participatory engagement determining how the country is run, but the best democratic charade that money can buy. People get a vote; but only once money has decided whom they can vote for and what the agenda should be. The result is a plutocracy that operates according to the golden rule: that those who have the gold make the rules.[iv]
Once, powerful unions were able provide some counterbalancing finance to that of corporate interests. However, the decline of unions and the almost exponential growth in the scale of expenditure on elections have greatly reduced this influence. Even so, American democracy has always been a bit rough-and-ready and tinged with corruption, though the scale of this may be increasing, whilst the very decentralised nature of US politics does provide scope for some genuine democratic initiative.  The real centre of the democratic ‘crisis’ lies in Europe.

It is sometimes forgotten just how recent democracy is in much of Europe and how fractured has been its history. Only Sweden and the UK can really claim to have enjoyed unbroken democratic governance since the late nineteenth century with the gradual extension of the franchise to include women as well as the working class less than a hundred years ago. Even so, the disappearance of fascism from southern Europe in the 1970s followed by the emergence of parliamentary democracy in the Communist countries of Eastern Europe in the 1990s seemed to suggest that this form of governance was inevitable and immutable, so much so that in 1992, Francis Fukuyama was able to pronounce that:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.[v]

Fukuyama has in recent years rather backtracked from this position but only at the margins despite the conspicuous failure of the efforts of the USA to impose liberal democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan. Why then the sense of a democratic crisis particularly in Europe? In a number of ways it is the culmination of two trends which have been developing for years, indeed decades.

The first is the gradual decline of public involvement and interest in the processes of electoral democracy. The most obvious of these is participation in elections, something which appeared to have stabilised in Europe in a period from the 1950s through to the 1980s at around 80-85%.

 After this decade there was a slow but steady decline throughout Europe, something which seems to have accelerated into this century. In 2001, the UK had the lowest turnout since the advent of mass democracy whilst France fell to a record low of 60.4% in 2007. A raft of other countries, including Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Finland, have also recorded record lows. A second indicator of decline in involvement is increasing voting volatility, which is the number of voters who shift their party preferences around from election to election. This lack of stability in voting preference suggests disillusion with the democratic process. A third and in some ways the most significant, has been a major decline in the membership of political parties. The U.K. is the most extreme example with an aggregate loss in party membership over 1.1 million between 1980 and 2009, a drop of 68% but most other European countries have seen falls of 30-50%. There does not seem to be any left/right bias in this fall; just a uniform decline in participation.

This fall in membership has been accompanied and may be partly caused by the gradual hollowing out of the meaning of ‘membership’ which has occurred in most European parties. Outside of small-town direct democracy, political parties are the key agency of modern participatory democracy, acting as they do to formulate policies and to promote leaders. They provide the collective participation necessary to provide elected governments with some kind of bedrock in the popular will.

Essentially, this hollowing-out process involves a transformation of ‘members’ into ‘active supporters’, that is people who are willing to assist with campaigning at elections by delivering leaflets and so on but who have little or no influence in the formation of party policy or the development of its leadership. This loss is mirrored by exactly the same phenomenon which was noted by Mbeki, the growth of a self-serving ‘professional political class  composed of people who have made politics their career from an early age and have been promoted up the party ladder, often by becoming advisers to established politicians or, initially, by using family contacts. This ‘political class’ has become enmeshed with business interests, particularly in the financial sector, and with state agencies to form a circulating but sealed elite group who have largely gone to the same schools and universities. So for many voters all main parties ‘are the same’ thus making a mockery of multi-party democracy.

The other side of the collapse of the membership-based party has been the growth of ‘wild’ parties, that is parties with no historical base but which suddenly achieve electoral success based on popular discontent with the established parties. Syriza in Greece which polled only 4% of the national vote in 2009, became the main opposition only in 2012, received 27% of the vote in the European elections and has now won a stunning electoral victory in national elections with the rightwing governing party down to 23%, is the prime example of this phenomenon together with the U.K. Independence Party which topped the vote in the European elections also with 27%. 

In Italy, the Five Star Party founded by the comedian, Beppo Grillo, astonished the establishment by obtaining over 25% of the popular vote in 2013 national elections and over 21% in the 2014 European elections even though the party has been racked by rows over the alleged autocratic control of its founder. Both Syriza and the Five Star Party can be seen as left-radical but the more dominant trend in the growth of ‘wild’ parties has been that of the far-right anti-immigration groups such as UKIP. In the 2014 European election, far-right parties topped the poll in Denmark (the People’s Party with 26.6%) and France (National Front, 25.0%) whilst for the first time, more or less openly neo-Nazi parties – the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) and the Greek Golden Dawn (XA) – for the first time entered the European Parliament. This movement to the right is far from uniform over Europe though as a perceptive analysis is the Washington Post noted, the abysmal performance of radical right parties in Eastern Europe is that mainstream right-wing parties in the region leave little space for the far right, given their authoritarian, nativist and populist discourse.[vii] The common feature of all the right-wing parties is their vituperative hatred of immigrants, the most disturbing of all the political portents in Europe.

The second trend which mirrors the first has been the growth in importance of supranational bodies, notably the European Commission but including such as the IMF, which have little or no democratic basis but which exert power within countries comparable to or exceeding national government. Added to these are the other array of supranational bodies, the international corporations in particular financial ones which answer to no democratic authority at all. A prime example of the combination of these two power-bases is the pending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an exceedingly complex treaty to be struck between the EU and the US government which amongst other things will enable transnational corporations to sue national governments inside the EU for any unilateral regulatory process which damages the interests of the corporation. National legislatures will have no say in agreeing in this package and although the European Parliament will vote on the whole deal, it will have no power to amend it.

A consequence of this bipartite congruence is that increasingly, national governments are seen as lacking many elements of real power. The failure to control the international financial markets even though their collapse in 2008 required bailouts by nation states is a prime example of this. The result is a further decline in interest in electing these supine governments.

The ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU has long been a topic of continual if ineffective debate. Essentially, the problem has always been that closer national ties have always had a political objectives but ones disguised as economic matters. Initially these could be seen as the benign hope that closer trade links would extinguish any possibility of the wars between European states which had effectively blighted the first half of the twentieth century. However, the changes in the name of this economic system, the Coal and Steel Community (1950), the European Economic Community (1957), the European Community (1993), and, finally, the European Union (2007) precisely mapped the gradual, if still largely implicit, shift towards political unity as well as the enlargement of the community which now includes 27 countries, quadrupling its original size, all without much in the way of democratic agreement by the electorate of the member countries.

The gradual evolution of the EU into a blatantly political body made a step jump in 1993 with the Maastricht Treaty which set up the euro as a common currency and established the so-called ‘three pillars of economics, foreign and military cooperation and home and judicial affairs, all largely undefined in the usual way of using generalised phrases which could later be turned into specific policy actions without any democratic basis. Maastricht was remodelled and refined by a series of further treaties (Amsterdam, 1997, Nice 2001, Lisbon 2007), all complex and all pushed through with almost no popular democratic approval. Nearly all attempts to put these treaties to popular vote have resulted in debacle. In 1992, the Danes rejected Maastricht and the French very nearly did so. In 2007, the only country to risk a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Ireland,  had it rejected and was forced to run another vote in which every screw was put on the electorate to vote Yes or, allegedly, risk oblivion. In fact real oblivion came in 2008 when the financial crisis resulted in the European Commission, backed by the European Central Bank and the IMF, stepping in to dictate economic policy in Greece, Ireland and most of southern Europe, insisting that elected governments be replaced by appointed technocratic leaders if they failed in their duty apply the financial austerity necessary to save the European banking system, something which actually happened in Greece and Italy.

It is a an odd irony that the problem of the democratic legitimacy of the EU is widely recognised even within the autocratic corridors of the European Commission just as they are being filled with the appointed new Commissioners who epitomise the problem. Even more ironic is that any move to alter the current position would almost certainly require a treaty change, something which is very unlikely to get past popular opinion in several EU members whose populations are itching to slap down Brussels if not to actually leave. It seems likely that the U.K., always the most eurosceptic member, will have some form of referendum on membership in the next three years which could easily result in the U.K.’s departure and precipitate further disorder. Meanwhile, the imposed austerity programmes in southern Europe which have led to economic stagnation continue to fester.
The root causes of the decline in democratic participation throughout Europe are hard to uncover. However it is striking that the moment in which decline really begins is also that in which neoliberal individualism bit back against the collectivism which had characterised Europe throughout the last century up the 1980s. As a recent book by Peter Weir puts it puts it when discussing the decline of the mass party:

A tendency to dissipation and fragmentation also marks the broader organisational environment within which the classic mass parties used to nest. As workers’ parties, or as religious parties, the mass organisations in Europe rarely stood on their own but constituted just the core element within a wider and more complex organizational network of trade unions, churches and so on. Beyond the socialist and religious parties, additional networks ... combined with political organisations to create a generalized pattern of social and political segmentation that helped root the parties in the society and to stabilize and distinguish their electorates. Over the past thirty years, however, these broader networks have been breaking up ... With the increasing individualization of society, traditional collective identities and organizational affiliations count for less, including those that once formed part of party-centred networks.[viii]

It is a depressing but undeniably plausible conjecture to link decline in the most fundamental aspect of progressive advance in the twentieth century, mass electoral democracy, with the resurgence of the most regressive, neo-liberal markets. It does suggest that reversing the decline in electoral democracy will need more than some simple turnaround in party policy. Speculation as to just where this dual crisis of democratic legitimacy is going would double the size of this essay and lead precisely no-where.  There are some dark forces gathering and it is almost inevitable that several countries are going to face serious political challenges from anti-immigration groups. There are some vibrant progressive forces which emerged, notably Syriza in Greece, but they are internationally isolated and have so-far failed to find a coherent strategic policy.

In the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, there is currently a temporary exhibition celebrating the shared cultural history of Greece and Italy. One exhibit is a small relief of a “Mourning Athena”. The accompanying description of this concludes by suggesting that “the contemplative expression of Athena reflects the sceptical way in which we should view the current political situation in Europe” When doubts about Europe’s political future appear inscribed in archaeological  analysis we know that we are in trouble.

(First published in The Thinker, December, 2014)

[i] The Economist, 1 March 2014
[ii] London Review of Books, 22 May 2014, London
[iii] Patrick French, India: a Portrait, Penguin, 2012, ISBN 0141041579
[v] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press 1992 ISBN 0-02-910975-2
[vi] Most of the quantitative measures in this section have been taken without further attribution from Peter Weir, Ruling the Void, Verso, London, 2013 ISBN 1844673243
[viii] P. Weir op cit