Promises, promises …

On the same day that the Tories boasted the support of 100 business leaders Labour announced measures to end the worst features of zero hours contracts. There is still a difference between the main contenders for office. Social democratic parties like Labour may have been busy since the closing years of the last century dumping commitments to socialism but as Donald Sassoon says in his One Hundred Years of Socialism ‘they are only Left that is left’.

That judgement was made in the late 1990s. It is difficult to know how much longer it will stand. The financial crisis in 2008 has played havoc with the fortunes of the left. In some of the worst affected European countries social democratic parties like PASOK in Greece and the PSOE in Spain have been severely weakened. In France Hollande’s governing Socialists came in third behind the conservative UMP and the crypto-fascist National Front in recent local elections. What all three have in common is a spectacular failure to deal with the real causes and consequences of the financial crisis. Where they have not been directly complicit in imposing austerity they have offered only feeble and largely conventional alternatives in an attempt to stimulate growth. Neither the structural problems of capitalism nor the social divisions stemming from the growing inequalities of wealth and power seem to be on the social democratic agenda.

In Britain Labour is still entangled in the Tory discourse about the deficit and cuts, failing to convince that it can combine fairness with austerity. Miliband’s call for ‘responsible capitalism’ had promise; it didn’t promise socialism but it could have opened up a deeper critique of financialised capitalism and significant measures of reform. As it is the speech frightened the Labour Party, and Miliband, more than the predators and little more has been heard of it. We are back to the political balancing act: austerity and fairness, immigration controls and some controls on the worst forms of labour market exploitation, and the case for Europe based in the interests of ‘the economy’.

Far from inspiring demands that social democracy rediscover socialism (so much for the strap line on this blog!) the most interesting developments are unconventional populist movements, a lot of them on the right, but some like Podemos in Spain, on the left. Syriza, with significant Marxist influence is more complicated but shares some of the same features of popular mobilisation. The thing that should worry social democrats most is that critics within their own ranks have been so feeble. Such parties have been hollowed out, increasingly deserted or bypassed by more radical elements. It is difficult to know what will happen to movements like Podemos, how they will decide what they are for rather than what they are against, and how they will handle power. But social democratic parties may soon no longer be ‘the only Left that is left’.

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