Establishment parties take a battering at polls
‘Kicked in the ballot box’
When the European heads of state arrive at yet another European summit this week they will be able to share their common burden of electoral defeat.
Blair, Schröder, Chirac, Berlusconi, Persson, Verhofstadt, and Ahern are united in the defeat meted out to them by their electorate. The heads of state of the 10 new East and Central European states do not have much to boast about either. The small section of the population that voted in these countries elected a wide variety of Euro sceptic deputies to the European parliament.
The 2004 European elections will be remembered as those in which Europe’s ruling governments, and the idea of the European Union, received a ‘kick in the ballot box’. There is a widening gap between the European establishment and the population, and it is filled with anger at declining living standards, unemployment and self-serving deceitful politicians.
Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), led by Gerhard Schröder, suffered their lowest percentage vote since 1932, with its vote falling to 21.5%. The SPD tried to remind the German public about its anti-Iraq war stance but that did not divert the attention away from the party’s responsibility for the most brutal package of economic and social counter-reforms since the Second World War. German state and private employers are pushing for lower wages and a longer working week. Schröder’s SPD have been willing partners in this concerted attack against living standards of workers and poor but they have paid with one electoral defeat after another since they scraped back into office in September 2002.
Iraq war consequences
In Britain the European elections were held at the same time as the local elections and the elections for the Greater London Assembly. Blair’s Labour party paid a heavy price for the war in Iraq and the disappointment with New Labour’s domestic policies of privatisation in the health service, promotion of a low wage economy and the decay of public and inner city services. In the local council poll the Labour party came into third place behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In the European elections Labour’s share of the vote slumped to 22 per cent, its lowest level in a national election since 1918. The Conservatives did not fare much better, confirming that this was revolt against the establishment as a whole; they only polled 28% – the lowest share of the national vote for the Tories since the end of the nineteenth century.
So, who won then? The big winners were called "The Others" – a range of smaller parties among whom the UK Independence Party (UKIP) succeeded in attracting most of the protest vote. UKIP, lead by blazer-and-striped-tie celebrities, such as Robert Kilroy Silk – a former Labour MP, who went onto to become a TV chat show host until he was recently sacked for making racist comments in a newspaper article – won 16.7%. UKIP quadrupled its number of MP’s from 3 to 12. Although ‘Respect’, the formation lead by ex Labour MP George Galloway, and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), obtained respectable results in some areas, they did not succeed in making substantial gains. Respect, under the leadership of the SWP, thought that by lowering the class content of their programme and stressing Galloway’s "strong religious beliefs" they could win seats by reaching out to the religious Muslim constituency opposed to the war. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) came seventh behind the UKIP and the Greens (articles on this site in the coming days who will deal with these issues in detail.)
In France, Chirac’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), suffered its second electoral defeat in less than three months. The protest against welfare and pension reform has crippled the UMP as they scored just under 17%. In France, as in Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands, the Social Democratic parties collected the protest vote as the mainstream pro-market opposition party. In Italy, Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, suffered a backlash while the other parties of the coalition held up their vote. This swinging protest vote does not represent any enthusiasm for these parties or their policies. Nor does it mean that we will see a flow of people joining these parties.
France is a point in case; the French working class has vigorously opposed, on the streets and in the polling station, the neo-liberal policies of both centre-right and the centre-left over the past decade. However, the LO/LCR alliance, adherents to Trotskyism, suffered a serious setback. It polled only 3.3% of the vote and lost all its 5 MEP’s. While a short-term squeezing of the vote of the smaller left parties can occur when voters flock to the opposition which is seen as the ‘lesser evil’ to defeat the parties of the right. LO/LCR ran a lacklustre campaign which was deficient in putting forward fighting demands and a clear explanation of a socialist alternative. While they attacked the parties of the traditional left, such as the social democratic PS, and described them as ‘social-liberals’ – whatever that means! They did not raise the idea of a new workers’ party as a socialist alternative to the bourgeois parties. It was discarded as something for after the elections but in the mean time another opportunity has been lost.
What is needed is an active campaign and plan of action for the formation of a new workers’ party. Only two years ago, the combined vote of LO and LCR reached 10.4% in the first round of the presidential elections, such was the opposition to the outgoing PS/PCF government. The movement against Jean Marie Le Pen, who reached the second round of the presidential elections by beating the then prime minister Jospin into third place, was an enormous opportunity to initiate a lively broad campaign for a new workers’ party.
Instead the LCR by adopting the slogan "Fight the National Front in the streets and in the polling stations’, effectively joined the ‘Republican Front’ of the bourgeois against the far-right. The LCR did not present an independent working class position and allowed the working class to be mobilised behind Chirac, the incumbent president. Chirac, who received less than 20% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections and was widely seen as totally corrupt, came out of the second round with 82,15% of the vote. This formed the basis for a second election victory for the right and the subsequent formation of a government with the confidence to attack fundamental workers rights like welfare and pension reform.
In May and June of 2003 another opportunity to form a new workers’ party presented itself. The mobilisations against pension reform led to a situation of a near general strike with millions demonstrating against the right wing Raffarin government. The need for a mass party defending the rights of workers and poor was in the forefront of everyone’s mind as nobody believed the parties of the ‘Gauche plurielle’ (PS, PCF and Greens) had any alternative to offer.
In an opinion poll taken the week after the massive demonstration on Sunday 25 May 2003, 47% said they thought the PS would be neither better nor worse in dealing with pension reform (47% said the same on education reform and 50% on health reform). At demonstrations a layer of the workers’ blamed the radical left for calling for a Chirac vote in the presidential elections a year earlier – saying that this had lead to a stronger right wing government. In the aftermath of the struggle against pension reform, when trade unions leaders only just saved the government by avoiding a general strike, attention switched again to the political stage.
In January 2004, two months before the French regional and local elections, polls indicated that 9% of the French population would vote for LO/LCR and another 22% who had never voted for the radical left before were seriously considering it. Such was the radicalisation that under the salvo of neo-liberal attacks from the newly elected right wing government, helped by the fresh memory of the ousted centre-left government in 2002, another genuine opening existed to form a new workers party.
In explaining why people should vote for the LO/LCR lists in these elections the LCR leaflet stated " Voting for our list is a political gesture, an encouragement for the struggle and all those who want to act for workers’ rights to end the tyranny of the shareholders and the stock exchange". The LCR does speak about the need to build an alternative anti-capitalist party from time to time but almost always in the vague terminology favoured by the self-appointed leaders of the anti-globalisation movement and hardly ever in the context of workers’ struggles. It is a setback for the rebuilding of the workers’ movement that the LO/LCR alliance have wasted the enormous political support it enjoyed only two years ago. The question is if this defeat also means that the energy of workers’ looking forward to breaking the political monopoly of the bourgeois parties has been allowed to dissipate.
This is a warning to parties like the Left Bloc in Portugal that electoral gains can be lost when initiatives to seize political opportunities is not taken. The Left Bloc made substantial gains in Portugal and saw its share of the vote rise to 4.92% up from 2.75% in the last national election in 2002. The right wing coalition partners had tried to seize on the Euro 2004 football mania by running as the electoral alliance "Força Portugal" but suffered the worst electoral result ever. The bulk of the protest vote switched to the social democratic, Socialist Party.
Much has been made of rising voter apathy and in general the trend has been to see a fall in voter participation for European and national elections in Europe. The turn-out in the 10 new EU countries of Central and Eastern Europe averaged a poor 28.7% and in a clear sign of further disillusion with the EU and its policies, a number of representatives of eurosceptic and populist parties were rewarded with seats in Brussels and Strasbourg. In Poland, two anti-EU parties, the Self-Defence party and League of Polish Families, together won 29 percent of the ballot. In the Czech Republic, the ex-Stalinist Communist Party, gained a stunning 20% pushing the governing Social Democrats in to third place. In Slovakia the left populist Smer party polled 16.9%.
On average the turnout rate slumped to a record low figure of 42.2 percent, well below the 49.4 percent recorded in the last European elections five years ago. However, in some countries a real mobilisation against the incumbent governments took place. In a switch from apathy to antipathy, voter turnout went up by15% in the UK, 9% in the Netherlands and Ireland and 3% in Italy. Especially in UK and the Netherlands this is a sign of the new politicisation shaped by anger against the involvement of these governments in the Iraq war and domestic anti-working class policies.
The Dutch rightwing government of PM Balkenende has attacked almost everything: unemployment and disability benefits, affordable health care, education, public transport, rent subsidies, refugees and now pensions. The austerity measures have cut the average disposable income for workers with 1.25 % in a year and unemployment is rising with 14 000 people a month joining. In the Netherlands the Socialist Party, a party to the left of the PVDA, the Dutch Labour party, in which CWI supporters argue for Socialist policies, polled 7%. This together with the 7.4 of the vote for Green Left and the 7.3% for the new anti-corruption party ‘Transparent Europe’ of EU whistle blower Van Buitenen (7.3%) represents an important stage in political developments.
Lowest vote since 1912
This is an example of a process that is repeating itself in a number of European countries. Across Europe, the expression of anger against the traditional parties and the absence of a mass working class alternative meant a fragmentation of the vote to smaller, working class based forces to the left of the social democratic parties or new populist formations. In Sweden the newly formed ‘June List’ gained 14.4 percent of the vote. This party was created because of the failure of the main political parties to reflect the widespread opposition to the European Union and the policies of the European Union. The Swedes defeated the Swedish political and economic establishment in an earlier referendum on joining the Euro last September. The Swedish Social Democratic party which has been the main agent of neo-liberal counter-reform, inspired by the European Union, received its lowest votes since 1912.
In some countries, parties of the extreme right or openly fascist parties have succeeded in capitalising on the mood against the capitalist establishment and its policies. In Belgium, the Vlaams Blok caused a big upset in the regional and European elections by winning a quarter of the vote in Flanders to become the Dutch-speaking region’s second largest party. The Vlaams Blok finished well ahead of the Flemish liberals, the party of the Prime Minister Verhofstadt who is being groomed to replace Romani Prodi as the next president of the European Commission.
These European elections shattered the credibility of the traditional parties in almost all European countries. The working class of Europe have clearly shown that the European Union has not met any of their demands or aspirations. A next phase in this development is already opening up with important sections of the working class engaging in struggles and defending their living standards against the bosses’ European Union.
To make this struggle successful we need to take up the most unrelenting struggle against neo-liberal policies and attacks and combine it with a program of the socialist transformation of society. The first steps on this road can be taken by building existing and new formations into instruments of working class struggle that are able to attract wider layers to socialist policies. As the results in France prove, to complete this task, electoral alliances are not enough. We need to promote and fight for the idea of a workers’ Europe on the basis of workers unity, joint action and socialism.
An edited version of this article will appear in this week’s Socialist, newspaper of the Socialist Party in England and Wales