Europe polarising around austerity and racism

By Nicky Dempsey

Europe is increasingly polarised. The decisive issues in the latest European elections were austerity and racism, with parties implementing austerity continuing to lose votes.

The outcome of the European elections was mainly characterised by the growth of far right and fascist forces. The French Front National will lead a new fascist grouping of at least 35-strong in the incoming Parliament. The mutual relations with the outright racist parties remain unclear such as UKIP. But their combined effect will be to poison the entire political debate.

The main losers in the elections on a Europe-wide basis were the traditional Christian Democrats, whose leading party is Merkel’s CDU. They lost 51, one-fifth, of their seats in the incoming European Parliamentary grouping of the European People’s Parties. The anti-federalist right are a separate grouping led by the British Tories, and includes some forces from the hard right in Europe. They too lost about one in seven of their seats. The liberals grouped in ALDE lost 20, a quarter, of their seats. Despite this, these traditional parties of the right together still gained 43 per cent of the total vote, down from 55 per cent in 2009 on an unchanged turnout of 43 per cent.

Despite the slump in support for the ruling French Socialists the traditional Socialist Parties made a small net gain, at 28 per cent and an increase of 7 seats. The Greens too were broadly stable. The left anti-austerity forces are mainly grouped under the GUE/NGL and increased their representation by a third, a rise of 10 seats in all on 6.5 per cent of the vote. On a net basis, SYRIZA (+ 7 seats) and Sinn Fein (+3 seats) were responsible for these gains. This may increase if the new Podemos force in Spain joins the GUE/NGL. Together with Izquierda Unida they gained 18% of the vote. The separatists and nationalist parties of the EFA (European Free Alliance) made small gains, rising from 7 to 12 seats.

The rise of the fascists and overt racist parties is led by France and Britain, the two leading declining imperialist powers in Europe that have implemented austerity. By contrast Germany adopted a modest stimulus package to climb out of the crisis. The rise of fascist FN in France is a reaction to the Socialists implementing austerity and adapting to the racist tide. In Britain, the overtly racist UKIP is a reaction to a government of the right implementing austerity. Together, the French and British bourgeoisies represent the main forces of militant reaction in Europe, and their political cultures have spawned the largest fascist and racist parties in Europe.

The main lines of division in European politics have been clearly outlined in these elections. The EU economy is still below its level before the crisis more than six years ago. The policy of continuous government spending cuts means growth will remain weak and living standards for workers and the poor will continue to fall. Parties supporting these austerity policies will continue to lose out to others offering radical solutions. The fascist and far right advance shows how readily some in Europe are willing to embrace reactionary alternatives. Where parties of the left actually oppose austerity, and make no concessions to racism, they will advance.

British situation

The main features of the overall political situation in Europe are also present in Britain. The party of the right and its liberal allies both suffered losses as the bulk of voters reject austerity policies. The Tory vote was down 3.8 per cent on 2009 and the LibDem slumped by 7.1 per cent. There was an advance for Labour out of office, up 9.7 per cent but the big gainer was the racist UKIP with a rise of 11 per cent. The Green vote broadly held up.

In Britain, the missing element remains an anti-austerity party to the left of Labour which has some small toehold of mass support. But impatience on this front is futile, and anti-EU ‘shortcuts’ to popularity a dead-end. The success of Sinn Fein and SYRIZA is built on a clear opposition to austerity and not to the EU. It is also, in SYRIZA’s case through huge struggles, innumerable general strikes and follows widespread opposition to NATO bombing Serbia and the long struggle against the military junta. In the most advanced case, Sinn Fein’s success comes after a prolonged and direct struggle against British imperialism. In Britain, it is necessary to build on positive developments; the huge success of the anti-war coalition in preventing the bombing of Syria, the growing anti-austerity movement and the breadth of the anti-racist mobilisation on 22nd March.

On these results Labour would be the largest party in a general election held today. But Labour’s support has been in decline since it adopted explicitly pro-austerity policies including future government spending totals.

Labour should be doing much better against a deeply unpopular government. The immediate response of the Labour leadership to the European and local election results is to increase the rhetoric on immigration, which only adds to the toxic climate. It is precisely the grounds on which the Tories want to fight the election, not the economy, the NHS, the cost of living crisis and so on.

However, the main factor is the weakness of the Tory vote which cannot break through a ceiling in the low 30s per cent. There is currently no polling or serious analysis which suggests that the Tories are currently on course to win the next election. It remains Labour’s to lose.

The Lib Dems, who many voters believed were to the left of Labour in 2010, have imploded under the weight of their own austerity policies. They gained 26 per cent compared to Labour’s 29 per cent in 2010. Winning a majority of these voters would lead to a parliamentary landslide for Labour. But they are liberal voters, generally pro-Europe, comfortable with immigration, concerned about human rights and an anti-democratic state. A large proportion of them were young voters in 2010, attracted by the Lib Dem promise of no tuition fees. They are also overwhelmingly struggling under the effects of austerity.

But to win them requires similarly progressive policies, consistently promoted. Currently, there is no indication that this is the course that will be pursued. Instead, as Diane Abbott MP argues, pursuing UKIP policies risks both political and electoral disaster.

Pro-austerity and anti-immigration are the policies of UKIP and the Tories. Adopting them will undermine Labour’s support and boost its opponents. In any event, the struggles against racism and austerity cannot be subordinated to the self-immolating tendencies of the Labour leadership. As the collapse of the French Socialist Party shows, pursuing racism and austerity can never benefit the left.