The left’s choice

Anthony Painter

George Papandreou’s victory was spectacular. Facing the failed New Democracy Government under Kostas Karamanlis, a party that in just a few years had run out of competence, ideas and steam, PASOK secured a landslide in the 2009 legislative elections. The party had been rejuvenated through a primary for its leadership and it was ready to provide a new direction for Greece. By the end of 2011, not only was Papandreou no longer leader of the party but the party itself was no longer leading Greece, now simply a member of a coalition run by the technocrat, Lucas Papademos.

The economist, Simon Kuznets, one claimed there are four types of economy: developed countries, underdeveloped countries, Japan and Argentina. Perhaps there are four types of democracy too: majoritarian, pluralist, Italy and Greece. So we shouldn’t read too much into PASOK’s fortunes in looking at the political affairs of elsewhere. However, as an extreme example, it is rather more revealing for the fate of the left than we would like to admit. It hints at the tough choices that all parties of the left will face over the next decade or two – both in the UK and across Europe.

Across the English Channel, the French are about to elect a fairly social democratic President if the polls are right. Similarly selected as his party’s nominee by a primary of voters, equally as straight–laced and understated as Papandreou and facing a right-wing candidate who is held largely in contempt by the people, Francois Hollande is on the verge of victory. He has a distaste for the rich in an everyman sort of way but he’s fairly mainstream in other regards. It will be claimed that an Hollande triumph marks the beginning of a new left dawn – as was claimed back in 2009.

In reality, something rather different may be happening. There will be victories for the left just as there will be for the right. The centre-right may do rather better in the forthcoming Dutch elections for instance. Elections take place in particular contexts within a wider global situation. All we can say is that the centre-left is in opposition rather more than it is in Government currently. To a degree, that will change as it seems about to in France. Then what?

The whole point of the left is to advance social justice. Winning elections is a necessary element of achieving that – of course it is. It’s what happens afterwards that really matters, however.

In the good times the trade-offs are lessened. In tough times choices have to be made. It is sometimes possible to get through an election campaign without making tough choices. It is absolutely not possible in Government. Any failure to prioritise will be cruelly exposed. Have your cake and eat it is not a governing philosophy for the post-crash world. And nor is ‘let them eat cake’.

There are three broad governance options for today’s left and the choices made between them will determine both political success and the degree to which social justice is advanced. They are redistribution, investing in a new economy and deficit reduction. Hollande seems to prioritise redistribution first and then deficit reduction. This is the mainstream social democratic choice. It’s perfectly reasonable. It seems to be roughly where Ed Balls is also. Certainly, Hollande’s emphasis on growth over euro-masochism is welcome – a greater degree of breathing space within the European fiscal pact will be welcome.

Interest rates on French debt – in the context of a much lower deficit than the UK – crept up slightly this week perhaps in connection with a likely Hollande victory. Nonetheless, Hollande has made his choices and the credibility of his plans will be tested in office.

In a revealing interview with Prospect’s James MacIntyre, Ed Milband appears not to have made his choices yet. To a certain extent that is understandable at this stage but it was further emphasised in his interview with Evan Davis on this morning’s Today programme. The problem is that there aren’t sufficient resources to lower the deficit, increase redistribution and invest in a new economy to any significant degree. Even if this line could get Labour through a general election, which is unlikely, it would soon be exposed in Government.

In times of plenty, sound public finances, redistribution and investment in the productive capacity of the economy can be simultaneously achieved. Those times will not return for a decade or two. This decade will be dominated by public debt and the next decade will be dominated by the costs of an ageing society. Choices will have to be made. This is why Miliband ends up trumpeting pretty micro (though welcome) policies to reduce utility bills and train fares. They reflect the degree to which he is constrained by the lack of prioritisation.

A post-social democratic left would make a different set of choices. It would prioritise investment in infrastructure, education, business, science and innovation and deficit reduction over redistribution. This is a different route to social justice – aimed at reducing the need for the Government to step in to redistribute. It would be a very brave choice to go for redistribution and economic investment over deficit reduction. Financial markets would be likely to put a stop to that choice very quickly.

In a characteristically apocalyptic blog post, Newsnight’s Paul Mason argues that we are experiencing a crisis of the centre. Centre-right and centre-left are becoming one and fail to combat the extremes – reminiscent of the 1930s. It’s not science fiction. If politics becomes about deficit reduction and nothing else then people will begin to seek an alternative. Equally, if the left promises nothing but the goodies – redistribution and a new economy – without meeting its fiscal responsibilities then it will soon find itself in trouble. Again, people will seek an alternative – as they are in Greece.

At the same time as the French head for the polls on May 6th, there is a parliamentary election in Greece. The latest opinions polls put PASOK on around 15 percent – around 28 percent less than they got in 2009. Euphoria at their 2009 victory soon passed. The hard reality of governing in tough times soon asserted itself and the party collapsed. France is not in the same bind as Greece. But nor is it free of some deep and fundamental challenges. In many ways, the UK context is a tougher one than that of France.

Winning elections is one hurdle. Governing in a way that is both credible and advances social justice is the next. It will only be achieved by making tough choices – sooner rather than later.

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