Europe’s right on the rise

June 12, 2009

James Illingworth and Alan Maass analyze the alarming results of elections in Britain and across Europe.

IN AN outcome that was mirrored across large parts of Europe, Britain's governing Labour Party was dealt a crushing defeat in elections for European parliament and local government offices--and right-wing parties, including the fascist British National Party (BNP), made unprecedented gains.

With Labour supporters' discontent with Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government coming to a head with a series of scandals, everyone knew the center-left Labour Party, traditionally backed by the unions, was in for a bad time in these elections.

But the actual result was devastating. Labour fell to third place in the national vote, behind not only the mainstream Conservative Party (known as the Tories), but the previously fringe UK Independence Party, which plays to right-wing sentiment in opposing British membership in the European Union.

Also frightening was the success of the BNP, a neo-Nazi organization committed to an openly stated program of "reversing the tide of non-white immigration." The BNP won almost 1 million votes across Britain, and gained two seats in the European parliament, a first for the fascists. Several other parties to the right of the Tories scored victories.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Among parties to the left of Labour, aside from a strong turnout for the Greens, who won around 8 percent of the vote nationwide, the results were tiny. There were few left candidates to vote for--due to battles among different left forces, only a few organizations ran candidates that could present a genuine left alternative to Labour.

The picture was similar elsewhere in Europe, with a few exceptions. In some countries, left-wing candidates scored important successes. Portugal's Left Bloc, for example, more than doubled its share of the national vote to just over 10 percent, gaining three seats in the European parliament. In Ireland, the far-left Socialist Party scored a breakthrough victory in the European parliamentary vote, and the radical coalition People Before Profits did well.

But for each of the success stories, left parties in other countries suffered disappointing results.

As for the center-left parties like Britain's Labour--many of which are either leading governments, or have a record of leading them in the recent past--the election was a disaster. France's Socialist Party got 16.5 percent of the national vote, close to its worst-ever showing. In Germany, the Social Democratic Party fell to a historic low of 21 percent.

These parties come from the tradition of social democracy that was associated with the creation of the European welfare state--a far more generous one than in the U.S.--after the Second World War. But in the past two decades, the social democrats have embraced neoliberal measures that expanded the gap between rich and poor--and none have been bigger boosters of the free market than Labour's Brown, and his predecessor Tony Blair.

Despite the grip of the economic crisis, the main center-right parties did much better in these elections, even where they are in office and presiding over attacks on workers. In France, for example, President Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Majority took first place in the national vote, marking the first time a sitting French president's party has won a European election since 1979. Germany's governing Christian Democratic Union also stayed on top.

But the biggest news was the success of the far right, which won breakthroughs in one country after another. All told, neo-Nazi and far-right parties will hold more than 40 seats in the new European parliament.

Four of those seats are from Holland, where the Islamophobic Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders won 16.4 percent of the vote countrywide. In Austria, two far-right parties shared a total of 18 percent of the vote.

In Hungary, the viciously anti-immigrant Movement for a Better Hungary--which has a paramilitary unit whose uniforms resemble those of Nazi youth organizations during the Second World War--won some 15 percent of the vote, giving it three seats in the parliament. The Greater Romania Party, which spews its vilest rhetoric against the Roma minority, won two parliamentary seats.

BY COMPARISON, the right's gains in Britain were actually less sweeping--but still extremely alarming.

In moving into second place in the national vote, the UKIP gained further legitimacy for positions it claims are non-racist, but which thrive on right-wing propaganda against immigrants. The party's chief selling point is opposition to British membership in the European Union, and it blames "uncontrolled immigration from the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe" for the crisis in Britain's public services.

The English Democrats Party (EDP), which opposes institutions that have given power to Scotland and Wales within the United Kingdom, had a more modest showing nationwide, but it was able to elect a member as mayor of Doncaster.

Doncaster is a former coal-mining town in South Yorkshire and once an impregnable stronghold of Labour and the unions. The new mayor, who is the son of a Conservative member of parliament, ran on a platform of slashing the number of seats on the local council, opposing the city's Gay Pride festival, and ending translation services for immigrants.

Most worrying of all was the success of the BNP, which increased its share of the national vote to 6.5 percent, and polled at almost 10 percent in former industrial areas of northern England and the Midlands, where middle-class and working-class communities have been hard hit by deindustrialization and the economic crisis.

As well as winning its first three county council seats, the party elected two members to European parliament, including Nick Griffin, the party's leader and national spokesperson. The second new member of parliament, from the Yorkshire and Humber region, is Andrew Brons, a former chair of the Hitler-worshipping National Front.

The victories give the BNP a new aura of legitimacy--and an important source of funding for future activities.

The party has its origins in the British neo-Nazi movement. Though it has tried to create a veneer of respectability by moving away from its formerly extreme anti-Semitism, in reality, it has merely replaced Jewish people with Muslims as its main target for hate. The BNP's membership is limited to so-called "indigenous Britons" (i.e., whites), and its political program calls for the expulsion from Britain of all "non-white immigrants."

HOW COULD such vile racists be gaining ground in Britain? The blame lies squarely with the New Labour of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

During its 12 years in power, the Labour government prepared the social and political conditions for the BNP to break through--by implementing a neoliberal economic agenda of cuts and privatization that enriched the fat cats of the London financial world, while alienating millions of once-loyal working-class voters.

When the economic crisis hit in earnest last year, Brown opted for more of the same, doling out billions of pounds to bail out the banks while hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Simultaneously, New Labour posed as "tough on immigration" and helped to whip up Islamophobia in order to justify its role in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The recent corruption scandal--sparked off when British newspapers revealed how members of parliament abused the expense account system to enjoy substantial perks at taxpayers' expense--was the last straw for many.

Leading Tories were implicated as well, but the presence of New Labour cabinet members among the crooks lining their pockets while ordinary people struggled to pay the bills clearly drove more people away from Labour. It's hard to think of a more fitting symbol of how little now separates the party that supposedly stands for workers from the hated Tories.

Brown's government is now in a catastrophic crisis. Although the prime minister announced a "reshuffle" of his Cabinet to distract attention, factionalism is breaking out among Labour leaders. Right-wing Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell resigned and made a public call for Brown to step down. Purnell and other Blairites in the upper echelons of New Labour want the party to shift even further to the right. But other party leaders are unconvinced that New Labour could afford a leadership contest, so Brown may hold onto power in the short term.

Whatever cosmetic changes take place at the top, though, the Labour Party is heading for a historic defeat in the next election--the mirror opposite of the landslide that swept Labour into office in 1997.

The main beneficiary will be the Tories. David Cameron, the current Conservative Party leader, has tried to broaden the Tories' appeal by adding an environmentalist veneer to the party's free-market orthodoxies. But a Tory government would inevitably mean increased attacks on public services and deep cuts to the welfare state.

Meanwhile, the British left has been unable to capitalize on the discontent with Labour or popular anger over the economic crisis.

In the European elections, the Green Party managed to re-elect its two members of parliament and came close to stopping the BNP's Nick Griffin in the North West region. But much of the socialist movement was divided going into election. Some united with the left-led National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to form the No 2 EU, Yes to Democracy (NO2EU) slate in the European elections. But the effort was pulled together at the last moment and drew less than 1 percent of the vote.

The Respect Party, which won a major success several years ago by electing George Galloway to British parliament, suffered a devastating split last year, and the remaining organization ran only a handful of local candidates in the election, giving public support to the Green Party and NO2EU.

The emergence of NO2EU does suggest possibilities for the future--that some of the more militant unions could lead a break with New Labour and provide a new left-wing pole of attraction for working-class voters and activists.

But a key question now will be challenging the BNP and trying to blunt its momentum coming out of the vote. Fortunately, opponents of the Nazis responded immediately after the election--Nick Griffin's first post-election press conference, outside the parliament building in London, was met by egg-throwing protesters organized by the Unite Against Fascism coalition. Griffin had to cut his appearance short.

Taking on the right and forcing it back will require a united struggle by the left.

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