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A movement sweeps Europe

This article is over 18 years, 11 months old
Respect's breakthrough in the general election wasn’t the only success that the radical left in Europe has enjoyed this year.
Issue 1951

Respect’s breakthrough in the general election wasn’t the only success that the radical left in Europe has enjoyed this year.

In February the Red-Green Alliance won 3.4 percent of the vote and six seats in the parliamentary elections in Denmark. More spectacularly, that same month the Left Bloc in Portugal got 6.4 percent and eight seats.

There is also the more equivocal case of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, which has joined the centre-left coalition that won a sweeping victory in last month’s regional elections.

The common dominator is what on the continent is called social liberalism — the capitulation of mainstream social democracy to free-market capitalism. The radical left is defined by the attempt to build a left wing alternative to social liberalism.

But there are important differences in national context. The Danish Red-Greens made a step forward despite the re-election of the right-wing governing coalition. In Portugal and Italy the mainstream social-liberal parties enjoyed big advances — in the former case winning office.

Britain is different again. New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has been in the vanguard of social liberalism.

Last week’s general election showed big chunks of its base falling away without a significant swing to the Tories, who are still despised and distrusted by the majority of voters.

Respect has been able to intervene in this process despite the enormous obstacles posed by the first past the post electoral system, which is inherently biased against small parties.

Usually advances by the radical left have benefited from more favourable electoral systems.

The candidates of the French far left took 10 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections in April 2002. Voters disaffected with the Socialist Party could back the far left in the first round in the belief that they could return to the fold in the second round run-off.

The Portuguese and Danish parliaments are chosen by versions of proportional representation (PR), as is the European parliament. PR voting systems are often more favourable to small parties.


Elections to the Scottish parliament include an important element of PR. This has been an ingredient in the ability of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) to win seats in successive elections.

Small parties that do well under PR are usually cut down to size by first past the post. The UK Independence Party beat the Tories in the Euro elections last June, but was humiliated in the general election last week.

Unfortunately, a similar pattern is reflected in the SSP’s mediocre performance last week. This can’t just be put down to first past the post — the SSP has lost its way since the high water mark of the Scottish parliamentary elections two years ago.

This pattern makes Respect’s performance last week all the more remarkable. To have overcome the bias against small parties not just to win one seat but to emerge as the challenger to New Labour across the East End and Birmingham Sparkbrook was an astonishing achievement.

It reflects the fact that Respect emerged from a mass movement — the Stop the War Coalition. This has allowed it to build a bridgehead in many areas and to begin to develop the social roots needed to challenge the grip of Labourism.

But it also meant that Respect emerged as a politically diverse coalition — bringing together, among others, Old Labour supporters, progressive Muslims, and revolutionary socialists.

This is an interesting contrast with the radical left elsewhere, which has typically involved more conventional alliances of the reformist and far left.

Finally, Respect found in the war an issue through which it could drive a wedge into Labour’s base, winning over disaffected voters.

Of course, all this is just a beginning. There is an enormous task ahead, both to entrench our successes and move out of our initial bridgeheads to other working class communities.

But Respect’s claim to be playing its part in the international process through which a new left is being forged is now undeniable.


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