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Scramble for votes as centre collapses

Nigel Farage's likely electoral success is just one part of a much bigger political process, which is playing out across Europe
Issue 2910
The European Union flag flies alongside flags of other countries

There’s political crisis throughout Europe (Picture: European Parliament/Flickr)

The paradox of Nigel Farage is that he hates Europe but wants to make British politics like politics on the continent. I can’t remember who said this but it’s very true of the present moment.

Farage aims to exploit the collapse of Tory rule to take over or replace the Conservative Party. This process, in which the far right moves to the centre of the political stage, is further advanced in continental Europe. Look at the European Union parliamentary elections.

In Germany, the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) ended up third after the centre right Christian Union parties and the far right Alternative for Germany. And in Italy, prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s fascist Brothers of Italy took the lead.

But what happened in France is quite astonishing. Marine Le Pen’s fascist National Rally (RN) came top with over 31 percent on the vote. President Emmanuel Macron, whose centre right bloc won only 14.6 percent, reacted by calling snap parliamentary elections.

One of Karl Marx’s finest works is The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. This analyses with tremendous sardonic force how Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis, exploited the defeat of the 1848 revolution to seize power and proclaim himself Emperor Napoleon III.

Marx writes, “I…demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” He shows how an impasse between bosses and workers allowed Bonaparte to posture on the historical stage.

Macron is like a caricature of a caricature. He’s an overpromoted suit who managed to win two presidential elections by weakening the traditional centre left and centre right parties and by not being Le Pen. And Macron benefitted from what is a general European phenomenon. Decades of neoliberalism have hollowed out the party system. This was accelerated by austerity after the global financial crisis, and then by the pandemic and rising inflation.

Macron has deepened the decay by defying last year’s wave of mass strikes and imposing his neoliberal pension “reform” without a parliamentary majority. His solution for the RN advance seems to further fragment the party system and thereby to allow himself to act as the arbiter.

His gamble looks like it’s failing. Polls predict that the RN will get a third of the vote. Les Republicains, the main centre right party, has collapsed in a farcical split after its president called for an alliance with Le Pen. This is a humiliating fate for a party that began as the Union for a New Republic, formed in 1958 to support General Charles de Gaulle’s establishment of the Fifth French Republic.

But other pillars of postwar capitalist politics in Europe are suffering a similar meltdown. The German SPD and the British Tories were two of the first modern mass parties to emerge in Europe in the late 19th Century. Both are in deep trouble.

Meloni is benefiting from the collapse back in the 1990s of the Italian “First Republic” and the Christian Democratic and Communist parties on which it rested.

This doesn’t mean the far right can’t be stopped. Macron’s manoeuvres have been undermined from the left by the formation of the “New Popular Front”, though this is fragile and bitterly divided.

And, of course, in Britain it is Labour that is the main beneficiary of the Tory collapse. It still has some social base in the unions and local government. But it too has been hollowed out and weakened, most recently by Keir Starmer’s purge of the Labour left and support for Israel. Though Labour is preserving its huge poll lead over the Tories, both are losing support to the smaller parties. The vagaries of the first past the post electoral system could deliver Starmer a huge majority of seats based on a relatively smaller share of the vote.

The weakening of mainstream capitalist politics would matter less if the general prospect were of greater stability. But the opposite is true. Global heating and intensifying inter-imperialist rivalries are likely to deliver fresh blows to the ramshackle party structures. The main question is who will benefit politically.

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