Socialist Worker

More than a protest vote

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1920

MOST MEDIA commentary accepts that violent eruptions of discontent may happen in far away countries of which we know little.

But western democracies, we are told, are largely characterised by stability, where politics revolves around mainstream parties, their lacklustre leaders and the nuances of parliamentary bills.

Nowhere is that supposedly more so than in Britain and Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall 15 years ago was meant to mark the triumph of liberal capitalism and Westminster-style democracy.

Events last week should put paid to that idea. In state elections in Germany at the weekend the fascist NPD gained over 9 percent in Saxony, giving it seats in a regional assembly.

The far right DVU took 6 percent in the state of Brandenburg, also winning representation.

Meanwhile in Britain the Nazi BNP got its first council seat in London for a decade, topping the poll in a ward in Dagenham, east London, that had been solidly Labour.

That’s one side of the picture. The other is that in Germany the former Communist PDS was the really big gainer, taking over 28 percent in Brandenburg to become the second biggest party.

In Britain, too, there have been recent upsets in council by-elections in east London, where Respect won a seat in Tower Hamlets and beat Labour to come second in the ward which briefly had a BNP councillor ten years ago.

The response of politicians and complacent commentators in both countries is to talk of “protest votes” for “extremists and populists”.

But lumping together the left, which is anti-fascist, with the Nazis as two faces of extremism is like equating radiotherapy with cancer.

And something more fundamental is happening than a short-lived protest vote.

Similar electoral upsets in Germany in the early 1990s were put down to the temporary trauma of unification. A decade and a half on, it is clear both there and here that there is a profound political polarisation to the left and right. The mainstream parties are haemorrhaging support, a process which is most obvious for the Labour Party and its equivalent in Germany, the SPD.

Gerhard Schröder’s Red-Green coalition was swept to office in 1998, a year after Tony Blair’s landslide. Where Blair talked of the Third Way, Schröder talked of the New Middle. Both embraced neo-liberalism with disastrous consequences. Schröder has launched the biggest attack on the German welfare state since the 1930s.

The Hartz IV welfare “reforms” have produced weekly demonstrations across eastern Germany, modelled on the Monday night protests that led to the collapse of the East German state in 1989. The far right parties were able to tap into some of this anger.

There is the growing sense, also felt here, that mainstream politicians are simply not speaking for the people they have traditionally represented.

So the centre-right is in trouble too.

The Tory vote in Dagenham collapsed, and the CDU lost support in the elections in Germany.

Last week’s demonstration by the Countryside Alliance was further proof that a section of the Tory party’s base, and those of its employees who have followed it, have lost faith in the party to represent them in the traditional way. They are not the same as the Nazis of the BNP, but they are a reflection of the fragmentation of the mainstream right.

In this situation the Unite Against Fascism campaign, which brings together socialists, trade unionists, black organisations and Labour Party members, is as vital now as in the run-up to the elections on 10 June when it prevented the BNP from taking council and Euro seats.

But that campaign is not enough. Unless forces to the left of New Labour give voice to the growing bitterness and alienation then the right, in various forms, will. Respect is attempting to provide that voice here, and a new left party may be established in Germany in November.

Refusing to develop a left alternative to Blair and limiting resistance to his government, as many trade union leaders are doing, will only make it easier for the far right to grow.


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Sat 25 Sep 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1920
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