|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Elections to the European parliament in June became a massive protest vote. The political establishment was rocked as 23 of the 25 ruling parties were defeated and abstentions hit record highs, above all in the Eastern European states which had only joined the EU in May. ARNE JOHANSEN from Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) rounds up the results and, on page x, examines the outcome of the subsequent Brussels summit on the EU constitution. On page x, ALEXANDRE ROUILLARD reports from France on the setback suffered by the far-left LO/LCR electoral pact while, on page x, TINETTE SCHNATTERER examines recent moves in Germany towards a new workers' party.
THE EU PARLIAMENT elections 2004 were supposed to celebrate enlargement. Instead, they marked a new record in both abstention rates and protest votes against nearly all governments. Voting participation, which has fallen in every European Union (EU) election, reached a new low at just 44.2%. While 49% took part in the ‘old’ EU states, only 27% participated in the ten states that became members on 1 May. In Poland - the biggest of the new members - only 20% voted, while the worst result was registered in Slovakia, where as few as 17% of the electorate took part.
Few participated also in East Germany. As even Wolgang Böhmer, the head of the state government of Saxony-Anhalt, commented: "When people in East Germany marched in 1989 for the right to vote in free elections, and when 15 years later nobody votes in those elections, something has gone wrong".
Of the old EU states Sweden had the lowest turnout with 37% and the lowest percentage for the Social Democratic party since 1911. "The result is a slap in the face for the political establishment", commented the Swedish EU commissioner, Margot Wallström, "and a clear signal to us politicians to show a greater respect to the people and that we must move forward more slowly in the European integration process".
Among the biggest losers in the EU elections were both social democratic leaders, such as Gerhard Schröder in Germany and Tony Blair in Britain, and conservatives, like Jacques Chirac in France and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Of incumbent governments, most – apart from the newly-elected governments in Greece (the conservative New Democracy party) and Spain (whose new social-democratic PSOE government has withdrawn Spanish troops from Iraq) – were struck by voters’ condemnation.
The level of abstention and the anti-incumbency vote were to a large extent a general punishment of Europe’s national governments for implementing social cuts and presiding over an increase in poverty and unemployment. But they also demonstrate a dramatic lack of popular support for the EU project of big business and capitalist governments. Never before has public distrust been more general against the EU than now, after the launch of the euro currency with its austerity programmes, the neo-liberal deregulations of the Lisbon process (Agenda 2010), the consequences of enlargement, and the political power struggle behind locked doors about the EU constitution.
Popular disgust at the occupation of Iraq was another important factor behind the backlash against governments which have been supporting the United States in its military campaign in, for instance, Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy.
The rise of the euro-sceptics
WHILE THERE WERE protest votes and boycotts against all governments’ anti-working class policies, there was, at the same time, no clear socialist, working-class alternative that could channel opposition. Therefore, the will to slap governments benefited established opposition parties, regardless of their political coloration, while a broad scope was created for populist and Euro-sceptic parties of various kinds, including right-wing nationalist and racist parties.
A couple of different varieties of Euro-sceptic and populist parties that got a breakthrough in the EU elections were the reactionary nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain with 16%, and the more moderate June List in Sweden, founded by a small group of economists who are critical of the EU.
A different kind of Euro-sceptic also made a hit on the basis of opposition to EU corruption. Transparent Europe in the Netherlands – started by the ‘whistleblower’ Paul van Buitenen, whose exposure in 1998 brought down the former EU Commission – won 7%. An even bigger success was registered by the ex-journalist and globalisation critic, Hans-Peter Martin (co-writer of the bestseller, The Globalisation Trap), whose new list got 14% in the Austrian EU election. Martin’s victory also contributed to undermining Jörg Haider’s reactionary Freedom Party (FPÖ), which collapsed to 6% from 23% in the last EU elections (and 10% in the last parliamentary election).
Really worrying though are the big gains for the Belgian racist party, Vlaams Blok, that became the second biggest party in Belgium with 13.5% (23% in the Flemish area). The complete disappearance of Pim Fortuyn’s List in the Netherlands and the collapse of Bruno Mégret´s split-away party from Jean-Marie le Pen are, at the same time, examples of the extremely unstable character of most populist parties. Le Pen’s Front National in France increased from 5.7% in the last EU election to 10%, but has lost momentum compared to the last national assembly election and, in particular, the 2002 presidential election.
Worrying also is the increase of the far-right, racist British National Party from 1% in 1999 to nearly 5%, although that was not enough to get an MEP elected, as well as the 2.8% that voted for the far-right, neo-Nazi NDP (0.9%) and the Republicans (1.9%) in Germany.
Of those who did not boycott the elections, the revulsion against the ruling parties was mostly expressed through votes for the traditional opposition parties or, in some cases, for parties closely allied to the main ruling party, but seen as ‘less guilty’. In many of the new Eastern EU states ‘centre-right’ parties gained at the expense of ruling ‘centre-left’ parties. In France, Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy it was mainly the social-democratic opposition that won.
EU-wide and national repercussions
THE NET EFFECTS of the elections are relatively small changes in the balance of forces in the new European parliament. The Conservative European People’s Party (EPP) will remain the biggest parliamentary group with a slightly increased margin over the social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES) as the second largest, and a new pro-European Liberal-Centrist grouping as the third biggest. Fourth is the Greens’ parliamentary group with much the same relative strength, slightly ahead of the United Left/Communist group (EUL/NGL). All the four biggest groups are likely to be led by committed federalists, of whom probably three will be German MEPs.
However, there will be a sharper polarisation on the future integration of the EU, even in the parliament. A new anti-constitution group of 31 MEPs (up from 18) from six countries – with the biggest number from the British UKIP – has overtaken the reactionary, nationalist UEN as the sixth largest group. And EU-scepticism is not limited to these. As The Economist points out, as many as 200 of the 732 MEPs could be ‘Euro-awkwards’ who, for various reasons, oppose such things as the new constitution. They include MEPs from parties as divergent as the British Tories, the Swedish Green Party and the Left Party, and the various Communist parties, as well as "nationalists and populists of all persuasions".
More important though will be the repercussions among Europe’s governments and national states. The EU elections’ political massacres can also spell the end of heads of governments and party leaders. Czech prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, is the second social-democratic leader among the new states that has already been forced to resign after his country’s entry into the EU. His social democrats tumbled from 30% in the national election in 2002 to only 8.8% in the EU election - which meant fifth place behind the Civic Democrats, Communists, a party of independents, and Christian Democrats. His resignation is part of a desperate attempt to return another government with the same ‘centre-left’ alliance.
Spidla’s colleague, Leszek Miller in Poland, resigned in May immediately after entry into the EU, against a background of corruption scandals, mass unemployment and growing Euro-scepticism that undermined support for the ruling social-democratic SLD to 9.3% in the EU election (less than 2% of the entire electorate). His hard-pressed successor as a caretaker prime minister, Marek Belka, from the same party, is now called a traitor in parliament by nationalist EU critics because he dropped Polish objections to the new EU constitution.
The right-wing, reactionary League of Polish Families, and the somewhat more cautious EU critics in the other right-populist small farmers’ party, Self Defence, together won 29%. In the Czech case, the EU election was won by the right-wing opposition party, Civic Democrats, with the Communist Party in second place with over 20%. In Lithuania, where participation was above average with 46% (because of a simultaneous presidential election), a new populist ‘centre-left’ party, People’s Labour – supported by a Russian-born multi-millionaire – won a landslide victory over the ruling social democrats, following the impeachment of the former president, Rolandas Paksas.
Historic defeats were also inflicted on the governing social democrats in Western Europe, who have been punished because of their austerity programmes of cuts and privatisations. Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany received only 21.5%, 9.2% less than in the EU election in 1999, and 17% down when compared with the 2002 Bundestag elections. This was the SPD’s worst election result since the second world war.
Blair’s New Labour in Britain won just 22.6% of the vote, while Göran Persson’s Swedish Social Democrats gained only 24.6% of the 37% that took part – the lowest turnout in Western Europe. For these countries, this represents the worst election results since 1918 and 1911 respectively. The social democrats in Germany, Britain and Sweden, received only around 9% of the total electorates’ votes.
The Franco-German experience
IN GERMANY – Europe’s biggest and economically most important country – voter support for the SPD partially collapsed as a direct result of massive opposition to the vicious counter-reforms in the government’s Agenda 2010. "We do not have a communcation problem, we have an acceptance problem", admitted SPD chairman, Franz Müntefering.
Although the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won by far the most votes with 45%, its vote actually fell by 4%. Paradoxically, the Greens became the biggest winners. Despite their role as a junior partner in the government, they doubled their share to 12%. At the same time, the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) increased slightly to 6% with its slogans for ‘social justice’. The PDS polled only 1.6% in West Germany, but 25% in East Germany, despite its participation in drastic cuts in Berlin as part of a local coalition with the SPD (in Berlin, the PDS lost votes). In elections in the East German state of Thuringia, the PDS came in ahead of the SPD, with 26% and 14.5% respectively.
Like in many other countries, the abstentionists became the biggest winner among the German working class as eleven million ex-SPD voters found no meaningful alternative to vote for. "This is not just the beginning of Chancellor Schröder’s political twilight, the SPD as a whole is facing a catastrophe", commented the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
With another near certain defeat next spring in the key state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the CDU will probably win a two-thirds majority in the Bundesrat (parliament’s upper chamber), with the power to block all legislation. That could be the end of Schröder, spell a political paralysis until the general election of 2006, or be the starting point of some kind of (official or unofficial) ‘grand coalition’ type of collaboration to carry out the vicious anti-working class attacks that Germany’s capitalists want - partly depending on the level of working class resistance.
In France it was Chirac´s ‘presidential party’, UMP, that was given the worst EU election hammering. It received less than 17% of the vote in the face of a militant and inventive ‘guerrilla-type’ campaign from workers and unions against the government’s planned attempt at the partial privatisation of Electricité de France (EDF) and Gaz de France (GDF), with numerous electricity blackouts against employers and politicians, but reduced prices for poor families. With right-wing parties divided, and the UMP in an acute leadership crisis, it seems likely that Chirac soon will have to remove his unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, possibly after carrying out the planned cuts in health care. Chirac, who is beginning to fear that ‘the rats will abandon his ship’, probably will also have to accept that his ambitious finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, will take over the UMP leadership, with the intention of replacing Chirac in the 2007 presidential contest. Sarkozy tries to portray himself as someone flexible enough to be able to deal with the unions and combine partial concessions with ‘a relentless pressure for reforms’. He now tries to combine the ‘energy reform’ with a time-out for further investigation of workers’ conditions.
For the time being, the social democratic Socialist Party (PS) has been able to rebound and reach its best result in an EU election ever with 29%, while the French Communists succeeded in holding on to a vote of 5.9%. This is a remarkable turnaround, but hardly an expression of a ‘positive’ vote. The biggest losers on the left were the far-left alliance between Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) which only got a 2.6% vote, half its share in the last EU election. They lost all of their four MEPs and received far less support than the 10% backing the polls showed at the beginning of this year.
The European Left bloc
IN ITALY THE prime minister, Berlusconi, has now been hammered by three recent rounds of elections, starting with the local elections, followed by the EU vote and, two weeks later, provincial presidential and mayoral elections. Berlusconi was forced to shorten his participation at the NATO summit following the loss of 38 of 41 provincial and 18 of 24 mayoral races, something that has triggered serious infighting among his coalition partners, the Northern League and the ex-fascist National Alliance. The dismissal of his finance minister is a sign of the shaky position of his coalition.
Reflecting the heated political atmosphere in Italy, the turnout in the EU election was relatively high. Despite the vote of ‘no confidence’, with only 21.5% support for Berlusconi’s party – 9% less than in the parliamentary election of 2001 and 5% less than in the last EU election – his National Alliance coalition partner profited a little, while the main opposition Olive Tree Alliance, led by the ex-communist social democrats in the DS, received 30% – the same result as in the last EU election.
Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), which has played a major role in Italian and European social and anti-war movements, polled 6%. However, that position is now being used in a new attempt at closer collaboration with the Olive Tree ‘centre-lefts’, including a possible entry into a future coalition government that will certainly not challenge the capitalist system.
The PRC has also been instrumental in forming a European left bloc of mainly ex-communist European parties like the German PDS, the Czech, Portuguese and French Communist Parties, and the Greek KKE. These have been prepared to adopt a platform where they claim that they want to collaborate with trade unions and social movements against the neo-liberalism of the EU and its Lisbon strategy. They identify with the European Social Forum slogan for ‘A Different Europe’, that is also "autonomous from US hegemony, open to the south of the world, alternative to capitalism in its social and political model, active against the growing militarisation and war".
The Swedish Left Party, which takes part in social cuts all over Sweden, would still have no problem in supporting such formulations. It only chooses not to sign the platform because of its objection, at least on paper, to EU membership and the new constitution. At the same time, the European left parties have neither any class alternative to the EU of the bosses, nor any clear cut socialist programme or even a clear line of demarcation against participation in pro-capitalist coalition governments.
The European left’s rejection of some vaguely ‘revolutionary’ or so-called ‘far-left’ organisations like the French LCR and others, despite their similar attempts to water down their socialist profiles in favour of a general anti-capitalist and anti-war platform, has shaken the latter organisations. A crisis of confidence can now probably be expected in these formations, especially since neither LO-LCR in France nor Respect in England and Wales succeeded in winning any MEPs.
New mass struggles and a further shake-up of the European working class will erupt that will both pave the way for genuine Marxist ideas and new mass-based socialist initiatives. Only a minority of Europe’s workers bothered to vote in the EU elections, and only a still smaller minority of working-class youth. The EU elections rejected the bosses’ programme for Europe, but still lacked broad-based, socialist alternatives.
Where is the EU going?
TOUGH POWER struggles, open quarrels and horse trading about the shape and content of the European Union marked the EU summit of 25 heads of state in Brussels, before they could find a compromise on the future EU constitution, only one week after their mauling in the EU elections. There was no time to celebrate the accession of ten new member states.
Another EU summit breakdown as in December 2003, immediately after the defeats suffered by most governments in the EU elections, would have produced such a devastating message of crisis and disunity that the governments were under massive pressure not to let that happen. The crisis may only have been postponed, however, since it will prove extremely difficult to win approval for the ratification of all 25 member states. This is especially so since some ten states will now hold national referendums, among them some with highly Euro-sceptic voters, such as Britain, and possibly Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic. In Sweden, the government so far flatly refuses to repeat its experience of defeat in the euro currency referendum, that produced a shattering blow to the entire establishment.
In the end, the governments of Germany and France – as spearheads of a more ‘federalist’ EU alliance, together with Belgium, Spain and other core eurozone states – had to allow a considerable watering down of the constitution in the face of stiff resistance from Britain, with the support of Italy, Poland, some of the other new states, and the Nordic countries. According to Chirac, British ‘red lines’ meant that ambitions had to be reduced, especially on tax and tax reductions. "We have found common cause and common allies in ensuring Europe remains a Europe of nation states", Blair boasted.
Since the failure of Chirac and Schröder to co-opt Blair into an unofficial ‘directorate of three’, the divisions have now produced the outlines of two emerging ‘power blocs’ within the EU, that partly seem to mirror last year’s severe split on the war in Iraq. The failure of France and Germany to secure the Belgian ‘federalist’ prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, as new president of the EU commission, was another sign of the new relationship of forces within the extended EU.
However, the new constitution is, as George Parker pointed out in the Financial Times (June 21), neither "the capstone of a federal state", as described by Verhofstadt, nor the "tidying up exercise", portrayed by Peter Hain, the UK negotiator at the European convention. The compromise reflects the EU’s hybrid nature - to some extent a federal union with federal institutions, but mainly an inter-governmental organisation based on its member states. It will not become a ‘super-state’.
‘We got it all’, seems to be the message of Blair and Straw to Britain’s EU sceptics after securing a national veto in key areas like foreign and defence policy, tax issues, as well as ‘emergency brakes’ in areas like social policy and common policing. On foreign policy, strategy decisions must be taken by approval of all 25 members, but ground implementation can then be decided by majority voting.
But those ‘brakes’ and vetoes cannot stop further integration of those who want to proceed. A deal could not have been struck if the constitution did not allow others - notably the core eurozone countries – ‘enhanced co-operation’ on their own. According to Chirac, there is now a machinery "which permits states who wish to move faster without being blocked by those who need more time". Corporate taxes seem to be an area where harmonisation is planned between France and Germany.
According to the constitution, the European parliament also doubles its areas of co-decision and is given a say over such things as farm subsidies, fisheries and the EU budget. The constitution also expands majority voting to 30 new areas, such as asylum and immigration policies, energy issues and sections of criminal justice.
The totality of all this seems to be a certain recipe for a ‘variable-speed’ Europe. Some commentators see the British ‘red lines’ more like opt-outs from core EU policy, rather than ways of blocking closer integration, although it is likely that the pace of further integration now will slow down as all governments are weakened. Many have to organise referendums and nearly everyone will come under intensified pressure from working-class and other protest movements.
The beefing up of a more permanent (two and a half yearly) presidency of the European Council and a new EU foreign minister with a diplomatic service and a European Defence Agency, etc, no doubt means intensified joint pressure to co-ordinate policies and develop joint military projects. But already, the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 proclaimed that the EU countries ‘actively and unreservedly’ should support a common foreign policy - formulations that have been included without changes in the constitution. But such words proved useless when the Iraq war at once pulled the EU governments apart.
A number of new efforts have been made to reduce inter-imperialist tensions both over the Atlantic and within the EU, as was shown with the unanimous support of the EU for a UN resolution on Iraq that allows the US to continue its occupation under the cover of the UN’s blessing. The joint US-French intervention in Haiti was another imperialist crime. Other steps are the attempts to streamline a more interventionist EU defence policy, that in a softer way follows in the footsteps of the Bush doctrine.
But this will not more than temporarily buck the trend of growing rivalry between the US, important sections of European imperialists, and other emerging imperialist powers. To the deep disappointment of both Bush and Blair, Chirac now has refused to allow NATO troops in Iraq, even for the purpose of ‘training’ Iraqi security forces.
Another factor that will complicate common EU policies, slow down, and possibly even reverse, some steps of integration is, of course, the more heterogeneous EU that follows from enlargement. It is with the support of more pro-US governments, like the ones in Poland and some other new EU states, that Blair and Berlusconi have been able to challenge the old leadership duo of the EU, France and Germany, despite the ‘loss of Spain’. No doubt Bush hopes to strengthen US ability to avert a more unified and competitive future from the EU through his support for the further extension of EU membership to Turkey.
Nine or more new referendums on the EU constitution within the next two years will compel the governments to launch massive PR campaigns in favour of the EU, in Blair’s case, in the hope of help from some previous yes victories, and by raising the threat of British isolation. With a loss in one or more referendums, however, the EU would be thrown into a new severe crisis. How serious it will become will depend on when and which countries vote no and other events.
The harsh reality of ‘adjustment’ of the ten new states to the EU has already alienated huge sections of their peoples. That mood will not become less sour since the EU Commission has now slapped warnings against six new EU members – Cyprus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia – to get in line with their public deficits by 2008.
In order to reduce the number of clashes between governments and the EU Commission and between key governments within the eurozone, proposals are now being put forward to water down the stability and growth pact. While the limit of 3% budget deficits will remain intact, governments could be given more time to adjust and more scope to define their circumstances to be ‘exceptional’.
The new EU Commission president, José Manuel Durão Barroso, the Portuguese prime minister who has carried out vicious cuts in order to satisfy EU stability rules, the Spanish monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, as well as the Dutch EU presidency, now want to shift attention from budget deficits to the Lisbon agenda of what the Financial Times calls the "chronic need for reform, including the shaking up of labour markets, and health and pensions systems", and to increase the mutual pressure on every country through a beefed-up system of "broad economic guidelines".
But this is just another way to further underline the identification of the EU as a hostile ‘bosses’ club’ in the eyes of European workers who are already fighting their governments’ versions of Agenda 2010 and the Lisbon process counter-reforms, with attacks on health care, pensions, labour rights and the privatisation of key utilities.
Although there is not now a generalised mass movement in France, unlike this time last year, the EU elections in France coincided with mass demos of 250,000 against the attacks on health care, of 30,000 against Bush’s D-Day visit, and an impressively active and inventive trade union campaign against the privatisation of electricity and gas. Proposed concessions by finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, can only embolden the chances of a more general resistance, and hopefully contribute to massive actions in defence of decent health care in the autumn.
Concessions and partial retreats are, of course, possible to win from Europe’s governments, although the period of near-stagnant growth is likely to continue. Workers’ protest is a main explanation for the fact that 40% of ‘Lisbon directives’ have not yet been implemented on schedule. Since the defeat in the March local elections, Chirac’s government has started to talk about a ‘social agenda’, reinstated some cuts in unemployment benefit, and infuriated the German government with talk of ‘national champions’ in relation to the problems of industrial giant, Alstom, while turning down a deal with Siemens.
The German government, which is on the brink of a near political meltdown, also seems to discuss its possibilities to mix its Agenda 2010 of social cuts with some minor concessions. But in neither case are any fundamental shifts proposed. ‘I cannot pursue any other policy’, said Schröder after the EU election defeat, paraphrasing religious reformer Martin Luther. How fed up the German workers are with that message is shown by a new poll that gives the SPD 23% if a Bundestag election were to be held now.
Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden)
BY POLLING only 2.6% in the June European election (compared to 5.5% in 1999), the joint list of the two main ‘Trotskyist’ organisations in France, Lutte Ouvrière(LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) had a significant slowdown if not a setback.
They point to the very low turnout by sections of the population that usually vote for them – for example, only 22% of 18-24 year-olds voted, and only 34% of the industrial workers). This, of course, has a real influence, as does the fact that European elections tend to attract people who are strongly euro-sceptics or euro-enthusiast – those voting more for ideas than for a concrete programme.
But the LCR also has been compelled to admit – in a very limited way, as usual – that it had "made mistakes in its analysis of the situation after the strikes of May-June 2003". At that time, the LCR stated that even if the government was successful in implementing its counter-reform of the pension system, the strike wave with its level of self-organisation, inter-professional actions, etc, was in itself a success and the most decisive factor.
Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France) stated the reverse: the strike movement did not succeed in stopping the government, and that would have a negative effect for a certain time. We also added that the will for a general strike was not realised in action because of the lack of a political alternative and of a more active and concrete appeal to private-sector workers.
This meant that the question of a new workers’ party underlined everything. And, in fact, that is the real reason for the slowdown in support for LO and LCR – because, in reality, they ignore it.
Both recognise that the social democratic Socialist Party (PS) made a certain recovery, as did the Communist Party (PCF) and the Greens. But they point to this development without explaining it. Worse than this, they seem to say that it was inevitable. It might be true to an extent, but not on that scale! The Trotskyist vote fell from three million in the 2002 presidential election to one million in the regional elections in March 2004, and 400,000 in the European elections. LO stated that the "traditional electors of the social democrats came back to their traditional vote"!
By hiding themselves behind such easy conclusions LO and the LCR mask their own responsibilities. The fact is that their agreement was purely electoral, and on a very low political basis. Not even clearly denouncing capitalism in the electoral platform, they did not mention any way forward, neither in terms of a socialist alternative nor on the issue of a new party. For the thousands who came to their public meetings before the regional elections – the biggest ever in many area, with a large participation by youth – they only proposed that they ‘vote and get other people to vote for us’.
The elections show that at certain moments, as now, after a defeat on the pensions and in the education sector, the workers will prefer a tactical vote for the social democrats to put the right-wing ruling party in a minority.
In December, a poll showed that 9% of the voters were ready to vote for the far left. That was shortly after the announcement of the joint list which was on the front page of many bourgeois newspapers. Workers and youth were looking very favourably at the electoral agreement, hoping that ‘something will change’. And even the one million votes in the regional elections was a good score. But by failing to achieve any concrete step toward a new anti-capitalist formation, LO and LCR appear unable to take this forward. The lack of a new formation and the anger of the workers against Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s government may still give them opportunities to get good electoral results, but the next elections are not until 2007. That means we need an active campaign against the cuts and the attacks of the government and the bosses, not just an electoral slogan.
During the industrial action by the electricity and gas public service (EDF-GDF) workers, LO and the LCR failed to put forward a real strategy for the struggle. And it is even more a waste when on the demo you could see workers coming to shake hands with the candidates, Olivier Besancenot (LCR) and Arlette Laguillier (LO), encouraging them to continue despite their score!
On 27 May, the EDF-GDF workers had a new (and final) national strike day with a demo in Paris. Under the pressure of the rank-and-file workers, the electricity union leaders were forced to call on other sectors to join them. A struggle started inside the unions on the question of joining that initiative. Gauche Révolutionnaire seized that opportunity, popularised it on the May day demos, defending it in union meetings and conferences, but often facing the scepticism of LO and LCR leaders. In their papers they only mentioned it a week before the strike. During that time the electricity union bureaucrats were able to change the call to the other sectors into a call to the ‘users’ of the state electricity service. The strike was a success, with 60-80,000 electricity and gas workers taking to the streets of Paris in a four-hour demo. But the bureaucrats were successful in maintaining the isolation of the struggle. At the same time, LCR rushed into ‘social care defence committees’ along with the PCF and Attac, supporting the call for a national day of demos on 5 June, a week after the EDF-GDF strike. There is no doubt that this lack of a strategy will not help workers break their electoral link with the PS and the PCF.
It is quite clear that LO and the LCR are not able to reach anything more than an electoral agreement. This could complicate the situation. At a mass scale, the slogan for a new workers’ party could be seen as a very abstract one, even more so after the government’s success in starting the privatisation of 30% of EDF-GDF. But the fact that this is only half of what the government wanted to do – and it was forced to make concessions, for example, the creation of 5,000 new jobs – shows the strength of the working class.
Other attacks are planned by Raffarin. The bosses’ organisation, Medef, has launched a campaign to extend the Siemens example – breaking the legal weekly working hours limit, and allowing individual companies to decide it. The next few years without elections will be dominated by these struggles.
With a real new party fighting for socialism with a clear tactic and strategy for the struggles, the working class could stop the bosses’ offensive. We are not yet at that point. But the next period will be full of occasions to make that concrete, as well as raising a socialist perspective. If LO and the LCR continue to ignore that need and fail to take any steps toward it, this will open up a space for those who really see that task as essential. It will be less easy than it would have been had LO in 1995, and LO/LCR in 1999, launched a party. But considering the line they have put forward in the recent period it may also be better that we don’t have to face a small mass party both confused and irresolute.
Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France)
Germany: moving towards a new left party?
AROUND 700 people attended the national congress of the Electoral Alternative, which took place in Berlin on June 19. This was part of the widespread discussion that began earlier this year about launching a new party that would fight the neo-liberal policies of all the main German parties.
Two weeks later on 3 July the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice was launched as a step towards forming a new party this autumn. According to the initiators, already 70 regional groups have been formed across the country and more than 10,000 people have subscribed to their newsletter. Does this mark the beginning of a new party for working class and young people in Germany?
With an average of 21.5% in the European elections, the ruling Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) scored its worst election result on a national scale since 1932. In the regional state elections in Thüringen, the SPD vote fell to 14.5%. In the local elections in Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, two regional states in eastern Germany, the Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS – the former state party of East Germany), outpolled the SPD.
The heavy defeat of the SPD is a result of the government’s neo-liberal Agenda 2010: a policy of attacks on the living standards of the working class, especially by creating a ‘low-wage sector’. Agenda 2010 implies attacks on the health service, the unemployed, pensioners and public-sector workers. In both the public and private sectors employers have launched an offensive to lengthen working time with no increase in pay.
However, despite its recent small gains in the polls, the PDS does not provide any alternative either. The opposite is the case: wherever the PDS is in power or in coalition with the SPD, it carries out cuts and privatisation. In Berlin, where the PDS and SPD form the government coalition, they opted out of national wage bargaining and introduced their own 10% wage cut for public-sector workers. Despite the fact that the PDS vote went up percentage wise in some areas, it did not win votes in absolute figures. In areas where the PDS is in power, its vote went down. In this situation, the building of a new party representing the interests of the working class is long overdue.
Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – the German section of the Committee for a Workers’ International), has argued for the need for a new workers’ party over recent years. Where possible, SAV has taken part in or initiated electoral alliances on local levels.
March this year saw two initiatives come into existence: Electoral Alternative 2006, and the Initiative for Work and Social Justice. Both initiatives received widespread media coverage. Initiative for Work and Social Justice is largely made up of middle-ranking IGMetall union officials from Bavaria. One of them, Klaus Ernst, IG Metall district organiser for Schweinfurt, was involved in organising several work stoppages against social cuts.
These two have now fused in the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice. In the autumn, the members are going to decide whether or not to set up a party which will stand in the national elections scheduled for 2006. SAV members are proposing that it stands in the regional North Rhine Westphalia elections in May 2005, as a step towards the national elections.
Different opinion polls are saying that 6% of those questioned would vote for a new left party. At the beginning of July one poll showed a much higher potential support, with 58% of former SPD voters, 57% of young people under 24, 60% of workers and 70% of the unemployed all open to the possibility of voting for a new left party.
SAV welcomes the initiative and is involved in the setting up of regional groups. However, it remains to be seen whether this new party can serve as a tool for working class people to fight back against the vicious attacks of the government. Furthermore, at least some of the initiators seem reluctant to plunge ahead and build the party. This initiative is very important. Clearly, it could gain a wide echo but, if it fails, it will complicate the task of rebuilding the political workers’ movement.
Seven hundred people attended the June conference. In composition, the congress was largely made up of activists from the social movements, members of the anti-globalisation network, Attac, trade unionists and old lefties. So far, they have not managed to reach out to the wider layers of people who want to actively oppose the bosses’ and governments’ attacks. The atmosphere of the conference was dominated by the mood to unite and build something new. Speakers saying that it is impossible to reclaim the SPD and that a new party needs to organise opposition received a lot of applause. Unfortunately, there was not much time for debate and the congress left a number of questions unanswered. No decisions were taken.
It is vital to change this next time, when it comes to taking the formal decision whether or not to found a party. The content and organisation of the congress must not be left to a small group of people behind closed doors. In the run-up to the June congress the organisers sent round a text outlining their aims. It demands a shortening of the working week without loss of pay, and expanding the public sector as a means to fight unemployment. It opposes privatisation and supports the introduction of a minimum wage, and stresses the need to support the trade unions in the struggle for higher wages and for the retention of national wage bargaining. It demands the right of education for all and the reintroduction of a wealth tax.
Despite all these positive demands, however, the paper has some decisive weaknesses. It gives the impression that it is about fighting for a welfare state in the interests of the whole of society. The paper does not touch upon the fundamental contradictions between the interests of the bosses and the super-rich, on the one hand, and the interests of the working class, youth and unemployed, on the other. It is not for nothing that on 3 April, 500,000 people took to the streets nationally to protest against Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 while the chair of the Alliance of German Industry (BDI), Michael Rogowski, congratulated Schröder for his pro-big business policies after the elections.
In the document, there is no mention of the fact that in order to achieve all the demands, it is necessary to cut across the profits of big business. It would also be necessary to explain that the bosses will not be ready to give the money voluntarily. Frankfurter Rundschau, a German daily newspaper, writes: "In the two-and-a-half-hour long debate, only once did somebody mention the words class issue. It was only dropped in passing by one of the speakers".
Policies to tackle social inequality need to be based on a rejection of the profit-driven capitalist system as a whole, and with its replacement by a socialist society in which the needs of the people are put first. But many of the leaders of the new association back away from this. At the press conference and launch, one of its leaders hoped that "employers, managers who want to preserve the social state, will support us".
The wish of many of the association’s leaders to work within capitalism is reflected in their limited Keynesian approach. In order to solve the problems, they propose to increase the purchasing power of the population by introducing state-funded investment programmes. This is meant to stimulate the growth of the economy. Unfortunately, they fail to explain why the bosses and the government have done the opposite in recent years. The underlying structural crisis of capitalism and increased competition on a world scale force the bosses to implement more severe attacks at a higher pace. An intense discussion on these issues needs to take place inside the new organisation.
It has often been stressed that there is no need for a ‘new party of the old type’. Understandably, politicians and parties are generally seen as corrupt and undemocratic and they are therefore met with great scepticism. Jörg Fischer, SAV member, spoke at the June congress as a representative of the electoral alliance in Cologne. He demanded that elected representatives should not earn more than the average worker’s wage and should be subject to the right of recall at any time. These principles are vital to make sure that future Electoral Alternative MPs or full-time workers do not lose touch with the people who voted for them. Moreover, a new party would need democratic federal structures allowing local branches the freedom to choose what issues to campaign on, etc. Existing organisations need to have the right to be part of the alliance without having to give up their own structures.
Ultimately, the question of successfully building a new party is not only related to a fighting programme. It is equally important to what extent the new party is involved in participating and initiating struggles and protests. Within the unions, the party should argue for the complete rejection of Agenda 2010 and for the need to organise a 24-hour general strike against the policies of the government and the employers’ attacks. They need to support workers in their struggles against job losses and privatisation and try to involve the local population, for example, by setting up solidarity committees. It still remains to be seen what the character of a new party will be and in how far it will be capable of attracting ordinary workers and young people. The programme and methods of the new party will play a decisive role, but so does the general development of struggle against social cuts and the bosses’ attacks.
Because of the trade union bureaucracy’s unwillingness to organise opposition, we are experiencing a lull in the protest movement at the present time. However, the mood amongst the population is still explosive and the question is when, rather than if, a new wave of struggles will arise.
SAV members are involved in launching regional branches of the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice. In those branches we will stress the importance of initiating protests against redundancies, cuts in wages and privatisation which would also show that a different sort of party is being built. Simultaneously, there needs to be a continuous discussion on what programme the party adopts. SAV members will be arguing for a socialist policy in the best traditions of the German workers’ movement.
Sozialistische Alternative (CWI Germany)
Translated from the German by Tanja Niemeier