As the Greek debt crisis took hold in the wake of the financial crash, there was one big political casualty. The main centre-left party PASOK — which had dominated Greek politics since the early eighties — collapsed, going from a comfortable 43.9 per cent of the vote to 13.2 per cent in 2012. A decade on, the party has failed to recover – and the grim news for Keir Starmer’s Labour party is that it faces its own version of Pasokification, one where the fall is slow rather than spectacular, and in which the left could find itself trapped.
It might be hard to imagine British politics without the Labour party, but then again take a look at what has unfolded across Europe in recent years: the story of PASOK’s implosion has replicated itself across the continent. Centre-left parties, who in the past two decades had moved away from their roots and transformed into champions of globalisation and neoliberal economics — the so-called ‘Third Way’ — fell apart. This process, for better or worse, is still ongoing. Labour looks like it might be next.
The party has been out of power for 13 years and its prospects in the next elections are bleak. So will Labour follow the fate of its sister parties from the continent? It is, unfortunately, much worse than that. If we examine the dynamics that led to the demise of social democratic parties in Europe, there is a clear tendency for their support to then flow into parties to their left and right.
On the left, in Spain you have Podemos, currently governing in coalition with PSOE. In Germany, the Greens, poised to even win the next federal elections. In Greece, you had Syriza, and a host of smaller parties.
On the right, we saw the rise of Liga Norde in Italy, Le Pen in France and Duda’s PiS in Poland, to name a few. The two sides share a streak of populism, but not much else. They are, however, part of the same trend.
Meanwhile, Labour finds itself ripe for Pasokification, because the differences between the competing factions in the party look to be irreconcilable. Starmer’s Labour is now made up of three big groups, none of which have much in common with each other.
First, there are the supporters of Corbynism. These voters are largely urban, ultra-liberal, internationalist in outlook, more comfortable inside movements rather than parliamentary politics, very interventionist in economic outlook, and who represent the largest part of the popular movement.
Labour also has a good chunk of traditional voters represented by Blue Labour, who are found mostly outside big cities, are small-c conservative, patriotic – and are currently flowing to Boris Johnson and his brand of Red Toryism.
Finally, there are the Blairites, whose combination of social liberalism and financial neoliberalism (the so-called Third Way) once brought them huge electoral success, but is now an electoral dead-end across the west. The dwindling importance of the Lib Dems makes this all too clear.
Bringing these three groups of voters together won’t happen because many of the big tenets of postwar leftwing ideology are now orthodoxies and there aren’t enough big policies for these different factions in the Labour party to rally around. To take one of the oldest demands: the right to a pension is won, established and, what’s more, is now providing a pool of voters for the Conservatives. A majority of voters on both sides want to nationalise the railways and utilities. Johnsonites are comfortable with big spending, and tax hikes under Rishi Sunak look likely. Even on the social side, gay marriage was made into law by a Conservative government.
There are, of course, much more that parties on the left can pursue. The popularity of Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos are testament to that, as well as the success seen in the local level, and in Wales. But cutting through on a national level in Britain hits another stumbling block: First Past The Post. FPTP makes the rise of new parties almost impossible — as Nigel Farage knows better than most — and that points to a very agonising future for Labour.
In any other electoral system, those three Labour factions would be going their separate ways. Coalitions between them would be possible, like we’ve seen in other countries, after the ballots had been cast. FPTP however, forces them to co-exist in an unhappy marriage, which traps them in a never-ending loop of pandering to three different audiences that are growing further and further apart.
There is no exit towards upstart parties: Labour seems doomed to fight a civil war of attrition for years to come.
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