Sunday, 13 June 2021

What comes next

 In 2007, I was the co-author of a little book entitled Feelbad Britain. Its opening sentence was:

The starting point for this analysis of contemporary British society is simple: the observation that in an era of apparently unprecedented overall material prosperity and economic stability, people seem to feel no better than before and quite possibly worse. Obviously the feel-bad factor” affects us all in different ways and to different degrees, but there is enough of it about to suggest a general trend across society, amounting to what we would characterise as a crisis in social relations and others have called a “social recession”. We are a society of people who dont appear to like themselves or each other very much. Twenty-first century Britain, our country, is afflicted with a deep-seated and widespread social malaise.

We went on to describe this social malaise in many different forms including such diverse factors as obesity, depression and anxiety, behavioural problems in children, prison population, drug addiction and chronic indebtedness.

The book made a small impact at the time but it was swiftly overtaken by a factor to which we paid a passing reference but whose importance we largely failed to realise; the global financial crisis which gathered pace with the collapse of Lehman Brothers at the end of 2008. We noted the failure of Northern Rock and even used the phrase “global financial crisis” but failed fully to appreciate the extent to which this would usher in the subsequent vast bailout of financial institutions and the years of austerity which would make our phrase “unprecedented overall material prosperity and economic stability” seem rather outdated.

In 2010, two academics specialising in epidemiology, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, made a vastly more substantial contribution to this social-malaise, The Spirit Level.  In the words of the Equality Trust founded by the authors, the book highlights the "pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption". Their work covered the 23 richest countries of the world. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in those rich countries with greater inequality. 

The inequality about which they wrote has deepened in the UK since 2010. A report from its Office for National Statistics in 2020 that showed that, over the past decade, median income for the poorest fifth of the population fell by 4.8% to £13,800, mostly in the last four years, while that of the richest fifth increased by an average 0.7% a year to £62,400. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this decline is the impact on health. In 2010, a report by Michael Marmot noted the effect that inequality had on differential health expectations. In 2020 in a report which reviewed this Marmot Report ten years on, the same author came to the conclusion that: England is faltering. From the beginning of the 20th century, England experienced continuous improvements in life expectancy but from 2011 these improvements slowed dramatically, almost grinding to a halt.  For part of the decade 2010-2020 life expectancy actually fell in the most deprived communities outside London for women and in some regions for men. For men and women everywhere the time spent in poor health is increasing.

In the first years of this century, this problem, which might be simply termed ‘unhappiness’, attracted a good deal of attention from a variety of other academics, perhaps most importantly Richard Layard, am eminent economist at LSE, once a key adviser to the Labour Party on welfare policies. Layard’s definition of happiness was:

By happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and feeling it is wonderful. And by unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things                      were different. There are countless sources of happiness, and countless sources of pain and misery. But all our experience has in it a dimension which corresponds to how good or bad we feel

  and so is his perception of how happiness has evolved in modern societies

There is a paradox at the heart of our civilisation. Individuals want more income. Yet, as society has got richer, people have not become         happier. Over the last 50 years we have got better homes, more clothes, longer holidays, and above all better health. Yet surveys show clearly that happiness has not increased in either the US, Japan, continental Europe or Britain.

I have summarised his work and that of others in a personal essay which offers the fairly obvious conclusion that this apparent rise in personal unhappiness could be placed squarely on the way in which neoliberal economic policies came to dominate the world in the early 1980s; in Gramscian terms to form the prevailing hegemony. One consequence of all this work is that the Office of National Statistics began an annual publication of a complex ‘well-being’ or happiness index which, unfortunately, only goes back to 2014.

After the financial shock of 2008, attention shifted to the fundamental problems of the neoliberal economic policies which seemed to be the root cause of the ‘feelbadness’ about which we wrote and to the political turmoils which swept over Europe. In 2019, Paul Collier, an Oxford economist, summarised the result of this social malaise as follows: “Anxiety, anger and despair have shredded peoples political allegiances, their trust in government and even their trust in each otherDeep rifts are tearing apart the fabric of our societies. They are bringing new anxieties and new anger to our people, and new passions to our politics.” Throughout Europe, these rifts have fundamentally altered the face of politics, in particular causing the virtual collapse of some long-established social-democratic parties and the rise of political formations with little or no political history such as the 5 Star Movement in Italy or New Democracy in Greece. The most disturbing aspect of this has been the rise of far-right political formations in many European countries with such as the French National Rally Party led by Marianne Le Pen and the Freedom Party in Austria actually on the edge of forming governments in western Europe. The rise of Alternative für Deutschland to be the effective opposition in Germany is also disturbing. The growth of authoritarian right-wing groups in eastern Europe is an established fact.

In the USA, the rule of Emperor Trump has, thankfully, ended but the passions which surrounded his rule have not subsided leading to what some observers have described as an attempted coup including a riotous invasion of the Capitol preceding Biden’s inauguration. It is difficult to believe that we have heard the last of such as the Proud Boys or, indeed, of Donald Trump. It is probably significant that income inequality in the USA has been rising steadily since the financial crisis and that the country has the highest inequality of all G7 countries, higher even than the UK.

There has not been an equivalent shift in British politics or, perhaps it would be better to write, in English politics given the effective obliteration of the Labour Party in Scotland, once its heartland. In a way we have been lucky that our own right-wing or neofascist ‘leaders’ have been more figures of fun than apparent dangers to the democratic state. Even so, the startling Brexit vote and the collapse of the so-called Red Wall of Labour seats in England suggest that something is shifting in our political system. In fact, it is not to far to suggest that the British political and constitutional system is broken with the two, previously dominant, parties in a state of disarray and the national makeup of the country pulled apart.

A dozen years along from Feelbad Britain, the book’s thesis  seems a little behind the times given the political storms of these years and the social turmoil of the Covid pandemic. However, in the midst of our current crisis, I have wondered just how much this sense of ‘feelbadness’ contributed to these political storms and how much it will contribute to the stormy times which we will face once we have come through it. Certainly, one feature of the current health crisis is how much inequality has been a factor in infection rates and deaths, something recorded by Danny Dorling. 

To return to Gramscian terminology, the final breakdown of the neoliberal hegemony in  2008 has led to a period of inter-hegemonic turmoil similar in some ways to the 1920s and 70s which also formed such periods. I have written previously on this at some length but, to simplify, the concept of hegemony was proposed by Gramsci to solve the problem which had beset all European radicals, particularly Marxists, for decades; why the subordinate working class failed to overthrow the dominant capitalist class even after its own oppression and exploitation had been endlessly revealed. Why even then they failed to follow Shelleys impassioned words to: 

Rise, like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

written in 1819 despite the oppressed being many and knowing that the oppressors “were few”. 

Hegemony can be defined as the way in which dominant groups in society maintain their dominance by securing the spontaneous consent of subordinate groups, including the working class, through the negotiated construction of a political, ideological and economic consensus which incorporates both dominant and subordinate groups. It needs to be acknowledged that, even as it provides a conceptual basis for resolving Shelley’s conundrum, hegemony remains a somewhat mysterious process, something which has always bothered some Marxists who want to retain some form of economic determinism. The problem in part lies in the heart of my definition, that hegemony is both ‘spontaneous’ and the result of ‘negotiated…consensus’. 

As noted above, the disturbing political feature of the past dozen years of inter-hegemonic crisis is the emergence of forms of authoritarian governance which can be loosely described as fascism combining both a kind of spontaneity and also political negotiation. Trying to pin down just how this might resolve itself in the disparate states of Europe let alone the chaos of the contemporary USA is impossible. However, one disturbing thought is that the extreme authoritarianism of the measures required to combat Covid could provide a social boost to this trend. In this country, one obvious consequence of such measures is that they have greatly heightened the sense that the United Kingdom is increasingly disunited with four separate governments applying different rules of conduct. This impact is heightened by Northern Ireland becoming even more isolated by the complex customs rules that now apply to it after Brexit.

Just how far this separation will go is difficult to judge though the SNP have clearly set out their agenda for independence. One very machiavellian thought, worthy perhaps of Dominic Cummings, is that the Conservative government will, with public great reluctance, accede to another independence referendum knowing that in England and Wales, they have an almost unassailable lead. In 2019, the Conservative majority in these two countries was a rather astonishing 158 seats. It is true that in 1997, Blair won a landslide victory in England but that was when the Tories dropped to just 33.7% of the vote and the LibDems won 18%. Before then it was back in 1966 that Labour won a majority of English seats. England has been a Conservative country.

But whatever the results of nationalist manoeuvres, one thing is clear; that as we emerge from the shadow of Covid, the constitutional and social character of the United Kingdom will be under great strain. Leaving aside the question of just how far apart the countries of the ‘United’ Kingdom will become, Covid has brought into to sharp relief the problem of England with its very centralised governmental system trying to cope with the regional aspects of Covid without any clear regional structure to implement any measures. There is a good reason for this difficulty which is that England is a country which has never had any such structure. Again, I have written about this elsewhere but, to summarise, England is not, of course, a state; it is itself a region within a state albeit one that has a powerful internal belief that it is a nation with a clear and indivisible sense of nationhood. One odd consequence of this, so ingrained that it passes without comment, is the national insistence on having separate international sporting teams. Imagine having a teams called Catalonia or Bavaria playing in the World Cup but that is, in effect, similar to the teams currently called ‘England’ or ‘Wales’ in various sports.

This assumption that England is one indivisible nation remains so ingrained that it is an effort to realise just how unusual it is in modern Europe. Most large European states accept that they are formed from regions that have such different cultures, even languages, that they are almost different countries in everything save the political formation. Just how unstable this makes the country varies widely. In Spain, Catalan and Basque independence means that the country perpetually hovers on the edge of dissolution whilst in France, acceptance of separate national languages from Brittany to Nice to Alsace seem to satisfy most separatist desire. In Belgium, Flemish/Walloon contestation has led almost to the formation of separate countries whilst in Germany, the länder structure seems to satisfy nationalist aspiration.

The thing that separates England from other large European countries, apart from the fact that it is not a country as state but, politically, a region within a state, albeit the dominant one, is that it has its own creation story based upon conquest. Other European countries tend to accept that they were created by a process of amalgamation or, in the case of some of the smaller countries, by the division of states even though this amalgamation or separation might have been, in part, based on war. England, historically, either conquered all the other constituents of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or, in the case of Scotland, had a perpetually antagonistic relationship until King James, almost accidentally, brought the two nations together, nations which remain quite distinct. This history extends to the country of England itself with a ‘conquest myth’ starting with Alfred hiding in the marshes of Athelney before emerging to begin a long war against the Danes which eventually led to the formation of England. Despite subsequent reconquest by the Danes and then the French takeover, this central idea of a country called England ruled first from Winchester then London remained dominant even if its northern boundary sometimes seemed a little hazy.

There is little doubt that introduction of some kind of regional structure within England is necessary to reform its highly centralised government which has, in many ways, shifted little from the time of Henry VIII and remains almost comically archaic. What other country, for example, could have as a senior member of its government, a minister entitled the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, an office apparently created in 1491? The first attempt at such reform was undertaken by Oliver Cromwell who set up ten regions covering England and Wales and ruled by his Major-Generals. This venture did not end well and little else was done until the early 20th century when various forms of regional authority were set up to look after such diverse matters as electricity supply and road development. Nine "standard regions" were set up in 1946, in which central government bodies, statutory undertakings and regional bodies were expected to cooperate. Various other regional structures were looked at throughout the second of the century mostly with the intention of developing some kind of regional economic planning though always without any democratic involvement or, perhaps crucially, any kind of revenue raising power. The number of such regions varied between seven and ten. The key underlying feature of the later efforts was the glaring disparity between the setting up of new ‘parliaments’ in three sub-regions of the United Kingdom defined as nations and the centralised structure in its fourth and by far its largest sub-region, England. 

The Blair government made some quite strenuous efforts to set up regional structures. In 1998, regional chambers were created in the eight English regions outside London under the provisions of the Regional Development Agency Act. The powers of the assemblies were limited, and members were appointed, largely by local authorities, rather than being directly elected. The functions of the English regions were essentially devolved to them from Government departments or were taken over from pre-existing regional bodies, such as regional planning conferences and regional employers' organisations.

It was originally intended that these should develop into elected bodies following referendums and one such, the London Assembly, was set up in 2000. However following the electoral rejection in 2004 of such a plan in the North East, the idea was dropped and, after 2007, under the new Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the regional assemblies were effectively phased out, something which was completed after 2010 by the Coalition Government though the London Assembly continues in existence.

The fact of the continuing existence of this Assembly highlights the underlying problem with any form of new regional structure for England; the overwhelming financial dominance of London and the South East. This dominance can be placed in personal terms quite simply; in 2020, someone living in Richmond-on-Thames had median full-time weekly pay a bit over £893  whilst in Islington it was £843. In Great Yarmouth, it would have been £473 and in Blackburn, £457 weekly. Regionally. in 2020, the median annual earnings in London were £41,017 whilst in Yorkshire and Humberside they were £27,856. Of course within these places, there were great disparities in such earnings with some poverty in Islington and wealth in Yorkshire. But the overall picture is clear.

This disparity is reflected in the share of national production in the various regions which shifted dramatically in the last century. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the economies of the South East (including London) and the North were roughly on level pegging, accounting for 35 and 30 per cent of British gross domestic product respectively. By the end of the twentieth century, the South Easts share had risen to 40 per cent while the Norths had dropped to 21 per cent. From a position near parity, the regions had so diverged in their fortunes that the output of one was twice that of the other. Through boom and bust, London then increased its share by another 5 percentage points between 1997 and 2017. There is a small population disparity between the two regions but not enough to account for such a huge swing.

This kind of regional disparity is not confined to the UK; other countries in Europe have shown similar features in particular, the Paris region in France and southern Germany as well as the well-known north/south divide in Italy. However, the scale and time-scale of the long-term relative shift does seem to be a particularly British phenomenon. 

Wilkinson and Pickett showed a decade ago how such income and wealth disparities led to acute social problems including, as I noted above, physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being. There can be little doubt that the problem of ‘feelbad Britain’ which we wrote about has got worse in the years since. It is astonishing that in 2019, more than  20% of the UK population was living in poverty, around 14.5 million people, whilst some 2.4 million including more than half a million children, were totally destitute at some point in the year,, This was an increase of about 50% compared with 2017. There can be little doubt that one consequence of Covid will be that these numbers will increase in 2021. 

This does paint a very bleak picture of a country soon to emerge from an unprecedented health emergency with stretched public and private finances, high unemployment, a lot of issues with ongoing mental and other health problems, Brexit problems and a political system wracked with uncertainty. There is no one single solution to these issues.  The first step is clearly recognition of the scale of inequality and just how important it is to rectify the situation. However setting up a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, a perhaps rather unfairly derided initiative by the Coalition Government in 2015, became little more than a PR exercise when unaccompanied by specific and wide-ranging initiatives. There has been much talk of a “Green New Deal’ after Covid but without any clear policy  flesh on the phrase. In particular, such talk does little to capture the essential underlying problem of gross inequality.

The best this essay can do is to introduce the idea of a ‘solidarity of the shaken’, a phrase first used by the Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, who died in 1977 after his involvement there with the Charter 77 movement. The phrase means

a particular bond that originates between people who have experienced a strong disturbance of the certainties, big and small, that hold their lives in place.

The shaken” is an individual whose everyday assurances have been overturned by a deeply shocking experience, which allows them to change their perspective on life.

 From Patočkas point of view, the shaken are those who are capable of understanding what life and death are all about, and so what history is about”, as they have regained the true meaning of their own life through the experience of an actual danger. By rediscovering the meaning of their death, human beings can also understand what life really is, i.e. something that cannot be restricted to ordinary every day experience, or limited to mere facts.

There can be little doubt that the worldwide experience of the pandemic can be seen in these terms; its dangers but also in the sense of various kinds of community support that it invoked. It is possible that we will learn to have a different relationship with nature in a time of acute climate crisis and that the worldwide nature of the epidemic will give a better sense of international solidarity.  It has to be said that at the moment that there is little sign of the kind of leadership needed at all levels emerging in our political parties but time will tell. 

Meanwhile all I can do is finish with a song, one that my choir is currently ‘zooming’ but will, hopefully, soon be singing together:

We shall be known by the company we keep
By the ones who circle round to tend these fires
We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap
The seeds of change, alive from deep within the earth

It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive

In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love

Friday, 30 August 2019

Broken English 

This photograph of a recent installation by the Ghanian artist, Ibrahim Mahama, at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester is entitled Parliament of Ghosts. It is made out of old railway seats and battered cabinets full of withered documents, all remnants of the British colonial era. Probably unintentionally, it sums up the state of English politics today. 

Newspaper columnists writing about the situation are full of words like ‘collapse’, ‘meltdown’ and ‘splits’ It is easy enough to find both Labour and Conservative M.P.s willing to criticise their leaders, often in scathing terms whilst there is an apparently constant flow of resignations from Party whips to be come independent or to form short-lived groupings under some invented name. There are currently 16 such independents sitting plus such as Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston who first left parties, Labour and Conservative respectively, then joined the Liberal Democrats having fallen out with others in the short-lived Change UK.

The decision to prorogue Parliament has produced an even greater deluge of claims that we are falling into a dictatorship which seems a touch strong, given that M.P.s will lose just five working days given their habit extending the summer holidays by a couple of weeks to attend each others conferences or perhaps to stay on the beach for a few more days≥

The absence in all of this chatter is any clear suggestion as to just what might emerge from the current wreckage, in particular whether the two-party system which has held sway at least in England for over hundred years might breakdown. Let’s leave the Conservatives out of the reckoning. The Conservative Party does not do splits; it does rancorous factions but not splits largely because its autonomous local associations have control over candidate selection and local finance.  The Labour Party is, of course, a quite different animal and one which has the dates 1931 and, more relevantly, 1981 written on its heart.

In 1931, its leader Ramsay McDonald, one of its founders and its first Prime Minister, led a faction of the Party into a kind of alliance with the Conservatives and Liberals forming a National Government. He was denounced as a traitor by the Party and expelled and in the 1931 election, Labour was shattered, getting just 52 seats despite obtaining  30.6% of the national vote. In 1981, four leading Party figures left to form a new party, the Social Democrats (SDP) and were joined by 28 Labour M.P.s and one Conservative. The basis for the new party was that Labour had become too left-wing under a socialist leader and was espousing policies such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and leaving the EU. It was also feared that a far-left movement whose name began with M was infiltrating the Party.

In the election of 1983, in which the SDP formed an alliance with the Liberals, the voting figures were as follows:

Share, % Seats
Conservative   42.4   397
Labour   27.6   209
SDP/Liberals   25.4   23

Margaret Thatcher won in a landslide and Labour stayed as the Opposition for fourteen years. One of the luckiest Labour candidates was one Jeremy Corbyn, who had been chosen as the candidate in a seat, North Islington, which the Social Democrats were expected to win comfortably. In the event, the sitting M.P., Michael O’Halloran, who had joined the SDP, but had not been selected as candidate because of his notorious corruption, intervened as an independent, split the vote and Corbyn slipped in. (I drove Jeremy around on election day, 1983, and he was probably as surprised as I was that he won).

The moral of both these dates is that under the merciless first-past-the-post electoral system, under 30% of the vote gets you nothing and that a party which splits gets hammered.

The long-term electoral situation for Labour already looks bleak particularly if, as seems very likely, Scotland becomes independent post-Brexit. In the past Labour has needed a strong showing in Scotland to achieve a Parliamentary majority, something which until 2005 it got. Scotland was, after all, almost the founding home of Labour. In 1997, it did get a huge majority and would have done so without Scottish seats but this landslide looks like a fading dream in the current situation. The Conservatives currently hold 304 of the 573 seats in England and Wales with Labour holding just 255. It already has nearly all Welsh seats so it must make big gains in England where, currently, the Conservatives hold 296 seats and Labour 227. A previous post on this site shows just how regionally concentrated the Labour vote in England has become (These are the Chumps who Lost Scotland,  Gains on this scale in England look close to impossible. The map of British constituencies after the 2015 election show just how confined is the Labour vote.

The moral of this for Labour is that it is going to be very hard for it to win an overall majority and impossible if it splits in any way. The current outlook is that Johnson will soon call an election making some kind of pact with the Brexit Party and that Labour, currently polling around the mid-20% will not do well.

There is probably one way out for Labour. If it were to propose a root-and-branch revolution in our system of governance including abolition of the absurd House of Lords and its replacement by a senate based around regional elections; much more power and finance to local government and, of course, a proper system of proportional representation to Parliament then it might well sweep in with a majority, even in England, if it were to propose some kind of electoral pact with the Lib Dems and the Greens. It would then, of course, have to learn to live with some form of coalition government and could, reasonably happily, split into the two parts who are currently at such odds with each other inside the Party. Or perhaps Britain could develop regional parties with their own agendas. Scotland might then choose to remain inside the union of 1707.

This is all fantasy of course. Labour has never had any interest in constitutional reform and Corbyn and his close advisers stuck in the 1970s will not change this now. So the Parliament of Ghosts will wander along, shouting at all and sundry but with no-one really listening.

British constituencies in 2015
The wild card in this is Nigel Farage and his, presumably ephemeral, Brexit Party. Just to where he and his devoted followers  will migrate after Brexit is quite unknown. Presumably if the leader departs to earn a good living in Trump’s USA they will drift to their natural home following Boris. But Farage may well have other political ambitions in England and he is probably the most astute politician in the country.

Meanwhile the ghosts in Parliament will have some more weeks shouting their empty words.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Crucified on a Cross of Gold

The political structures of both Europe and North America are in a state of turmoil usually referred to as an upsurge of populism. This has been a recurring theme in past issues of The Thinker and was recently explored last year by Anver Saloojee. This upsurge is characterised by the rise of new political parties and previously unknown leaders.

Political shifts are occurring in many parts of the world. Trump and Macron - non-politicians - have become Presidents of two of the world’s largest economies. The populist Five Star movement, fronted by comedian Beppe Grillo until it came to power, is in government in Italy. Andrej Babiš, a businessman and entrepreneur, became Prime Minister of the Czech Republic only three years after entering politics. Syriza are in government in Greece. AfD and the Greens now take a significant share of the vote in Germany. Hungary and Poland are ruled by populist and illiberal parties. The new Ukrainian President is Volodymyr Zelensky whose previous political experience consisted of playing a Presidential candidate in a TV sit-com. In emerging market democracies, Brazil has recently installed a far-right President in Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico, a far-left President in Andres Lopez Obrador. Pakistan is now ruled by former cricket captain Imran Kahn. 

These new parties combine policies which traditional parties would not; they are organised differently to traditional parties, they are led by people who would not be in charge of traditional parties and who say things that traditional politicians wouldn’t. They pride themselves on being outsiders, setting themselves apart from incumbent elites. The parties portray themselves as democracies opposed to corporatism and the vested interests that have captured government and the old, incumbent parties. The names of the new parties give the clue to their purpose. In Germany, the extremist AfD translates as Alternative for Germany, President Macron’s party, En Marche! (the exclamation mark is apparently required) simply means ‘Forward’ whilst Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf means Movement for Justice.

In South Africa, the rise and fall of ex-President Zuma can be seen in very encapsulated form as both the strength and the weakness of populist movements in that Zuma rose to power on the back of populist demands such as free university education and his attacks on an elite within the ANC and fell because of his notorious corruption. The rise of Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters may be seen as a continuing strand of populism in South African politics. In his election campaign, Malema made a point of attacking “racist white farmers, corrupt politicians, the rich and the powerful”, the usual populist rhetoric of the capture of democracy by an elite.

Although this political turmoil is world-wide, it is important to distinguish populism from popular uprisings such as the Arab Spring or recent events in Sudan. Populism is a movement within a democracy and refers to a sense that an elite of some kind has stolen democracy from some wider grouping within society, the ‘people’. It originated in this sense at the end of the nineteenth century in the USA and the Peoples’ or Populist Party, a largely agrarian movement, led by William Jennings Bryan who in a famous flight of rhetoric concerning the rather technical  demand for currency bimetallism attacked the financial and political elite, who wanted to maintain a currency backed by gold, declaring that:

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

One problem in characterising these new political formations is that they do not fall neatly into the left/right axis that is used broadly to locate European political parties based upon their economic policies. This Marianne Le Pen’s Fronte National party (renamed National Rally) is usually described as ‘far-right’ even though many of its economic policies would conventionally be seen as to the left of the neo-liberal market policies of President Macron’s En Marche! party. Although their policies can be seen as confused and sometimes internally contradictory, they usually involve budgetary expansion and tax-cuts and are hostile to the globalisation of economic policies. Hostility to global financial interests is a common feature even if attacks on bankers are often combined with attacks on ‘Jew bankers’.

It is the apparent concern of new populist parties with the financial plight of the ‘common man’ which has led to the collapse of the traditional social-democratic left in many European countries rather than the populist ‘right’ making similar inroads upon the conservative right-wing groups. In an ominous historical parallel, it needs to be remembered that Hitler named his party National Socialist and that Mussolini was originally a leading member of the Italian Socialist Party whilst Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader was elected as a Labour member of Parliament.

It is also true that some of the new parties, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are sometimes called left-populist because they largely, though not entirely, eschew the anti-immigrant racism which characterise the ‘right’ populist parties.

The recent elections to the European Parliament illustrate the extent to which the new populist parties have grown and how the traditional centre-left and centre-right has been eroded. In these the Social Democrat bloc lost 46 of their seats and are reduced to 145 whilst the European Peoples bloc, the home of such as the German Christian Democrats, lost 41 down to 180 seats. The Conservative and Reformers bloc containing the British Conservatives lost 11 seats reducing them to 59. This latter result was largely down to the obliteration of the Conservatives who lost 16 of their 20 seats. To some relief, the principal winners in the election were not the far-right nationalists but the Green parties which gained a total of 19 seats from a base of 50 and a melange of centrist liberal parties comprising the ALDE bloc who gained 109 seats, a rise of 42. 

Of course, the two main centre-right and centre left blocs remain the largest groups but they no longer have any majority in the Parliament and will have to seek various kinds of alliance when it comes to the crucial elections of various officials within the European Commission.

A closer look at particular countries does, however, confirm the collapse of traditional parties particularly on the left.

In Germany, the once mighty Social Democrats were reduced to third place losing 11 seats and almost being overtaken by the neo-fascist AfD who won 11 seats compared to the SPD’s 16. In France and Greece, the traditional left has effectively disappeared whilst in Italy, although they did achieve a respectable second place, the Social Democrats were comfortably beaten by the Liga, once a regional party, and were almost overtaken by the rather bizarre 5SM. It was not all bad news for the traditional left; in the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Portugal, they held on to a dominant position but, overall, it was a bad night for them. 

Perhaps the strangest result of all was in the United Kingdom, a country whose name actually spells out the precise opposite of its politics, where, enmeshed as the country is in a protracted withdrawal from the EU, a party formed barely four months before and led by a man, Nigel Farage, widely characterised as a cartoon buffoon, swept the board taking 29 of its 73 seats. The Labour Party limped in third place behind the centrist Liberal Democrats whilst the ruling Conservatives crashed to fifth behind the minuscule Green Party. 

It remains very unclear as to just where the disintegration of the traditional left/right political structure in Europe will lead just as in the USA, the binary pairing of Republican, broadly conservative, and Democrat, broadly progressive, will lead. The huge proliferation of potential Democratic contenders for the next Presidential elections suggests a major fracturing of usual alliances.

This collapse of political structures is not recent but has been slowly mounting for some time. As long ago as 2007, Peter Mair, a British political scientist, wrote about the wider context of political parties:

A tendency to dissipation and fragmentation also marks the broader organizational environment within which the classic mass parties used to nest. As workers’ parties, or as religious parties, the mass organizations in Europe rarely stood on their own, but constituted just the core element within a wider and more complex organizational network of trade unions, churches and so on. Beyond the socialist and religious parties, additional networks of farming groups, business associations and even social clubs combined with political organizations to create a generalized pattern of social and political segmentation that helped to root the parties in the society and to stabilize and distinguish their electorates. Over at least the past thirty years, however, these broader networks have been breaking up. In part, this is because of a weakening of the sister organizations themselves, with churches, trade unions and other traditional forms of association losing both members and strength of engagement. With the increasingly individualization of society, traditional collective identities and organizational affiliations count for less, including those that once formed part of party-centred networks.

He concluded that:

Voters in contemporary Europe may still be willing to locate themselves in left-right terms, and may even be willing to locate the parties in the same dimension, but the meanings associated with these distinctions are becoming increasingly diverse and confused. In part, this is due to the policy convergence between parties; in part also, to the often contradictory signals emerging from post-communist Europe, whereby the traditional left position is often seen as the most conservative. In another respect, it has to do with the new challenge of liberalism, and the increasingly heterogeneous coalition that has begun to define leftness in anti-imperial or anti-American terms, bringing together former communists, religious fundamentalists and critical social movements within what may appear to be a unified ideological camp. In this context, meanings are no longer shared and the implications of political stances on the left or on the right become almost unreadable.

Where is all this going? The only possible answer is no-one knows. Perhaps the unexpected upsurge in Green votes suggests that the people of Europe recognise that the biggest problem they face is that of climate change and of coping with the surge in displaced peoples, many of whom will see Europe as a place of refuge. As the countries of Europe have been, historically, a major creator of climate change it has to bear its share of responsibility for the outcome. Perhaps.