The European Parliament Election results on Sunday were not good for social democratic and labour parties across Europe, polling 3% less than at the elections in 2004. PES President Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, posting at Labourlist, states rather blandly that “We need more PES, not less PES” so as to do better next time. I’m afraid it’s not that simple Poul – so here are a few more ideas.
First of all, social democratic parties at national and EU level lack coherent and decent quality leadership. Brown is monumentally weak and cares little about the EU, Aubry has not been able to assert herself in France, the Italian Partito Democratico is tearing itself apart, the SPD seems determined to simply turn the clock back, the left has no coherent leadership in Poland… only Zapatero has been able to arrest the decline, and he has seldom been seen on the international stage. Things are not much better at EU level – I have respect for Rasmussen, but he has been unable to assert himself. Leader of the Socialist Group Martin Schulz, famous in large part thanks to his Berlusconi incident, does not have the optimism, nuance or communications skills to lead effectively. In short things at the top must change.
Secondly, the left does not have an adequate discourse to appeal to voters. Stuck between the unionised labour wing of the past and potential socially responsible yet more individualised approach of today, the left is in danger of losing votes to the old left (to Die Linke in Germany for example) and to the Greens that polled well across the old Member States in the EP elections. Here the left must be continually and resolutely determined in developing EU-wide principles for flexicurity – not propping up outdated and polluting industries just because they employ lots of people. It is also important that the EU can develop cooperative means to approach labour market relations – Nordic-style collective agreements with collaborative rather than destructive trade unions are a much better model than central European rules-based systems. Just because the EU is a community of law does not mean EU-wide rules are necessarily the right answer.
Thirdly, the left needs to work out in what areas it wants the European Union to act. Regulation of the banking sector is all very well, but what are centre-left principles for CAP, consumer protection, trans-European networks, structural funds? Surely during an economic downturn a resolute effort to ensure Europe does the best it can for its poorest people and poorest regions should be a policy priority for the PES – a more redistributive EU budget. Poorer voters voted against the European Constitution and Treaty of Lisbon as eloquently argued by Kevin H. O’Rourke – the results of the EP elections seem to show these voters tended to stay at home rather than vote for the left. Focus of the budget should also be more on foreign aid and investments in green industries. Beyond that Europe’s education systems are clearly not adequate in the era of globalisation – the left should more strongly advocate giving the Bologna Process some teeth.
If you’ve reached the end of this post and are thinking: what planet is Jon living on to think that all of this is possible, then just think back a little to 1999 and The Third Way / die neue Mitte – an era of Blair, Schröder, even Jospin, when the left managed to have a positive and forward looking message in so many European countries. That’s the standard to which we should aspire by 2014.