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Can Europe’s Left Rebound?

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Posted on Mar 18, 2012
Christian Guthier (CC-BY)

British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

A crisis of capitalism is supposed to create an opening for the political left. But in Europe, the place where the concept of left and right was born, political conservatives have won the bulk of the elections held since economic catastrophe struck in 2008.

Is this about to change?

The conservative victory most noted in the U.S. was the rise to power of David Cameron, the British prime minister feted at the White House last week. The Conservatives won only a plurality of parliamentary seats against the Labour Party in the 2010 elections. But they drove Labour to its worst showing since 1983 and were able to put together a coalition government with the center-left Liberal Democrats. Cameron has gotten good press in the U.S., even from liberals who wish the American right would follow Cameron’s moderate and modernizing ways.

Cameron’s was not a singular victory. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats were re-elected in 2009, and the center-right also prevailed in recent voting in Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands—and Sweden, the very heartland of social democracy.

The question is whether 2012 will mark a comeback by a left invigorated by a growing unhappiness with rising economic inequalities and a backlash against austerity policies aimed at saving Europe’s common currency.


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The biggest test will come in two rounds of voting on April 22 and May 6 in France, where center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy has been trailing Francois Hollande, a moderate Socialist.

The French election has already presaged a new trans-European form of politics. Merkel has made clear her preference for Sarkozy, which has prompted the idea that the voting is actually a referendum on a candidate named “Merkozy.”

To preserve the euro, Merkel and Sarkozy have pushed for tough austerity policies, particularly in Greece. Hollande has argued that their budget-slashing approach has stifled growth across the continent. The French Socialist has also highlighted the inequality issue, calling for substantially higher taxes on the very rich. If he wins, Hollande will probably not be able to alter European Union policies as much as his campaign talk suggests, but a Socialist victory would open up the economic debate to more expansionary, Keynesian approaches.

One politician watching those elections closely is Ed Miliband, who took over as leader of the British Labour Party after its 2010 defeat. He’s had some difficult moments since he narrowly defeated his brother, the broadly respected former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in a closely fought leadership contest. The oddity of a brother-against-brother race has not been easy to live down.

But Ed Miliband has been doing better lately, helped by his assault against Cameron’s proposal to open Britain’s popular National Health System to more private-sector elements. Labour has edged back ahead in the polls, though an election is not likely until 2015.

In a telephone interview from Britain during Cameron’s recent visit, Miliband said he was not surprised by the center-right’s triumphs in the years immediately after the crisis. “The right got an opening,” he said, “because at times of fiscally difficult circumstances, they’re the ones who say they know how to fix these things.”

But austerity policies in Britain and elsewhere have failed to restore robust growth, and in the meantime, an ever larger number of voters have concluded that “the system is not working for the vast number of working people.”

Miliband added: “The promise of free market capitalism, Reagan-Thatcher style, was that it would deliver for the vast majority, if not for the poor, but it’s not working for the vast majority.”

Yet the left, Miliband acknowledged, still has to overcome “a great skepticism about what government and politics can achieve” and revive hope “that things can be different than they are.” He’s trying to re-establish Labour’s organizational roots in working class communities, and knows Labour needs to increase public confidence that it would both improve the way government works and lay out a “clear sense of priorities.”

There is still skepticism about the 42-year-old Miliband’s capacity to win, though I confess a certain sympathy for him as the only leading British politician who is an ardent baseball fan—and a Red Sox fan to boot.

And he poses exactly the right question about contemporary conservatives: “Do they have any vision for the future that goes beyond reducing the deficit? That’s the right’s vulnerability and the left’s opportunity.” This is a challenge that both President Obama and the Republicans who want to replace him might usefully ponder.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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By gerard, March 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm Link to this comment

Monied elites and political leaders like to keep as many ordinary people scared as possible.  Why?  Because scared people don’t like change. Their insecurities make them fearful of one more insecurity that might put them under water.
  So the first step is for elites and politicians to increase the distance between ordinary people and “leaders” and “Wall Street”. And cut out access.
  To do that “powers that be” spend money on scare-mongering activities (like war, surveillance, ignorance and free-floating anxieties like those caused by “depressions” and “fluctuations” and race discriminations, sensationalized news reporting, and propaganda, on rising prices, scarcities, and comparisons with others who are “worse off than you.” They sponsor the notion that they “deserve” to be rich/powerful, and others who are not rich are somehow “inferior"which creates class-consciousness, fear of classes different from “yours” and fear that you might fall into a “lower” class.  Race is used to emphasize this class-conscious propaganda, and the law itself is used to enforce class conscioussness and fear of “them” as suspected criminals or anti-social, dangerous etc. 
  Obviously wars are used to promote and sustain mass fears of all kinds, and deep, pervasive insecurities—physical, political, moral and spiritual.
  It’s all part of “the system.”  Those who recognize “the system” are the only ones who can find ways to change it. The rest are captive to it and resist change because they fear things will get worse and have no confidence that things can get better.

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By - bill, March 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm Link to this comment

On the one hand, it’s kind of discouraging that an old Democratic apologist like E. J. is now one of the more progressive voices here at TD.  On the other, his gradual (if still incomplete) transition from Obamabot to analyst willing to criticize when criticism is merited provides some hope that others with such backgrounds may yet achieve similar enlightenment.

The institutionalizing of Reagan’s ‘voodoo economics’ 30 years ago by both the Republican party and the national Democratic establishment (despite their continuing pious professions of progressivity in contexts that were safely removed from actual policy consequences) has brought us to the state which we enjoy today:  a crippled world economy with minimal prospects for real recovery as long as Hooverian austerity policies continue to substitute for the proven Keynesian approaches that led to relatively continual (if cyclical) improvements in prosperity from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Anyone who can characterize the past two decades as having been driven by a devotion to ‘Keynesian’ economics is probably far too young and poorly educated to have any idea what Keynesian economics really is.  Fortunately, both conditions are curable, at least over time.

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By El_Pinguino, March 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm Link to this comment

Europe has been tacking right. Just like the USA. Left now is very right of center compared to the paradigm in my youth.

I have friends in Europe. They claim to be left… however, just like a lot of Americans… what they claim and what the actually do are two different things. One Euro person I know says the Greeks deserve what they are getting. The people expect too much for nothing. This person is also the most left of center claiming that I know. The Europeans are falling for the same game we fell for over the last 30 years.

Today I had a conversation with an 80 year old woman who claimed to be a liberal democrat. Life long democrat she said. However, she said she could not even consider voting for Obama or any other Democrat as they are the problem. She then went on to spew all the talking points created By Limbaugh, Beck and Fox News. (None of the media outlets are any better.) I was totally floored..not to mention speechless. Nothing she said made me think she was Democrat..nor left.

Folks..we have an identity crisis. People have been force fed propaganda (from all sides) for so many years that nobody has an identity anymore. When western culture (and capitalism with it) collapses… then we might be able to rebuild from the ashes.

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By gerard, March 19, 2012 at 4:07 pm Link to this comment

When things are going uphill, the capitalist power structure doesn’t want to do anything because they are doing just spiffy.
  When things are level, the capitalist power structure doesn’t want to do anything because they are doing okay.
  When things are going downhill, the capitalist power structure doesn’t want to do anything because they are still doing okay, just not as well as formerly.
  Moral:  The market works—for those who own it.

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By jimmmmmy, March 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm Link to this comment

Ryan.  Pure capitalism = monopoly, pure capitalism = cancer The only capitalism that exists in Amerika today is the so called illegal drug trade. Now there is real capitalism especially in Mexico.

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By Laurence Tribe, March 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Jimmmy: As long as government produces policy and law that pushes production overseas,reduces home ownership,etc,etc, I’d have to say that the “left”, socialism, is alive and well in Europe as well as the U.S. Keynes, the socialist, was in full favor of a pri-vate corporation “owning” and controlling the amount of currency in circulation, thereby controlling the value of the money in your wallet. Here in the U.S. the Fed has reduced the value of the dollar from 1/265th of an ounce of gold in the year 2000 to 1/1300th of an ounce currently. Money is worth less,(going worthless?) the cost of living has risen dramatically putting those on fixed incomes in jeopardy. We’re being programmed to accept a world currency, perhaps the “bancor” as once suggested by Keynes. We don’t exactly live in the “land of the free.”

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By moonraven, March 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm Link to this comment

WHAT is this bullshit?????

Last I checked, and that was in December when I was there looking for it, Europe did not have a Left.

Moreover, it has not had one for more than 40 years!

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By Marian Griffith, March 19, 2012 at 11:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If go through the trouble of looking at the left in Europe (and by American standards European left is on the extreme left of North Korea…)  you will see that in the run up to 2008 the public opinion was increasingly leaning center-right.
Since then in most countries the centre-left parties have been reinventing themselves and been looking for new ways to express the basic principle of social-democracy: that we are in society together and thus share a certain responsibility to ensure that everybody has access to a reasonable part of the wealth and security that a modern society offers.
The old ‘workers of the world unite against the exploitative factory owners’ had become worn out and with very few factory workers left it also lost its appeal (not to mention that the condescending tone grated).

But please do not make the mistake to equate the European left with what passes for left in the USA. First of all because what passes for moderate left in the USA is far to the right of even the true right wing politics in Europe. And because in that continent the politics is not, yet, wholly owned by business interests.

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By Marian Griffith, March 19, 2012 at 10:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


I think you may be mistaken about the dominant economic theory the past two decades. The words you may be looking for are Friedman, Chicago school and supply side.
Very little Keynesian leanings anywhere.

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By jimmmmmy, March 19, 2012 at 9:07 am Link to this comment

I have trouble reading stuff by O’bamacrats like Mr. Dion They ignore volumes of troubling data to promote arcane anolomies. The left in Europe is as moribund as it is in North America a simple truth.

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By RyanChurchill, March 19, 2012 at 8:08 am Link to this comment

“...but a Socialist victory would open up the economic debate to more expansionary, Keynesian approaches.”
The world has been force fed from the school of Keynesian economics for the last twenty years. That’s part of why we’re in the mess we’re in. It’s time to try something different. Come on Truth Dig, dig a little deeper. Entitlements are unsustainable. Pure capitalism isn’t the problem, crony capitalsim is. Politicians are corrupt, so taxing the people just leads to more corruption since politicians are the ones who control the purse strings.

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By David, March 19, 2012 at 7:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My politics are center-left, but even I have to admit
that the center-right parties in Europe have handled
power reasonably well. In a time when institutional
continuity is more important to Europeans, I don’t
see them as likely to throw out Merkel and her

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