Perhaps one of the greatest feats of government propaganda of recent times has been the remarkable ease with which the Conservatives have been able to argue straight-facedly that our current economic tribulations are the legacy of years of unrestrained expenditure on welfare. Despite the incontrovertible evidence that rapacious financiers brought about the financial crash, plunging the economy into recession and saddling taxpayers with an onerous national debt, Cameron and his coterie of free market apologists have been allowed to traduce the unemployed as skivers and claim that the path to economic salvation consists in withdrawing support for the destitute and needy.
If such scurrilous claims have gone unchallenged, it is largely because the government has been ably seconded in its attacks upon the most vulnerable in society by the ostensible opposition party in British politics. Labour has displayed little interest in exposing dissimulation about a distended social budget and has instead joined in baseless denunciations of the ‘feckless’ poor, only tempering its support for swingeing cuts in public spending by arguing for greater compassion in the way they are administered. Pervading the public pronouncements of Labour politicians there is thus a strong note of puritanical scorn for those discarded by the economic system and left to languish on benefits, and an unvoiced assumption that the indigent must be sacrificed so that millionaires’ can feel secure in the enjoyment of their obscene wealth.
As this interesting analysis by Reuters makes clear, however, Labour exemplifies a disturbing tendency that is discernible, to a greater or lesser extent, in the political postures of all the old parties of the European left. With a wearisome consistency, social-democracy has fallen prey to the mendacious claims of neo-liberals and now gaily repeats the same platitudes about an over-generous welfare state being at the root of our straitened finances. Consequently, the social-democratic Danish Prime Minister speaks of finding the ‘right formula’ and striking a balance between ‘fiscal constraint’ (a euphemism for cuts in welfare spending), ‘social welfare for the needy’ and the ‘restructuring of our welfare model’ (yet another euphemism). With a similar disdain for the plain meaning of terms, the Dutch Labour Party insists on the need for a more ‘participatory’ society, in which the unemployed are ostracized by the ‘industrious’ members of society and poverty is ascribed to personal failings.
It is as if the mainstream parties of Europe have entered into a tacit accord to exculpate the bankers whilst holding up the poor to relentless derision, rewriting recent history so as to justify their assault on the living standards of, not merely the unemployed and disadvantaged, but working people struggling to survive on increasingly paltry wages. Is it any surprise then that, having been disowned and even vilified by their nominal champions, those victimized by austerity measures are beginning to abandon in droves the mainstream left, repulsed by the hypocrisy of politicians who have hitherto taken them for granted? In Germany, the social-democratic party registered last month ‘their second worst election result since World War Two’, whilst in Austria and Italy the ruling centre-left parties were similarly chastised at the polls as a result of their dedication to massive cuts in spending on welfare. Moreover, these electoral outcomes are likely to be replicated in France if Hollande perseveres in his misguided policy of trying to placate the right through invidious reforms to the country’s social security system.
Are these events harbingers of the European left’s approaching political demise? What is becoming increasingly clear is that such individual electoral results are symptomatic of a pan-European phenomenon, evidencing a growing feeling of disenchantment with the distinctly right-wing course charted by social-democratic parties. Is the left’s electoral plight a cause for concern, as the article implies – a sign perhaps that ‘the left has lost its political narrative’ and ‘the belief in collective social progress has lost much of its credibility’ – or alternatively should we take heart from the fact that millions are finally awakening to the fact that the traditional European left long ago ceased to embody the aspirations of ordinary working people?