In politics timing can be everything. The former Labour leader Ed Miliband was terribly unlucky in this respect. He tried to capture a social democratic moment just as austerity politics had triumphed across Europe.
Jeremy Corbyn, his newly elected successor, might be luckier. His arrival as Labour leader coincides with a new phase in European politics.
Thanks to the crisis in Greece, the European anti-austerity movement is slowly moving from the confines of the radical left into mainstream social democratic politics. Corbyn should make the most of this new pan-European trend. It might help his anti-austerity drive at home and inform his stance on the EU.
Austerity takes hold
As the global financial crisis of 2008 created havoc in Europe, social democratic parties fell from power like dominoes. They were blamed for the economic recessions that followed the bank bailouts and for the austerity policies they were forced to adopt by the institutions of the European Union.
For several years, these parties were unable to articulate a plausible alternative to austerity. The situation was particularly dire in southern Europe, where Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain suffered troika interventions of different magnitudes.
But even in countries that are not members of the Eurozone, such as Denmark, the austerity dogma was so potent that social democratic governments implemented draconian public spending cuts too.
The result of this strategy is all too clear. Across Europe most social democratic parties are in opposition. And those that are in government – in France and Italy and as junior partners of coalitions in Germany and the Netherlands – are either unpopular or invisible. Their electoral appeal has been eroded by the ravaging effects of austerity and by the rise in popularity of radical left parties like Syriza, Podemos, Die Linke. On the right, they are being squeezed and by populist right-wing parties such as the National Front, Golden Dawn, the Finns Party or the Danish People’s Party.
The moderates awake
But things are starting to change. The months of bullying that Syriza endured at the hands of EU institutions woke several social democratic leaders from their Eurozone-induced coma.
French president François Hollande defended the Syriza government and pushed (without success) for its debt to be forgiven. Moderate Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi said enough is enough and appealed for an end to Greece’s humiliation.
The actions of French and Italian governments were timid but they signalled a new mood. Questioning the foundations of the monetary union and discussing the EU’s democratic deficit suddenly became key components of mainstream political debates.
In southern Europe the classic ideological stand-off between the radical left and mainstream social democrats is being replaced by a spirit of openness and co-operation.
In Spain, the socialist party, PSOE, met with the radical left movement Podemos to discuss a possible loose partnership at the regional level. In Portugal, the Socialist Party has already started dialogues with other left-wing forces.
Elsewhere, ambitious players talk of a pan-European movement uniting different left-wing forces. In that spirit the maverick French socialist who served in François Hollande’s government, Arnaud Mondebourg, invited the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to address his annual summer meeting of leftists to put forward the case for a pan-European movement against austerity.
Riding the wave
Corbynmania can be seen as part of this European-wide movement. It is clear that there has been a contagion effect directly from Europe into British left-wing circles. Many of Corbyn’s supporters have closely followed the rise of Syriza and Podemos and adopted some of their campaigning techniques.
But another interesting thing has happened. The election of Corbyn as party leader changed the dynamic. Labour is now the largest European social democratic party that endorses an unequivocal anti-austerity agenda.
As such, it is seen as a leading light by both radical left parties and some (though not all) European social democratic parties. As a sign of this new mood, the leader of PSOE, Pedro Sánchez, was quick to reclaim Corbyn for the social democratic camp, reminding everyone that “Labour and PSOE are sister parties”.
The pan-European, anti-austerity drive is still in its infancy and is limited to southern Europe. But the movement could quickly spread to other social democrats that are tired of sitting in opposition. Hollande, with an eye on the 2017 presidential elections, may well revert to his anti-austerity promises. And even in the German SPD there are signs of frustration over Sigmar Gabriel’s pro-austerity stances.
Corbyn should try to ride this wave and play a leading role in European politics (as Tony Blair did in the 1990s with the Third Way). This would give him an opportunity to inject credibility to his agenda and to offer greater definition to his approach to the referendum on EU membership.
It would also give him a greater chance at success. As Miliband, Hollande, and Tsipras painfully discovered, in a world of globalised capitalism, you cannot fight austerity on your own.