Labour renewing the European left

Patrick Costello and Glyn Ford identify Labour’s European allies and why it is vital to develop solidarity in the face of Brexit

When – or even whether – the UK leaves the European Union, Labour’s links with sister parties and movements across Europe will be an essential element of its strategy to develop policies for the challenges of the next decades that the left will face across Europe. The nature of today’s Labour Party as a coalition and amalgam of left and social democratic political tendencies puts it in a unique position to bring together parties across Europe whose political focus is more narrowly limited to one side of that divide. With the prospect of the UK’s departure from the EU in October looming, now is an important moment to consider the positive role the Party and Labour’s MEPs can play at a crossroads for European politics.

First, the relationship with sister parties. This is the easy bit. The Party of European Socialists (PES) already includes non-EU members such as the Norwegian Labour Party as does its parallel political foundation and think-tank, the Federation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS). Post-Brexit, while UK Labour would inevitably have a smaller say in questions such as the selection of the PES candidate for President of the Commission and other key posts in the European institutions, it would continue to play a vital role in developing socialist approaches to the common policy challenges such as migration, social policy, environmental regulation, the transition to a low carbon economy and foreign and security policy.

Labour’s absence from the European Parliament (EP) and the Council of Ministers can be partly mitigated with an active role within both the PES and FEPS, providing the party and movement with influence and leverage on the strategic direction of policy that will continue to have a major impact on the UK. (Currently within FEPS the British Labour movement is represented by the Fabians and other progressive think tanks. The Party, like most of those on the continent, should establish its own foundation).

One auspicious sign is that the current leadership has already transformed the Party’s relationship. Neither Blair nor Brown saw European solidarity as other than an impediment to the apolitical wheeling and dealing of inter-governmentalism. Unlike them, since becoming leader Jeremy Corbyn has been a regular fixture at PES leaders meetings and has been active in dialogue and debate, setting a positive tone. This is in sharp contrast to past years when Labour paid lip service (at best) to PES membership, rarely investing in these alliances while putting every position of the European party through New Labour and Third Way filters that stripped them free of content.

In 2014, Labour told the PES that during the European Election campaign, our/their candidate for Commission President, Martin Schulz – the then leader of the Socialist Group in the EP – was not welcome in the UK. This made the mainland UK the only part of the EU where there was no campaigning by either Schulz or Juncker, the eventual winning candidate. He did make a campaigning visit to Belfast where the SDLP’s writ runs rather than that of Labour. Compared to that, despite claims of euroscepticism amongst parts of the leadership more heard in Britain than abroad, Labour will have no difficulty in working constructively with the PES post-Brexit.

But Labour can go further. As the largest left party on the continent, we should show a level of ambition and leadership in helping shape policy and politics. The big lesson of the last few years for socialists in Europe has been that the most successful way to counter the electoral rise of the right, the far right and the populists is to build coalitions and alliances between PES parties and other parties of the left, whether the Portuguese Socialist government supported by Left Block and Communists in Parliament or the German regions governed by SPD and PDS coalitions. These governments have demonstrated success in government proving there are alternatives to austerity, challenging the orthodoxies of liberalism with growing successful economies.

Future electoral success for the left in Europe will depend more and more on building these progressive fronts – as the current Spanish general election is demonstrating, where the socialist PSOE will almost certainly need a deal with Podemos and the United Left to build the required majority to govern.

The PES candidate for President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, is openly talking about seeking a coalition of progressive forces in the new Parliament rather than the usual alliance with the centre right EPP. Here the Labour Party, and its components like Momentum, can play a special role as in many senses it is itself already a coalition of these same political tendencies. Labour could create a space for these parties across Europe, promoting the kind of dialogue between them that will be more and more necessary as the traditional right is pulled towards the policies and practices of the populists and xenophobes. There can be no enemies on the Left.

This will be no easy work. Replicating the Portuguese and German experience will be that much more difficult where previous parties have been shattered by impossible choices, personalities and events. Putting together the Humpty Dumpty of what once was the Italian communist party or getting Tsipras’ Syriza and Papandreou’s PASOK in the same room will be a challenge. Labour is perhaps the only European party that could reach out to all of them. To do this political work would be an important demonstration of the Party’s commitment to progressive socialist policies across Europe and it would finally draw a line under the ill-fated Blair-Aznar-Berlusconi Declaration of 2002 which did so much to destroy New Labour’s influence within the European Party and paved the way for Blair to propose a Portuguese conservative, Jose Manuel Barroso, for Commission President.

But more important than rejecting the past, it could start the process of promoting a new kind of left unity in Europe crucial to turning the tide against the right. Since 1999, the EPP has been the biggest group in the EP and, for most of that period, having the largest number of EU heads of state and government. Their successful strategy was to expand rightwards, bringing into their Christian Democrat core first the big conservative parties – the Spanish PP, Forza Italia and albeit briefly the British Conservative Party – then post-enlargement parties such as Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary.

The strategy on the right is beginning to reach its limits, but if the Left is to challenge this generational dominance that has done so much to alienate people from the EU and politics, it would do well to absorb the lessons, to fight like with like, reaching out leftwards to build the Europe of the future. Labour has a role to play, in or out of the EU.

Glyn Ford

Glyn Ford was an MEP between 1984 and 2009. He contributed and co-edited the collection of essays, Our Europe, Not Theirs.

Patrick Costello

Patrick Costello has worked in different European institutions for over two decades. He was a contributor to Our Europe, Not Theirs.