The Left in Government, a strategic project

Latin America and Europe Compared – Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s e-bulletin no. 740 (first in Birgit Daiber (ed. 2009), The Left in Government: Latin America and Europe compared, Brussels: Rosa Luxemburg foundation), by Asbjørn Wahl, Director of Campaign for the Welfare State, Oslo, December 7, 2012.

To Be in Office, But Not in Power:

  • The experiences from having had left political parties in government in Europe in the era of neoliberalism have not been very exciting, to put it mildly. The most recent experiences from such governments in France, Italy and – to a certain degree – also Norway have proved anything from negative to disastrous. In all these three countries right wing populist parties have been the biggest winners – with growing support, including in the working-class, and increasing influence on areas like immigration policies.   
  • This is particularly worth noting, since one of the arguments from parties on the left for entering into centre-left coalition governments has been to contain and isolate the radical right.
  • In analysing these experiences we have to look at external as well as internal factors. Externally, the balance of power between labour and capital is the most decisive factor. This power relationship has changed considerably in favour of capital during the neoliberal era since about 1980. Internally, it is the character of the party in question which is most important – its social roots, its analyses of the current situation, its strategies, its relationship with trade unions and social movements and its aims and perspectives. In this regard, the ideological and political crisis on the left has to be addressed.
  • Even though a detailed analysis will have to go deep into the concrete situation in each country, its history and traditions, its class formations and its social and political forces, I have chosen a more generalized approach in this paper. My discussion focuses on the initial conditions for left parties to enter into broader coalition governments. Based on the most recent experiences, I will try to develop some general, minimum conditions for government participation for parties on the left – at least as a starting point for further discussion.

A Couple of Clarifications: … //

… The Balance of Power:

  • The neoliberal offensive from around 1980 led to a considerable shift in the balance of power in society. Through deregulation and privatization power and decision-making have been transferred from democratically elected bodies to the market. Through New Public Management public institutions have been moved arm’s length from politicians and made subject to quasi-market rules and regulations – with increased power to management and the market. Through international agreements and institutions (like the World Trade Organization and the European Union), neoliberal policies have been institutionalized at the international/regional level and further contributed to limiting the political space at the national level.
  • The room for manoeuvre has accordingly become very limited for left political parties which choose to enter into centre-left coalition governments. Even if many governments and politicians exaggerate the lack of political space, there is no doubt that it is strongly restricted in many areas. The free movement of capital, the right for capital to establish wherever it wants, and the free access to markets across borders are just some of the most important examples on how politicians, through deregulation and reregulation, have strongly limited their own possibility to pursue alternative policies in their own countries.
  • In short, not only have we seen an enormous shift in the balance of power in society, but also extensive institutionalization of the new power relations – something which simply has made many progressive, left wing policies illegal and in breach of international agreements. This, of course, represents serious challenges for political parties on the left, and any such party which faces the possible participation in a centre-left government has to take this into consideration. The significant English saying “To be in office, but not in power,” can easily come true in such a situation. The danger of becoming just a hostage for neoliberal policies is imminent.

Relations to Social Forces/Movements: … //

… Class Consciousness:

  • The political/ideological situation in the working-class is also of great importance. In Europe, this has been strongly influenced by the pretty successful post WWII developments, based on a class compromise and the social partnership ideology.
  • The effects of this development were twofold. On the one hand, the European Social Model or the welfare state led to enormous improvements of working and living conditions for the a majority of the people. On the other hand, these improvements, which took place under a social compromise in which capitalist interests gave many concessions to the workers, resulted in the depolitization and the deradicalization of the working-class. Another effect was a strong integration of the working-class in the capitalist order.
  • Even though the class compromise has broken down, or is breaking down, in the wake of the economic crisis of the 1970s and the following, neoliberal offensive, the labour movement in Europe is still strongly influenced by this social partnership ideology – including many of the political parties on the left. In other words, the ideological legacy of the social pact is still alive and well in big parts of the labour movement.
  • Some even aim at re-establishing the broad social compromise, or a New Deal, as it was called in the USA (under the current threat of climate change, some also aim for a New Green Deal). These policies, however, seem to be completely delinked from any assessment of power relations in society. They do not take into account the enormous shift in the balance of power which lay behind the class compromise which dominated the post WWII period, including the discredit of free-market capitalism after the depression of the 1930s. Calls for a new social pact from the political left are pretty illusory under the actual power balance and will only contribute to leading the struggle astray.

Competition With the Radical Right: … //

… The Character of the Party:

  • When discussing the experiences with left parties in government, however, one cannot only assess external, but also internal factors. Does the actual party have a meaningful analysis of the situation? Does it have the strategies and perspectives necessary to mobilize social power for social change? If not, its political practice cannot only be considered a mistake – or an effect of external factors. Maybe we will rather have to conclude that this is not the party we need to lead the struggle for the emancipation of the working-class and the overthrowing of capitalism (if this is still our aim).
  • Most political parties on the left are a bit confused, influenced as they are by the ideological and political crises in the labour movement after the breakdown of the Soviet model in Eastern Europe and the end of the social democratic model (based on the social pact between labour and capital) in Western Europe. The character of the various parties on the left is therefore the product of many factors. The lack of strong social movements which can influence the party, radicalize it and deliver new activists with experiences from social struggles, is one factor. Another factor is a tendency among party leaders in particular to want to come out of political isolation and become accepted in society. A third factor is careerism of individuals in or close to the party leadership if they see a possibility to become part of the government apparatus etc. All these factors will drive a left party toward more moderate and pragmatic positions.
  • Based on the experiences so far from left parties in broad centre-left coalition governments in Europe, it seems as if the actual parties have been too eager to become government partners, while the political strategies and tactics on how to use this position have been sparsely developed. It seems also as if the parties have underestimated how the current unfavourable balance of power, together with the broad composition of the government coalitions, limits the political room for manoeuvre for a junior coalition partner on the left.
  • These developments have led to crises of expectation. While the left parties themselves promise new policies, and the electorate expects reforms which can meet their needs, the results have proved to be quite meagre. Thus, left parties have come into a squeeze between peoples’/workers’ legitimate expectations on the one side and the limited room for manoeuvre in broad coalition governments on the other. The result has become a loss of confidence in and support for the actual left party. Again, what we experience is a weakening of the left and a further strengthening of the radical right – exactly the opposite of what was the aim.

Minimum Conditions: … //

… Tactical Considerations

  • For a left party with the aim of overthrowing capitalism, passive but critical support of a centre-left government would probably be a better choice than to join the government under current power relations. It gives much more room for manoeuvre, and the possibility to pursue primary positions and more radical proposals than the often watered-down compromises reached in the government. One should also not forget that the execution of power in not restricted to government participation. To challenge a centre-left government from a position outside the government, in alliance with strong social movements, can have good effects on governmental parties which are competing for support from the same social basis.
  • However, an often heard argument from the actual political parties of the left has been that ‘it would not have been understood or accepted by our electorate and the most radical parts of the working-class if we had not joined the coalition government.’ The possible negative effect of staying outside the government would have been that the party had lost support and confidence among workers and people in general, according to this argument.
  • At least two points can be made against this argument. Firstly, experiences have proved that the actual parties have lost great parts of its support and confidence in government – and probably much more than what would have been the situation if the party had placed itself as part of the actual government’s parliamentary basis, but outside the government.
  • Secondly, the effect of staying outside the government will probably depend on the way in which the political manoeuvre is made. Any party must of course say yes in principle to government participation – if the right political conditions are present. It is exactly the definition of these conditions which are decisive. If the left party picks up some of the most important demands from trade unions and social movements, and turn them into absolute conditions, it should have a good position to defend its position if government negotiations break down. The problem so far has probably been that the actual left parties have gone too far in compromising their policies already in the initial government negotiations.

Post script: … //

… (full text).


The rule of law and state killings
, on WSWS, by Bill Van Auken and David North, Dec. 3, 2012;

The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State
, on Socialist, by Asbjørn Wahl, Toronto, November 15, 2012.

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