Too many people in Europe have drawn the conclusion that austerity must be the fault of migrants or Muslims. But there are signs of resistance, writes Lindsey German
The results of the Euro elections may have been long predicted but they are nonetheless unpalatable. Here in Britain the far right and racist Ukip topped the poll. In France the fascist Front National got a quarter of the vote, again coming top. In Denmark and the Netherlands, far right anti-immigration and Islamophobic parties did well. Even in Germany, where the two main parties came top, the fascist NDP gained one MEP.
There can be no comfort from these results for anyone on the left. They signify that far too many people in Europe have felt the misery caused by austerity and have drawn the conclusion that this must be the fault of migrants or Muslims. They blame their governments for what has happened to them but vote for parties whose challenge to those governments rests on scapegoating and racism.
To point out caveats to this view is not to undermine the seriousness of it, or to suggest that there is no point worrying. Ukip can build on these successes to win parliamentary seats, although it has to be said that at the moment this looks unlikely. It is possible that the party can concentrate its efforts in one or two places to win, but on existing projections their vote is too thinly spread to do so. So despite talk of a Tory-Ukip coalition, that is still some distance away.
But where their real success is already manifesting itself is the ability to pull the whole of political discourse sharply to the right and to criticise the elite not for their neoliberal policies, the growth in inequality between rich and poor and the attacks on basic amenities such as health and housing, but for them allowing ‘too many’ immigrants into the country.
There are, however, important and essential caveats. The first is that Ukip’s vote was significant, but still represents a small minority across the country, given the low poll. At 27.5% on a 33.8% turnout, that works out at 9.3% of the electorate. It also benefited from the collapse of the fascist BNP vote. In the West Midlands for example, the BNP was down 7%, the Tories were also down 4%, whereas Ukip was up 10%. A large proportion of that increase will have come from the BNP and the Tories. In the East of England constituency, the BNP vote plummeted from 97,000 to 12,000. In Yorkshire and the North West, the BNP lost its two sitting MEPs. This is all partly due to the campaigning which has gone on against them in the last five years, but it also is because Ukip has become a home to disaffected right wingers.
The second caveat is that where there is a strong left alternative, it can benefit from the prevailing anti-austerity mood, as it did most spectacularly in Greece. The left anti-austerity party Syriza came top of the poll. But it was also true in Spain where the left Podemos party got 5 seats and over a million votes, and the IU left party increased its vote. In Ireland, Sinn Fein is polling well on an anti-austerity programme. It is this left alternative which is lacking in so many countries, and which means that in Britain, for example, the Greens were the only left alternative on most Euro ballot papers.
The third caveat is that there is very strong opposition to the politics of fear and xenophobia. This is most obvious in London, where the local elections and the Euros showed a surge to Labour and where Ukip gained one seat, the same as last time. But it is also true in many other parts of the country. This opposition needs to be harnessed in order to defeat Ukip and more importantly the Ukip-led agenda, which will dominate next year’s general election.
The Stand up to Racism campaign is planning a mass protest next March just before the election against racism and fascism, which needs to be as large as possible, to send the message that immigrants are welcome and that there is an alternative to scapegoating.
But the left also needs to lead movements against austerity, which can help to undercut the right-wing agenda. Nigel Farage is as pro-establishment and as much of an insider as any other of the main parties (public school and City of London). His policies on economic issues would be deeply unpopular if widely known. That point needs to be hammered home over the next year to ensure that he doesn’t make a political breakthrough.
The central question for the left is, can it build a movement against austerity? Now is the time for all those who want to change the world, as opposed to moaning about it on Facebook, to ensure that the People’s Assembly demo on 21 June is as large and diverse as possible, that the mass strikes planned for 10 July are as successful and well supported as possible, and that the TUC demo on 18 October is a giant rebuttal not just to racism and scapegoating, but to the anti working-class policies to which the main parties and Ukip all subscribe. In addition, a yes vote in the Scottish referendum in September would send a strong message to the main parties and Ukip, and would strengthen the left.
It is a challenge which, if taken up successfully, can lead to a future left alternative in electoral terms. But if we don’t rise to this challenge now, and organise against austerity, the left will be condemned to watching from the sidelines. And that isn’t where we want to be.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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