Italy’s centre-left and Europe’s future

Denis MacShane
2 October 2006

The creation of the Democratic Party in Italy is a decisive - and exciting - turning-point in the history of progressive politics in Europe. For the first time in Europe there has been a serious attempt to overcome the party political divisions, often sectarian, of the 20th century. The left's fragmentation and its indifference to the heritage of European liberalism has allowed a more flexible democratic right to reorganise itself at key moments in 20th-century European history and form coalitions sufficiently attractive to voters to win power over long periods.

It has taken the European left a long time to come to terms with the meaning of 1989. The end of communism brought unformed political parties from central and eastern Europe into play. More importantly, 1989 removed from capital and from the swelling ranks of the well-off and middle classes any fear that they faced expropriation or statist confiscation. The centre of the 20th-century European political spectrum thus removed decisively to the right.

Tony Blair was the first European politician to grasp, instinctively and intuitively, the historic change. With daring he repositioned Britain's Labour Party, a classic 20th century class, welfare and statist party, as a new political organism that would embrace rather than defy economic modernity and seek to harness its strengths to provide the tax revenue for social investment.

Denis MacShane is a Labour Party member of the British parliament and former minister for Europe in Tony Blair's government. He was a member of the Party of European Socialists executive committee for several years

While the French and German parties of the left remained wedded to 2oth-century models of political organisation and policy, the Italian left was already beginning its process of realignment. It was not sufficiently thought through by the time of the Romano Prodi-Giuliano Amato-Massimo D'Alema essays at government a decade ago. Like the British left with Margaret Thatcher, the Italian left needed to experience the Silvio Berlusconi years to understand just how much it had to move: the achievement of unity and discipline, the sacrifice of personal ambition and the shaping of a new politics would be arduous and occupy at least half of the political spectrum.

The April 2006 election victory for the Prodi-Amato-D'Alema-Francesco Rutelli team showed how much the Italian left had learnt from the Blair-New Labour experience. Now the question is: can the rest of Europe learn from Italy and can the new Democratic Party fit comfortably into a European political space which is still defined by classic 20th-century party affiliation and organisation?

Beyond organised labour

Now may be the moment to bring Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes into a new alignment. Labourism is but one component of society. The classic Labourist parties ignored the importance of women and had to be forced after 1968 to take into consideration the new communities of Europeans who were neither white, nor Catholic. New issues like the environment and the change in gender and family politics have required responses which are not to be found in the classic texts.

The question of the European Union also demands a response from the left which requires new thinking. The British Labour leader from 1955 to 1963, Hugh Gaitskell, told his party that to enter the (then) European Economic Community (EEC) would be to betray "a thousand years of British history". More recently, France's former prime minister and aspirant to the Socialist Party candidature in the 2007 presidential election, Laurent Fabius, supported a "no" vote in the May 2005 plebiscite on the European constitution.

The attraction of populist anti-Europeanism commands support on the left. Germany's Scial Democratic Party (SPD) was hostile to the "common market" (as the EEC was routinely known) in the 1950s, as are French communists and Trotskyist groups or maverick socialists like Arnaud Montebourg today.

The classic text of what became the European Union, the Rome treaty, is a liberal text. Its emphasis on the four freedoms - freedom of capital movement, freedom of people movement, freedom of trade movement and freedom of investment movement - is hardly a socialist priority. The references in the Rome treaty and subsequent treaties to social duties and obligation are in the tradition of Ludwig Erhard's Sozialmarkwirtschaft, and the Christian social teaching of Rerum Novarum or more recently Pope John Paul II's Laborem Exercens.

The plain fact is that most trade-union organisation, whatever its lip-service to labour internationalism, has focused on organising within national boundaries and seeking control over capital through national labour legislation. The divisions within trade unions after 1945, with the communist unions like the CGT and CGIL affiliated to the Moscow-controlled WFTU in opposition to the independent labour internationals created by social-democratic or Christian social trade unions, ensured that in the formative years of the EEC / EU, trade unions had no united voice.

The 21st-century left cannot be based on organised labour. Trade unions are a component part and vital ally but the new alliance for progressive reformism requires a much broader base of political support. Nonetheless party politics remains central. When Kurt Schumacher, founder of the post-1945 SPD, left Buchenwald he declared: Deutschland muss ein Parteinstatt warden (Germany must be based on party politics).

Schumacher was right - and not only for Germany, or even Europe. In the United States, despite a very different culture and tradition from Europe, the centrality of party politics is supreme. The United States has many more elected posts than in a Europe of appointed functionaries and jurists. To succeed in the public sphere in America, joining and showing public allegiance to a party is vital.

A past and future project

The creation of the new Democratic Party in Italy - whose new name echoes the great US Democratic Party of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton - is an important signal that Italian progressive politics is embarked on a new path. Obviously there are many examples of different left parties coming together but the importance of the Democratic Party is the organic fusion with the Margherita (Daisy) party which implies a uniting of all the anti-conservative forces in Italy.

This highlights the obligation to work within a party framework to solve problems and adopt priories and solve personality conflict before an election in place of the artificial creation of a governing coalition. The Democratic Party replaces post-electoral coalition formation by permanent party-building - the way forward for hegemonic rather than heterogeneous politics under contemporary market economic and kaleidoscopic social conditions. A combined Democratic Party can turn its forces not on socialist or communist or liberal rival-brothers but on the true opponent of progressive politics - the rightwing parties which reject social obligations to promote non-inclusive wealth accumulation and subvert the rule of law and democracy in order to hold power.

A broad-based Democratic Party must always have a future project rather than merely a past record (or, worse, a nostalgia which rarely is in tune with new political problems and younger strata of voters). Defining a political project for the volatile economic, social, cultural and community landscape of early 21st-century Europe requires constant adaptation and renewal. Issues like mass migration from Africa which did not feature as problems for 20th-century socialism now require an answer.

The 20th-century left made a slow difficult peace between its secular and Christian wings. The arrival of militant Islamism as an ideological force and of European Muslims as voters and citizens pose new challenges which the left cannot ignore and which require new answers which classic political formulae or guidebooks do not offer.

Thus a broader-based party structure - as in the creation of the new Democratic Party in Italy, or in formal or informal alliances and understandings, as between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the first Blair government - become important.

It doesn't always work. When the French UDF party headed by Francois Bayrou offered support to the French socialists in their conflict with the Jacques Chirac-Dominique de Villepin rightist government over the new law for young workers proposed early in 2006, the French deputy, Henri Emmanuelli (speaking for the socialists) scorned any such tactical alliance.

Emmanuelli is part of the protectionist, nation-first isolationist grouping among the French socialists who campaigned against the EU constitutional treaty. Its chief spokesman is Arnaud Montebourg who has made a fetish of hostility to European integration. The Emmanuelli-Montebourg populist-protectionist wing of the French socialists believes in the sanctity of the Socialist Party as the only source of governing authority in France.

This mistake was never made by Francois Mitterrand, a coalitionist and alliance-builder par excellence: he included everyone from the Christian reformist union tradition like Jacques Delors to a Lambertist Trotskyist like Lionel Jospin. Mitterrand was right to spread his net wide and the tragedy of his fourteen-year reign is that he did not turn personal political courage in creating a broad alliance into a permanent political-party structure which might have transformed France instead of allowing the wasted decade of Jacques Chirac at the Elysée.

Left and right winds

Where then does a united Italian Democratic Party fit into the European and international party organisations? There is now a degree of incoherence in the organisation of left parties internationally. The venerable Socialist International exists and allows a grouping of all the democratic socialist parties globally. The difficulty with the SI is that it has never allowed room for the US Democratic Party, since the latter clearly is neither socialist, nor interested in affiliating.

In this vacuum, the highly ideological Bill Clinton - a man who knows what Willy Brandt achieved at the Bad Godesburg congress of the SPD and what Felipe Gonzalez did when he forced the PSOE to drop Marxism from its statutes - helped set up the Progressive Governance network with Tony Blair, Massimo d'Alema, Gõran Persson and Gerhard Schröder in the late 1990s.

Clinton lives and thinks politics and modern ideology. He is the closest the United States has had to a classic European social-democratic leader. Indeed his ability to "speak European" calmed US-Europe relations in the 1990s compared to the distance and dislike between Europe and the Bush administration from 2001 onwards. The Clinton-Blair Progressive Governance conferences have allowed leaders like Brazil's Lula and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki to link up with progressive political leaders from South Korea, Chile, New Zealand, and Canada - and thus move beyond the Socialist International, which does not necessarily have the ruling parties of these countries in affiliation.

The left, for obvious historical reasons, has traditionally been the best organised force internationally. From the 1860s onwards, socialist parties have proclaimed international identity and solidarity as being central to their existence. After 1917, international political affiliation was a matter, sometime literally, of life and death.

Lenin and Stalin used left internationals for both political parties and trade unions to destroy and weaken democratic-socialist rivals. In the Spanish civil war, communist commissars from all over Europe spent more time acting as Stalin's agents in eliminating other Marxist opponents as they did in fighting Franco. Between 1945 and 1989, Moscow insisted on maintaining control over its labour internationals resulting in fundamental splits in global trade-union unity to the profit of the opponents of workers' interests.

As a result, instead of trade unions coming together to form strongly based, mass membership, responsible social partnership organisations in the style of the Nordic or German industrial unions and a single labour federation, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal had competing labour federations based on ideological or confessional affiliation. In France, in particular, the communist CGT fought hand to hand with its rivals the CFDT and the FO. French trade union membership fell to the lowest level of any OECD country and French trade unions play little role in the construction of Europe or make any contribution to effective international worker solidarity across wider borders.

While the left was divided, the right has come together internationally in recent years. George W Bush is the first US president to take international conservative politics seriously. He has attended and spoken at the global federation of right parties and paid close to attention to its activities especially in Latin America and east-central Europe.

Bush gave José Maria Aznar a key role as the organiser of the new rightwing party confederation, both when he was Spanish prime minister and after his defeat in March 2004. The US president is hoping that Angela Merkel and (if he becomes French president) Nicolas Sarkozy will take global rightwing party political organisation seriously. If the 20th century was marked by the failure of the left to build a coherent internationalism, the 21st century has opened with a serious attempt by the right to make links between conservative and Christian democratic parties across the world.

Parties and parliament

In Europe, the Party of European Socialist (PES) sits beside the Christian Democrat-Conservative PPE and the other groupings of liberal parties, greens, hard-left and extreme right. A third layer of supranational political groupings is represented by the political groups in the European parliament.

The result of this cacophony is that there is no clear line of identity. The leader of the PES, the former social-democratic Danish leader, Paul Nyrup Rasmussen, sits in the European parliament alongside the leader of the Socialist MEP grouping, the German Martin Schultz. As a result there is an over-focus on the Strasbourg assembly as the locus of PES activity. Yet for most European political activists of the left, the debates and decisions of the European parliament, while interesting and important are far removed from the daily struggle to promote progressive politics at the local, city, regional and national level.

The European parliament groupings are loose in who they accept into membership. Two MEPs from one of the extreme rightist parties in Poland currently in coalition with the Jaraslaw Kaczynski-led PIS ruling party actually sit in the Socialist Group. In Poland, being an MEP is a matter of personal designation by a party leader and relatives and personal friends have ended up as MEPs. They are free to affiliate to any political grouping and the socialists in Strasbourg, anxious to keep up their membership numbers, have turned a blind eye to the exotic political antecedents of some of their members.

Similarly, the PPE grouping has to live with the strongly anti-European British Conservative Party. The new Conservative leadership in Britain has announced it will leave the PPE grouping after the 2009 European parliamentary election and form a new Eurosceptic group with the Czech ODS party. The extremist Freedom Party in Austria was part of the Liberal European party and European liberals themselves are divided between quite rightwing parties supporting Chicago-style economic theory and softer social liberals like the British Liberal-Democrats or France's UDF.

European parliament politics is further confused by the need to come to cross-party agreement to share out key leadership position. Thus while the PPE group won the biggest block of seats in the 2004 European parliament elections, the new president of the European parliament was a socialist, the Catalan Josip Borrell, who had never sat previously in Strasbourg.

Borrell is a first-rate multilingual European politician who has proved a very good president of the Strasbourg assembly. But he arrived in his senior European position not as a result of the election or any kind of transparent democratic process but as a result of internal discussions behind closed doors of party leaders and their international functionaries. There was a strong push to make the hugely respected Italian social democrat, Guiliano Amato, the leader of the Party of European Socialists. But neither Tony Blair nor Gerhard Schröder were willing to campaign for him and his opponents in Paris and Madrid, who were suspicious of Amato's Atlanticism organised effectively to defeat him.

The European parliament groups are under constant pressure from national political structures, priorities and cultures. The German-Austrian hostility to Turkey and to the Muslim identity in Europe has led to ugly anti-Turkish language as well as efforts to write references to Christianity into the European constitution - a proposal alien to the French secular and lay culture. Socialists from Germany and Italy want Europe to decide the working time for workers despite the clear evidence from France and Germany that lack of flexible, modern work patterns contribute to the mass unemployment in these two key EU countries.

The search for coherence

The British Labour MEPs know that the high level of employment, increases in wages, and massive investment in public-sector employment is due, in part, to the more supple British working-time arrangements. They have been put in the uncomfortable position of opposing their fellow European parliament comrades but doing so in the interests of the British working class whose members prefer to be in work than to be unemployed in conformity with the more rigid thirty-five-hour-week views of some continental European left parties.

The British Labour MEPs have also had to try to dilute the more crude anti-American and protectionist instincts of French socialist MEPs. European solidarity further broke down when the social-democratic government in Germany and the rightist governments in France and Italy refused to allow Polish workers to seek employment in France and Germany after Poland joined the EU in 2004.

Both the PPE and PES groupings in Strasbourg, as well as the European party organisations were unable to give any support to the European aspirations of the Poles because national politics - which was hostile to opening labour markets to Polish plumbers and other workers from east-central Europe - rejected a normal acceptance of a key element of European construction, namely the free movement of citizens and workers across frontiers.

Thus, far from the groups in the European parliament giving authority and identity to the European political parties, the incoherence of their internal politics makes the chances of forming an effective pan-European politics more and more difficult. The Italian politician, Enrico Letta, dismissed these problems and argued, on the contrary that they "could allow European political families to guarantee a stronger role and establish an autonomous institutional area in the European political arena, thus also boosting the process of European integration: strong and modern European parties mean a request for more power at the European level of decision-making and an incentive to push further the construction of authentic supranational governance."

Letta expresses the common ambition of the European left in the 1990s and early 21st century for the creation of a coherent pan-European politics. Alas, a new realism demands that such overarching politics is not likely to replace the varying needs of domestic left political priorities.

In the 1999 European parliament election, Robin Cook for the ruling Labour Party in Britain and Henri Nallet for the governing Socialist Party in France wrote the common manifesto. Nallet recalls they had to agree not just on every word but on every comma. Nothing could be in the manifesto that would offend Tony Blair or Lionel Jospin, even though the two left parties in government were on fundamentally diverging paths on most domestic and international issues. As a result the manifesto was bland and dull and had little resonance in the election campaign.

By the 2004 election, the PES and the Socialist Group in the European parliament had lost all interest in drawing up a full manifesto. The divisions over foreign policy and the fact that in France, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Portugal the left were in opposition - and thus not made ideologically cautious by being in government - meant that no agreement on a manifesto was possible beyond a vague list of generalised aspirations.


A long dream

The need to produce a coherent pan-European politics that can address the new issues of globalisation, the challenge of the environment, create an effective European policy for the middle east and for the western Mediterranean, and find policies that put Europeans back to work has never been greater. But these will be achieved by renewed European networking, not hoping that there can be a reproduction at European level of the classic national organisation of political parties, parliamentary fractions and one single leader and voice.

In an interview in Le Monde (14 September 2006), the Italian prime minister Romano Prodi praises the European Union as a leftwing project. He argues that the intra-communal financial transfers helped Italy and then Spain modernise. True. But this generosity was more the result of German-Dutch Catholic conservatism which wanted to see the quickest route to modern capitalism for the weaker economies in Europe. German payments to France via agricultural subsidies allowed the French to buy German goods. Thus a virtuous trade circle was completed. But it owed more to Adam Smith than any socialist theory.

In this context, it is important that the unified Democratic Party in Italy acts as a bridge between the two non-rightist European political families. The two main component parties in the new Democratic Party belonged to the Socialist and Liberal groups in Europe. The new party should seek to maintain that double affiliation. The new politics in Europe is not defined by a single ideology, a single party manifesto, or a single party elite.

Parties are becoming more heteregenous. Parties have to reach out to other groups in the economy, in society, in community groups and to campaigning NGOs. Political parties are indispensable to bring together the contradictory demands of economy, society, environment, and the new ethnic groups in Europe and form a list of priorities able to win electoral support.

But there is no monopoly of ideas and propositions. At the supranational level there is a new and more difficult politics. Does Europe go in the direction of the French protectionists of the left who campaigned for a "no" vote in the European constitution referendum? Is the New Labour model of an open economy and a fully accepted compromise with globalisation the correct way forward? Exactly what powers should be exercised by Brussels and which powers belong to national governments? How does Europe forge a new relationship with post-Bush America? Is Russia a danger or an opportunity?

Dialogue - and, where possible, common action between the classic left parties and other political groups - is necessary over all these issues. European political parties and groupings cannot be pure sects, seeking to anoint themselves as Cathars at the European level, when at national level a new politics that is fluid and open to all politicians and parties that can share common goals is coming into being.

The Party of European Socialists should welcome the Democratic Party of Italy without ambiguity as the realisation of the long dream of unification of all the forces for progress and reform in Italy. A double affiliation, at least in the first period, to both the PES and the European Liberal Democrats and Reformist Group (EDLR) should pose no problems.

Pan-European political organisation and party groups are still at an embryonic or learning stage. The Democratic Party of Italy can be an important force for the realignment of European politics and build bridges between Europe's parties of the left, as part of the effort to regain the ability to speak to each other and act effectively on the basis of unity and solidarity.

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