Op-Ed: European Socialists have a serious credibility problem

Posted Jan 4, 2011 by Michael Cosgrove
Disturbing signs are emerging that the French, British and other European socialist parties are not convincing the people of their countries that they are still a plausible alternative to the right. If they don’t wake up soon they may become irrelevant.
Ed Miliband MP speaking at the Labour Party conference
Ed Miliband MP speaking at the Labour Party conference
Christian Guthier
You cannot help but notice the similarities between Britain's Labour Party and France's Socialist Party now that both are trying to construct policies designed to get them re-elected at the next elections in their respective countries, and their problems reflect those of European Socialism as a whole.
A good way of demonstrating that is to consider not only what is going on within the parties but what political analysts are saying. In an excellent Observer editorial which was subsequently put up on The Guardian's website, the paper argues that it is about time recently-elected Labour leader Ed Miliband started coming up with alternative principles and policies to those being implemented by the Cameron-Clegg government and that Labour should learn quickly that being in opposition means not only opposing but proposing too.
That sentiment is mirrored in France, where the opposition Socialist Party is also trying to define alternatives to Sarkozy and the government,with very little success. One of the things stopping the party from moving forward is the degree of disagreement which exists within its ranks on how to go about things, which in its turn mirrors the situation in the Labour Party.
It is important that both parties avoid making the serious error of relying on their respective governments to "screw up" as Miliband succinctly put it in a sober warning to his troops that if Labour was to become the party of "hopes and aspirations" he wished it to be, "We shouldn't mistake the anger we feel at what the coalition is doing to the country for a sense that it isn't as much about us as it is about them. The strategy that says wait for them to screw it up, simply be a strong opposition, is not a strategy that is going to work for us. We need to do that hard thinking of our own." That is exactly what more lucid and realistic French Socialists are saying.
And it's not as if there are not some good arguments for waiting for governments to screw up, or at least hoping that they might. The ongoing effects of the financial crisis should be making this an easy time to be in opposition because governments all over Europe are having to take tough and unpopular decisions in order to hold their economies together.
One of the problems facing both parties is that they are being perceived as having no lessons to give on the matter of credibility on deficits. As British Conservative Party deputy chairman Michael Fallon put it, "(Miliband) says Labour has lost its way, but he wrote the party manifesto that lost the general election." Concerning France, French government spokesmen and others have been saying exactly the same thing about losing Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, whose disastrous and ludicrously inadequate statements (not policies) on the French economy, defense and law and order helped her to lose.
French Socialist politician Ségolène Royal  September 10th 2010
French Socialist politician Ségolène Royal, September 10th 2010
This helps to explain why one observer in Britain says that Labour (and the same goes for French socialists) cannot continue to frontally oppose whatever the government is doing because doing so leaves them wide open to charges of hypocrisy. After all, a lot of what the governments in both countries are proposing only to be criticized by the left was proposed by that very same left in the past.
All of this points to the fact that Socialism in Europe has lost its way and needs to find a more pragmatic approach to issues instead of giving moral lessons. That is being said repeatedly in both Britain and France. To do so will not be easy because Socialism needs to move on from its industrial era-style defense of what it still calls the working classes.
I wrote a while back that one of the main reasons that Europe is lurching to the right is that the left has repeatedly let the people down. There are very few socialist governments left in Europe and long-term prospects for Socialism are becoming worse as time goes by.
The stakes are high here, and even Ségolène Royal, who is not exactly known for her visionary capabilities, understands that, which is why she quite rightly said a few months ago that unless the French Socialist Party got its act together, it would be better to auto-dissolve it. British socialists are also contemplating the need to reinvent the Labour Party if it is to survive.
The plain fact is that if the British and French socialist parties don't start defining themselves soon, and if European Socialism doesn't start getting to grips with the painful realities of major issues such as immigration and the economy, they may well become a thing of the past.