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Labour’s strategic dilemma in a European context

May 6, 2017

I have a dual citizenship, Greek and English. I am living through two crises of the European Project, first in Greece, then in the U.K. Some of my reflections come from this comparative experience.

We are told that the British Labour Party finds itself in the politically tricky situation. Half of its constituents voted to Leave; the other half to Remain. I have heard the same tune in Greece. Half of Syriza wanted Greece to Leave the Euro, the other half to Remain. And this cleavage goes much deeper. Le Pen’s constituency in France is working class; the Tories have more of a working-class constituency than Labour.

The left claims to represent the working class; the right actually represents it, everywhere. So, one can assume that the working class is turning to the right for simple answers to complex questions. I would like to think that. But, the truth is that the left is not offering complex answers either. For over a generation, there are profound questions that we keep postponing for the next general election, in both Greece and the U.K.

So there are two questions that are linked together. First, what drives the new working class and youth to the Eurosceptic right, particularly men. Secondly, why are things getting worse for the so-called center, left and right, in every successive electoral encounter, everywhere.

Here is a hypothesis of how these two questions are linked.

The market is made of players that look at their narrow self-interest. Unless there is a wider strategic intervention by the state there will be no workforce, no infrastructure, no security, and no quality of life. Europe is failing to deliver vision beyond the state in this challenge. Brussels strip the state from the means (revenue) to deal with the challenge without taking on the challenge. As a result, Europe’s generation X and Y have fewer opportunities for upward social mobility. And they take their aspirations (or rage) elsewhere.

This hypothesis rests on two pillars. First, that Europe is undermining social redistribution. Secondly, Europe is increasingly less of a political project and more of an extension of a bottom-line driven nexus of market-driven policies with no strategic vision. In the absence of redistribution and vision, Europe is failing to engage young adults with real lives, aspirations, and rights. That does not mean that newcomers have answers, but they have the benefit of the doubt. In time, nihilism generates fascism.

Europe’s failure to Redistribute

That the EU (and globalization) are undermining the political mechanism of redistribution is an empirically grounded claim. Just this week, we could point to the publication of a study by Eurofound. During the period of accelerated Single Market Integration (1986-2000), Brussels has lost the political plot. And so, it is for very good reasons that generation X and millennials are losing their faith in Europe and democracy.

The Eurofound study is the first of its kind to examine social mobility opportunities across the EU 28. The study looks both at absolute social mobility – how each generation does in relation to their parents – and relative social mobility (fluidity), that is, how men and women manage the transition from one phase of their life to another. In terms of time, the study looks at three generations, namely the 1927–1945 (the ‘silent generation’), those born 1946–1964 (the ‘baby boomers’) and those born 1965–1975 (‘Generation X’).

According to the Eurofound study, across Europe, Generation X is the first generation that can’t assume their lives will be more affluent than their parent’s. Interestingly, in this overall trend, there is a qualitative difference. Women have a strong tendency to be more upwardly mobile while the opposite is true for men, especially for Generation X. Only in Bulgaria there is downward mobility for everybody.

Generation X men have experienced downward mobility or remained immobile; women in this cohort, in contrast, are more upwardly mobile. One explanation is that most jobs in the ‘new economy’ need a substantially higher level of education and women are often better educated. Moreover, many jobs in manufacturing that were previously occupied by men have disappeared. For those who may think this is more a personal agony than a political reflection, I would like to point out that the strongest voters for Europe’s far-right are middle-aged men.

The argument here is simple. We do not have 28 parallel crises. We have a single crisis, underpinned by a Single Market without redistributive mechanisms.

Europe’s failure to Inspire

Millennials have grown up with the certainty their future will be worse than their parents. They are not suspecting it, like generation X. They are sure they have a rotten deal. This is how I read the conclusion of a YouGov study commissioned by the TUI foundation and published this week.

The study engaged 6,000 young Europeans in seven countries, including Greece, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, and the U.K. 52% of Europe’s youth see before them a negative future, 32% experience their current financial situation as rather poor, and only 26% expects to have the living standards of their parent’s generation.

The conclusions of the study are chilling. Half of Europe’s young adults (16-26) believe democracy is not necessarily the best form of government. 20% thinks their country should leave the EU. And they don’t trust in Europe or democracy to guarantee a better future. If that enrages you, you need to come up with a good list of reasons of why youth should be inspired by the state of today’s democracy and Europe. When young people ask “what’s in it for me,” the answer is not good. When young people ask “how do I change that,” the answer is not convincing.

Eurosceptic Youth

The youth surveyed is pessimistic about the future and fears globalization. 76% of young adults believe the EU is an economic alliance and less than 30% see it primarily as a community of values.

At the launch of the study in Berlin on Thursday, Thomas Ellerbeck, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the TUI Foundation commented as follows: ‘The value-based European cohesive forces have for a long time been taken for granted. The European Youth Study shows that this apparently self-evident condition no longer applies.’

31% of Greek youth favour leaving the EU, followed by Poles and French (20%) and only 12% in Spain and Germany. Barely 18% of European youth believe they share common cultural traits, while only 7% speak of Christianity as their common heritage.

60% of Greeks youth would like to see the repatriation of some power. That is even more than the U.K, where only 44% want the repatriation of political power. German youth is keen to maintain authority in Brussels, as only 22% speak of repatriating political authority.

The main criticism against the EU is the absence on concrete and meaningful possibility for political participation. Europe is seen as an administrative apparatus where nothing can change, while 37% of respondents had grievances with specific policies. More than one in four young adults (27%) have a problem with the institutional structure of the EU (27%).

Without confidence in Europe and democracy

When it comes to democracy, only 52% of Europe’s youth regard it as the best form of governance. The most fervent supporters of democracy are Greeks (66%), followed by Germans (62%). Polish and French youth is the least impressed by democracy, with 42% less than convinced with its effectiveness. Likewise, Italians are less than impressed with democracy 45%.

It should be noted that the surge of “populist” movements in France, Italy, Poland, Germany, and Greece resonates with the idea that democracy fails to deliver substantive choice and hope. To say that democracy and Europe are failing to deliver hope is not populism. To end the discussion there and seek an answer in “traditional values,” racial purity, and “good old days” is populism. To ask for trust in the institutions and the projects of the left without a clear vision of what you want is also populism.

As for “post-truth” and “identity politics” recently discovered, it is all tiring and rather senseless. All politics is identity politics. We either see ourselves in a movement or we don’t.