“It is,” said the speaker, “a very difficult task to run a country in a different way to the opposition”. The speaker was the historian Donald Sassoon and he was speaking at a conference on “Is there a future for the left in Europe?”. The conference, organised by a think tank called the Danube Institute and David Goodhart from Demos, took place in Budapest last month.
To be absolutely honest, it was when I saw the word “Budapest” that I clicked “yes”. Before I even read the conference programme, I’d booked a massage at the nearest thermal baths. The future of the left is a worry, of course, but so are those niggling pains you get from spending all day staring at a screen.
The food was delicious. The wine was good. The hotel was next to Heroes’ Square. The leader of the Hungarian socialist party, who spoke over dinner the first night, seemed quite positive, but then he’s only been in charge of his party for a few months. Whatever the future of the left in Europe, in Hungary it’s looking pretty bleak. In 2010 his party, which is proud to call itself “socialist”, but perhaps shouldn’t, won less than a fifth of the votes.
We thrashed out the big political challenges after dinner, in the bar. The answers, unfortunately, were a lot less clear when we woke up. It was just as well we had an eminent historian to give us a bit of perspective. Between 1945 and 1990, Donald Sassoon reminded us, the left was more or less stable. It was around 1980 that the “social democratic consensus” began to collapse. People thought, he said, that this was all to do with Thatcher and Reagan, but it was happening, he explained, around the world. And it didn’t mean that the right had won. In 1997, nearly all the countries in the EU were dominated by the centre left. But things have changed. Throughout Western Europe the two main political forces now get a much smaller chunk of the voting cake. In 1965 it was 95%. Now it’s down to about 65%. That’s a lot of people opting for what David Cameron calls “fruitcakes”, or saving their votes for celebrities eating grubs.
Europe, said Sassoon matter of factly, “will decline”. There would, he said, with the possible exception of Greece, be no “crisis, no doom, no great prospects for the left or the right”. There would, he added, also be no great prospects for the far right. Governments, he implied, would carry on tinkering around in the centre ground. There might, he said, be a crisis for political parties, but there wasn’t really a crisis for societies. The gaps between the peasantry and the elite were much bigger 100 years ago than any gaps now. And Belgium, David Goodhart reminded us, functioned perfectly well for more than two years without any government at all.
Four days into the New Year, and an election campaign that’s going to seem quite long, it’s worth bearing some of this in mind. The knives, as political pundits like to say, are out. What they mean by this is that some nice boys who all did PPE or SPS at Oxbridge will talk a lot about fractions. One will say that the deficit has been halved. Another will say that it has only been cut by a third. One will say that the other will be paying crazy sums in debt interest. The other will say they’ve got their maths wrong. One will say that the other’s cuts will be cruel, but theirs will be “fair”. Both will say that what they’re doing will be best for “hardworking families”. And this will be repeated, every day, for the next four months.
Who’s right? Who knows? Labour seems to think we’re living in Somalia – and not in the fastest growing economy in the Western world. The Tories seem to think it’s time to swap the 5:2 economic diet for a full-blown fast. Like many anorexics, the now skinny Chancellor seems to want to shrink for the joy of shrinking. If the Tories do win again, we could be looking at a very skinny state indeed.
What’s clear is this. The welfare state, as Donald Sassoon pointed out during that very enjoyable conference in Budapest, “works extremely well if capitalism is doing well”. Business, in other words, needs to thrive. The Tories like business, but they don’t seem all that keen on the welfare state. Labour loves the state, but still seems to think that it’s some kind of economic answer to bash banks. It almost makes you want to tell them to play nicely together. It almost, in fact, makes you think that there’s quite a lot to be said for coalition.
And is there a future for the left in Europe? I’m not entirely sure. But I can tell you that the massage at the thermal baths was lovely.