Lessons from the Berlin state election – for politics in Germany and beyond

Last Sunday, just two weeks after a punishing defeat in the state election in Mecklenburg West Pomerania, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) faced another unwelcome electoral challenge in the country’s capital, Berlin.  In the end, the results proved a disappointment not only for the CDU (which secured just 17.6%, -5.7% compared to the last election in 2011), but also for the social democratic SPD, which headed the state’s government (a CDU / SPD coalition), and fell to 21.6% (-6.7%), a remarkably low total for a party topping the poll.  For both the parties, these were record low results in the post-war period.  Back in 1990, the CDU and SPD (known as the Volksparteien, in recognition of their support coming from a cross-section of society) together secured over 70% of the vote.  Now, they are reduced to barely half that amount.  Green Party support held pretty stable (15.2%, -2.4%), the Left Party (15.6%, +3.9%) recovered some ground in a state in which it was historically strong, the liberal FDP regained entry to the state parliament (6.7%, +4.9%), and the Pirates showed that their success in the 2011 election was a flash in the pan (1.7%, -7.2%).  Most strikingly, the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) showed that it could make a breakthrough (14.2%) even in a state which was previously expected to be socially too liberal, too tolerant, to witness such a result.

While it is always unwise to read too much into the results of an individual state poll, there are a few claims which can be advanced on the basis of these results (and the usual excellent polling by Infratest dimap alongside them).

  1. While bad for the CDU, it is far too early to write off Angela Merkel. The CDU in Berlin was unpopular, and was felt to have performed poorly in government, with an inept leader, Frank Henkel. Voters preferred the SPD’s mayor, Michael Müller, by a 53% to 23% margin, and indeed even on the issue of refugees, whilst this was a major factor for AfD voters, 57% felt Angela Merkel was right to stick to her approach on the issue (compared to 39% who wanted her to move towards the hardline positions of the Bavarian CSU). For all the criticism of her, there is no obvious successor, let along internal challenger, to Merkel.

2.The CDU increasingly struggles in urban areas. If you roll the clock back 20 years, the CDU held the mayoralty not only of Berlin, but of Frankfurt (now SPD) and Stuttgart (now Green), and was competitive in elections in other major cities, such as Hamburg (where its vote has since collapsed). Now, the party is not in power in any of the country’s major cities, and seems to have little appeal amongst liberally-minded, urban voters. Much has been written of the difficulty faced by centre-left parties in integrating traditionally-minded working-class voters with those of the “new left”, but Christian Democracy faces analogous problems, at least in Germany.

3.The AfD may benefit largely from protest votes, but they look set to enter the federal parliament next year. Although 69% of AfD voters in Berlin said they decided on the basis of disappointment with other parties, compared to 29% who were convinced by the AfD itself, it remains the case that it has successfully overcome the 5% hurdle for representation in every state election since the 2013 federal election. Its election to the Bundestag looks to be only a matter of time.

4. State elections are more than just a judgement on the performance of the national government. There is a lively debate in political science about whether regional or national factors are decisive in regional elections. But in Berlin, there is no question that major dissatisfaction with the performance of the SPD/CDU coalition there (just 36% were satisfied) contributed to those parties’ historically bad performance.

5. The SPD’s involvement of members in deciding policy didn’t seem to give it great traction. Politicians elsewhere might be interested in the decision to allow all party members in the city to vote on such questions as the legalisation of cannabis (narrowly rejected), whether to focus on the number or quality of new flats (members favoured numbers), more police on the streets (supported), and continuing to ban headscarves amongst state employees like teachers (strongly supported).   These answers would then flow into the manifesto. But this enterprise did not really capture the public imagination. What recent successes the SPD has had have tended to be down to having a very popular state premier at its head (such as Malu Dreyer in Rhineland-Palatinate and Erwin Sellering in Mecklenburg West Pomerania).

6. 27 years on from the fall of the Berlin wall, eastern and western voting behaviour is distinct, in Berlin and elsewhere. Most obviously, the Left Party did better in the eastern part of the city (23.4%) than the west (10.1%), as did the AfD (17.0% east, 12.1% west – with the party coming first in some of the outlying, high-rise estates in the east), while the CDU, Greens and FDP did significantly better in the west. Such differences can also be clearly observed when comparing state polls in western and eastern Germany.

7. And last but not least, grand coalitions lead to a rise in support for smaller parties. When the major parties of centre-left (SPD) and centre-right (CDU) are in government, whether at a state or a national level, the combined total of their support is almost guaranteed to fall, with the smaller coalition partner especially vulnerable. When it comes to Germany’s federal election next year, it appears likely that minor parties – of left and right – will profit at the expense of CDU and SPD. In Berlin, this has now meant that no two parties have a majority, though, in contrast to the national level, the Left Party (along with the Greens) is likely to be invited to join a coalition with the SPD, thus bringing the period of grand coalition to an end.

Ed Turner is Senior Lecturer and Head of Politics and International Relations at Aston University, based in the Aston Centre for Europe. He has written widely on German party politics and federalism. This blog was initially published, in slightly edited form, at Left Food Forward.


The hidden costs of closed borders for migrants stuck in Serbia


Originally published by The Conversation, 19 September 2016. 

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (Aston University) and Marta Stojic Mitrovic (Ethnography Institute, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences)

In Spring 2016, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia “closed” their borders to migrants who had been transiting these countries via the “Balkan route” on their way further into the European Union. The closures follow other attempts at shutting EU borders: Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia, while the so-called “EU-Turkey” deal was intended to prevent people from reaching EU borders by sending those who had crossed the Mediterranean back to Turkey.

Despite the border closures, the Balkan route is still active – a problem recognised at an EU leaders’ meeting in July. Now those refugees not able to get any further are stuck in limbo. Non-governmental organisatons (NGOs) and the UNHCR estimate there are at least 200 arrivals per dayin Serbia, with around 5,000 people stuck in Serbia alone.

Even though the number of people stuck in Serbia is comparatively small, our interviews throughout the summer of 2016 showed that a lack of resources and attention is precipitating a secondary humanitarian crisis: a growing refugee population is living in increasingly precarious conditions and is almost wholly reliant on smugglers to leave. The UNHCR believes that border closures divert problems and aggravate living conditions, while Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) told us they see a correlation between the closures and increased levels of violence against refugees – both by smugglers and border authorities.

The situation in Serbia

Serbia became a focal point of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when an unprecedented number of new arrivals crossed into the country on their way to Western Europe via Hungary and Croatia. Typically, most people stayed in Serbia for only a few days before moving towards the EU. In contrast to measures employed by its neighbours, the Serbian government adopted an official policy stating that it would not erect fences and would respect international laws on human rights by not restricting movement of people searching protection. This changed dramatically a year later, and although Serbia has not completed sealed its own borders, policy has shifted from protecting rights to protecting borders.

These attempts at sealing borders have been accompanied with a complex and fragmented regional regime of asylum registrations and so called “push backs”, where people crossing the border into Hungary, for instance, are intercepted and returned to Serbia. The official and “legal” way to cross into Hungary is via one of the waiting lists operated by local authorities. But one local NGO working with refugees in Serbia said the information about how these waiting lists operate is unclear and contradictory.

In a Belgrade park, fenced off so migrants can’t camp there, people wait for free meals provided by local NGO. Jelena Obradovic-WochnikAuthor provided

Only 30 people are admitted  into Hungary legally each day via two border points point with Serbia, but the number of people arriving in Serbia each day far exceeds the number “allowed” to leave, so people are staying for longer periods of time (in some cases, several months). Refugees are also reporting to aid workers that they are facing increasing violence against them by Hungarian border police. Similar reports are also being collated by activists working with refugees in Belgrade.

Crossing borders into Hungary or Croatia now takes several attempts, both for people attempting to cross legally and illegally. The prices paid to smugglers have, according to our informants, increased dramatically: crossing the Serbia-Croatia border with a smuggler, we were told, now costs €1,500 per person. Deaths have also occurred along the Bulgaria-Romania border, as refugees try to find alternative routes, following the “closure” of the Macedonian border.

Pressures on resources

The Serbian state is partly unwilling and partly unable to provide adequate support and welfare for the growing number of refugees. Politically, its policy has shifted away from supporting refugees towards controlling borders in an effort to appease voters who are no longer sympathetic to the refugees’ stay in the country. In practical terms, the state has a support system in place – a state-run Commissariat for Refugees and Asylum, which oversees distribution of aid and runs “asylum reception centres”. But the infrastructure in place is not wholly adequate in meeting the actual needs of the refugees.

UNHCR reports that 87% of refugees are housed in official centres. But the need for shelter far outstrips supply, and homelessness – particularly among single men – is growing. The state-run “asylum reception centres” are located near Belgrade, the Hungarian-Serbian border, the Croatian-Serbian border and in Presevo, near the Macedonian border. Information on the centres is contradictory.

An informal camp near the Hungarian border, June 2 2016. Marta Stojic MitrovicAuthor provided



The government claims that reception centres with a capacity for 2,000 people are not full. But during our visits to the centres between June and August 2016, it was clear that in at least four of them, people were being accommodated in tents pitched outside of the centres themselves, suggesting overcrowding.

It’s also possible that refugees are choosing not to go the official camps, as it is unclear to most people – including aid workers – whether refugees staying there would be allowed to leave Serbia later. Informal camps and settlements along the Hungarian border have also sprung up, and we saw families with small children living in these settlements.

Pushed out of public places

In places like Belgrade, people, mainly single men unable or unwilling to access official camps, are sleeping rough in parks and squats. Ever since the crisis unfolded, public parks have been important hubs for sharing information about the route, and establishing contacts with other refugees and activists. Parks have free public wifi, free meals distributed by the NGO Refugee Aid Serbia, and various activists – some who speak Arabic and Farsi – who help refugees access information, answer questions and provide free tea.

This summer the local authorities started to clear the city of refugees by discouraging people from sleeping in the two centrally located parks – the Luka Celovic Park and Bristol Park – both located near the central bus station, via which many refugees arrived into Belgrade. In July 2016, all the grass in the central parks populated by refugees was dug up, and the parks fenced off, which precipitated a hunger strike by them.

For a while, people sleeping rough in the park relocated to decrepit buildings in a nearby derelict storage yard, living in a squat with no facilities, except for a single hosepipe. But on September 16 2016, local authorities evicted refugees as some of the buildings were being demolished to make way for a controversial development scheme, Belgrade Waterfront.

Refugees living in squats and parks rely on food donations by Refugee Aid Serbia for survival, and wait for a chance to cross the borders. Longer stays mean that many are running out of money and must either wait for money to arrive from family abroad, or seek increasingly desperate means of procuring it.

The fencing off of the parks has led to vocal protests by activists who see this as an attempt to break up the refugee communities, push them to the margins of the city and disable them from contacting smugglers, who use the parks as places to establish contact with refugees.

The support networks to help refugees are continually under threat: all NGOs must register with the commissariat in order to operate, but the official policy towards them is becoming increasingly hostile. Volunteers are also starting to report police harassment of activists aiding refugees in the park, particularly those not officially affiliated to NGOs.

Local tensions

Another perceptible change has been the shift in public mood. While outright xenophobic attacks against refugees are rare in Serbia, there have been some local anti-refugee protests.

In the border town of Sid, residents are petitioning for the removal of the refugee camp, and in Belgrade, a group of residents carried out a daily protest throughout August 2016 against refugees living in the park. This marks a drastic departure from a broadly sympathetic public attitude in 2015 and the emergence of solidarity networks. The change in mood can partly be attributed to the population’s own economic woes, mass unemployment and generally poor welfare provision, and the feeling that refugees have now overstayed their welcome.

Our interviews this summer show how the border closures around transit countries come with hidden costs. Politicians are able to claim that specific routes are “closed”, so giving the impression that all problems pertaining to these routes have been dealt with. In reality, border closures simply mean that attention is diverted from the increasingly precarious living conditions in which refugees stuck in transit zones find themselves. The EU border closures have left a significant population reliant on volunteers, donations, aid organisations and smugglers.

Assessing the fallout from the Mecklenburg West Pomeranian election – is the party over for Merkel?

Land (state) elections have a high profile in Germany. They serve a dual purpose: on the one hand, they elect a Land parliament and then government, responsible for legislation in a range of policy areas – most significantly, education – and implementation of national legislation in numerous others. On the other hand, the Land government sends representatives to Germany’s national second chamber, the Bundesrat, which has a veto on any legislation that affects the Länder (states).

That being said, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania might have been perceived, to some extent, as a rather sleepy backwater, and its elections would not always have the highest profile. It stretches from the picturesque, sleepy state capital, Schwerin, through to the Hanseatic cities of Rostock (a major port and seat of an old university), Greifswald, Wismar and Stralsund.

It encompasses the island of Rügen, with its varied flora and fauna, a large number of lakes, and perhaps best known, its sandy beaches stretching along the Baltic coast towards the Polish border. Its population numbers just 1.66 million, thinly spread around the largely rural region, and the biggest industries are agriculture, fishing and maritime areas, and tourism. Unemployment, at 9%, is somewhat above the federal average of 6.5%, and youth unemployment, at 12.1%, is the highest in the country.

Politically, though, the significance of the election on 4 September was heightened by the fact the state is home to Angela Merkel’s constituency (including Rügen, Stralsund and Greifswald), and it was also home to the first formal coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the successor party to the East German Communist Party, at the time known as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and now called the Left Party (Die Linke). On a darker note, in 1992 the Land attracted notoriety following arson attacks on accommodation for asylum seekers in the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen, and the far-right NPD won seats in the Land parliament in both the 2006 and 2011 elections.

In the Land election campaign, the SPD (which had governed as the senior partner with the Christian Democratic CDU since 2006) focused strongly on the popularity of its state premier, Erwin Sellering, while the CDU struggled to make headway under Lorenz Caffier. Although early polls pointed to a lead for the CDU, towards the end of the campaign there were clear indications that the SPD had taken a clear lead and the CDU would struggle to make second place behind the right-wing, populist AfD (Alternative for Germany).

The actual results certainly caused serious ripples through the German political scene. As the table below shows, the SPD topped the poll with 30.6% (5% down on 2011); the AfD, standing for the first time in a Land election, polled 20.8%, and the CDU came a miserable third with 19.0 (-4%). The Left Party also fell to 13.2% (-5.2%). Both the Greens (4.8%, -3.9%) and the NPD (3.0%, -3%) failed to make the 5% hurdle for representation, while the Liberal FDP, with 3.0%, also failed to win any seats.

The dominant media narrative on election night was that these results, with the relative triumph of the AfD and a humbling defeat for the CDU, constituted a humiliation for Angela Merkel on her home turf, and in particular a reflection of the unpopularity of her policy (at least, the policy of 2015) of relative openness towards refugees. The staunchly conservative Bavarian Christian Democratic Party, the CSU, was almost gleeful in pointing to a “clear signal in Berlin”, and demanding faster deportations and a cap on the number of refugees.

Horst Seehofer, the CSU’s leader, talked about a “disastrous result” and a “dangerous position for [Christian Democracy], and the Bavarian Finance Minister and a possible heir to Seehofer, Markus Söder, commented that “Instead of [Merkel’s famous comment on refugees] saying ‘We can do it’, we need to say ‘We have understood and we will change it’”. Senior SPD figures chose to emphasise Sellering’s success and popularity, although one of its deputy leaders, Ralf Stegner, suggested that the CDU had been punished for opportunistically “fishing in brown [i.e. far right] waters”.

As ever, the election has been thoroughly analysed by Forschungsgrupppe Wahlen and Infratest dimap. It is possible to construct a case laying the blame for the defeat squarely at Merkel’s door and from that point to a strategic need for the CDU/CSU to reposition itself in a more conservative fashion, as the CSU urges. Such critics would highlight the fact that the AfD’s support base went beyond those associated with far right support in recent times: not only did it win the support of 33% of working-class voters and 29% of unemployed voters, but also 27% of the self-employed. It did better amongst those with lower-level qualifications (26%) than minimal qualifications (18%), and also 13% of the votes of those with degrees.

They would note that the public assessment of Merkel’s refugee policies was highly critical, and not just amongst AfD voters: 85% agreed with the statement that “The number of refugees should be limited in the long-term”, 46% that “more is done for refugees than the indigenous population”, 62% that “because of the influx of refugees, the influence of Islam in Germany will become too great”, and 50% that “the way we live will change too much”. Such views received near-unanimous support from AfD voters. Merkel’s satisfaction ratings nationally were at 47% in August, a far cry from the overwhelming ratings of yesteryear. All this seems to have led to a position where the CDU’s drift towards the political centre, under Merkel, has allowed the AfD to establish itself securely in the German party system (much in the way that Gerhard Schöder’s welfare cuts allowed the Left Party to flourish).

But there is another view, forcefully put forward, for instance, by the pollster Manfred Güllner, that attributing the AfD’s success to Merkel and proclaiming that her days are numbered is not justified. He points to polling evidence that, in a federal election, the CDU in Mecklenburg West Pomerania would have scored 33% rather than 19% (and come top); in this view the result simply points to the weakness of the local CDU in the Land. Such a view is supported by the fact that issues other than refugees (such as social justice – 53% – and the economy and jobs – 44%) were considered decisive by voters – the refugee question being named by just 20%.

It can also be argued that, in state elections where Merkel’s CDU has lost (Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg would be examples), another candidate has been better able to mobilise centrist voters on a Land level, but these will return to the CDU at a national election. Güllner argues that the AfD only gained support from the “minority of eligible voters [12.6%] who were always susceptible to anti-foreigner, racist, right-wing radical views”, and certain trends support that assessment: for instance, the AfD, like many right populist and far right parties, did far better amongst men (25%) than women (16%). Indeed, across Germany the assessment of Merkel’s policy on refugees is not overly negative: in August, 44% thought Merkel was doing a good job, 52% disagreed, and amongst CDU/CSU supporters, 66% supported Merkel’s policies. The CDU would still top the poll at a federal election with 35% of the vote, and there is no clear internal challenger or obvious successor to Merkel as party leader and chancellor.

In summary, the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania poll runs a serious risk of over-interpretation, notably by those with a particular, anti-Merkel or anti-refugee axe to grind. However, it would appear that the days have finally passed where there is, according to the imperative of one-time CSU grandee Franz-Josef Strauss, “no democratically legitimated party” to the right of the Christian Democrats, and the AfD has established itself in German politics, with entry into the national parliament only a matter of time.

Ed Turner is Senior Lecturer and Head of Politics and International Relations at Aston University, based in the Aston Centre for Europe. He has written widely on German party politics and federalism.

This article was initially published on the LSE EuroPP blog at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/09/08/merkel-cdu-win-in-2017/

The party is over for Respect, but George Galloway could find a home again in Labour, by Parveen Akhtar

The following post was originally published on the site of The Conversation, on the 23rd of August 2016. For the original post, please visit: https://theconversation.com/the-party-is-over-for-respect-but-george-galloway-could-find-a-home-again-in-labour-64263

The Respect Party, launched 12 years ago as a platform for opposing the Iraq war, has ceased to be. After it lost its only parliamentary seat in the 2015 election, the party has “voluntarily de-registered” from the Electoral Commission.

The demise of the party has led to much speculation about what the future holds for George Galloway – the man who was the party’s leader and its only ever MP. Many now assume he will attempt to rejoin the Labour Party, which has shifted significantly to the left under Jeremy Corbyn. These two parliamentary stalwarts share many political ideals and fought together against the Iraq war in the early 2000s.
Losing Respect

Respect emerged in 2004 out of the anti-war movement. Galloway was a high profile figure and, within the space of just a few months, the party managed to win a quarter of a million votes in the European parliamentary elections. Galloway himself was almost elected as an MEP in London.

A year later he went one better in the 2005 general election and was elected as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, a constituency with a large Muslim population. More success followed in the 2006 local elections, when Respect became the official opposition on Tower Hamlets council.

But by 2007, the party was beginning to fragment. There was a bitter factional split between Galloway’s supporters and those close to the Socialist Workers Party. Most thought the party was finished and its electoral results in 2010 seemed to confirm this. The party lost Bethnal Green and Bow back to Labour and Galloway failed to get elected in Poplar and Limehouse (he vacated his previous seat for a Bengali candidate, as promised).

However, two years later, Respect had their man back in parliament with a spectacular by-election victory in Bradford West. The Labour Party, confident that this was very much a “safe seat”, lost by more than 10,000 votes. Galloway polled more votes than the other seven candidates put together. Then, three years later, he lost the seat to Labour’s Naz Shah after one of the 2015 general election’s most divisive and bitterly personal campaigns.
The Galloway brand

Galloway alienated many people in Respect, especially women. Salma Yaqoob, one of the original founders of Respect, and the party’s other high-profile politician, cut ties with the party in 2012, citing Galloway’s comments about rape allegations made against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

But he was electric on the campaign trail and there is little doubt that Respect’s greatest successes were largely due to his charisma and personal appeal – particularly for young Muslim voters.

Galloway couldn’t always pull it off. A shambolic campaign in the Scottish parliamentary election of 2011 (which delivered just 0.35% of the local vote) and his most recent foray into the 2016 London mayoral election (when he won 1.4% of the vote) showed that without the right issues and electorate to exploit, his rhetoric could only get him so far.

His career in politics has been anything but dull. Serving as an MP between 1987-2010 and 2012-2015 he was also a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother and more recently brought out a film about Tony Blair. He is a household name in British politics; something that cannot be said for most of the politicians serving in Corbyn’s present shadow cabinet.

Galloway has always maintained he was “Old Labour”. He even said so in his 2012 by-election victory speech as leader of the Respect Party. He had been expelled from Labour in 2003, for bringing the party into disrepute over his opposition to the Iraq War. But in 2013 there were rumours that he had been in talks with Labour’s then leader, Ed Miliband, to rejoin.

He again stated his desire to rejoin the party during last year’s leadership election, a move which would have been deeply unpopular with many in the party – especially the Blairites.

If Corbyn stays on as leader – which is widely expected as the 2016 leadership campaign plays out – the balance of power will have shifted resoundingly to the left, paving the way for Galloway to possibly return to the fold. He and Corbyn were both heavily involved in the anti-war movement led by the Stop the War Coalition and Galloway describes Corbyn as his “friend and comrade for over 30 years”. Indeed, Corbyn, alongside other far left comrades, opposed Galloway’s expulsion from the party in the first place.

Respect was founded as a radical alternative to the New Labour project. While its roots were firmly in the anti-war movement, it brought together leftist campaigners on issues ranging from the environment, equal rights and socialism. It rejected the “third way” espoused by Blair during his tenure. But since Corbyn was elected leader, the rationale for a separate party no longer exists.
Friends again?

It’s worth pointing out that Respect’s electoral results make it Britain’s most successful radical left party. These successes may have been restricted to a handful of areas with significant Muslim populations (Birmingham, Bradford, east London) but it managed to do so on a shoestring budget and with a tiny membership. It was able to mobilise previously disenfranchised members of the community to turn out in force to overturn previously safe Labour seats. That should remind Labour of one of the first rules of representative democracy – not to take the electorate, even loyal supporters, for granted.

Respect will go down as a unique electoral experiment. It was derided as a single-issue party but survived for many years after British troops had left Iraq. Under a different electoral system, it would have had even more success.

Who would bet against Galloway standing as a Labour parliamentary candidate again? Given the events in British politics over the last year, and particularly in the Labour Party, anything seems possible.

What our students thought about studying Politics at Aston

As Clearing 2016 gets under way, another one of our former undergraduates – now our PhD student – had this to say about his time studying politics. Luke John Davies joined us through clearing, and has recently come back to pursue a PhD.

“I went to Aston through clearing, originally to do a combined degree in Politics and Business Admin. However I changed to doing Politics with International Relations after my first year because I found it to be an amazing thing to study. There is little point in teaching people knowledge any more because the entire country carries Google in their pockets. What I learnt doing Politics at Aston, and what I think makes it such a valuable subject, is to read between the lines. I learnt how to discern opinion from fact and to spot the kernel of truth hidden in spin – whether that spin be politics, advertising or even in personal interactions. It was the skills to think critically, to assess what is presented and how and to weigh up the reality of it before making a decision that I owe to Aston that have helped me in my life since.

One of the other good things about Politics at Aston is it is based in the School of Languages and Social Sciences, meaning it has a much more rounded feel and you get an insight into other aspects of political life feeding in from the Sociology, Public Policy, International Relations courses and even from the cultural modules of the languages courses from students who take those as a minor discipline alongside Politics (as above I took IR) so you get much more of a complete picture.

Outside of the lecture hall, to me the really unique thing about Aston is how it has the best of both a small campus university – the close-knit community, the shared experiences and the interaction with students studying other disciplines – and, because of its location next to Birmingham city centre, the best of a big city university in terms of the facilities, the night-life, the transport links and the culture of a major British core city.

For those reasons and more I loved my time studying Politics at Aston, and I’d recommend it to anybody.”

Luke John Davies BSc (Hons) MA

Secretary, Birmingham Fabian Society
Chair, West Midlands Young Fabians

Studying Politics at Aston

This blog post comes from Silvia Grant, our former undergraduate Politics Student, who is now completing a PhD at the School of  Languages and Social Sciences at Aston. 

Here, Silvia highlights some of the things students can expect when studying at Aston. 

I started studying Politics and International Relations (BSc) at Aston University in autumn 2008. I had come from Rome, and it was my first time abroad. At first I was a bit bewildered; cars driving down the wrong side of the street, the local Brummie accent sounding nothing like the edulcorated BBC English we were taught, and always thinking ‘I think it’s about to rain any moment’, but then it doesn’t. Within a few days, however, my worries were blown out the water with Freshers week. During this induction week we were all introduced to one another, I made lots of friends I still keep in touch with, we were introduced to the wonders of the city centre, were introduced to the dozens and dozens of different student societies and clubs, and were taught how to navigate the main building. The main building is huge structure with different wings, and takes some getting used to. I prefer it to other universities which have a number of scattered smaller 2-floored buildings because it’s as if it were a microcosm in itself, you bump into lots of people, and you can spend years trying to find your favourite corridor.

My Politics and International Relations (PIR) course was the exemplar politics course. Our first year had a lot of ‘Introduction to’ courses, which I first thought was slightly redundant as we had been ‘introduced to’ topics at school. Didn’t take much at all to realise that these were instead crucial, as there are some topics which deal with very sophisticated and complex notions. You have some liberty in choosing which modules to take, but overall in my three years I studied UK Politics (history, domestic, and foreign policy) political economy, philosophy and ethics, US politics, comparative European politics, EU (history, relations, institutions, and law), politics and law, international relations (history, theory and application), security studies, terrorism, charismatic leadership, political communication, and post-Cold War conflicts. At points I felt stretched, because there is plenty of reading to do, but then I got back into the flow of it. What really made the difference were the lecturers. The PIR team was incredible, and still is. We really got involved in discussions in the seminars, and we could feel a real sense of urgency in what was being debated. Politics students also read lots of news, as they feed into Uni studies. Amongst other things, we are given a distinct advantage in critically interpreting and understanding the news, their spin, and the world around us.

Our shiny new library

Politics courses are ‘sandwich’ degrees in the sense that you can decide to have a placement year in your third year. Aston is really strong at offering placements, and it’s a great opportunity to get some work experience, to get a prestigious internship, to travel abroad to learn a language, get a taste of studying abroad at one of Aston’s partner Universities, or otherwise pursue the beginning of your post-degree professional interests. Our Uni has a great close-knit community, is walking distance to Birmingham city centre (and its multi-million pounds regenerations), and is top ranked in many tables. Aston also has a reputation for matchmaking powers, as many students have found their other halves during their degrees, including me.

Our Campus
Our Campus


#astonuniversity #alevelresults #clearing #clearing2016

Labour’s century-old problem: leadership performance

Author: John Gaffney
This blog post was originally published in the British politics and Policy LSE blog on the 12/07/2016. For the original version, please see: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/labours-century-old-problem-the-politics-of-leadership-performance/
A shorter version of this article also appeared in the Sunday Express on the 03/07/2017.

There is turmoil in the Labour Party: once again related to the question of leadership. From Hardie to Corbyn, the question of leadership has driven the party on and off the rails; and at the heart of its dilemma is the still – one hundred years later – unresolved question of the leader’s triple relationship to the party, the parliamentary party, and the electorate.

The great irony is that the Labour Party hates the topic. Worse than that, it doesn’t understand it. ‘Leftism’, like republicanism, posits an impersonalism: we are equal, we progress as a collective, no one is indispensable. To think otherwise, will lead us to infantile hero worship or worse, tyranny. (The right makes the opposite mistake of fetishizing leadership.)

This blind spot in Labour’s vision of politics means that whenever leadership issues arise, and they do all the time, they immediately become crises because it doesn’t know what leadership is, doesn’t want to know, and doesn’t like it – so doesn’t know what it entails. The whole issue is compounded for Labour with the emergence of ‘celebrity politics’ – which it also hates – not realising that there is a wide range of ways to play this.

Tony Blair is the best recent example of knowing how to ‘perform a character’: regular guy, modernizer, decisive, in-touch with national sentiment (e.g. the Diana speech), and so on. In fact, Blair’s low point in terms of rhetorical performance was not over Iraq or Bernie Ecclestone, but the slow handclapping of the Women’s Institute when in 2000 he addressed their conference and made, to their fury, a ‘political’ speech.

What the Labour Party has always done to cope with the very real issue of leadership, rather than seeing leadership as a performance within a cluster of relationships (with members, media, etc.), has been to apply a series of simplistic character traits – usually negative – to its leaders: the treacherous (MacDonald, Blair); the idealistic (Hardie, Henderson, Foot); the not up to it, though ‘good and decent’ (Foot again, Miliband, Corbyn); the modest (Attlee); the wily (Wilson); the reliable (Callaghan), and so on.

Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election in 2015 not because he was left-wing but because his performance was stunning. And his three opponents’ performances were awful: Did we overspend? – “Yes we did.” – “No we didn’t.” – “I wanted to vote against Osborne’s welfare cuts but I couldn’t but I will next time.” – “You should stand down.” – “I still go for a drink with my old friends up North.” Into these dire exchanges Corbyn erupted wanting to talk about everything, and he fired people’s imagination and created a stampede of excited support.

Then he stopped, and that is why we are where we are today. And, ironically again, he stopped performing at the moment of his victory. His victory speech was in direct contrast to his style throughout the campaign, of the ‘I don’t mind if the media attack me but not my family’ type, singularly underwhelming for the occasion. And since winning, he has just talked to the Corbynistas instead of ‘enchanting’ all parts of the party by choreographing his leadership style and ‘seducing’, as it were, his opponents.

And Corbyn’s poor performances during the Brexit campaign ‘betrayed’ his ambivalent attitude to Europe. And ambivalence is a major political resource and a rhetorical device that has to be deployed with enormous care. We are now in an age of the politics of leadership performance. Those now trying to unseat Jeremy Corbyn would themselves do well to heed this. In the Conservative leadership race it was clear that in her leadership launch Theresa May, of all people, has already understood this.

Britain’s next PM: Theresa May sank rival by painting a more convincing portrait of leadership

Author: John Gaffney
This article was originally published in The Conversation, on the 11/07/2016. For the original link, please visit: https://theconversation.com/britains-next-pm-theresa-may-sank-rival-by-painting-a-more-convincing-portrait-of-leadership-47229

Though ultimately brief, the Conservative Party leadership contest offered fascinating insights into the nature of British politics today. Rhetoric, performance and gender replaced talk of policies and political priorities.

In the end, Theresa May showed that she had a much more powerful grip on the realities of wielding modern political power and will be the UK’s next prime minister. Andrea Leadsom’s inexperience, meanwhile, was exposed in the most public, and almost humiliating manner.

This election was not about the nature of the ship (the British state) nor its direction – because the ship is unstable and the course is uncharted waters – so it has had to be about who was better equipped to be captain.

The contest was therefore about character. And the captain must be a character who is steady, determined and reassuring. In the glare of the public spotlight Leadsom failed on all those fronts. May looked like she was already at the ship’s wheel.

Inevitably the popular press obsessed over perceived parallels with another Tory leader. But when Margaret Thatcher stood, it was in order for the party’s right to oust Ted Heath, and many quietly believed she too would be dispensed with soon after. The debate over whether a woman could be prime minister was a live one then. Now, thankfully, it is not.

There was in fact a sense during this campaign that a woman prime minister might be better suited to these changed times. The boisterous Brexit boys all crashed into each other and fell down after having knocked all the Notting Hill boys over. The last Brexiter standing was a woman, who has now dropped out to leave May on a clear course for Number 10.

Theresa May is viewed to have served well in the tough post of Home Secretary. She has an image as being competent and hardworking – but not dour or unsmiling – and she clearly saw that she needed to perform to that character and build upon it.

At the launch of her campaign, May smiled, joked and laughed. She painted her own portrait according to both the received view (tough, no-nonsense, uninterested in flashy personality politics) and the new appeal to “compassion” and One Nation Conservatism that will be needed in the new Conservative leader. She expanded her character and presented herself as a leader who would also heal and reconcile.

It is clear – both within the party and the country – that the sense of a nation divided is acute. May is evidently aware that unity of some kind needs to be established. She was also transforming her quiet backing for remaining in the EU into Cassandra-like foresight of the impending division – the irony being that the best person now to lead Britain towards leaving is a “remainer”.

May also presents as the serious-minded and dutiful daughter of a modest English Clergyman. This is a strong myth in British society, with its Brontë undertones. And in terms of image it is worth pointing out that this is a much more powerful and intricate myth than being a Clergyman’s son.
Rookie error

Andrea Leadsom, meanwhile, stumbled soon after her campaign took off. It had started well. She seemed more personable than other Brexiteers and May. Her supporters immediately underlined her “steel” and her “compassion” along the same lines as May. They tried to cover for her relative inexperience by referring to Tony Blair as having had no experience before 1997 (perhaps, with the Chilcot report just out though, that was not the best of defences).

But the alleged “bigging up” of Leadsom’s CV (ironically, it is a generally held view that women don’t do this enough compared to men) was a first broadside into her image of representing a new way of doing politics – a widely-held assumption being that women bring honesty and integrity to the dark arts of politics.

The fatal shot, however, was self-inflicted. Leadsom revealed herself to be such a novice as to think that her greatest appeal was as a mother. Her bid was evidently to appeal to the party faithful but ultimately, she had to throw in the towel even before the Conservative party membership could have its say.

It was a catastrophic error to think being a mother would be enough to counter the perception of May as a politician of experience and skill. So, the way to Downing Street is now clear for May – and the days ahead will surely prove a greater test of her qualities than this very short-lived leadership campaign.

Eddie Izzard promotes his campaign #StandUpforEurope at Aston University

Eddie Izzard
Eddie Izzard on campus

Eddie Izzard is on a quest to visit 31 UK University campuses in as many days. Following soon after his astonishing feat of running 27 marathons in 27 days for which he raised £1.35m, he is highly dedicated to his beliefs.

The Stand Up for Europe campaign aims to get at many young people as possible to register to vote Remain in the EU Referendum on June 23rd. This campaign is corroborated by a recent poll by the National Union of Students (NUS), which found 76% of students want to Vote Remain, and only 14% back Brexit. However, only half of the young electorate (18-24 years) is likely to vote, compared to over-65s.

Students were very excited to see Izzard on campus, triggering a flurry of enthusiasm both on campus and on social media. He injects some passion into the debate, urging students to register ‘if you care about humanity’. He delivers with his usual fast-paced, rich style, including witty references to his previous shows.

Wearing a Union Jack and European Union flag pin badges on his fuchsia beret, he says ‘I’m a British European. I’m proud of being British. I’m proud of being European’. The comedian highlights all the material benefits of remaining within the EU (including cheaper hen night and stag night travelling), but also includes a very emotional backdrop to it, as he evokes the beginning of EU following the devastating World Wars. He instils above all a message of positivity – ‘I talk to young people, and I talk to people from the heart’.

He acknowledges that there are complex issues to be tackled, and it is a particularly difficult task. He urges the students to vote to remain, as ‘this is the most important vote of your lives’. He replies with poise to unswayed students, reinforcing his message of hope and positivity.

‘This could be the biggest decision of your lives and I want to help make sure you get your chance to have your say’.

Izzard continues his Stand Up for Europe campaign in the Midlands, making his way to Scotland and Northern Ireland too in the lead up to the Referendum. An activist since 2008, Eddie Izzard has announced that he will be running for electoral politics as a Labour candidate in 2020, but prefers to concentrate on the Referendum for the moment: ‘We’ve got to fight like crazy for it, I just want our team to win. But this is about the EU referendum – this is bigger than politics’.

Aston University’s Centre for Europe has hosted a wide array of Referendum events, with the next one taking place on June 8th and hosted by Prof. Simon Green.

The Case for Europe 2016, blog post by Jon Bloomfield

This blog has been re-posted, with authorization from the author, from  Lawrence & Wishart- Independent Radical Publishing. It was originally published on the 12th April 2016 (https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/blog/the-case-for-europe-2016)

Five years of stringent austerity politics culminating in the Greek debacle last summer have spread growing despair across the left about the present direction of the European Union. The inability to respond collectively and in a humanitarian fashion to the mounting refugee crisis during 2015 has exacerbated this frustration. Rather than argue for a progressive alliance to force policy change within the EU, some on the left are now wondering whether it would be better to give up on Europe and campaign for British withdrawal (see the New Statesman’s series during 2015 promoting ‘the honourable tradition of Eurosceptic leftism’). Such a move would be a big strategic mistake. The days of socialism or social democracy in one country are long gone. In an interdependent world, nationalism offers no bolt hole for the left. The task for all progressives is to find effective ways to engage with continental partners. In an age when economics, ecology and culture have leapt the boundaries of the medium-sized nation state, the only progressive option is to find ways to cooperate with neighbouring countries so as to offer a new blend of national and European politics.

This article considers the UK’s place in today’s interdependent world, firstly looking at the economic realities; and secondly at the wider environmental and cultural connections. It then answers some of the main arguments of the nationalist right and the policies that have held sway among many parts of the social-democratic left. The final section suggests a new pro-European agenda which can unite a broad alliance of progressives and rebut the narrow nationalism that is driving the anti-European movement.

The UK and the modern world

There is a common thread that runs through left-wing, anti-European arguments and binds them together with the Eurosceptic right, namely a refusal to recognise that over the last half century the world – and Britain’s role within it – has changed dramatically. They remain oblivious to the economic shortcomings of twenty-first century Britain, a few of which are listed below.

In 2014, the UK’s current account deficit was £97.9 billion, 5.5 per cent of GDP. This was the largest annual deficit as a percentage of GDP since annual records began and amounted to the biggest deficit of any major industrialised economy.1

The UK’s share of global exports since 1980 has fallen from 6 per cent to under 3 per cent and we still export more to Ireland (population 4 million) than we do to China (population 1.3 billion).

This is a country whose productivity per head is 20 per cent below that of France and which unlike our main European neighbours – Germany, France and Spain – is unable to construct high speed rail or extensive tram networks.

The fact that the city of London is a world leader in financial, banking and the related ’shadow’ financial services is often trumpeted as a counter argument. Yet, these sectors were largely responsible for the 2008 global crisis and remain basically unreformed. Their predominance serves to underline the continuing vulnerability of the UK economy.

The economic realities of the modern world remain largely absent from the EU debate. Since the Second World War, economic developments have moved beyond the boundaries of the individual European nation state. Along with the need to contain Europe’s propensity for deadly wars, this was the original impetus behind the European Economic Community. This has been the period, firstly of the developing multi-national corporation and then an era of unprecedented globalisation, with financial deregulation, the emergence of ICT technology and the opening up of the former socialist blocs. These developments have weakened the basic post-war settlement between capital and labour negotiated across most countries in Western Europe, a process accelerated over the last three decades by the ideological ascendancy of neoliberalism. Taken together, they mean that in the twenty-first century, politics can no longer be confined to the nation state. To control and regulate both markets and the environment one has to develop a model of multi-level governance which combines action at the European scale with that undertaken by individual national governments and their devolved regions and cities. These trends are not confined to Europe. Latin American countries are bonding together in Mercosur; Asian countries in ASEAN; and even the current global super-power, the USA, has been keen to develop NAFTA. This requires progressives in each of those regions to reach beyond national boundaries and work together with like-minded parties in neighbouring countries.

These trends are ignored by sceptics. Labour MP Kate Hoey declares that she wants ‘to get back to our parliament the right to make its own laws, the right to have complete control of our economy, to decide everything that relates to our own country …’ (New Statesman 19.6.15). Conservative anti-European MPs such as John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin use the same basic argument. Another prominent left-wing sceptic, Colin Hines proposes ‘returning to the nation state the power to control goods, money, services …’ (Guardian 23.11.14). These statements suggest that we can just turn back the clock. However, modern production has leapt nation state boundaries. Britain is part of a fully integrated European-wide economy. Look what happens when there is a closure of Eurotunnel. Suddenly the M20 is a car park with queues of thousands of lorries stretching back thirty miles. Consider our agriculture and food industry. Whenever a scandal or scare breaks out – BSE; turkeys; foot and mouth; horsemeat in frozen food – the intertwined, cross-European nature of food production is revealed.

In the twenty-first century, there is no way that economies and industries are going to be forced back into their national boxes. Look at the former British car industry. Scattered across the Midlands are the huge old factory sites of Rootes, Humber, Austin, Triumph, and Morris, now transformed into shopping malls, warehouses and mixed-use developments. These British companies will never return. The car companies that flourish are integrated with supply chains that link across the whole of Europe’s Single Market. Similarly, the choice as regards aircraft manufacture is either Airbus or Boeing. It did not look that way in 1967, when Boeing made four-fifths of the world’s commercial aircraft. However, long-term cooperation between French, German, British and Spanish companies means that the European consortium is now a serious rival to Boeing, with a full order book. Filton near Bristol and Broughton in North Wales, along with their 400 supply-chain companies and 100,000 jobs, prosper as a core component of an interwoven network of Europe-wide production processes. What is certain is that they would have no future as a separate British company. Hoey’s ‘complete control of our economy’ would guarantee them the fate of Humber, Morris and Triumph.

Being a full member of the EU allows the UK to contribute to the shaping of this Single Market; to formulate common environmental and employment standards, for example a guaranteed four weeks annual holiday for employees. It gives companies a market of 500 million people – not one a tenth of that size. Europe is the scale at which key parts of twenty-first century business operates. These companies invest in the UK as we are part of that wider market. It is the level at which progressives need to work.

Wider interdependencies

These connections and interdependencies are not just economic. They extend into the nooks and crannies of everyday life and require new forms of transnational cooperation to enable the countries and citizens of Europe to work together for their mutual benefit. Below I briefly consider three issues that highlight the fact that Britain can no longer stand isolated and aloof from Europe – tourism and travel, crime and climate change.

The EU has made travel immeasurably easier. In 2013 Britons made 42 million visits to Europe, including almost 12 million to Spain, 9 million to France and 2 million to Portugal and Greece.2 They used the airports, roads, public transport and tourist infrastructure that EU funds have helped to build across the Continent. These are all elements of the joint European story. But they never appear in any cost benefit analysis produced by UKIP or Business for Britain. British travellers benefit not just from the physical modernisation that these funds have promoted but also from the common passport procedures; the reciprocal health arrangements; and from agreements that control mobile phone charges. None of these would be covered by a free trade area. A few on the ‘workerist’ left try to maintain that these measures only benefit the well-off, ignoring the reality that millions of working-class Britons holiday abroad each year, as do many young people.

As the world has globalised, criminal activity, from fraud and credit card theft through to drug smuggling and human trafficking, has been internationalised, and the EU offers a political framework in which to tackle some of these problems. The UK’s ‘island mentality’ does not make it immune from the necessity to co-operate on criminal issues with fellow EU member states. There clearly need to be safeguards in place with regard to civil liberties, and the European Parliament needs to have strong oversight of agreed European-wide provisions. But UK withdrawal would involve the UK government trying to sign up individual agreements with police forces, judicial and prison authorities across 27 other EU states.

Climate change rarely figures as an issue among the Eurosceptic left. For UKIP, and people like Daniel Hannan MEP and John Redwood silence on this issue is no surprise, given the overlap between the nationalist right and climate change deniers. However, for progressives it is inexcusable, given the importance of the EU for this issue. By working together, the EU has been able to adopt common positions on climate change and influence the wider world in a way that would have been impossible for the UK to achieve on its own. And by setting out a common framework in its 2020 and 2030 strategies, Europe has cajoled and stimulated all its member states to take action on energy efficiency and renewables, in ways that would not have occurred otherwise (though there are of course back-sliders and foot-draggers among a number of EU member states – the present UK government included). The EU’s current main funding programme for Structural Funds sets very clear requirements that low-carbon activity should receive a guaranteed proportion of its funds, and its Research programme Horizon 2020 has a stream of funding instruments dedicated to low-carbon innovation and transition. There is a political contest about the significance of the environmental agenda within EU member states and plenty of shortcomings can be found, but there is no doubt that as an institution the EU has been in the forefront of those taking the climate change challenge seriously and has used legislative, regulatory and funding instruments to respond to the challenge. UK withdrawal from the EU will weaken Europe’s capacity to act.

Answering the nationalist right

The arguments of the ‘withdrawal left’ often echo the much more powerful and numerous voices on the nationalist right that are dominating the referendum debate. These tend to mix economic fantasy with nostalgia in equal measure.

On economics, the nationalist right maintains that a Britain liberated from the shackles of the sclerotic EU would be free to export to newly emerging markets. This simply ignores the fact that there is nothing to stop the UK exporting to these markets at the moment, other than the weakness and inadequacy of our manufacturing sector. After all, Germany currently exports ten times as much to China as we do, while the UK also has a lower share of the Chinese goods market than both France and Italy – countries the nationalist right frequently cite as having basket-case economies.3

On culture and history there are frequent references to our independent history and the fact that ‘we are a maritime people’.4 Yet the Portuguese, Greeks and Dutch, who all also claim a proud maritime heritage, remain comfortable within the EU. Today, the British still like to mess around in boats – some 800,000 own yachts and dinghies. It is just that we no longer build ships or have any commercial shipyards. So references to a ‘maritime people’ are just cultural hot air.

Politically, with the demise of the Commonwealth, the right are trying to create a new entity, the Anglo-sphere. This is a zone where the English can feel comfortable and do business with other people who speak English, in an Internet-connected world. ‘The revolution in technology means distance has never mattered less’, asserts Hannan. Again, this does not survive contact with reality. No US leader has ever called for such an Alliance, let alone tried to create one. Nor has Tony Abbott, the recent neo-conservative leader of Australia and an ideological soul-mate of the hard Right. His speeches and diplomacy leave no doubt that for his country the key reference points are Japan, China and Indonesia.5 Whatever the cultural ties of the past, the priorities for Australia today are its near Asian mainland. The reasons are simple: geography and economics. The same is true for Britain. No amount of empty rhetoric about the Internet can alter the facts that geography and economics tie us to Europe.

Cul de sacs of the left

In the twentieth century the left achieved social advances through the nation state. It is more difficult to see how to shape and influence this emerging new world order. As Pascal Lamy expressed it, ‘Historically, the success of social democracy was to promote a compromise between labour and capital, between the state and the market and between commercial competition and social solidarity. Globalisation has unhinged the balance by taking away all the domestic levers by which we maintained the compromise’.6 That is why talk about ‘building a new Britain’ is so unrealistic. Social democracy in one country is a non-starter in an interdependent world. With such an open economy, the UK trying to challenge international capital on its own would get nowhere. The fate that befell the Mitterrand government in France in the early 1980s should serve as a reminder to all on the left who talk in such casual terms. The task is to find new avenues for the social compromises that the left previously created. Yet the articulation of a strategy that combines the national with the European has so far proved a step too far for all parts of the left. Over the past two decades the social-democratic left has been led up two cul de sacs.

Firstly, for a brief moment in the 1990s, with the world economy booming and the optimism of the ‘end of history’ moment, a benevolent globalisation scenario seemed plausible to some in New Labour, all the more so when overseen by two such able rhetoricians as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. As the Panglossian Peter Mandelson described it, ‘Globalisation offers all the best the world can offer. We must not sound as if we believe there is a tension between labour and capital, or competition and solidarity.’7 Such utopian optimism and naivety was soon to be exposed by global crisis. But perhaps the most damaging effect of Third Way social democracy was that, in its belief that issues of class were now old-fashioned, it left the field open to others. With Communism a busted flush after 1989, it was left to the nationalist, populist and racist right to exploit the grievances of older working-class communities and those left behind by globalisation. As the free movement of labour across Europe meant increased competition for manual labouring jobs and renewed pressure on housing, social and health services, the operation of the Single Market became a growing issue that the nationalist right was able to exploit.

The second dead end was German ‘ordo-liberalism’ – the mind-set that has hegemonised most of the European economic policy debate. In contrast to neoliberalism, ordo-liberalism emphasises the role of government in creating the framework of rules that provide the order for free markets to function. Their focus is on price stability, and in a recession the priority is to reduce deficits, not to revive growth. When commitment to ordo-liberal economics was enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, too few people understood its significance, while others thought it could be ignored (as indeed happened in 2003, when Germany and then France broke the budget criteria with little consequence). However, the ideological and budgetary straitjacket of ordo-liberalism has been disastrous since the financial crisis. Social-democratic parties across Europe have sleepwalked into disaster; scared to embrace Keynesian economics, they have colluded with austerity. As a consequence, social democracy has disappeared as a force in Poland and Hungary, been butchered in Spain, massacred in Greece, and is stagnating elsewhere across Europe. This is the philosophy that currently pervades all the key EU institutions and policy-makers, and it still retains its grip on key parts of European social democracy.8 It calls the austerity policy a success despite Latvia losing 15 per cent of its population after pursuing it; Spain having a youth unemployment rate of over 50 per cent; and Greece losing 25 per cent of its GDP in five years. The policy has been absolutely lethal to the EU’s reputation for displaying competence and delivering economic prosperity. The events at the EU Finance Ministers and EU Council on 11-13 July, when the Greek saga came to a head, revealed the dangers of this rigid, deflationary policy and of a return to a German-led Europe.9

Charting a new course: promoting a social Europe

The Greek saga has been an unmitigated disaster for Europe: firstly for the Greek people but also for any prospect of a social Europe. The only silver lining is that it has clearly revealed the reactionary and regressive line of travel of the ordo-liberal leadership of the Eurozone. There are plenty of Europeans aghast and amazed at this old spectre returning to haunt Europe, especially when sane, practical alternatives are available. The historic question is whether European social democrats have the wit and energy to embrace them and then work together with others to construct an alternative scenario for Europe. Progressives in the UK should be clear that this crisis is not a private affair of those within the Eurozone: it directly affects all parties and movements that want to shape Europe in a progressive direction. To achieve this there needs to be a clean break with the twin orthodoxies that social democracy has followed for the last two decades and a concerted attempt to combine the national and the European in a new way to create a social Europe rather than an austerity Europe. To achieve this goal there are three immediate dimensions that need to be tackled: economics, migration and democracy.


On economics, the immediate task is to break with ordo-liberalism and its neoliberal counterparts. The rules of the Eurozone are not tablets of stone handed down by Moses. They are political instruments that wrongly prioritise deficit reduction over growth. That is why mainstream economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman berate them so fiercely. These need to be directly and explicitly challenged, along with the policy sentiments of George Osborne and the UK Treasury, which follow the same basic path but with more flexibility and tactical acumen. However, those who argue that the priority is to change the architecture of the Euro are profoundly mistaken. The last thing the left should do is obsess about EU treaty change. The focus should be on changing policies now, so that there is much greater flexibility in the Eurozone, which would enable European economies to grow consistently.10

More broadly, the task across the whole of Europe is not to reject closer economic co-operation but rather to shape it along progressive lines. Economics has leapt the boundaries of the nation state. Our politics needs to do the same. Crucially, this requires European-wide action to reshape the operation of the Single Market and to prioritise green growth, focused on long-term investment in employment-creating jobs such as in housing and green technologies. Joint European action is also the only way to reassert control over the financialisation of the economy. The introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax would both exert some control over the excesses of the financial sector and bring in significant sources of revenue to be used for public investment.


The second key issue is migration. Social-democratic and Liberal parties across Europe have found themselves on the back foot on immigration. Here the right in its many guises has fused a variety of authoritarian, conservative and sometimes racist ideas of the threatening ethnic ‘other’ to more widely felt insecurities of a socio-economic character: ‘they’re taking our jobs; they’re taking our houses’. As working-class living standards have stagnated and the financial crisis has come to the fore, the consequence has been twofold: an explosion in electoral support for openly racist and populist parties of the far right and a tacking to this agenda by the mainstream right, dragging parts of the left in its slipstream.

Race and migration are the most volatile issues Europe faces in the early twenty-first century. Yet the reality of the past sixty years is that migration has fundamentally changed the face of Europe – and there is no going back. Third-generation Turks in Berlin, North Africans in Paris and Lyon, Latin Americans in Madrid and Barcelona, and African Caribbeans, Africans and Asians in London and Birmingham, are here to stay. And their contribution to the daily working life of our continent is immense. Just spend some time in an NHS hospital to see the reality of an integrated, multicultural workforce or consider who harvests Europe’s fruit and vegetables. The future of Europe is multi-ethnic. The political issue is how to manage these processes of change and where necessary deal with them on a cross-European basis.

Here there are three distinct dimensions: migrants from within the EU; refugees and asylum seekers; and migrants from outside the EU. The common thread of a progressive position on all three dimensions is that these should be managed processes not just left to chance or the market.

With regard to internal EU migration, at the moment, across the Single Market the free movement of labour brings with it substantial economic advantages for employers in terms of skilled, cheap workers. For the individual migrant, the large wage differentials between East and Western Europe mean that s/he gets new work opportunities and higher wages than are available in their own countries. But the social and cultural costs of large-scale people movements are not picked up by any public authority. This lack of provision means that the extra costs are experienced only by citizens living in the areas with large migrant populations – additional kids in local schools, where they often don’t speak the local language; extra pressure on housing; more people in doctors’ surgeries. When combined with the added competition in the labour market, with East Europeans often prepared to work for longer hours and for much lower wages, this adds up to a volatile cocktail and is fertile ground for racist groups.

Addressing this requires European-wide action and a reshaping of the operation of the Single Market. The economic benefits of migration need complementary social measures to ensure that economic efficiency is combined with social justice. Politicians created and shaped the Single Market, and they can reshape it too. Firstly, there needs to be a much stronger social floor, with common working conditions across the whole of Europe, and a Europe-wide minimum wage set at 50 per cent of the average wage within each country. Secondly, this should be complemented by the creation of a new, visible, policy instrument, a European integration fund, designed to give localities the resources to respond to the social costs of migration. Under its provisions, every EU citizen who works abroad in a manual job would have to register with the local authority, and for every person registered the authority would be able to claim €1000 per year. So, for example, if Madrid, Manchester or Munich had a thousand EU migrant workers coming to their city they would receive annually €1 million from the EU Integration Fund. The public authority would use this money to address the additional social pressures on schools, health and housing brought about by the free movement of labour. Combined with stronger trade unions, these measures would benefit all workers, and offer a progressive model of social-democratic politics that goes with the grain of economic development. These proposals will not remove the dangers of racism from European politics, but they will give a clear basis on which to challenge its socio-economic roots.

The issue of refugees has now exploded again across Europe, with the huge numbers of refugees fleeing Syria and or seeking to enter Europe across the Mediterranean via the failed state of Libya. States are obliged to accept as refugees those whose fear of oppression in their country of origin is ‘well-founded’, as the 1951 Geneva Convention puts it. The front-line states of Greece and Italy believe that this large influx of refugees – who are often fleeing war zones and mayhem to which European military action has massively contributed, as in Libya and Iraq – should be dealt with as a European issue with an agreed distribution mechanism across EU member states. The response so far has been miserable and the consequences of beggar-my-neighbour policies are already only too evident.

Those who believe in a Europe built on the values of the Enlightenment cannot respond by simply pulling up the drawbridge and refusing their responsibilities to refugees. There are no simple solutions here but facing down tabloid press hysteria and exaggerated claims is a starting point. Progressives should support the principle of a sharing of refugees between all EU countries, as was fiercely argued by Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild Zeitung.11

On the third but often intertwining issue of economic migrants from non EU countries, the EU should encourage specific labour agreements between countries so that there are regulated routes for work. More broadly, they should look to refocus the EU aid budget, which is the largest in the world. Rather than spreading it globally, it should concentrate activities in the Middle East and Africa so that educational and economic opportunities are promoted for young people, in order to reduce the pressures they face to emigrate. With Africa’s population predicted to double by 2050 while Europe’s remains stable, these migratory pressures will only increase even if African countries find routes to sustainable economic prosperity. Left, liberal and Christian democratic forces have to combine together and work with churches, aid organisations and charities to develop this three-pronged approach and confront the bigotry and hatred that is being generated on this issue.


The Greek crisis has highlighted the serious deficiencies of European democracy, especially in the operation of the Eurozone. Both the Eurogroup and European Central Bank have been insulated from any democratic accountability mechanisms. This highlights a deep problem for the left, as it needs to find ways to operate effectively beyond the sphere of the nation state. This task has eluded most trade unions for decades, as they have attempted to bring together employees working for the same multinational corporation in different countries. Momentarily, popular movements such as European Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s and the Occupy movement in 2011-12 achieved cross-European momentum. But it is hard to sustain. Yet the creation of popular movements, initiatives and representative structures at the EU level will be crucial to any progressive development, and here the world of the internet and social media offers new potential. A progressive strategy has to encourage cross-European civil society movements; a Continental-wide press; and new ways to bring citizens together. Here the proposal from Sigmar Gabriel and Emanuel Macron to extend the Erasmus student mobility programme so that all 18 year olds in Europe can study, work or have an apprenticeship experience in another European country is particularly important.12

The lynchpin of this process should be the development of a more dynamic and effective European Parliament. The parliamentary session in early July 2015 with Alexis Tsipras clashing with the Liberal Guy Verhofstadt showed some of its potential and took the arguments out from the closed doors of the Eurogroup and ECB. Strengthening the role of the Parliament has to be central to the democratisation process. Crucially this requires the parties of the left to be able to work together on a pan-European basis and develop a common platform. Syriza lost above all because it was isolated. The mainstream right through the EPP has successfully imposed an austerity politics on Europe over the last five years. Can the forces of the left come together over the next five years and articulate a programme for a social Europe?


We are living in dangerous times. Around the world today we are seeing the spread of aggressive nationalisms, from the ruins of the USSR to India and Turkey. Across Europe we see the re-emergence of old nationalist enmities and the creation of new ones. Occasionally, as in Catalonia and Scotland, this is primarily a civic nationalism which sees the potential of its political goals within a broader Europe. However, generally these are ethnic nationalisms defining themselves against an enemy ‘other’ – be it refugees, East Europeans, Muslims or, most commonly in the UK, just ‘Brussels’.

The left must not kid itself that there is a progressive bolt hole for English nationalism. There is not. The days of ‘honourable Eurosceptic nationalism’ are long gone. In the twenty-first century, to control the major forces shaping the world’s economy and ecology we have to move beyond the nation state. As the nation state alone cannot bear the strain it is precisely the task of politics to create new frameworks that can. That requires a Europe that acts as a new hinge to complement the nation state and enable politics to shape the economy in a wider regional setting.

The task for all parts of the progressive spectrum is not to mimic UKIP or the Front National and Marine Le Pen, but to show that it can offer an alternative model of globalisation that reshapes the Single Market and offers a future to all of Europe’s peoples. The common task for battered social democrats, progressive nationalists, social Liberals, Greens and new forces like Syriza and Podemos should be to develop an attractive vision of states working together on a range of issues that will provide a better life for EU citizens and opportunities for its young people. For progressives, developing a strategy for a social Europe is the challenge of the decade.


[1] Office for National Statistics. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/bop/balance-of-payments/q4-and-annual-2014…

[2] Office for National Statistics Travel Trends, 2013

[3] UK Exports to China. FCO Economics Unit Jan 2013. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/211157/

[4] Daniel Hannan. Daily Mail 30 May 2015 For this and other quotes.

[5] http://www.liberal.org.au/latest-news/2012/10/15/tony-abbott-address-jakarta-business-luncheon

[6] See Robin Cook Point of Departure (2003)

[7] Ibid.

[8] The head of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijesselbloem is a Dutch Labour Party minister, while German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel is the leader of his country’s Social Democrats and expressed fiercer hostility to the Tsipras government than Angela Merkel in June and July 2015.

[9] For a clear analysis of the dangers see Joschka Fischer: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/return-of-the-ugly-german-by-joschka-fischer-2015-07

[10] An approach advocated by policy makers such as Philippe Legrain, economic adviser to President Barroso 2011-2014:

[11] See its dramatic 4 page special supplement Saturday 29th August and its #refugeeswelcome campaign.

[12] Proposal of French and German ministers Emmanuel Macron and Sigmar Gabriel