Trying to divine the political future from the results of European Parliament elections always involves an element of entrail-gazing. Across the continent, people take the opportunity to register protest votes; many don’t vote at all. The turnout for the June elections (43 percent) was at a historic low. But even with those caveats, two things are obvious: the center-right has won at the expense of social democrats, even in France, Germany and Italy, where voters might have been expected to give ruling conservatives a kicking; and the collapse of the left vote has let in an unprecedented number of far-right and neofascist candidates, as well as a few more Greens.
The far right made gains in the Netherlands, where anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party came in second, with 17 percent; in Italy, where the Northern League more than doubled its share of the vote; in Hungary, where the anti-Roma Jobbik party took three out of twenty-two seats; in Austria, where two extreme right parties polled 18 percent; in Slovakia, where strident nationalists won their first seats; and in Britain, which elected not one but two candidates from the British National Party (BNP)–a whites-only neo-Nazi group committed to “reversing the tide of non-white immigration.”
All these groups prey on white working-class insecurity, fattened on anti-immigrant scaremongering. Mainstream politicians have helped lay the ground for them with slogans like Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers.” The refrain from BNP voters interviewed by the media has been “I’m not racist, but migrants from Eastern Europe are putting us out of work.” Yet one of their new members of the European Parliament (MEPs), BNP leader Nick Griffin, is a white supremacist and avowed Holocaust denier; the other, Andrew Brons, has in the past supported bombing synagogues and led marches chanting, “If they’re black, send them back.” Though they may now wear suits and ties instead of buzz cuts and bovver boots, both men have their roots in the old National Front, the violent racist group that terrorized Britons of color in the 1970s.
In northern Britain, in the cities of the Netherlands, in the industrial towns of Italy, in Hungary and Austria, the far right has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by social democrats. Some voters have changed sides, but the BNP’s Griffin in fact polled lower than he did five years ago. The reason he is now an MEP is that the Labour vote spectacularly collapsed. Elsewhere, the traditional left vote migrated to the Greens, who have increased their share of seats in the European Parliament from forty-three to fifty. In France former ’68er Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Green coalition, Europe Écologie, finished less than 1 percent behind the Socialists; Greece returned its first Green MEP.
What explains the meltdown of the left in a time of recession and rage against bankers and bonuses? No European left-wing party has articulated a convincing alternative to the bailouts, or a coherent vision for the future. In France and Germany, voters see little difference between what social democrats are offering and the policies of their soft-right governments. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are launching big public spending programs and supporting generous welfare payments to protect the unemployed. When it comes to managing a crisis, one welfare capitalist seems as good as another–and better the devil you know than the devil who is, like France’s Socialists, in a state of disarray.
First prize for disarray, of course, goes to Britain’s Labour Party, embroiled for weeks now in a scandal about MPs’ expense claims and in attempts to unseat its leader, Gordon Brown. After disastrous local election results, the European vote is one more nail in Labour’s already bristling coffin. Relegated to third place after the Tories and the UK Independence Party–a formerly fringe libertarian group whose sole policy plank is opposition to the European Union–Labour did worse than it has in any election since 1918. It lost Scotland to the Scottish Nationalists and Wales to the Tories; it lost acres of heartland that may never be recovered, leaving hard-working local activists who have given their lives to the cause abandoned and betrayed. In early June Brown seemed to be held in place by Scotch tape and Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s old familiar. He now looks set to survive for a few months at least, but Labour may be finished, for a decade or more.
While the media focus on Westminster plots and counter-plots, the real rot goes far deeper. Like an overdose of chemotherapy, the New Labour project appears to have killed the patient it was meant to cure. In the 1990s, faced with a political consensus moved to the right by Thatcherism and a decimated industrial base, Labour had no choice but to reform. It did so by embracing the culture of spin and imposing spartan discipline to keep MPs “on message” and silence the Labour left. This pernicious centralization starved the party’s roots and left local activists cut off from decision-making. Under Tony Blair, the party’s membership halved. Large numbers jumped ship over the hated Iraq War, pushed through a reluctant Parliament with lies and misinformation.
The dysfunctional marriage of Blair and Brown, which festered for years at the administration’s heart, may paradoxically have contributed to its longevity. For those of us who couldn’t bear to turn our backs on Labour altogether, Brown’s brooding silence made it possible to project all sorts of hopes: perhaps he wasn’t in favor of the war, perhaps he really was to Blair’s left, perhaps his community roots would reassert themselves and put an end to the glibness and glitz in favor of old Labour values.
We were wrong, on all those counts. As prime minister, Brown has been a failure: indecisive, secretive, unable to come up with a political narrative. He has also turned out to be a brutal operator, issuing threats by proxy and leaking negative stories about his own ministers to the press. Some of those ministers have behaved even worse: Hazel Blears, former communities secretary, quit the cabinet on the eve of polling day, wearing a Cheshire cat grin and a badge that read Rocking the Boat–and pulling the rug from under scores of local councilors standing for re-election. The party is at its own throat as it has never been before, even in the wilderness years of the Thatcherite 1980s.
Barring some unprecedented event, a year from now Britain will have a Conservative government–which brings us back to the European elections. To please the anti-Europeans in his party, David Cameron has pledged to take the Tories out of the center-right alliance in the European Parliament and form a bloc of Eurosceptic groups. To that end he has been making common cause with far right parties mostly from Eastern Europe, like Poland’s fundamentalist Catholic Law and Justice Party, which considers homosexuality a “pathology” and climate change a hoax, and the Czech Republic’s Civic Democratic Party, whose founder, Vaclav Klaus, sees Brussels as the new Moscow. Though Cameron will have no truck with obvious neofascists like the BNP, the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party could be another ally.
The European Parliament remains for now in the hands of the center right, and the extremists’ election may have no direct effect on European policy. But it will give racist groups legitimacy and funds and make it more acceptable for mainstream politicians to blame immigrants and minorities for their countries’ ills. On June 6, D-Day’s sixty-fifth anniversary, Brown and Barack Obama met on the beaches of Normandy with some of the last veterans of Europe’s fight against fascism. As living memories of that struggle fade, the racism under the skin of this crowded continent is finding a public space in which to assert itself once more.