The hour has not yet struck for an offensive by the left in Western Europe. The defeat of the French Socialists in March of last year and the failure of the German Social Democrats to reconquer office in January of the current one was followed by further setbacks this June. In Spain the fate of the government of Felipe Gonzáles was not at stake, but his Socialist Party suffered severe losses in local elections as well as in a European Parliament poll. In Britain the herald of private enterprise did not sink. Praised by the Western press to the skies, Margaret Thatcher won a third term, an achievement unequaled since Lord Liverpool’s in the previous century. Finally, in Italy the Christian Democrats, forever in government since 1945, got another lease on life, as did their awkward and indispensable ally Bettino Craxi, a staunch upholder of capitalism and a socialist in name only. The Communists, who, mutatis mutandis, play in their country roughly the same role that the Labor Party performs in Britain, lost support. Yet, if you look at the whole European scene in perspective, it is more a case of the left losing than of the right winning. The conservative forces do not provide any genuine response to the current economic crisis. They have survival thrust upon them by the obvious absence of a radical and realistic alternative.
The pundits–particularly numerous in the United States–who are now waxing lyrical over the triumph of Thatcherism and interpreting it as the vanishing of the working class, the funeral of socialism and a capitalist reign from here to eternity can be countered quite easily. The Tories’ performance was not unique. The party won three successive elections, in 1951, 1955 and 1959, which did not prevent Harold Wilson’s Labor Party from coming back and being for a time described as the party of government. Furthermore, Thatcher’s victory is based on too many circumstances that are unlikely to last. You cannot bribe forever segments of the electorate by unloading on the market valuable national assets at bargain prIces or by selling council houses cheaply. Nor can you rely on North Sea oil concealing eternally an economic position that is fundamentally disastrous.
Besides, Britain’s capitalist establishment itself had second thoughts after the victory celebrations, because of the country’s striking division into two nations: not just a geographical cleavage between the affluent true-blue south and the rest (northern England, Scotland and Wales are getting an increasingly reddish complexion) but also a clear split between the derelict inner cities and the posh suburbs, between the haves and the have-nots. You play the game of class conflict with temporary success and run the risk of subsequent conflagration. Last but not least, there can be no serious talk of mass conversion to "competitive capitalism," because the Tories did not sweep the country. Once again Thatcher got a thumping three-figure majority in Parliament on a minority vote of 42.9 percent. The British electoral system of "first past the post," designed for two parties, and the division of the other side together did the trick. The split of the Labor Party and the setting up of a Social Democratic Party were carried out for that very purpose and have so far fulfilled their function, even if the splitters have now paid an electoral price. (Of the four original musketeers of the Labor secession, only David Owen still soldiers on in the House of Commons; Roy Jenkins has now lost his seat, and Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers did not recover those they had previously lost.)
In the Italian case the verdict was even more ambiguous, as proportional representation tends to minimize electoral swings there. The Christian Democrats gained just over 1 percent in share, taking 33.8 percent of the votes cast, still far below their level of the 1970s. Craxi benefited from his long reign as Prime Minister, and his Socialist Party advanced by 3 percent. Yet with 14.2 percent of the Polk it was still barely more than half the percentage of the Italian Communist Party (F"C.I,), which, with 26.9 percent of the vote, was down 3 percent from the last elections. The symmetry should not suggest a direct swap. In fact, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists made most of then gams at the expense of the smaller partners in their five-party coalition–the Republicans, the Social Democrats and the Liberals–and thus the pentapartito, as the alliance is called, merely moved from 56.4 percent to 57.4 percent of the total vote in the Chamber of Deputies, hardly a landslide. The Communist setback, on the other hand, was coupled with the parliamentary debut of the Greens, who captured 2.6 percent of the vote, and the successful survival of the old New Left, the Proletarian Democracy, which got 1.7 percent.