A few weeks ago, a prime minister walked up to the podium at her party conference. She looked nervous, but then notably more assured when she started delivering her long awaited first major speech.
In it, she hailed former British prime minister Clement Attlee, responsible for the post war social democratic settlement. She launched an attack on predatory capitalism, calling it “Unsustainable”. She declared the beginning of a “New age” where governments would intervene to fix broken markets and act in the
interests of the working class. You could be fooled by her rhetoric into thinking that this was a Labour prime minister, or some sort of reincarnation of Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson. But it wasn’t. It was a centre right conservative PM, our newly elected PM, Theresa May.
I sat and watched with amazement as the conservative-yes, a conservative, prime minister destroyed every neoliberal dogma after another, the claim that austerity was necessary, trickle down economics, Thatcherism, all of it abrogated. I began to wonder, is the neoliberalism order, which has thus far survived nearly everything that has been thrown at it, finally coming to an end?
The neoliberalism order has been remarkably resilient. Many studies show that for years the vast majority of economic gains have been going to the top 1%, that inequality was on the up, and, particularly since the financial crisis, the working and middle classes were being squeezed. However, up until recently only brave Greece had dared to resist the dogma of the invisible hand- for which it paid a truly terrible price. The neoliberal order began with the landslide victories of Ronald Reagan in the U.S and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. They swept to power, brushing aside the old social democratic order. For a time, it appeared as if that order had won the ultimate victory. The USSR collapsed, the European left gradually began to embrace the framework of the right, and no challenge to the new order-at least no serious challenge-was forthcoming.
This is now changing, however. The hold of the invisible hand weakened greatly with the onset of the financial crisis, as citizens finally began to accept that something was wrong.
Unfortunately the replacement to the neoliberal order thus far looks to be even more unsavoury. Filling the vacuum left by an ideologically blank centre left, populist right parties have filled the vacuum, appealing to the masses with a mixture of the economics of the old left and pandering to populist and socially conservative attitudes, scapegoating of migrants and hostility to globalisation commonly found on the far right. The truth is that there is room for a sensible challenge to the existing system from the centre left, but social democratic parties have become so used to working with the constrains of the neoliberal system that they are unable to think constructively, or in some cases come up with the wrong answers. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the UK, where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is struggling. His attacks on deregulated capitalism and the excesses of the rich are deeply courageous, and to be admired, but on many issues he is unable to connect with the ordinary British voter, and thus is incapable of winning a general election and delivering the meaningful change that he talks about. In Spain, the fate of the Spanish Socialists’ is a microcosm of the likely fate of every centre left party if they are unable to reform. After ousting their leader because of his refusal to support a grand coalition with the centre right popular party, the PSOE have slumped from the mid 40% in its heyday to just 14% today.
The consequences of the lack of an electoral challenge from the left are grave, as the anger and discontent of the masses is then swept up by the populist right, with their simple solutions designed to preserve merely a different form of the same system. The centre left across Europe must come together and look for a solution that adapts to the new political reality of the time that we live in, or else it will not survive.
Mohammed Ahmed is a Labour activist