Not long ago Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Angela Merkel in Germany and Kostas Karamanlis in Greece presented themselves as politicians who could do for continental European capitalism what Margaret Thatcher did for British capitalism.1 Some on the left took them at their word, drawing the conclusion that workers’ organisations and the left were facing a qualitatively worse situation. Yet in recent months all three have been thrown on to the defensive by determined, if sporadic, resistance from workers. With that have come signs that the popular mood has shifted to the left.
Following regional elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony in January, polling group Forsa commented, “The Left Party is the real victor of both votes.” The Left Party, Die Linke in German, took 5.1 percent of the poll in Hesse, winning six seats in the state assembly, and 7.1 percent and 11 seats in Lower Saxony. “The party has established itself as part of the mainstream,” noted the Financial Times. “No longer can it be dismissed as a largely East German phenomenon.” Opinion polls consistently put Die Linke on 12 to 13 percent nationally, making it the third most popular party.
The party is the main beneficiary of the growing unpopularity of Merkel’s “grand coalition”, made up of her own Tory CDU and the social democrat SPD. In Hesse the CDU got its lowest votes for 40 years, with a drop of 12 percent, after running a racist campaign. At the same time, Die Linke is picking up support in the SPD’s traditional heartlands, with polls suggesting workers and the unemployed vote disproportionately for it.
The electoral gains for the left came as Germany was experiencing its biggest strike wave for many years. In November and December the GDL, a small train drivers’ union, held a series of effective strikes, winning an 11 percent pay rise and an hour’s cut in the working week. The GDL is not left led and does not share the larger unions’ opposition to rail privatisation. The media and all parties except Die Linke opposed the strikes, as did union leaders representing a majority of workers on the railways. Yet opinion polls showed the drivers had majority support among voters.
In February 85,000 steel workers won a pay deal worth 5.2 percent. The union could undoubtedly have won more, since steel bosses expected a tough confrontation and conceded rapidly. Meanwhile, the public sector union Verdi put in a demand for an 8 percent rise for its members, and polls showed that 60 percent of people supported the claim or even thought it was not enough. Its “warning strikes” in March hit refuse collections, airports and urban transport. Public support for strikes is a response to a situation where wages have lagged behind inflation for 12 years. One in ten workers earns less than 7.50 Euros (£5.70) an hour before tax, and 1.3 million in full time jobs are on such low pay they qualify for benefit.
Die Linke’s political impact is shown by the way the government has been thrown on to the defensive over calls for a minimum wage. Merkel has already conceded a minimum of 9.80 Euros (£7.50) an hour for postal workers. Die Linke has also gained support by attacking tax evasion by business leaders. The scandal over this issue began with an early morning raid on the home of Deutsche Post chief executive Klaus Zumwinkel in late February and has since taken on extraordinary proportions.
Under pressure from Die Linke sections of the SPD, including the current leader, Kurt Beck, want to steer leftwards in order to regain support. The recent election results are aggravating the SPD’s dilemma, since it does not have a majority enabling it to govern by itself either in Hesse or Hamburg, and the racist tone of the CDU campaign in Hesse makes it difficult to form a local grand coalition with it to run the state.
The alternative would be for the SPD to try to trap Die Linke by forming a coalition with it and forcing it to take responsibility for cuts necessary to balance regional budgets. Sections of Die Linke who come from the PDS, successor to the old ruling party of East Germany, are already part of such “Red-Red” coalitions in the East. But activists from the West have blocked that path. They can see what it means in Berlin, where Die Linke councillors have voted for cuts in public services and opposed wage claims. In Hesse, instead of joining the regional government, Die Linke said they would allow an SPD-Green collation to take office, but would not vote with it on issues they opposed. Meanwhile in Hamburg, where Die Linke won 6.4 percent in elections in February, the Tories and the Greens have discussed forming a “Black-Green” coalition.
Die Linke is not homogenous. It was formed in response to disillusion with the SPD government that ruled Germany with the Greens until three years ago. Disaffected trade unionists and socialists in the West agreed to a merger with the PDS in the East. The majority of its members want reforms to the present system rather than revolution. This is the approach of its best known member, former SPD economics minister Oscar Lafontaine. The more popular the party becomes, the more some of its members will be tempted to go along the path of a coalition with the SPD—and the more SPD leaders will be tempted to use this to lay a trap for Die Linke. That is why the role of a consistently left force within Die Linke is so important.
Greece is also experiencing both a wave of strikes and a big swing to the left, despite the success of the conservative New Democracy Party in winning a second term in office in September.
The strike wave, against government plans to seize workers’ pension funds, is the biggest for more than 15 years. It began with a 24-hour strike by journalists in defence of their pensions in November. Trade union leaders called a day of action that turned into a public sector general strike on 12 December, triggering the resignation of the minister responsible for pension reform. A second day of action on 13 February saw two million strike. Schools shut, flights were cancelled, buses and trains stopped, the public bank and courts closed, TV news programmes went off the air and hospitals treated only emergency cases. Union leaders called action rather than awaiting legislation. They were worried by the prospect of unofficial strikes inspired by the student struggle against privatisation in 2006-7, which had prevented New Democracy enforcing legislation despite getting it through parliament. It was this failure that led the government to call early elections last September in the hope of reinforcing its mandate.
The Tories won the election with a majority of one. The socialist party Pasok could offer no real alternative, since it had itself carried through privatisations and attacks on benefits while in office. Some Pasok former voters moved left, backing either the thoroughly Stalinist Communist Party or the Left Alliance, Synaspismos, formed by former Eurocommunists. Opinion polls in late February showed support for Synaspismos had risen to 16.2 percent, and the combined standing for the two left parties is only 5 percent below Pasok and 8 percent below New Democracy.
The victory of Sarkozy in France’s presidential election 11 months ago was greeted with elation by capitalist interests right across Europe and by near suicidal feeling among sections of the left. Today the mood is very different. On the eve of France’s local elections in March the Financial Times quoted one of Sarkozy’s former advisers who said, “Sarkozy hooked France. Now he has lost the fish.” According to the Financial Times, “Sarkozy’s rhetoric and his reforms just don’t fit together. If he was really interested in leading a revolution in France, he would have to muster the courage to take on the many privileges of the powerful lobbyists. Out of fear for his popularity, however, he isn’t willing to do that.”
He made his first attempt to implement a hard line at the end of last year in a confrontation with railway workers over their pension rights. They responded by striking. Sarkozy used the media to launch a vicious witch-hunt against the strikers, claiming they were privileged compared with other workers (whose pensions are also under attack). Despite this, the workers voted each day to continue the strike until Sarkozy was forced to negotiate, offering payments to buy off the workers’ pension rights. Most commentators saw the eventual return to work after nine days, under pressure from the leaders of the biggest union, the CGT, as only a partial victory for the government. Militants in the depot say that the feeling was one of being sold out by union leaders, rather than defeated. The French media concluded Sarkozy had shied away from a generalised confrontation.
The months since have seen a succession of one-day strikes and protests by other workers in the public sector, and a new wave of action in the private sector. A report in the Guardian from 21 February gave a flavour of the mood:
The French government is working to contain a wave of factory strikes by workers not normally known for taking to the barricades, including ice-cream makers, supermarket staff, hairdressers and L’Oreal workers. Factory staff have taken increasingly hardline measures, with some holding managers hostage for days over plant closures and job cuts. This week the tyre giant Michelin continued talks over the closure of a plant in Toul, eastern France, after a government mediator secured the release of two managers whom workers had locked in a room for three days. It follows an incident last month when workers at the Miko ice-cream factory in Saint-Dizier locked up their manager. This week staff at a Ford plant near Bordeaux blockaded their factory and L’Oreal staff took to the streets under the banner “Because we’re worth it”… Industrial action has spiralled as workers including hairdressers, taxi drivers and printers have downed tools.
The first round of local elections, on 9 March, exposed as superficial the apparent shift to the right in last spring’s presidential election. The overall left vote was higher than the overall right vote, and within the left vote there was an advance for the “left of the left”. Candidates supported by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire got some of their best ever votes. Half got over 5 percent and some more than 10 percent.
The situation in Italy is, on the face of it, in sharp contrast to that in France, let alone Germany. The centre-left government of Romano Prodi abandoned office in mid-February after just two years in power, calling an election that commentators expected the right parties and Silvio Berlusconi to win. The prospect is filling much of the left with despair.
Five years ago the left seemed to going from strength to strength, with general strikes against the last Berlusconi government’s attacks on pensions and huge protests against the Iraq War. Then Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the left wing Rifondazione Comunista, persuaded his supporters to place their faith in a centre-left electoral victory and join a coalition with Prodi—the sort of arrangement some on the left in Germany and in Greece might be tempted by.
The result has been disastrous. The Prodi government proceeded with its own series of counter-reforms, and sent troops to fulfil US objectives in Afghanistan and Lebanon. The body of the first Italian soldier killed in Afghanistan, brought home in February, made a mockery of Prodi’s claim that Italy is not at war there. Now the left is in disarray. The former Democratic Socialists (established by the main leaders of the old Italian Communist Party in the early 1990s) have now merged with a section of the Christian Democrats, forming the Democratic Party under the meaningless slogan “Yes we can”. The three parties to its left that were in the government—Rifondazione Comunista, the Party of Italian Communists and the Greens—have formed the Rainbow Left to contest the elections.
However, the demoralisation of the left does not mean that Italian workers have suffered a fatal defeat. A lorry drivers’ strike in December was incredibly effective, despite being denounced by the Prodi government. The International Herald Tribune reported:
Trucks blocked traffic on highways outside Rome, Milan and other major cities. Many gas stations across Rome were closed or put up signs reading “out of fuel”… Fiat Group said more than 22,000 employees were temporarily laid off as of Tuesday afternoon. “The number is expected to grow in the next few days and involve all the 50,000 workers of the manufacturing areas,” Fiat said.
Berlusconi has twice before sought to subdue Italy’s working class through a combination of government threats, the mobilisation of his middle class supporters and his control over much of the media. On each occasion he has failed. The only thing that has made it possible for him to try again is the centre-left government that took his place.
Across Europe, there is still much to play for.
1: With thanks to Tom Behan, Antoine Boulangé, Panos Garganas, Frank Renken and Jim Wolfreys.