Right-wing populism has been on the rise in Europe for a number for a number of years but there is one thing that has been strikingly absent: a coherent response from the Left. There are some obvious exceptions, for example the rise of anti-austerity parties in Greece and Spain have countered the neoliberalism of the EU, but the response in northern and western Europe has been totally inadequate. A prime example is in Germany, and with Merkel’s popularity waning a left-wing alternative is desperately needed.
Last week local elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern were held and the far-right AfD party made huge gains, surging to second place. All the headlines were about how this illustrated that Merkel’s days were numbered and then moved on to speaking about the 2017 Federal elections. I had a different take away. Political centrism is currently out of fashion, and this has largely spurred the rise of the far-right, but the Left could easily articulate policy positions that appeal to many people. As well as strengthening the German Left, the strategy would also undercut the potential success of AfD.
Germany, just like in many other liberal democracies, has been dominated by two-parties for a long time. One of the reasons for this, in my view, is that the Left has been split and therefore cannot force the conversation in a more radical direction. Thankfully Germany is uniquely placed to reverse this reality. The de facto party of left-wing unity, Die Linke, is structured to deliberately contain a number of internal tendencies. Further, being a broad church allows or a manifesto to not be defined by one orthodoxy and thus widens the appeal of the party. Die Linke already has informal arrangements with some of these smaller left-wing parties but absorbing these parties would only benefit wider labour movement.
On specific policies what should Die Linke do to undercut the gains of the far-right? Firstly Die Linke needs to have a response to people’s fears about immigration. These concerns are rooted in two areas: economic and cultural. Addressing the economic concern is quite straightforward. The government can be used to enforce labour laws more strictly to prevent undercutting of wages and to prevent exploitation, and because migration has a net economic benefit this additional growth can be used to fund public services in areas with higher rates of migration.
The cultural concerns are more difficult because we are in the realm of identity politics and what people feel. The suggestion that I would make is that Die Linke should propose compulsory language learning courses for all migrants and refugees so they can more easily integrate into German society. Further, by strengthening the political education of young people in Germany the children of immigrants will become more familiar with concepts like egalitarianism and social liberalism.
Incidentally, this curriculum would break down the perceptions of religious fundamentalists and reduce Germany’s risk of terrorist attacks. By separating the threat of terrorism from the arrival of refugees, the AfD will lose a key justification of their Draconian policies. It will take a long time to fully integrate these people but by articulating a radical alternative to the CDU/CSU and the SPD, Die Linke will be able to slow the AfD’s progress.
The other dimension of the AfD’s success is related to what I was just mentioning. Because of globalisation people across Europe feel alienated from their own societies, and the most clear manifestation of this is in the economy. Although the German economy is the strongest in Europe the country is geared up to export goods and as such the economic success of the country is reliant on the consumption of other countries. To tackle this Die Linke needs to argue for a whole-scale transformation of the German economy. By refocusing the economy on domestic concerns, people will have more free time, and technological advancements will allow productivity to remain high.
This policy proscription doesn’t squarely apply to Germany, for instance I believe it would be wise for the Front de Gauche to adopt a similar approach to counter the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen in France. The essence of these policies is refocusing the Left’s agenda to speak to a section of the population who feel disillusioned with the neoliberal consensus of the last few decades. Appeals to romanticised views of the past and identity politics are not new but what is crucial is for a coherent left-wing movement to have a response. Die Linke is strategically placed to lead this revival in western Europe, and even if the party did only enough to deprive the AfD of power in Germany, I would call that a victory.