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Future of the Left Symposium

University of Birmingham, 10 October 2018

By Joseph W. Ward, William C.R. Horncastle and David J. Zell

2018 marked the anniversaries of two highly significant figures of the German Left: the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx, and the centenary of the birth of Helmut Schmidt (SPD Chancellor of the FRG, 1974-1982). The Future of the Left in the UK and Germany Symposium, organized by the University of Birmingham’s Institute for German Studies, aimed to present thoughts and discussion in commemoration of these two thinkers, and to provide analysis of contemporary developments across British and German social democratic and socialist politics.

Four panels were held during the event, with contributors presenting on the current position of  the British and German Left, the rapidly changing dynamics of party organisation in the two countries, and the influence of political theory on contemporary leftism across the UK and Germany. A wide spectrum of participants, from early career researchers through to established senior scholars, came together to consider these and other topics.

Setting the scene for the symposium, the opening panel of Professor TIM BALE (Queen Mary University London), DR ISABELLE HERTNER (King’s College London) and CORNELIA HILDEBRANDT (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung) focussed on the future of left-wing politics in Germany and the UK.  Bale opened with a discussion of the Labour Party in the UK, centring on the recent increase in party membership and the changing demographics of the party, from a collective of mainly working class voters to one dominated by the intelligentsia. Despite this increased membership in recent years, Bale submitted that the Labour Party should be doing better, having still been sixty seats behind the Conservatives in 2017. Bale subsequently suggested that the SPD in Germany may have been tarnished when in government by a poor record on issues such as public education, concluding that the future looks bleak for left wing parties in both the UK and Germany.

Isabelle Hertner continued the conversation on the left-wing of German politics, discussing the difficulties faced by the SPD. She posited that the SPD is trapped within its centre-left ideological stance, as Die Linke takes up ideological space further to the left whilst the centre right of German politics was represented in the 1990s by the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). In contrast, Hertner suggested that, within the UK, the case for Labour moving leftward was easier to make, with a lack of strong left-wing presence since the New Labour shift to the centre of British politics in the 1990s. This discussion concluded with the issues that the Left faces in the UK and Germany, including the economic competence of left-leaning policies in the current neo-liberal climate, the role of the state within a successful government, and how to win back disillusioned voters who have shifted to the far right.

In the final presentation on this panel Cornelia Hildebrandt examined shifting political dynamics, such as  the resurgence of the ‘left of the Left’. Hildebrandt proposed that the political projects enacted by Schroder and Blair had led to  traditional left-leaning voters becoming disillusioned, seeing no party as representing their interests. As a result, many of these individuals have shifted their ideology further to the left, producing political polarisation in the process. As a result, Hildebrandt concluded, we may be witnessing the demise of social democracy in Germany, with the left-wing of politics becoming ideologically more  extreme. She concluded by recommending that the left wing of German politics might learn from its UK counterparts, particularly by focussing on the successes of the Momentum arm of Labour Party members and supporters.

four speakers at a workshop

The second panel of the day  considered different traditions of ‘Left-wing Thought’, with three papers reviewing the influence of key political theorists and institutions on leftist political practice. The first of these, by HELENE ALBRECHT (University College London), provided insights  into the life and work of Eduard Bernstein. Pointing out that Bernstein was a German who spent much of his life in the UK, Albrecht highlighted Bernstein’s sizeable contribution to politics in both countries, and showed how his revision of Marxist thought contributed extensively to late 19th and 20th century social democracy through the concept of ‘evolutionary socialism’. Albrecht also emphasised the role of science in Bernstein’s work, showing how his focus on ‘evolutionary’ development was rooted not just in his reformist model of change, but also in evolutionary theory and the significant scientific developments of his time.

Moving  to the present, FLORENCIA SANNDERS (Ludwig Maximilian Universität, Munich),examined the utilisation of Jorge Bergoglio (a.k.a. Pope Francis) and the Catholic Church as electoral tool by left-wing parties throughout Europe; particularly in Germany by Die Linke. Sannders highlighted the contrast between Borgoglio’s less liberal interventions on social issues in his native country, Argentina, and some of the criticisms of neo-liberal capitalism he has expressed since his election to the Holy See, helping to reform the public image of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of numerous scandals. Sannders pointed out the often uncritical invocation of this religious figure by political parties and suggested a an approach that expressed solidarity across economic and social issues might present a better way forward for the Left across Europe and beyond.

PETER THOMPSON (Sheffield) concluded the panel’s presentations by returning to the concept of reformism, and considered whether any alternative to a reformist strategy for left-wing parties is either possible or desirable. Framed within the context of philosopher Ernst Bloch’s work, Thompson’s paper  reflected on the role of history in understanding social phenomena, drawing a number of lessons for the present. Thompson concluded by warning about the growing threat of fascism across Europe; Instead of the Left nostalgically  relying on outdated social models, they should reaffirm their commitment to Enlightenment values as a vehicle for change.

Subsequent  questions for each of the panellists, focussed on the role of trade unions in Bernstein’s thought and its applicability to the present day, the reactions of other political parties in Germany to Die Linke’s appropriation of Pope Francis – particularly the reaction of the Christian Democrats – and also Bloch’s focus on the principle of hope, and how integral hope should be for contemporary leftist movements.

The final panel included presentations from DR LEANDROS FISCHER (Marburg/Cyprus), MATTHEW LLOYD (King’s College London), and WILLIAM HORNCASTLE (Birmingham), and discussed left-wing political parties in the UK and Germany. Presenting via video link, Fischer’s paper, ‘Exploring the Extraordinary resilience of Die Linke’ considered the persistent strength of German democratic socialist party, Die Linke, since its inception in 2007. Couching his argument in comparative perspective Fischer explained how Die Linke – one of a wave of new leftist parties to have emerged in Europe over the past decade or so – has managed to maintain a consistent vote share despite many of their contemporaries’ either ceding ground to the centre or beginning to fall away. In explaining this ‘extraordinary resilience’, Fischer pointed to a number of institutional and cultural factors that have worked to Die Linke’s advantage including the German electoral system, and high levels of social mobilisation throughout the country around anti-racism and environmental protection.

Lloyd’s paper, ‘Why has there been a shift in the Labour Party’s economic policy since 2007?’ investigated why the Labour Party has changed its priorities since 2007, and explored the relationship between ideological and organisational change within the party. Presenting the preliminary conclusions of his master’s thesis, he offered a theoretical model which explained strategic and structural drivers of change,: that the presence of a strong modernisation strategy alone is not enough for successful implementation of that strategy. Although strategy is important in driving ideological change within the party, the wider economic and societal structures must be aligned for changes to hold. In conclusion, he suggested potential policy changes for Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn that  adopt an overarching ‘clever Post-Keynesian’ strategy.

William Horncastle presented the panel’s final paper, ‘Assessing the current state of the Left in the UK: How did we get here and what does the future hold?’. In it he discussed the state of the Labour Party in the present day. His paper related the leftward shift of the Labour Party to the 2008 Financial Crisis, and assessed Conservative and Coalition government responses to the crisis as inept. Austerity, wage stagnation and privatisation were deemed particularly responsible for producing political polarisation of the British electorate, with increased support for the Left coinciding with the rise of far-right sentiment, producing breakaway groups such as Britain First.