Two takes on the left

April 28, 2000

Have you missed a conference call? Don't worry, here are the highlights of the recent get-togethers of sociologists, art historians and political scientists.

Future of Democracy: cancelled" was the alarming message greeting participants in the Political Studies Association's annual conference as they arrived at the London School of Economics last week.

This apparent outbreak of existential pessimism turned out to be news of a cancelled panel session - but the PSA still celebrated its 50th anniversary with the best part of 700 participants and 150 panels. Some of the liveliest papers were part of the conference's debate about the nature and prospects of European social democracy.

Eunice Goes, an LSE doctoral student considering the contrasting political styles of British prime minister Tony Blair and his French counterpart Lionel Jospin, recalled the time in 1998 when Blair addressed the French National Assembly on the subject of the "third way". Many deputies were impressed by his fluent French, not a talent they normally expect of British leaders.

Other responses were mixed, and not along the party lines that might have been expected, Goes said: "Blair praised pragmatism, modernisation and the free market and spoke gladly about the end of ideology. At the end of his speech, the rightwing parties gave him loud applause while the socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin was reading his mail."

The event epitomised differences between Blair and Jospin, and their parties, exacerbated last year by the raspberry with which the French greeted the Blair-Schroeder manifesto Third Way: Neue Mitte. Yet, Goes argued, the differences between British Labour and the French Socialist parties are in essence rhetorical. Their policies in government are very similar.

Goes noted that Jospin's government, "has privatised, has run a tight budgetary policy, now has a budget surplus, implements 'tough on crime' policies and brought in a welfare-to-work programme to fight youth unemploymentI the only difference with Blair is the 35-hour week, and even this is a double-edged sword. Defended as a way of reducing working-time without reducing labour costs, this policy is de facto laying the ground for a flexible labour market."

There are, however, good reasons for the difference in rhetoric. One is the political context in France and England. While Labour seeks to reassure business and "middle England", the French Socialists have to placate their partners in a coalition government incorporating Greens and Communists. "Because Jospin's party is one of the most moderate in the coalition, he cannot afford to use centrist rhetoric," Goes said.

While Labour is still preoccupied with re-establishing its credibility as a party of government after 18 years in opposition, France's Socialists have been in office several times in that period.

Goes, who is Portuguese, pointed out that French socialism went through its "modernising" in the 1980s. She quoted the social scientist Alain Touraine's view of Socialist governments under Francois Mitterrand: "If you hear an inflated tribute to profits, enterprise, competition, you can be sure that you are listening to a socialist minister."

Those changes made, the French are now seeking a leftwing alternative. Here, Goes contrasted Blair's positive enthusiasm for markets and globalisation with Jospin's reservations:"New Labour takes globalisation as a givenI by contrast, Jospin claims that acknowledging that globalisation has positive aspects does not mean that it should be accepted as it is. Whereas the leadership of new Labour is comfortable with the modernisation process, with the constraints dictated by globalism and with centrist politics, the French socialists accept this consensus for want of anything better."

Jospin's rhetoric, she said, reflected a continuing difference in political aspirations, but "as long as his attempt to create a new social-democratic paradigm is not translated into a clear doctrine with matching policies, his 'modern socialism' does not amount to an alternative to Tony Blair's third way".

DEEP ROOTS OF VIOLENCE

Northern Ireland will need years of peace to eradicate support for political violence, even if the Good Friday agreement can be put back on track.

Ian McAllister of the Australian National University and Bernadette Hayes of Queen's University, Belfast, argue that violence - far from being a byproduct of political disagreement that will disappear when those disagreements are resolved - feeds off itself in a self-perpetuating cycle.

They found that the more people are exposed to political violence, the likelier they are to support it.

McAllister points to the massive scale of violence: "There were 3,289 deaths and more than 40,000 injuries between 1969 and the end of 1999 - equivalent to more than 100,000 deaths and 1.4 million injuries if you extrapolate those figures to Britain."

A poll in 1998 found about 7 per cent of both communities - equivalent to 60,000 Protestants and 40,000 Catholics - admitting "lots of sympathy" for the reasons behind the violence. "There is perhaps no other advanced industrial society where such large numbers of people in effect condone terrorism," McAllister says. This attitude, he says, has been reinforced by evidence that violence pays politically.

Nor is there any comfort to be found in assumptions that the young are free of the prejudices of their elders. McAllister says: "Young people are more prejudiced. That isn't what people want to hear, but it is the truth."

Huw Richards

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