The decisive victory of the right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy in Sunday's French presidential elections and the crushing defeat for New Labour in last week’s elections in Britain may not appear to have much connection. But both mark the end of an era and signal periods of political and social upheaval. At the heart of the matter is how corporate-driven globalisation has changed, and will continue to change, the landscape of traditional politics on both sides of the Channel. In France, the Socialist Party has now lost three presidential elections in a row. In the previous one, it was even beaten into second place by Le Pen’s fascist National Front. This time, Le Pen’s supporters voted for Sarkozy to ensure the defeat of Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party candidate. Sarkozy has pledged to end the French welfare state, target immigrant workers, end the 35-hour week and open up the economy to global competition. He is a kind of Thatcherite figure and France is now certain to endure a period of extra-parliamentary civil conflict and state violence. The fact that there is no reformist-type solution to the challenges posed by globalisation is evident in the performance of Royal and the Socialist Party. Swinging from a kind of Old Labour towards Blairism, Royal had nothing substantial to offer the electorate. Her defeat will usher in a sharp swing to the right by the Socialist Party, in much the same way that Blair and Brown transformed Labour to a party of big business from the mid-1990s onwards.
While France is set to enter the globalisation maelstrom in a new, dramatic way, the Blairite, New Labour period is coming to an end in Britain. In last Thursday’s polls, New Labour’s share of the vote in England was down to 27% , which is somewhere near the levels of the 1920s, while its performance in Wales was the worst for 50 years. In Scotland, the failure of New Labour led to the narrow victory of the nationalists, who are essentially Tartan Tories. The coronation of Brown as the next New Labour premier will mean more of the same and the most likely outcome is the return of the Tories at the next general election. That would signal the completion of a process that began over a century ago with the formation of the Labour Party itself. That was founded on the basis of using parliament to carry through reforms that benefited working people. Since in the globalisation period that approach is no longer sustainable, Labour was transformed into New Labour, to become a party that embraced and managed the global market economy as it operated in Britain. That has benefited a minority at the expense of the majority while subjecting everything that moves to market forces and competition has alienated more and more people and undermined many key services. Ultimately, the major issues of the day like climate change, corporate power, war and terrorism revolve around the question of political and economic power. At present, this remains in the hands of the capitalist state and corporate elites, whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the majority. The lesson from France and Britain is that the old parliamentary games offer only a cul-de-sac for those who favour progressive change. A revolutionary alternative based on extending democracy into the workplace and communities and wresting power from the ruling elites, is the only viable way forward.
Paul Feldman, communications editor