“Why did Labour lose so badly (in the 2019 general election)? Because there was one central issue in the election campaign: Brexit. In that context, a party that could provide only a hesitant and ambiguous answer because of its internal divisions had no chance.”
“If Corbyn had been able to counterpose a resolute Left Brexit to Johnson’s plans – that is to say: using the end of the neoliberal EU treaties for the purpose of a social restructuring of British society – then a different result would have been very possible.”
“There is nothing irrational about the fact that the upper middle classes and the educated inhabitants of the big cities were against Brexit whereas the former industrial workers and poorer people voted for Brexit.”
“What is irrational is the fact that the latter had to vote for a neoliberal Tory to put an end to the unending Brexit impasse.”
This is the explanation for Labour’s election defeat provided by Sahra Wagenknecht, a leading figure in the German political party Die Linke (The Left).
In 2018 Wagenknecht launched “Arise!” as a populist German equivalent of Momentum. It quickly collapsed and now leads only a shadow existence in cyberspace. In 2019 ill health led Wagenknecht to stand down from the posts she held in Die Linke and Arise!
But in recent months Wagenknecht’s political profile has undergone a revival. Recent opinion polls have repeatedly found her to be one of Germany’s most popular politicians.
Wagenknecht’s health may have recovered. But as her analysis of Labour’s defeat demonstrates, her politics continue to suffer from a virulent strain of Blue-Labour-style pseudo-left populism.
In explaining the current electoral stagnation of Die Linke, Wagenknecht has resurrected the argument used to justify the creation of Arise! – that Die Linke had lost touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary working people’.
In 2018 the argument focused on the concerns of “ordinary working people” about refugees and immigration, with vaguely left-sounding reasons covering up for right-wing politics.
According to Arise! theorist Wolfgang Streek, for example: “Would you want Nelson Mandela to be a refugee in Germany? No! He’d be a mail-carrier bringing Amazon parcels to your house. He was needed somewhere else.”
And Wagenknecht herself attacked the far-right AfD for being too open to immigration: Allowing in skilled workers, as advocated by the AfD, would, she argued, rob poorer countries of a skilled labour force.
Today, that argument has a broader focus. In her latest contribution to the “Die Linke Strategy Debate 2020” Wagenknecht argues:
“Many people feel patronised by the moralistic finger-wagging of Die Linke. They don’t want to have to justify what they eat, how they live, or how they travel. They don’t want to be lectured by students about how they should speak and think.”
“They are repelled by academicised (sic – the German word is an invention as well) debates far-removed from the reality of their lives and conducted in a language which excludes them.”
“They feel ignored when other social groups are strikingly higher up in the hierarchy of left empathies. If we want to reach out to the so-called ‘little people’ again, then we must place their interests centre-stage.”
Some of the interests cited by Wagenknecht are not controversial, such as more public investment in education, health and social care, and the defence and improvement of conditions at work.
But other interests include: “The restoration of a strong performance-based welfare state; a clear rejection of new consumer taxes such as the CO2 tax; stringent criticism of elitist lifestyle debates, which are nothing to do with the climate but a denigration of poorer people and their consumer habits.”
These interests are to be promoted and met by a state which “takes on responsibility for people, protects them from the competition of global dumping, and socially bonds society together.”
Wagenknecht’s call for a proactive welfare state is linked to her entrenched hostility to immigration and the EU: Only a nation-state can provide an effective welfare state. In an interview late last year Wagenknecht argued:
“You cannot simultaneously declare the nation-state to be out of date and demand a strong welfare state. At a transnational level there are not the institutional prerequisites – nor even any acceptance – of the idea of a large-scale redistribution and social safety nets.”
In the same interview Wagenknecht explained how Die Linke had come to abandon traditional left-wing policies and lose voters to the far right:
“We cannot become a green-liberal lifestyle-party, with themes and a language which, at best, allow us to advance in the milieu of the academically educated urban middle class. The task of a left-wing party is to represent the victims of neoliberal globalisation, not its beneficiaries.”
“It is the outlook and lifestyles of the urban better-paid, their view of globalisation, immigration, the EU and the national state, which today count as ‘left-wing’. View which were previously mainstream social-democratic are suddenly suspected of nationalism or even racism.”
“As a result, most workers and poorer people today regard ‘left-wing’ as an ideology of those who rule, and of those who have profited from neoliberal globalisation. And they are not entirely wrong to do so.”
Wagenknecht is no lone voice in advancing such arguments and seeking to rally support for them in, and beyond, Die Linke. Another contribution to the “Die Linke Strategy Debate 2020”, by the chair of one of its Berlin branches, argues:
“Germany needs a left people’s party which takes up the struggle to achieve domination of the centre-left camp. Die Linke should be that left people’s party, or pave the way for it.”
“The welfare state programme of a left people’s party cannot just be a watering can which sprinkles benefits. It must above all strengthen the entitlements earned by people through work. In that sense, it must again pay to work.”
“The demand for open borders for all – instrumentalised by the Die Linke chairperson [Katja Kipping] in a long struggle for power against the parliamentary fraction chairperson [Wagenknecht] – has not featured publicly since its Pyrrhic victory. But voters remember it.”
“Die Linke was willing to sacrifice its most popular politician [Wagenknecht] for a surrealistic dogma. Die Linke should adopt a realistic standpoint, name the concrete interests now in play (in the debate about labour shortages), and put forward proposals for controlled immigration.”
“Many Germans want a good-neighbours relationship with Russia. Even if they do not unconditionally trust the Russian President, they trust the US President a lot less. Germany and Europe must take their affairs into their own hands.”
“Take (German) affairs into (German) hands” is code for the left-right-populist idea that Germany does not enjoy genuine sovereignty. According to Wagenknecht’s political and personal partner, Oskar Lafontaine: “We have never been a sovereign country because we have US military establishments here.”
Unfortunately, there is a real risk that Wagenknecht’s populism, if not adequately combatted, will gain ground in the course of 2020.
Because those who challenge “fashionable identity-politics themes” do not have “many friends in the media, especially supposedly left-wing media”, Wagenknecht is launching her own YouTube channel.
And she is writing another book: “I’ll be writing a book about the mistakes which, in my opinion, are being made by the left and are a substantial reason for the European-wide shift to the right, for the fact that in almost all countries most workers and poorer people vote for the right.”