Prosecco or a drop of red?


Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 5.51.35 pmNICK CATER

The Australian, 5 January  2015

Anti-austerity campaigner Charlotte Church may be a multi-millionaire but she refuses to be called a Champagne Socialist. “I have to say I’m more of a prosecco girl, myself,” Church explained on her blog last year.

The Welsh singer-song writer, actress and television presenter admits she has earned “a lot of money” but says her ethical credentials are intact. “I could have made a lot more money by investing in arms and oil,” she explains. “I could have voted Tory. Instead, Church wants to “make a difference” by speaking at rallies and blogging in support of a fairer society, the National Health Service, and the plight of the less privileged.

It is tempting to dismiss such crowd-pleasing progressive sentiments as distractions from the main political game. Yet the emergence of prosecco socialism is a profound challenge to the political establishment. Old-school social democratic parties are in retreat while newer, populist Left-wing movements are gaining ground.

In part it is a example of digital disruption. Yesterday’s political start-up ventures are today’s mass movements. Avaaz, 38 Degreesand are doing to politics what Uber is doing to taxis. Established parties have been stranded; two-way election contests in which major parties set the agenda have become the exception rather than the rule in Europe. The old social democratic platform was built on jobs for the workers and the protection of the poor. Today it is fairness, change and inclusion. Once socialists stood up for the working class; today they defend the rights of the aggrieved and the affronted.

While the 2009-10 financial crisis did not precipitate the collapse of capitalism some expected, it was none-the-less a political turning point. It fed a profound distrust in economic, social and political institutions and the rise of the politics of resentment. Comedian Russell Brand, a poster child for the British anti-austerity movement, expresses the destructive rage that shapes the modern Left. Profit, says Brand, “is a filthy word”. He demands “a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth” and punitive corporate taxation.

Brand’s other claim to fame is as a recovering celebrity drug addict – the Jamie Oliver of heroine and crack cocaine if you like – which qualifies him, in his mind at least, to speak for the impoverished and the dispossessed.“I come from the kind of social conditions that are exacerbated by an indifferent system,” he told the BBC in 2013.“I was part of the social and economic class that is underserved by the current political system and drug addiction is one of the problems it creates.”

For prosecco socialists, every social and economic failing is a manifestation of a defective system. They believe, like Thomas Paine, that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” The details of what happens next or who might be in charge are seldom discussed. Brand, who turned 30 last year, boosts that he has never actually voted.

“I think we do need a centralized administrative system,” says Brand when pressed.

“A government?” proffers the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman.

“Yes,” Brand concedes, “but maybe call them something else. Call them like the admin bods so they don’t get ahead of themselves.”

Brand’s fatuousness is easily dismissed, yet it reflects a broader disillusionment with the political class. Party loyalties that swayed the votes of their parent’s generation fail to move Gen Y and the Millennial generations. The institutions of civil society that have evolved over centuries are treated with disdain.

A curious eruption of populist socialism has occurred in Ireland where Sinn Fein, the political offshoot of the Irish Republican Army, has reinvented itself as the champion of radical progressive causes. A recent poll in The Irish Times found that Sinn Fein is the party of choice for voters under 35. Across the electorate it is second only to the ruling Fine Gael with 21 per cent support. Five year’s ago Labour was polling in the 30s. Today it’s support has collapsed to 7 per cent.

The political metamorphosis is even more dramatic in Spain where a party of the populist Left led by a pony-tailed 37 year-old university lecturer could hold the balance of power when Parliament resumes this month. Pablo Iglesias’s Podemos, formally launched less than a year ago, gained 69 seats splitting the Left vote in December’s election preventing the established Socialist Worker’s Party from taking government.

Last year’s parliamentary elections in Greece were won by Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left while Pasok, the established Panhellenic Socialist Movement, disintegrated. Before the financial crisis four out of ten Greek voters supported Pasok, while Syriza was supported at the 2007 election by a mere 5 per cent of the votes. In last January’s election the positions were all-but reversed: Syriza won 36 per cent, while Pasok’s support fell to 4.7 per cent.

In Britain the Left’s populist uprising was led by the Scottish Nationalist Party which won 54 out of 59 Scottish seats last year while the Scottish Labour Party was reduced to one.

In Germany the Left Party and its outspoken co-leader Sahra Wagenknecht is ascendant; the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is in decline. The biggest threat to Angela Merkel’s centre Right/ Centre Left coalition at the 2017 election could be a Rot-Rot-Grün alliance between the Left, the SPD and the Greens.

It’s against this backdrop of rising progressive populism that British Labour’s decision to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader should be seen. It is tempting to compare Corbyn with Michael Foot, the hapless Labor leader of the early 1980s nicknamed Worzel Gummidge by Private Eye because of his close resemblance to a walking, talking scarecrow.  Yet Corbyn, despite his sartorial inelegance, is cut from different cloth. The swing to Labour in last month’s Oldham West and Royton by-election showed that the near-universal condemnation in the mainstream media was unable to dent his support. To describe Corbyn as far-Left is to miss the point; he is re-inventing his party as a force for populist socialism.

More than ever before, politics is a global business. The rhetoric of Canada’s Justin Trudeau and the Democrats’ presidential contender Bernie Sanders both hint at prosecco-drinking tendencies. The extent to which Bill Shorten and his Australian Labor Party colleagues are prepared to imbibe is a question for another day.