Only a left alternative can halt the populist right

AUSTRIA'S CLOSE CALL: Green pro-EU Alexander Van der Bellen (left) has become Austrian president after narrowly defeating far right candidate Norbert Hofer (right)

by Ken Ferguson • The narrow defeat inflicted on far right Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer by Green pro-EU Alexander Van der Bellen represents both a close call for democrats across the continent and a stark warning of the dangers that lie ahead.

Here in the Voice, we have consistently warned of the rising tide of far right racist parties across the continent, and more widely of the danger that the endless grind of austerity will spread despair, disillusion and, in the absence of a progressive alternative, boost the populist right.

This is happening from Finland in the North to Greece in the South, and the growth of xenophobes like UKIP, and the emboldening of the anti-immigration right here in the UK, are part of that process.

Underpinning this danger is the combination of hard line austerity, frozen wages, service cuts and insecure work alongside a meek acceptance of these problems by mainstream politicians of both Tory and Labour governments.

In Scotland, while the recent boost of the Tories at Holyrood was to a large extent a reflection of a consolidation of No voters and a highly personalised campaign around Ruth Davidson, it does not mean that they don’t support austerity.

The exclusion of Cameron from the Tory campaign was simply tactical, as was the replacement of hard policy discussion with soft photo calls and the Tory pledge to be an effective opposition will now see the reality of Tory pressure—boosted by a largely Tory press—challenging the SNP.

This right wing brew is likely to be given impetus by the increasingly toxic, quasi-racist atmosphere flowing from the ever more ‘project fear’-style scares peddled by both of the main EU referendum campaigns.

Across the UK, there is now a real danger that a Brexit vote could happen and that it would in turn put the hard right at the helm at Westminster, which is why many on the left such as the SSP have supported a remain vote while demanding social change within the EU.

Of course despite some of her new MSPs backing Brexit, the Tory leader is a Cameron loyalist on the issue and while the prospect of his defeat is at the outer edge of Davidson’s calculations, this does not mean that she is anything but a pro-austerity Tory.

In her ambitions, Ms Davidson can surely rely on the full blooded support of a shrilly vocal Tory press cock-a-hoop at the apparent return of their favourites from the pariah status that the shadow of Thatcher cast them into.

The danger is that this overblown rhetoric allied to the near death of Labour leaves the field open to a tartan version of austerity and neoliberalism which moves the centre of gravity of policy in a right wing direction.

This may seem fanciful given the current SNP dominance but given that the Sturgeon government are set both on parking indyref2 and in concentrating on proving their competence in government vulnerability looms.

Questions are already emerging around claims about a major business deal with a Chinese firm, hard choices on fracking, and of course the so called “love triangle” scandal are early examples, and given its full spectrum dominance of Scottish politics, the question must be—can it last?

One obvious flashpoint could be education, where that phrase “the attainment gap” and the high profile move of John Swinney to tackle it could quickly become an albatross around the SNP’s neck.

Davidson has already raised demands for parent-run schools and many see the government adoption of school testing as the thin end of wedge leading down the English road with weakened council control of education, opening the way to the nightmare that has seen English parents strikes over testing pressure on kids.

It is also hard to see how the famous “gap” can be closed in a climate of poverty, low pay and cuts which impact hardest precisely on the working class kids and communities who are its victims.

Real action on pay going well beyond the largely gesture politics of fake “living wages” and delivery of skilled jobs, on housing and an end to the demonising of the poor and vulnerable are vital to creating the fairer society in which people can flourish.

In this climate, the need for a real alternative to the fuzzy self-described social democracy of the SNP—an approach in retreat across Europe—is still vital.

The fact that the pro-independence left was squeezed on 5 May simply adds urgency to the task of winning the public argument on the real issues facing working class Scotland which are in turn essential if the engagement and energy of the Yes campaign is to recaptured.

There is no alternative to this hard slog of work in communities, unions and in campaigns on poverty, against austerity and to protect the environment on issues such as fracking, if the alternative world which puts people and planet, so vital to the vast majority, is to be won.

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