Having struggled in the role of Ed Miliband playing 2015 version – though doing better than the real Ed in getting a hung parliament – I again stepped into the shoes of an embattled an Labour leader, this time Jeremy Corbyn.
I tried to play like the real Jez running a generally positive campaign focusing on policies for health and education with an occasional jab at the Tories for being champions of austerity and enemies of public services.
As in real life, however, things didn’t go to plan. A couple of weeks in, the polls had Labour stuck under 30% with predictions of Tory landslide of 400 seats – and the worthy policy speeches of Corbyn-me simply not cutting through in terms of media coverage.
Having started off optimistically venturing into a few Conservative marginals, I quickly found myself like the real world Corbyn retreating to heartlands the north of England and Wales, visiting places like Hartlepool, Hyndburn and Middlesbrough, trying to stop the possible loss of supposedly safe seats to the Tories. Read More…
In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.
There are certainly parallels to be drawn. They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.
Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently – of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Read More…
I share a bias with many political scientists working on political parties: I tend to over-rate new parties with political organisation and some real grassroots presence and under-rate those which are top-down vehicles created for individual politicians.
So I am grateful to Kevin Deegan-Krause over at Pozorblog for taking seriously the Czech Republic’s newest party, namely LEV – the National Socialists founded by ex-Social Democrat Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek, while I caught up . For it is now clear that, as new parties go, the new group is certainly a serious project with serious potential to impact Czech politics over the next 2-3 years.
After last year’s elections Mr Paroubek seemed pretty much politically finished: the simple, in-your-face pro-welfare message that had pulled the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) back from the political brink in 2005-6 failed to pull in sufficient numbers of voters – and especially not younger voters – allowing a centre-right coalition to sweep into power. Cold comfort that ČSSD were (narrowly) the largest party so after a brief post-election rant, Mr P stepped down.
But a few months in the political wilderness watching post-election seem to have convinced Paroubek that he has a political role to play after all – and that the party he once led is so awful, inept and corrupt he should found a new one. And, with a 3% rating in the polls, his barely founded new party is not doing too badly.
It’s not altogether an original move. One of the reasons the Social Democrats failed to regain office in 2010 was the inroads made into their vote by new, small left-wing parties, including both the eurosceptic Sovereignty party and the Citizens’ Rights Party (SPOZ) of another former (1998-2002) ČSSD Prime Minister, Miloš Zeman, whose confrontational Mr Paroubek (aka The Bulldozer) emulated.
In other respects too Mr Paroubek has been working straight from the How To Set Up A New Party playbook of Czech politics. In no particular order we have
1. Get A Catchy Acronym Making Feeble Nod Towards Ideological Heritage.
The most successful new centre-right party of 2010 was TOP09 supposedly standing – although I doubt even many party members can still remember it – for Tradice, odpovědnost, prosperita [Tradition, Responsibility and Prosperity] to show that it was a kind of solid and reliable Central European conservative party.
Paroubek’s new outfit is called Národní socialisté – levice 21. století. [National Socialists – 21st Century Left), which can be abbreviated (with a little imagination) to LEV, the Czech word for lion – the lion of Bohemia being a key historic symbol of the Czech nation. Just look at any Czech coin.
Mr Paroubek, has however not gone Nazi. The National Socialists (aka National Socials) were the main historic party of the progressive Czech middle class and intelligentsia preaching a distinct mix of liberalism, democratic socialism and Czech nationalism. They existed in emasculated form satellite party under communism, re-named the Czechoslovak Socialist Party, underwent various name changes in 1990s and, despite considerable resources slowly declined into obscurity and bankruptcy. Others, such as Václav Klaus, could offer the voters all the aspirant middle class liberalism and Czech nationalism they could ask for in far more modern form.
2. Acquire Off-The-Shelf Organisation, Take Over A Minor Party
Even the most ‘instant’. leader dominated new parties need some semblance of organisation to run lists of candidates and have some kind of legitimacy. Besides Czech law explicitly conceives of parties as national membership organisations. The quickest route here is simply to take over the shell of an enfeebled, minor party or small local group. Businessman Vít Bárta showed how this should be done by taking over a tiny local citizens group called Public Affairs in Prague in 2005, pumping it full of money and PR know-how, and achieving surprise breakthrough into parliament in 2010.
Mr Paroubek was a member of the satellite Socialist Party in 1980s. He then jumped ship to the re-founded Social Democrats in 1990, where he was General Secretary until 1993, before being ousted by Zeman who realised that talking moderation and consensus would get ČSSD nowhere (a lesson Paroubek learned well). So it is not totally surprising that Paroubek sought to take over the shell of the old Socialists, now going under the monicker of the Czech National Social Party 2005 (ČSNS2005). This has not gone that smoothly, despite initial overtures, but Mr Paroubek may pull in some ČSNS2005’s couple of hundred members and it hasn’t stopped him using the National Socialist label.
If he plays his cards right, he could also pull in part of the more sizeable Zeman organisation, SPOZ, which seems to be at the end of the road as Zeman lack the energy to campaign consistently. Despite their being no love lost between them, Mr Paroubek has diplomatically said he would back Zeman to become president.
And, of course, he may also win over a few ex-Social Democrats.
He is, however, recruiting just about any politician who needs a political home with some ex-deputies for Public Affairs heading his way. The Czech Republic has an excellent record for recycling.
3. Have A Big Name Celebrity Leader , Preferably An Outsider
Many new parties have had to rely on aristocrats (Karel Schwarzenberg, TOP09) or media profile of ex-TV presenters (Jana Bobišíkova of Sovereignty, Radek John of Public Affairs). This is one area where Paroubek need have no worries. Everyone knows his name and he is a love/hate figure rivalled only by Václav Klaus, although the balance probably tilts a bit more to the latter.
It’s a bit more difficult for Paroubek to fit into the role of outsider, but he seems to be working hard at it and with a little practice he should manage the trick Václav Klaus does so well: being an ‘inside outer’ totally of the establishment, but claiming somehow credibly to be outside it. After all, how did you get to be well known in the first place.
4. Find A Political USP
Even in these post-modern times, it seems in the Czech Republic you do actually need to stand for something and offer the voters something new politically (an least an improvement on the old offering): anti-corruption; nationalism and euroscepticism (perhaps anti-Roma politics); or genuinely red-blooded market reform have all been popular. Being in favour of direct democracy (preferably via the internet) also adds a certain panache.
Here Mr Paroubek is struggling a bit. Taking over the National Socialist brand seemed to suggest he was going to go for left-wing (or at least non-anti-communist) brand of nationalism with potentially broad appeal to many left-wing voting. A sort of Blue Labour strategy, to borrow from the British political lexicon. This seems precisely the card being played by Sovereignty. And, of couse, the Czech Communists also do a statism-and-nationalism cocktail.
The party’s programme is waffly rehash of musings about the historic traditions of the National Socialists, a sustainable social market economy and the need to watch out in a dangerous globalised world whose only very distinct element is it advocacy of a pro-natal policies (as per the Christian Democrats).
Paroubek’s statements on things like the Euro seem to have been either vague or sensible, long-term stuff you would expect an incumbent PM to spout: a stout defence of the long-term viabikity if the Euro is not thing that the next Populist Big Thing should offer, although rehashed social-democratic position did not stop Zeman’s SPOZ from picking up 4% in 2010.
5. Good Timing
The run-in time for a successful new party seems to be about 1-2 years, the time it takes to build up media momentum; a modicim of organisation; and contest (and do unexpectedly well) in some kind of second order election. The idea is then to breakthrough in the months and weeks before the elections: the Czech Greens managed this to perfection in 2006, as did TOP09 and Public Affairs, who benefitted from running Euro-election, in 2010.
LEV seems to be aiming to do use the regional and Senate elections of 2012, as a springboard – demanding organisationally, but probably do-able if it can do well in a reasonable number of regions and scrape a couple of senators by recruiting local independents.
Although momentum goes a long way, few tens of millions of crowns are frankly indispensible, for a least a modest billboard campaign, making wealthy individual supporters (Greens 2005/6); contacts in the business world built up in government (ex-Christian Democrats in TOP09); or other mysterious private sponsor acting as Fairy Godmother (Bárta’s ABL security company in the case of Public Affairs in 2010, persons unknown for Zeman’s SPOZ).
The financial background of LEV is, as yet, as mystery, but as an ex-PM and seasoned political operator, who spend a long period in the murky world of Prague city politics before re-entering national government, I personally would be surprised if Mr Paroubek could not sort out sufficient.
Likely score 8/10
By my reckoning, that is 40 out of a possible 60, or an overall 6.6/10. A credible also ran, I would say , but another source of lost votes for the Social Democrats.
The internet has pretty much done for the traditional second-hand bookshop. I used to know of a least a dozen within half an hour’s walk in Brighton. Now I can only think of a couple. And besides, these days I don’t have the time or need to go browsing for second hand books. A cheap copy of anything is source-able through Amazon, Abebooks and the like.
This is a pity in some ways. It’s killed off the art of stumbling on a chance, obscure book that offers a sudden fresh, potentially paradigm-shifting perspective. After all, didn’t Philippe Schmitter come up with the idea of democratic (neo-) corporatism after a chance second-hand find in aBrazilian livraria ?
Despite this, I did stumble on something like this amid the celebrity biogs and crime thrillers on the book shelves of our local Oxfam shop: The Unity of Europe (Victor Gollancz, London 1943) by Hilda Monte, a thin hardback book of just under two hundred pages printed on yellowing wartime paper, published as part of the 1936-48 Left Book Club series, which served as a popularising outlet for socialist and communist ideas. The book says Not For Resale To The Public – presumably you had to subscribe to the LBC – but I bought it for £1.
The book’s author Hilda Monte was, in fact, Hilda Meisel, a socialist/Marxist journalist and economist of a slightly unorthodox kind (never a CP member either in Germany or Great Britain, it seems) of a Austro-German Jewish background who came to Britain in 1929 and remained after the Nazi takeover and into the war. Her book is one a broad genre of the period by writers of various political persuasion anticipating the political and social shaper of post-war Germany and post-war Germany. Part of this mix – awhich we we we are still grappling 60 years with this – is this issue of co-operation, federation, integration of now, small and declining European states, whose political and economic power had peaked.
Proposals for a more federated and united Europe were, of course, two a penny in 1930s and 1940s. Fascists, liberals, agrarians, socialists and communists all seem to have pretty much agreed that the interwar European system of multiple sovereign national states was a resounding failure. But Meisal’s argument is that as (more or less), a single economic unit, Europe needs be integrated as a whole (including Germany), rather than in the more widely floated form of two-three state federations with purely geopolitical rationales. She also rejects idea of initially integrating industrialised developed West European states – the form that integration, in fact, took after 1956 following the convenient amputation of the East by the Cold War division of the continent. The form of integration she proposes is, naturally, of the left.
Although aware of the need for decentalisation where possible (subsidarity, we might now call it), the socialist ‘‘European Union’ she envisages will be based around a European Central Authority to include both representatives of national government and the functional representation of interest groups – a prophetically Schmitterian touch – which will control post-war reconstruction, trade and immigration policies (140-1). Institutionally, she sees that a ‘… European Central Reserve Bank will need to be established, and either one single currency introduced across the Union, or a fixed relationship between currencies established’ (p.141).
Reasonably enough, given that this is 1943, she does not elaborate on just how these post-war institutions will come about or what they will look like – although the Tennessee Valley Authority of the Roosevelt New Deal is mentioned and, in general, the economic prosperity generated by Europe integration is expected to trump popular attachment to national states (at least in Eastern Europe). In outline, a kind of Marxist Monnet Method.
The book also has topical echoes in its preoccupation with inequalities and unevenness of European development. She sees the European
(and indeed global) economy in terms of fairly modern terms core and periphery (‘Inner Europe’ and ‘Outer Europe’ as she puts it). However, the under-development and unevenness that preoccupies her is that between rural underdeveloped economies of Eastern and Southern Europe, on one hand, and industrial and/or modern economies of Scandinavia and Western Europe, on the other. She is thus very much focused on agrarian modernisation and peasant politics and strategies for industrialisation of the Balkans and East Europe.
Come the 21st century, such an East-West split is still with us, although it is no matter a question of industrial core versus agrarian periphery. Communism in Eastern Europe – not surprisingly, only distantly and vaguely anticipated an author writing at a time when German troops were in Stalingrad – brutally industrialised and agriculturally modernised the region, leaving its own distinct legacy of backwardness.
The Cold War division of Europe is only unanticipated: possible Soviet influence in Eastern Europe is seen as a benign complement to the socialism she hopes and believes and will develop at the heart of the continent. This is founded on a rosy, not to say naïve view of the economic and political system of Soviet Union, characteristic of much of the British Left in 1930s and 40s, as George Orwell lamented at the time.
‘[W]ho knows’, the author asks ‘if , with fewer goods to buy and rather inadequate housing conditions, the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union have not been better off because they had not be afraid of idleness or lack of markets’ before claiming still more implausibly, as we now know with half a century’s hindsight that the USSR had ‘… devised methods of directing and controlling economic life without depriving the individual of every chance of making economic decisions’ (122, 137).
The author’s analysis of the prospects for post-war Europe has a similar dose ideological wishful thinking: ‘socialism’ – vaguely defined in terms of economic planned, collective ownership and workers’ control – is the only solution. Nothing else will do and a renewal or rebuilding under Capitalism Brought Up To Date is unimaginable. Proposals for what sound like a form of democratic social market corporatism or ‘co-determination’ – from of all quarters, the Federation of British Industry (the main employers’ organisation, forerunner of today’s CBI – are roundly rejected. A mistake, you feel in hindsight, given how easily the post-war settlement was dismantled in 1980s without formal corporatist institutions in this country.
Sadly, Hilde Meisal did not live to see the end of the war to do a second take on the subject. As interested in active resistance than writing and theorising – unconfirmed rumours say she was involved in a 1939 plot to assassinate Hitler – she became in clandestine operations of the US OSS (the precursor of the CIA) to infiltrate intelligence operatives into Germany and was shot by an SS patrol on the Swiss-German border 18 April 1945. She is best remembered as (in Germany) as a resister, leaving behind fragmentary journalism and pamphleeting in German and English as well as two-three books for a popular audience of which The Unity of Europe is the most substantive.
If she had survived and lived a long life, she would be 97 .
You wonder what she would make of today’s Europe, the EU and its current crisis.
Compared to their Czech colleague Smer’s programme throws up a lot less in the way of concrete policy, stresses the words ‘Slovak’ and ‘state’ an awful lot – suggesting a more nationalist note (as frankly you would expect) as well as the party’s name. The spread of key words also suggests greater emphasis on the politics of anti-crisis and the country’s position in the world economy.
Should we be shocked? Answer no – I am, alas, as you know, not the Perez Hilton of CEE political bloggers, and this is, frankly underwhelming news. Allthough omitted from his official online CV, Paroubek’s membership of ČSS has been known for years and he can (if he can bothered) argue that he did not join Communist Party and sought through ČSS to promote some kind of political change. He joined in 1970. ČSS did have some contacts with left-wing Chartists (in Brno – not Prague where Paroubek was based) and, in fairness, the party did quickly jumpeship from the regime during the Velvet Revolution – its newspaper Svobodné slovo was one of the first to open report events. Havel’s famous speech in Wenceslas Square was delivered from the balcony of the Socialist Party’s publishing house, Melantrich. That might in many ways be a feeble argument – satellite parties were a powerless moribund facade organizations, but then Paroubek did leave in 1986, so he probably worked that out and correctly saw that satellite were not likely to be major vehicles for change in Gorbachev-era CEE. He had a middle management role in catering enterprise and later deputy director a footwear company – not quite ‘top managment’ mentioned in his official CV, but it made him small enough fry for the secret police to dismiss him as a potential informer.
In 1990 Paroubek showed a certain amount of foresight – and ambition – in joining the newly revived Social Democrat Party (ČSSD), re-founded by ageing exiles. Despite it wealth and a certain pedigree, the Socialist Party was obviously going nowhere politically after 1989, as historic brand of nationalism and liberalism was too sui generis to recreate in contemporary Czechoslovakia and the party basically stood for nothing. (Other Socialist Party functionaries joined the Moravian regionalists.) As he was relatively young. capable and not an exile Paroubek quickly rose to become the Social Democrats’ General Secretary – reading through the party’s history in the early years after 1989 as a PhD student I remember he was a constant presence – however, ČSSD’s notalgic harping back to the 1940s, hostility to former communists and refusal to criticize market reforms (backed by Paroubek who truly was Mr Moderation at this time) made the party a flop. Only with the recruitment of reform communists and a more confrontational policy of speaking up for transition losers in blunt and populist terms did the party get anyway, finally making an electoral breakthorough in 1996 under Miloš Zeman (who joined in 1992 and bear Paroubek to the leadership in 1993). I
If anyone is scouring old newsppers, they should dig out some of Paroubek’s anti-Zeman quotes, because of course, after more than a decade out of national politics doggedly establishing himself faute de mieux as a figure in Prague politics – including a stint in a Grand Coalition with the right in the nation’s capital- Paroubek returns: first as Minister of Local Development, then as hard-talking populist saviour of the Social Democrats when the party went into electoral and political after being routed in the 2004 Euro-elections. These, as we all know, days Paroubek out-Zemans Zeman (now also returned to politics with his own mini-grouping the Party of Citizens Rights) for being a high profile populist bulldozer, who understands that sound bites in defence of welfare and public spending are the way to win a Czech election
I doubt any of Paroubek’s potential voters will care about a bit of ideological waffle from 1980s – or, indeed all that dead-end moderation of the early 1990s.
Things get off to a bad start when, after opening remarks, it becomes clear that the English language version of the film won’t play. We can, however, show it in Slovak, which is OK for around 80% of the audience and perhaps a blessing in disguise as the English version is overdubbed, rather undermining its effect, rather than subtitled. The film, however, is powerful and well made and in the Q and A that follows Gál shows himself to be a magnetic and charismatic speaker. If you wondered why he was a revolutionary leader, this would answer your question. The questioners are all young, the question all in Czech or Slovak, self-translated in English. Everyone agrees that communism-nationalism-and-populist social-democracy are all part and parcel of the same illiberal conundrum that plays to the lowest, materialistic and most provincial inclinations of the Slovak and Czech populace and still haunts the region. Why did thy not handle things more smartly? Boli sme blbí, Gál tells his listeners in a line you feel he’s probably used before. But given the revolutionary avalanche of events and the fact he bowed out of politics almost two decades ago, that’s perhaps a more than acceptable answer.
Showing up in the grander circumstances on 17 November itself to give a lecture, Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico represents precisely that Other Slovakia (my phrase) that Gál and his listeners so dislike. We had expected a bland speech, but characteristically Fico decided to deal with controversial issues bluntly and head on: not everything under communism had been all bad -welfare standards were higher and teaching in universities ‘more systematic’; there had been privations and bureaucracy – he himself had had to queue through the night to book his honeymoon to Malta; the revolution was not a cause for unbridled celebration as the ‘tribunes of the revolution’ didn’t deliver on promises of fairness and freedom and hacked away a lot of ordinary people’s social certainties in their pursuit of economic and party self-interest (until the arrival of R. Fico and Smer, you understand. Politically, this is some extent a necessary move as in 1989 Fico was a member of Communist Party of Slovakia (having joined in 1987) working at the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences, although on the other hand some Czech Social Democrats have similar backgrounds as bright young things in the late socialist nomenklatura and don’t feel the need for such a ‘balanced’ assessment of the old regime.
My sympathies were, it must be said, not with Fico, who made a more convincing case for himself on his last visit in UCL in 2006. On the other hand, he has turned out to have played the smarter political game and, as one leading specialist on Slovak politics, reminded me after afterwards it is a sign of progress to have ‘bog standard left-wing politics’ dominating the Slovak political scence not the more paranoid and dangerous nationalism of the Mečiar era – a period oddly absent from Fico’s speech – albeit suffused with a bit of dodgy nomenklatura nostalgia for social cosseting of the normalization era.
Update: A video of the full lecture has now appeared on the UCL-SSEES website here.