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Why Labor is dying — an international perspective

You can blame Gabbay, but I think this decline is part of a process that has been occurring across the world, over many years
Illustrative. Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay and MK Shelly Yachimovich at the Labor conference in Tel Aviv on September 14, 2017. (Flash90)
Illustrative. Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay and MK Shelly Yachimovich at the Labor conference in Tel Aviv on September 14, 2017. (Flash90)

The Labor Party looks set to receive fewer seats in the Knesset than at any other time in its history. There is even the possibility, albeit a slim one, that it will disappear entirely by not reaching the 3.25% threshold.

Considering that a generation ago, this was a party which had completely dominated political life in Israel since independence — and before — this is an extraordinary development.

In elections to the first Knesset back in 1949, Labor’s forerunner Mapai managed to win almost 36% of the vote. Mapam was the second largest party with almost 15%. The Communists had 3.5%. Together, the three self-proclaimed socialist parties won 69 Knesset seats.

Labor’s dominance continued in one form or another until the 1977 Likud victory, and the party has never really recovered from that defeat.

Ask around, and people will say that the problem is that Labor has had the wrong leaders. The current leader, Avi Gabbay, is a case in point. According to polls, he’s leading the party from second place (with 24 Knesset seats) to oblivion. Obviously, he was not a great choice. And yet it seems that each leader Labor chooses, whether they go for the ideologically correct or the one expected to be popular, the populist or the general or the businessman, it doesn’t matter. The decline of the party is relentless.

I would argue that the problem is not this or that leader. Instead, the decline of Israeli social democracy (and I include Meretz in this picture) is part of a process that has been occurring across the world over many years.

The party which historically embodied the values of social democracy, and to which all other parties looked for leadership for many decades, was the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). The SPD was destroyed by the Nazis, but came back to life after the war and under its leadership, Germany evolved into a strong democracy, with a social market economy, powerful trade unions, and so on. Today, the SPD seems to be in terminal decline, suffering one electoral defeat after another. Few expect it to return to government any time soon.

The decline of French social democracy is even more stark. The election of François Hollande in May 2012 was the last significant victory the party won. From then on, it has declined into nothingness. In the 2017 election, its candidate Benoît Hamon won just 6% of the vote — and later quit the party.

Social democratic parties throughout the Nordic region, and in the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy, have faced similar challenges and defeats. The organization which unites the various social democratic parties, the 150-year old Socialist International, has split into two, and seems to be in terminal decline itself.

So is the decline of the Israel Labor Party and that of the social democratic parties around the globe a coincidence? Of course not.

Tolstoy wrote that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is certainly true of the “family” of social democracy. Each party has had its own problems, including poor choices of leaders.

But there also seems to be a pattern that might explain why so many of those parties have declined so precipitously in recent years.

In the beginning, a century or more ago, all those parties were basically labour parties. They represented not so much a specific platform or polices, but a particular social class. You voted for a social democratic or labor party because you identified as part of the working class. You believed that whatever policies the party would stand for would represent your interests.

But over many years, and after many years in power, most of those parties made compromises with reality (as they saw it) which weakened the link between party and class. This has been particularly true in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when general acceptance of what has been called “neo-liberalism” has severely hurt the parties of the moderate left. Those parties have often led the way with austerity budgets, privatization of public services, and costly bail-out programs for the finance sector. Their natural constituencies — the working classes — have felt, and in fact were, left behind.

In some countries, parties have sprung up to the left of the traditional social democratic ones and have had a measure of success, such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. In other countries, social democratic parties (or currents within larger parties) have done well by choosing to return to more traditional values. The Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 is a good example of the kind of success social democrats can have when they offer a clear alternative to late capitalism and are unafraid to speak about social class. (Sanders made very good use of the idea of the “99%” vs. the “billionaire class”.) And in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn (whatever one thinks of his views on Israel and other issues) clearly did very well by representing a return to traditional Labour values, abandoning the “Third Way” advocated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The British Labour Party is today the largest political party in Europe, due in large part to its abandonment of the Blairite agenda and its embrace of traditional left-wing values.

In Israeli politics, which seems to be completely focussed on personalities rather than ideas, the notion of a political party based on social class, representing the interests of those who vote for it, seems quaint.

But based on the experience of social democratic parties elsewhere, it would seem that becoming once again parties of the working class, representing the 99% and not the billionaires, may turn out to be the only way forward.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. His most recent book is The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 (Zed Books, 2017). He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.
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