by Belinda Pyke, Chair, Brussels Labour
Sp.a, the Flemish socialist party, held its annual conference in mid-October in Brussels. Frazer Clarke and I took part in the programme for international visitors on behalf of the Labour Party. The Party’s international secretary, Said El-Khadraoui MEP, greeted visitors and chaired the opening session, a panel on social democracy in Europe. The other panellists were René Cuperus from the Dutch socialists (and an unsuccessful candidate in the EP elections) and Javier Moreno, MEP between 2004 and 2009 and now Secretary General of the Global Progressive Forum.
The central question for the discussion was why, despite some political successes in recent national elections (notably around the edges of Europe – Greece, Norway, Portugal…), the overall results for socialists were still poor – cf the EP election results – so how can socialists become once again the biggest political force in Europe. Not surprisingly there were no clear answers, and the discussion swung between the pessimism of Cuperus (whose thesis is that socialism is threatened by a pan-European populist revolt to which Christian Democrat parties are seen as offering a more stable solution: see his recent article) and the optimism of Moreno who pointed to the basis for the PSOE success ( a leader, a programme, a plan to mobilise the voters – and a record of delivery once in government). Their views differed too as to whether the EU was an obstacle (Cuperus seeing it as inherently technocratic and illiberal) and Moreno arguing more for the opportunities it presents if underpinned by a clear social democratic vision. He gave the example of the financial crisis and the Forum’s recently launched campaign on financial reform.
The afternoon was devoted to workshops. One of these, on family policy, included a speaker from the UK, Kate Green from the Child Poverty Action Group, who reported on the development of family-related policy under Labour. She described the impact of the minimum wage and of the childcare strategy pointing out that, however, the focus on work as a way out of poverty had meant that greater attention was being given to the quantity of jobs and not enough to their quality. She noted too that there can be contradictions between policies for children and those which support greater labour market participation, citing the example of pressure on lone mothers to return to work yet incentives for mothers in couples to stay longer out of the labour market. In her view, there is an opportunity for a new debate on the left on all these issues especially at a time of recession.