Europe’s center-left makes a comeback
At some point in the last decade you will have read that Social Democracy is near death, living its final days in a few corners of Europe as a world it has struggled with to keep pace evolves. At some point this week, however, after the success of the center-left in the federal election in Germany, you will have read that social democracy is being reborn; that the pandemic has stopped voters from running away from the center and awakened the public’s desire for parties that defend equality and social justice. So what is it ? Death or rebirth?
Or. While predictions of the center-left demise five years ago were premature, its recent successes cannot mask a longer-term decline. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) won in Germany last week by increasing its vote by 5 points to 25.7% – a solid performance but also the second weakest in the history of the post-war party. Twenty years ago his vote was around 40 percent. Yet the SPD is in poor health compared to some of its sister parties. In France, the Socialist Party – one of the two traditional alternating power blocks of the Fifth Republic – is a hollow wreck, its clothes stolen by imitators on the right and left, and its vote reduced to a single digit. Over the past decade, the Italian Democratic Party and the Dutch Labor Party have lost half and three quarters of their MPs respectively. When Czech voters go to the polls next week, the Social Democratic Party, winner in four of the last six elections, will fight to reach 5%. And despite being faced with a government whose incompetence is its defining characteristic, the battle that most energizes the British Labor Party is the one it is waging against itself.
Yet recent signs of recovery, or at least stabilization, in some places are not a mirage. After last month’s elections in Norway, Labor is expected to lead the next government in Oslo. The result means that Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland will simultaneously have Social Democratic prime ministers – the first time since 2001. Center-left parties also lead coalition governments in Spain, Portugal and Italy .
The Social Democrats have offered answers that reflect their domestic situations as well as the instincts of their ruling faction.
Yet while all of these parties share some common traits, they also differ sharply on some key issues. Faced with the loss of voice to both the far right and the radical left, the Social Democrats have found answers that reflect the peculiarities of their domestic situations as well as the instincts of their dominant factions. In the EU’s debate on issuing the common debt, Iberia’s center-left leaders clashed with their political brothers and sisters in the Nordic states. Spain and Portugal favored the admission of more refugees to Europe; their Scandinavian sister parties want fewer of them to be admitted. In France, the center-left demands higher taxes on companies. In Ireland much of the left supports low taxes on big business and is lukewarm about a tax on the landowner class.
For all these formations – mass parties that have always gathered a wide range of opinions – the pressure of the ballot box has resurfaced internal tensions. Some, like German SPD leader Olaf Scholz and Joe Biden in the United States, have tried to find a compromise between the left and the center – thus moving towards more interventionist positions of the state that better reflect the tune of the times. In Spain and Portugal, the Social Democrats have moved to the left and made themselves more open to coalition with other left-wing parties, while the Social Democrats in Denmark have tried to stop its loss. support for the far right by combining the left economy with a tough stance on immigration. The center-left in many countries has been slow to lead the climate agenda, but it is now widely recognized that climate justice is inseparable from the broader equality agenda and the future of the center-left. probably lies in alliances, maybe even mergers, with the green movement.
Fragmentation and weight
The structural reasons for the plight of the center-left – among which the decline of industry, the aging of the population and the breakdown of the old alliance of the working class and the liberal middle class – will not be reversed. so early. Neither the center-left nor the center-right will ever again enjoy the supremacy they had in the post-war decades. The history of European politics today – as reflected in Ireland – is one of fragmentation, with more small parties vying for bargaining weight in post-election coalition talks. Winning, as the German SPD has shown, can now mean winning a quarter of the vote.
Structural reasons for center-left plight won’t be reversed anytime soon
Yet the Social Democrats can still rejoice over the recent changes. The growth of the far right has leveled off or dropped in many countries. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, people turned to the state to protect and support them; it did so, with general approval, by pumping money into services and intervening on a scale never seen in peacetime.
In Ireland and elsewhere, elections today take place on social democratic grounds: decent services, fair use of public resources and social equality. This may not guarantee that social democracy, as a political tradition, will flourish. But that at least implies that the public is receptive to its message.