The demise of Europe’s left


The left-wing is in disarray world-wide.

We are witnessing the demise of the once proud Labour party in New Zealand, and world-wide the left-wing seems in disarray. This is particularly obvious in Europe.

The Economist examines the demise of the left:

Early in this century you could drive from Inverness in Scotland to Vilnius in Lithuania without crossing a country governed by the right; the same would have been true if you had done the trip by ferry through Scandinavia. Social democrats ran the European Commission and vied for primacy in the European Parliament. But recently their share of the vote in domestic (and Europe-wide) elections has fallen by a third to lows not seen for 70 years (see chart 1). In the five European Union (EU) states that held national elections last year, social democrats lost power in Denmark, fell to their worst-ever results in Finland, Poland and Spain and came to within a hair’s-breadth of such a nadir in Britain.

Elsewhere, it is true, the centre left is in power: as an unloved and ideologically vague junior party of government in Germany and the Netherlands and at the helm of wobbly coalitions in Sweden, Portugal and Austria, all countries where it was once a natural party of government. In France, President François Hollande is plumbing new depths of unpopularity and may not make the run-off in next year’s presidential election. Matteo Renzi, Italy’s dynamic prime minister, is in better shape but his party is still losing support (and possibly, in May, Rome’s mayoralty) to the Five Star Movement (M5S), an anti-establishment party founded by a blogger. Former municipal and regional bastions like London and Amsterdam, Catalonia and Scotland have slipped from the traditional centre left’s grasp.

Where are all the votes going? Many have been hoovered up by populists, typically of the anti-market left in southern Europe and the anti-migrant right in the north. But alternative left parties (feminists, pirates and greens, for example), liberals and the centre-right have also benefited. And so has the Stay On The Sofa party.

It seems that even European countries have ‘missing millions’.

Europe’s left has seen losing streaks before; its fortunes fell sharply in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It bounced back under leaders like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, who sacrificed their parties’ old affection for rigid labour markets and high taxes in favour of a centrist, “Third Way” combination of social reform, deregulation and good public services funded by the ensuing economic growth. In 1996 Europe’s social democrats were doing as well as ever (see maps).

But voters’ trust in such parties took a blow in the economic crisis of the late 2000s, to which parties of the centre left responded with cuts all but indistinguishable from those made by the right. At the same time parties of the right (especially in Germany, Britain and Scandinavia) nabbed popular bits of the Third Way—welfare-to-work programmes in Sweden, school reform and the minimum wage in Britain—for themselves.

The left were in power so long that they thought they had a divine right to rule. Someone whose political ideology rests on using other peoples money to further their goals is always going to fail when that supply of others people money runs dry.

The euro crisis exacerbated matters. In Europe’s north the idea of relaxing austerity came to be seen by many voters as a way of using their money to bail out the spendthrift south. The left’s options were thus sharply constrained. Take the predicament Mr Hollande found himself in. Elected in 2012 on the slogan “time for change”, he promised to curb austerity and reboot the economy. But a 75% tax rate on the rich was dropped after bringing in paltry receipts. The rest of the euro zone insisted that deficit limits which had previously been ignored now had to be taken seriously. With markets breathing down his neck, unable to devalue and spooked by the prospect of France being lumped in with the EU’s struggling south, Mr Hollande cut business taxes and made savings in the budget.

But these circumstantial factors do not fully account for the depth and continental scale of the slump. Four things have made Europe a harsher environment for the centre left: its own success, structural change in the economy, a reduced fear of political extremes and the decline of monolithic class groups.

Social mobility in other words. Which is something we explored in analysing Labour’s problems in last month’s INCITE: Politics.

The fall of the iron curtain in 1989 and the subsequent integration of eastern Europe into the EU hastened some of that change by providing new pools of cheap labour. It also had a deeper effect. The politics of the EU countries had until then been constrained by history: hemmed in by the threat of the Soviet Union on one side and by memories of fascism on the other, social democrats and Christian democrats huddled in the centre ground. A generation later parties can set out their pitch far away from the old mainstream.

This broadening of the political spectrum goes along with the fourth change: a fragmentation of the identities on which the centre left was built. A study published by the BBC in 2013 showed that little more than a third of British voters belong to the traditional working- and middle-classes; the rest are in new, hybrid categories such as “new affluent workers”, “technical middle class” and “emergent service workers”. Young voters raised on social media create esoteric identities of their own rather than commit themselves to collective ones like class. They prefer movements to parties.

This change poses problems to political parties of all hues. But the situation is particularly vexed on Europe’s left, less thoroughly held together by common culture than its right tends to be. The centre left relied on convincing the industrial working class and a significant fraction of the middle class, particularly that in the public-sector bits of the mixed economy, that they wanted the same thing, a trick which was easiest in places where the people involved genuinely started off feeling they had something in common. It is no coincidence that Europe’s most reliably social-democratic regions—Emilia Romagna, Andalusia, England’s north-east and North-Rhine Westphalia—all have populations with a proletarian self-image that helps politicians appeal to working and middle class alike.

Labour’s problem is that their “brand”, based on hard work is seriously diluted now. There is a disconnect, not helped by politicians grandstanding on behalf of those who don’t or won’t work as well as the criminal classes.

On their current trajectory, social democrats may well end up like liberals and greens today: subordinate players confined to regional strongholds whose best chance of influence is to nudge other parties in their direction should they get into coalition. But there are still some who are both in power and relatively popular. Their successes offer three lessons.

First, renewal ends with national government; it does not begin there. Mayoralties and regional governments hone precisely the mix of pragmatism and innovative policy thinking that social democrats need if they are to win nationally. In Manchester a dynamic leadership with a “what works” credo keeps Labour dominant in an increasingly globalised city; in Hamburg the SPD parties like it’s 1969 thanks to a resilient coalition of low- and middle-earners.

Second, remember that a leader whom people like and even trust—including people beyond the confines of the party—can be a great asset. The continent’s most charismatic and credible social democrats are among its most popular: Emmanuel Macron, minister for the economy in France, and Mr Muscat in Malta are two examples; another two, looking back, are Mr Blair and Mr Schröder.

And Europe’s social democrats should learn from their North American counterparts, who have so far avoided their gloomy decline by building multifaceted, pluralistic coalitions like that which twice elected Barack Obama, a coalition that ranged from ethnic-minority voters, via urban liberals, insecure service employees and middle-class parents, to industrial workers. To that end Mr Renzi (a former mayor, uncoincidentally) has joined Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister, to take part in an initiative based in Washington, DC, which aims to reinvigorate the centre left worldwide.

Persuading a plurality of voters that their interests are best pursued by a centre-left government means adopting policies that deliver results. Mr Macron has argued for portable and individual benefits that suit a more fluid, Uber-ised labour market. Others champion retraining programmes such as those at which the Nordic countries excel, or new ways of caring for children and the elderly. Such ideas offer more hope than trying to outdo populists of right and left, or returning—as Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, would wish—to the policies of the 1970s.

Labour here is being forced more and more left, and the rhetoric coming from Andrew Little shows he is more Corbyn and Sanders than he is anyone else. As a leader he simply fails the Blink Test, and as a result people don’t like him or even trust him.

Until the left-wing makes themselves relevant to voters, instead of demanding that voters return to the fold then they are spent as a political force. The class wars of the 50’s are long past, as is the time of union strong-men. The advent of voluntary unionism saw them off, when given a choice of belonging to a union the workers and voters chose not to.


– The Economist.

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.