THE CRISIS OF THE EUROPEAN CENTRE-LEFT
By Alex Beard
Until very recently, the European political landscape was dominated by parties of the centre-right – those that were broadly pro-European and pro-business yet socially conservative – and of the social democratic centre-left, albeit with a few exceptions. And this hegemony led to a certain moderation in European politics, with most EU member states capitalist economies with strong social safety nets; such was the work of successive right-of-centre and left-of-centre governments. But such a trend can no longer be relied on, with a wave of mostly right-wing populism sweeping the continent, most recently in Italy, and in some areas wiping out the power bases of the most established social democratic parties. It is therefore fitting to explore not only where the tendency is strongest, and indeed weakest, but also the 1990s Third Way economics from which it emerged and the range of radical and environmentalist leaders offering a possible alternative.
In the mid-1990s, centre-left parties in many European countries had spent many years out of government and found themselves having to come to terms with a new status quo. The success of the European single market and the ‘modernising’ economic liberalism of leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had led to a climate in which systematic renationalisations and high corporation taxes – the traditional programme of labour parties – seemed old-fashioned and unattractive. The attempts of successive Labour Party leaders to make the party more appealing to the electorate through modernisation had proved largely unsuccessful, as opposed to the programme of moderate Bill Clinton, a Democrat who became President of the United States in 1992. It was in these conditions that leaders such as Tony Blair, promising a reform of his party, and member of the German SPD (Social Democratic Party) Gerhard Schröder, ascended to the leadership of their respective parties.
Blair – in his rewriting of the Labour Party’s constitution – removed its commitment to nationalisation and distanced the leadership from its former closest ally, the trade unions, whilst forging alliances in the right-wing press and promising a more socially just Britain without reversing the transformations of the 1980s. It was with a manifesto promising a ‘New Labour for a New Britain’ that Blair won a landslide victory at the 1997 General Election. The following year, Schröder too won an election for his party for the first time in the best part of twenty years. His coalition with the traditionally radical Greens, who under the leadership of Realo Joschka Fischer, had softened their stance on non-interventionalism among other issues, embarked on a reform of the welfare system now infamous as Hartz IV, responsible for introducing benefit sanctioning.
It would be wrong to say that these governments did not do a great deal in the name of progressivism. In the UK a minimum wage was introduced, and a huge amount invested in public services. Meanwhile, societal attitudes improved – it was under Blair that the homophobic Section 28 was repealed, and civil partnerships introduced. In Scandinavia, where social democratic governments had long become the norm, the highest standards of living in the world were to be found, and whilst conservatives still held the balance of power in much of Europe, the centre-right CDU/CSU returning to government in 2005, the outlook seemed relatively bright for the left-of-centre. Indeed, in pre-crash Europe, the ‘Third Way’ brand of Pro-Europeanism, social liberalism and moderate environmentalism seemed just right. This was to change.
There are a multitude of reasons for the collapse of the centre-left from approximately 2010 onwards. The trend itself has taken place in different countries at different times; whilst the Greek PASOK had been more or less wiped out by the beginning of the decade, Parti Socialiste politician François Hollande was elected President of France in 2012. But above all, such a tendency can be put down to a feeling of betrayal among voters. The left had traditionally represented the working-classes of industrial action and trade unions; the parties of the centre-left in Europe had their roots in the labour movements of the late 19th Century, at which point they had promised to defend thee interest of society’s ‘little people’. With the birth of the ‘Third Way’ and suave, moderate politicians, it appeared as though they had departed from this. No longer interested in the interests of the working class, they now found themselves preoccupied with the maintenance of the ‘liberal order’ and global politics. Whilst fine before the financial crash – and indeed apparently fine for conservatives, who continued to cut harshly and punish those already punished by economic crisis – this no longer offered any appeal to the struggling support base of the centre-left.
And it is in this position – one of identity politics – that we find ourselves today. The social democrats, who continue to offer workable and empathetic solutions to real social problems, have been left en masse by people seeking a simpler and more radical alternative and, rather more worryingly, a scapegoat. Where these parties have retained a significant vote share, it has been predominantly among the urban middle-classes, to whom their progressivism and tolerance are sources of hope. Meanwhile, parties on the extreme right have benefitted hugely, pandering to the prejudices of ‘normal people’, whom they claim to represent. One need only look at Italy, where the near 40% of the centre-left Democratic Party has become a mere 18% in most recent surveys, whilst the far-right League polls at around 33% as the strongest party. France tells a similarly depressing story with a recent poll putting Marine Le Pen of the far-right RN at 27%. The candidate for the Parti Socialiste, which won just six years ago, polls at 3%. In Germany, a series of coalitions featuring the SPD as the junior partner with Angela Merkel’s CDU have led to a huge loss of confidence in the party, who are unable to present themselves as a viable alternative. It is this that has led to polling values of 6% (Parties need to cross a 5% threshold to gain any seats in a state legislature) for state elections in Bavaria. Nationwide, it is on roughly 15%; this is roughly 25% less than what Schröder achieved.
But the advance of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland – polling similarly to the SPD – has been overstated, and there is still hope for the left thanks to a third factor: The Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen). With poll values reaching as high as 25% in recent months and averaging at about 20%, the environmentalist and progressive agenda of this centre-left party is clearly making ground where the SPD have lost it. And leftist green politics has found similar success in the Netherlands, where a collapse of the traditional Labour Party (PvdA) was somewhat offset by the success of GreenLeft, led by a young charismatic eco-socialist. These movements promise to maintain the principles of the social democratic tradition – those of social justice and tolerance – whilst providing them with a refreshing face that tackles with the existential problem of our time. What limits them is the particularly middle-class nature of their appeal, which could confine their success to those predominantly urban and educated voters. The exceptional result of the Green Party in recent elections in the deeply rural and conservative Bavaria, however, says otherwise.
The obvious other route for social democrats to take – and one which requires no shift of party loyalty – is that towards more radical and traditional action. Regardless of one’s opinions towards Jeremy Corbyn, it cannot be argued that he has enthused a huge number of people by appearing fresh and engaging with some of the key issues of the day, promising real change in response. But he too is constrained by identity politics, Labour’s poll ratings having stagnated at a 40% mark making it appear unable to appeal to the masses of Northerners whose support it most desperately needs.
In Portugal, however, this is not the case. The democratic socialist PS, in government since 2014 has – together with support from ecologists and radical left parties – ended the country’s austerity programme and achieved in increasing Portugal’s prosperity. It is here that the party polls at 40% - ore than the amount needed to form a government given the party’s electoral system and the state of the centre-right – and these are polls in which a far-right force is absent. And this without having ever exploited the prejudices of the people; the government harbours one of the most liberal attitudes to refugees on the continent.
The collapse of the centre-left is real and dangerous for those of us who consider democratic and pro-European left-wing politics the only sustainable solution to the issue of the day. Whilst Third Way politics had its time, this has now passed, and it has a lot to answer to for the state of such parties today. Those leaders who wish to improve what are in some cases pitiful polling figures should look to where centre-left politics has triumphed and attempt to win back lost ground and unite divided countries through a joint vision of hope and prosperity.