Centre left in Europe faces stark choice

Posted on August 19, 2016

Ingram Pinn

Around the start of the millennium, European social democracy seemed in fine fettle. Britain, France, Germany and Italy had centre-left governments. Each was less interested in donning the class warrior’s mantle than in garnering respect, not to mention votes, as an efficient manager of the capitalist order and a healer of social divisions.

Scroll forward 16 years, and it appears that social democracy is in its most acute crisis since its violent suppression under the rightwing dictatorships of interwar Europe. Traditional two-party political systems are disintegrating across the continent, but it is the centre-left, not the centre-right, that is suffering the heaviest blows and has most reason to be anxious about the future.

    There are long-term reasons for the slump in fortunes of social democracy. Workforces are less unionised. Rigid class identities have been in decline for decades, along with the party systems based on them. However, social democracy’s latest travails stem from the post-2008 financial crash and recession, the continuing impact of globalisation and the EU’s responses to these challenges.

    During the whirlwind years, the souped-up versions of social democracy, marketed by Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder as “the third way” and “the new middle”, have turned out to have few answers and even fewer attractions for millions of economically vulnerable centre-left voters. They were policies for sunny weather, not for the storms of today.

    High unemployment, stagnant or falling living standards, public spending cuts and, in some cases, the state-organised rescue of irresponsible banks with colossal sums of taxpayers’ money have intensified public discontent with centre-left parties that are or were once in office. In Germany, the reforms that Mr Schröder, the last Social Democratic chancellor, introduced to the labour market and welfare state have severely punished his party.

    Disaffected SPD loyalists view these reforms as evidence that the party’s comfortably off leaders make light of basic principles of social justice. As a result, many no longer even bother to vote. One question for next year’s Bundestag elections is not whether the SPD will win — there is no chance of that — but whether the party will scrape together enough votes to match its all-time low of 23 per cent in 2009.

    The constraints that bind EU governments have contributed to the agonies of social democracy. Eurozone states must obey a plethora of strict fiscal rules, drawn up after the financial crisis, whose relevance to the region’s economic circumstances often seems incidental. Nonetheless, the rules oblige social democrats to worship at the altar of budgetary restraint, and to emphasise private sector competitiveness at the expense of public sector care, in a manner that may keep the eurozone’s masters and financial markets happy but turns off core centre-left voters.

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    These same voters are suspicious of the EU’s support for global free trade and freedom of movement within the 28-nation bloc. Globalisation puts jobs and wages under pressure in some communities. Freedom of movement depopulates central and eastern European countries as their workforces seek jobs in the EU’s western member states. Simultaneously, the EU grapples with the arrival of large numbers of non-European war refugees and economic migrants, often from Islamic countries.

    The economic crisis, the constraints of eurozone membership and, above all, the rise in immigration
    have opened up space for anti-establishment parties, mainly on the conservative nationalist right, to eat deeply into social democracy’s core electorate. In this context, the decline of trade union membership in Europe is especially significant. Social surveys indicate that low-income, less educated voters are much more likely to abandon social democracy for the far right if they are not union members.

    Yet in countries such as Greece, Spain and the UK, the centre-left is losing ground on a second front — to militant ultra-leftist minorities. The apparatus of Britain’s Labour party, all-powerful at Westminster between 1997 and 2010, is falling under the control of neo-Marxist agitators who combine scorn for parliamentary politics with a seductive appeal to the idealism of some young people.

    Just as Labour is haemorrhaging support to the rightwing populist UK Independence party, so are the French Socialists to the far-right National Front — with the result that it is not certain a Socialist candidate will even make it through to the final round of the presidential election in May. The outlook is no less dire in Poland, where not a single candidate of the left won a seat in last October’s parliamentary elections.

    It is nonsense to suggest that the moderate European left is a political carcass. But its electorate is deeply split. One side consists of less well-off voters with conservative social values who feel under siege from EU policies and globalisation. The other consists of affluent cosmopolitan liberals who like the EU and benefit from an open world.

    In Austria, France and elsewhere, it is looking like a futile task to keep these two groups together under one party roof. The pro-EU side therefore faces a choice. Either it retains its internationalist outlook as a matter of principle and the two camps part ways — or it demands tougher EU policies, above all on migration, conscious that nothing less will win back its lost voters.

    tony.barber@ft.com

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