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The year of living ineffectually: 2017 proves shaky for the centre-left

Can the left bounce back? The UK Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, French Socialist Party’s Benoit Hamon and German socialist party leader Martin Schulz certainly hope so, as does New Zealand Labour’s great hope, Jacinda Ardern. Reuters, Ulysse Bellier/Flickr, Shutterstock

The year of living ineffectually: 2017 proves shaky for the centre-left

For political junkies, 2017 has provided a bumper crop of elections, particularly across Europe. This year, we have already seen key elections in the Netherlands, France, and the UK. Before the year is out, elections will take place in Norway, New Zealand, Germany and Austria. If we add the 2016 US Presidential result to these – we might see something of a pattern emerging – mostly (but not always), the major centre-left parties are failing to take office.

In the Netherlands, the concerns about the populist challenge of Geert Wilders tended to mask the Dutch Labour party’s (PvDA) disastrous result where it lost 29 seats and secured just 5.7% of the vote. In France, the phenomenal rise of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency was striking because neither of the two major established parties made the second round. Moreover, Benoït Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, secured a historic low for the centre-left with just 6% of the vote.

In the UK, the centre-left is in uncharted territory since the surprising elevation of Jeremy Corbyn. In June, Corbyn’s Labour secured 40% of the vote, increased the number of its MPs by 32 - even some of his harshest critics were surprised by his performance. Yet, Labour has lost three elections on the trot since 2005, and has been unable to take full advantage of the carnage wrought by the Brexit referendum.

In the recent and upcoming Norwegian, New Zealand, German and Austrian elections, the fortunes of the major centre-left parties looked mixed at best. In Norway this week, despite a close contest, the centre-right Coalition looks set to govern for another four years after defeating Jonas Gahr Støre’s Labour party.

In Germany, the so-called “Schulz effect” - in which the Socialist Democratic Party’s Martin Schulz was once on the march against incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel - has dissipated and Merkel seems set to win her fourth straight election. While Schulz has been the SPD’s strongest candidate in years, and the SPD has been in “grand coalition” with Merkel’s CDU on occasion, it has rarely been able to dominate German politics since the heyday of Gerhard Schröder in the 1990s.

In Austria, the centre-left social democrats (SPÖ) and the centre-right (ÖVP) have dominated, but the politics of the far-right pose new and awkward dilemmas – especially from the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Reflecting a new, harsh reality, the SPÖ under the leadership of Christian Kern (also Austria’s current chancellor), has lifted the party’s 30-year, self-imposed, ban on entering into a coalition with the far-right FPÖ. In Austria, as elsewhere around the world, the old party system is fragmenting.

The brightest hope for the centre-Left has been the political earthquake of Jacindra Ardern, who might just become Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand at the September poll. Until “Jacindra-mania” took off, New Zealand Labour lost three straight elections, and was last in office in 2005. Ardern, however, is just one exception to the general malaise confronting the centre-left.

Why is the left losing?

From this brief survey, it is clear that the centre-left is either losing, or can’t win outright. This is a vast shift since the early 1990s, when the centre-left led 15 out of then 17 EC states. In a forthcoming volume with my colleague Paul Kennedy, we explore the reasons for why the left are losing. We identify some common problems, but also some specific ones.

First, it’s worth pointing out that while the state of the centre-left is poor, we should be careful in claiming it signals the “death” of social democracy. Liberal democracy depends on parties winning, and also losing office. In many cases, such as in the UK, the electoral record of the left has been patchy at best. And recent results also belie the fragility of the mainstream centre-right (such as in France and the UK).

In our analysis, we focus on three broad themes – the role of individuals (especially leadership), the role of ideas, and the influence of institutional or structural factors.

Politics, to some extent, has become increasingly personalised – which means that political leaders face new and additional pressures. In many places, the centre-left has not done a great job in finding credible or convincing leaders (such as in Sweden and Germany). Ardern seems to offer a dynamic form of leadership, but as Martin Schulz discovered, this can be short-lived.

Yet poor leadership only offers partial insights. The centre-left has been unable to deal with a range of structural problems. Most crucially, the centre-left is in a state of existential crisis. It remains far from clear what the centre-left stands for. In the 1990s, the “Third Way”, for all its problems, was a seemingly winning formula for the reinvention of the centre-left.

But since then, in many places, it remains a hangover, and nothing significant has taken its place. The left has struggled to reformulate its political economy, and especially the issue of immigration. The centre-left has also suffered in structural terms with populist parties being a particular threat, both from the right (Austria), and also the left (Spain).

Ardern and NZ Labour might well be a hope for the centre-left, but it remains far from clear how it, and its sister parties, including Australia’s Labor Party, are dealing with the wider identity crisis.