The paradox of the European left is that while many of the burning issues currently defining political debates are traditionally left-wing concerns, social democratic parties seem incapable of credibly addressing them. This is true whether they are in office or in opposition. The left has failed to persuade voters that it can deal with economic inequality, employment precariousness, accessible housing or making health spending and pension entitlements sustainable.
Lately, however, there appears to have been something of a revival in centre-left parties’ fortunes – in France, Italy, Spain and the UK – that augur if not a resurgence of socialism, then at least a rejection of the forces of far-right nationalism. That revival could help social democratic parties respond to their predicament.
The origins of the paradox of the European left lie in a mismatch in the way democracy and capitalism are organised. Social democracy has traditionally organised at the level of the nation state. The levers of public intervention in matters of risk insurance (employment, health, pensions) remain with national governments. But market forces operate at the regional or global scale.
The European Union does intervene in regulating transnational market competition by, for example, applying Europe-wide rules on protecting employees. But, membership of the eurozone also curtails a national government’s room for manoeuvre in how much it can spend and borrow. Social democratic parties have struggled to navigate the contending forces of democracy and capitalism with the advance of European integration.
As a result, the electoral base of the left has fragmented. In France, the UK, the US and elsewhere, there is a split between those in favour of regulated openness and those in favour of nationalist closure.
The old industrial working class is turning away from parties such as Labour and the French Socialists towards UKIP and the Front National – parties that want to restore national control over borders and the economy. Meanwhile, other parts of the left’s traditional base – public sector employees, liberal professionals, urban residents with a cosmopolitan outlook – continue to espouse socially liberal ideals and economically centrist policies.
This fragmentation was perfectly illustrated in the first round of the French presidential elections. The socialists lost votes to the far left, the centre and to the far right. In Spain too, the PSOE has lost support to Podemos on the left and to the centrist upstart, Ciudadanos. In the UK, Labour is haemorrhaging votes in all directions.
The troubled revival of the left
Yet, at the same time, social democratic parties seem to be experiencing some kind of revival.
Jeremy Corbyn’s dramatic election as leader of the Labour party in 2015 was made possible by a sudden growth in the number of young and committed party members. Emmanuel Macron’s equally impressive victory in the French presidential election seemed to signal a similar popular momentum. Matteo Renzi took the helm of the Partito Democratico in Italy, committed to tackling the country’s deep structural problems, on the back of an immense surge of popularity.
But unlike the emergence of the “new” left in the 1990s, incarnated by Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in the UK, Gerhard Schröder in Germany, and Lionel Jospin in France, these contemporary movements don’t share the common ideological vision or political organisation needed to win office.
Corbyn is a well-known but unpopular tribune speaker with rehearsed socialist ideas that will not pass muster with the average British voter. Macron is the opposite. He is a capable and well-liked political novice, with a pragmatic but reformist programme that can woo centrist voters. His problem is that he leads a loose movement rather than an established party and may struggle to implement his programme as a result.
Renzi’s problem is also one of implementation. He was a bright and dynamic young leader at the helm of a dominant left-wing party. He wanted to solve Italy’s deep-seated economic problems and to tackle vested interests. However, he lost his gambit to reform the Italian political system in a referendum which he himself turned into a plebiscite on his leadership forcing him to resign as prime minister – although he has since regained the leadership of his party.
The conditions for a successful revival appear to be a combination of protest, personality, policy and organisation. Macron’s reforms could draw upon the groundswell of support offered to Podemos, for example. He could also benefit from the organisational depth of Corbyn’s party and the systemic dominance of Renzi’s.
A recipe for recovery
But to sustain this potential momentum, social democratic parties need to adhere to some key principles.
They should, for a start, emphasise the social justice issues that have always been at the heart of social democracy rather than those that tend to push voters into the orbit of far-right parties. That means focusing on long-term unemployment, training and education, health funding, pension reform and the environment. Immigration, identity and terrorism also need to be addressed, but as matters of citizenship, rights and social cohesion.
They should also advance concrete reformist policies that credibly deal with social justice issues, but that also recognise the complexity of living in an open and rapidly changing world. Taking inspiration from Macron and Renzi’s programmes, that means reforming pensions and a sclerotic labour market. It means using state instruments to prevent the worst forms of deprivation and inequity. It means spending public funds to provide social investments in health, training and industry to boost the supply side of the economy.
The split within the left is partly a generational one – so the younger generation of voters, to whom these messages might appeal, needs to be mobilised. These young people are more sympathetic to reformist ideas and must be compelled to turn out to vote. This will require the transformation of loose movements into formal party organisations with resources, personnel and members.
Accepting the need to govern in coalition with other like-minded forces is another essential change. The only alternative to the Conservative government in the UK, for example, is a coalition of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. Similarly, in France, Macron will probably need parliamentary support from Socialists and Republicans to form a working government. Failure to coalesce may result in the failure to win office, as Pedro Sanchez, the fallen leader of the PSOE realised only too late.
For some of Europe’s social democratic parties, national government is not attainable at the moment. But they should pursue reformist programmes at the local or regional level, testing out their policies as they go. They can also develop transnational coalitions between similar social forces across different countries, for instance in the European Parliament. They can demonstrate that the social and economic ills they seek to address can be done by concerted action in Europe, rather than by nationalist closure.
Only by broadening their thought and action in such a fashion can struggling social democratic parties recover their relevance in the current political landscape.