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The strange death of European social democracy

Willy Brandt, leader of West German Social Democrats, addresses a huge crowd of West Berliners in front of the Reichstag on May Day, 1966; he 1969 he became the party's first chancellor since the war. Only two others have followed - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

The existential crisis facing Labour is one shared by its sister parties across the continent

As the UK’s Labour Party comes to terms with its latest failure to connect with the electorate it can at least comfort itself with one thing: it is not alone. Traditional social democratic and Labour parties across Western Europe are reeling from a series of electoral setbacks, from the Netherlands to Spain, in some cases from already historic lows. Worse is expected to follow later this year in Germany and next year in France.

So, what is behind this seemingly inexorable decline, which, incidentally, has been debated for almost as long as social democracy has been around?

While there are many local differences, the Dutch, more than the Spanish and British, can be taken as relatively typical. What jumps out is that the country’s Labour Party, PvdA, is just no longer seen as relevant, especially to younger voters among whom it has now performed disastrously for two elections in a row.

Both the voters and the commentariat appear to have moved on, the latter evidenced by the paucity of analysis on the failure of the party to bounce back from its implosion in 2017. There’s nothing worse than not being talked about. But the question remains, what’s behind the declining relevance of the PvdA and many of its siblings in Western Europe?

It can be partly traced back to the problem of aiming your electoral appeal mostly at one group of voters. Social democratic parties outside Scandinavia should have done a much better job of reaching beyond their core constituencies, judging by their record of actually gaining power.

Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer suffered major setbacks in last week’s elections – Credit: PA

In most Western European countries, left leaning parties have headed governments at most about one third of the time since 1945, with UK Labour actually performing slightly better than average, possibly due to Britain’s unique-in-Europe first past the post system.

It’s tempting to conclude that most countries simply have inbuilt conservative or centrist majorities but it begs the question as to whether voters who don’t strictly consider themselves the proletariat have ever been offered a good enough reason to vote consistently for a social democratic or Labour party.

The question is even more urgent now that nobody seems to know anymore what it means to be working class. The masses, whoever they may have been, have melted away into mobile phone-led online universes, primed for marketing and consumption, rather than workers’ revolutions.

Most commentators agree that European social democratic parties have been in search of an electorate at least since the 1980s. The increased appeal to middle class voters by the ‘Third Way’ parties of the 1990s, in the UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands among others, is now seen as at best having slowed the decline and at worst having laid the basis for the current dire situation by diluting core left wing values.

At the same time, part of the present downward trend is ascribed to the social democrats having become victims of their own success. Despite endless talk of the triumph of the neoliberal world order, growing inequality and the return of capitalism red in tooth and claw, Western Europeans overall keep enjoying high living standards and meaningful social protections.

Any attempt to convince them otherwise, for example by pointing out the undermining of the welfare state by the growing gig economy and the increasing accumulation of wealth and power by the ‘one percent’, hardly makes a dent.

The social democrats have also lost the monopoly on agitating for the welfare state, with some anti-immigrant, right wing parties actually surpassing them in that respect. Even most successful conservative and centrist parties, like the ones in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands, have ditched their post-2007 focus on austerity and are now more likely to talk about investing in the public sector rather than dismantling it.

There’s much anguished finger pointing at the emergence of left and right wing populist parties. Yet, apart from Greece and Italy, no Western European country has recently elected what can be called a populist-dominated government, although all eyes are on France next year to see how Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front) will fare. In Greece, once in power, insurgent left Syriza behaved in many ways like the traditional social democratic party that it replaced as the country’s dominant left wing force.

The Greeks have in fact added a word to their already substantial contribution to the Western lexicon with the term Pasokification. It means the decimation of a once competitive social democratic party and refers to Pasok, which fell from from 43.9% of the vote in 2009 to 4.7% in 2015, a trajectory more or less followed by among others the French and Dutch social-democratic parties and possibly one beckoning for the German SPD.

Eastern Europe is a different matter, due to its post-communist dynamics, and the Iberian peninsula shows that traditional social democrat parties can actually fare pretty well when aligning themselves with more hardline left wing, and even populist parties – although both Spain and Portugal might still be diverging from other European countries because they were ruled by authoritarian regimes into the 1970s.

Scandinavia has been the outlier since 1945, with a robust, in some countries dominant, record in government for the social democrats, who very early on aimed to appeal across class lines. These are relatively wealthy and stable places, and for a long time non-diverse. Migration and populism have threatened the social democrats’ power since the start of the millennium. In Denmark in particular this led to right-leaning governments propped up by the anti-immigrant DF. The social democratic party held on only by taking a tougher line on immigration, a route many of its sister parties for now eschew.

The link between the decline of the social-democrats and the rise of the populist, anti-immigrant right is often dismissed by political analysts and observers. In many countries, the once powerful social democratic parties have simply lost voters to other left-leaning parties that are regarded as more relevant and in tune with the concerns of especially younger voters. This might well tip the balance in Germany in September, where the Greens are currently in the lead. But September is a long way off in politics.

Also, the somewhat soothing idea of a redistribution of left-leaning votes is too complacent a picture for the social democrats. Taking again the Netherlands as an example, the left is being squeezed between populists and the centre-right, making its eventual return to power even less likely than it was in the past. Neither counting on old loyalties, nor being the Cassandra of the welfare state will save it. What will, is still anybody’s guess.

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