Search form

Last updated: 2 min 12 sec ago

You are here

How Europe’s social democrats lost their way

In almost every country in Europe, political parties of the center-left struggle to remain competitive. Social democracy, though it can claim success in creating and developing public services that have improved people’s lives and health, can now rarely convince its former supporters that it still deserves their votes.
What went wrong?
Of the few in power, only the Portuguese socialists enjoy strong ratings. The Swedish social democrats regularly poll lower than 30 percent and lead a minority government in coalition with the Greens. The Luxembourg Socialist Workers Party is a junior partner in a center-right-led coalition. In Malta, the EU’s smallest state, Labour is in power, but not held in high esteem after Daphne Caruana Galizia, the investigative journalist killed in October, reported extensively on charges of corruption involving Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his allies. (Muscat has denied all allegations and said he “will not rest before justice is done” for the “barbaric act” of Galizia’s murder.)
In Italy, the only large European state with a center-left government, the Partito Democratico suffered a bad defeat in Sicilian regional elections this month. The right-wing coalition, led by the never-say-die Silvio Berlusconi, won convincingly. National elections are expected next spring.

As global capitalism takes the blame for austerity, inequality, stagnant incomes and unemployment, young people in particular turn to the far left or the far right. 

John Lloyd

In former communist states, the center-leftists frequently shift leaders and make alliances with centrists or even far rightists.
Elsewhere, the leftist parties — the Austrian, Croatian, Cypriot, Czech, Danish, Finnish, German, Latvian and Lithuanian social democrats, the British, Dutch, Irish and Norwegian labor parties, the Bulgarian, French and Hungarian socialists, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party — find winning ever harder.
Meanwhile, there is an upsurge in support for far-right parties. The German federal elections drew most comment for the sudden success of the far-right AfD and the surprising weakness of the governing CDU/CSU center-right coalition. But the much greater fragility of Germany’s social democrats, with a historic low of just over 20 percent of the vote, is at least as momentous. This, apparently the most stable, most powerful, most socially integrated center-left party in the world, hemorrhaged voters to the populist Linke (Left) Party and even more to the AfD.
Since the war, social democratic parties offered capitalism a deal. The state would be largely responsible for public welfare and education, and organized labor would — to varying degrees — be granted strong bargaining rights, even co-determination in enterprises. The internal, mostly unstated, agreement within the social democratic movements was that the unions would deliver the bulk of their members’ votes to the party. Capitalism would be regulated, but could be successful, and usually was.
As the postwar decades rolled on, the social democratic end of the deal softened, if at different times in different ways. Social democracy, once ambiguous about capitalism, came to work with and depend on it. In Britain, France, Germany and Italy, parties that had once embraced socialism (in Italy’s case, communism) clawed away from commitment to nationalization, ever-higher public expenditure and any form of class struggle. Both the US under the Democrat President Bill Clinton and Germany under the SPD’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder adopted elements of British New Labour’s “Third Way,” essentially a new form of adaptation to capital in its more globalized form, but with relatively high public spending and liberal social policies as part of the bargain.
As globalization accelerated, social democrats came to believe that they must rival governments of the right in attracting investment and encouraging entrepreneurship. But the decline of national protections eviscerated much of organized labor (except in the public services) and rendered the institutions of the welfare state more fragile.
Social democracy’s success in representing the organized working class and attracting a substantial slice of middle-class votes depended on the influence it could bring to bear on national corporations, and national governments. Union power was reduced when faced with global corporations; the left lost one of its most powerful cards. Social democrats and liberals also lost out in their response to escalating fear of terrorism, especially in France, and the gathering rejection of immigrants in all European states. The center-left has tended to be more liberal in allowing mass immigration. All are now rowing back to harsher positions, but the damage with electorates is done.
As global capitalism comes to be blamed increasingly for austerity, inequality, stagnant incomes and unemployment, and parties of the right fear something like a revolution, parts of electorates, especially the young, turn away from parties seen as little different from the center right. They turn to the Jeremy Corbyn-led UK Labour Party and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise. 
At the same time, those who focus on migrants and terrorism often find a new home in far-right groups such as the Swedish Democrats, the AfD and France’s National Front.
That full-blooded socialism has failed wherever it has been tried and that the parties of the far-right lean far toward authoritarian rule and a deliberate cultivation of fear and hatred has not yet severely dented the attraction of the parties of the two extremes. Thus the weakening of social democracy continues. It has lost its foundations and has not yet found its relevance to 21st century politics.

• John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow 
— Reuters.