The strange death of social democracy: what Labour can learn from the Left in Europe

13th September, 2013 10:36 am

European politics: a game involving up to forty-seven democracies. Terms last four to five years, and then the centre-right wins.

In Norway, the Labour Party oversaw a growing economy and a formidable campaigner in its Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. It still lost the general election that took place on Tuesday, and came within a whisker of surrendering its ninety-year hold on first place. In Germany, where a year ago right-wing CDU President Angela Merkel looked as if she might surrender ground to the Left, she now appears to be unstoppable as the campaign enters its final fortnight.  Or take the French Socialists – who, with their wonkish leader and their thumping triumph over Sarkozy from the centre-right, offer a reassuring vision of the future for Labour – now struggling with record levels of unpopularity.

“Must Labour Lose?” was the plaintive title of a Labour pamphlet released just after the party’s 1959 defeat, but it’s all too easy to imagine a similar book being published today almost everywhere in Europe, where the Left finds itself either beaten, on the edge of a beating or in government only on the sufferance of its ancient enemies on the right.

Where did it all go wrong? In the Norwegian election this week, Labour had a problem that many of its sister parties would kill for: it had simply been in office too long. Stoltenberg – who will now serve out the last few weeks of his term – said as much after the result. Labour had tried “to do what almost no-one has done, to win three elections in a row,” he said. “ It turned out to be tough.” In Germany, Angela Merkel is successful, popular, and lucky. Turfing her out has also turned out to be tough, while in France, governing in an era of money has turned out to be tough as well.

Various explanations abound for the strange death of Social Democratic Europe, poor leadership, poor decisions, to a financial crisis that has destroyed many of the implicit assumptions that underpinned social democracy, but perhaps the problem lies with a politician who did what Stoltenberg couldn’t and Merkel really can: win three elections in a row.

Tony Blair was neither – as some of his wide-eyed disciples might believe – a unique flower or – as some of his frothy-mouthed opponents might argue – an unprecedented cancer within the Left. He was part of a trend towards traditional left parties modernising and changing so they could win elections in the Nineties and the Noughties, from the Netherlands’ Wim Kok to Gerhard Schroeder. Even the French had something of a go, under Lionel Jospin, although that met with a crushing disappointment in the French elections of 2002.

France aside – where Jospin was something of a reluctant convert to revisionism – the Third Way worked: the Left took power, often for prolonged periods. But all good parties end with ill-advised hookups and bad hangovers, and the Third Way was no different. For the European Left, the legacy of Blair, Schroeder, Kok et al was fragmentation. In 2010, Labour came perilously close to a third-placed finish behind a party that ran to its left, while in Germany the creation of Die Linke – the sort of party that would emerge if Gordon Brown had got bored of waiting and set up shop with Lindsey German – still hobbles Germany’s Social Democrats today. It’s worse in France, where the PS faces the leftist challenge from the populist Left Front, without even having the memories of mid-Noughties hegemony to draw a few crumbs of comfort from.

Across Europe, the problem is the same: it is incredibly easy to work out what European social democracy is not, but not what it is. Across Europe, the Left is against the agendas of its centre-right opponents and against the tactical concessions of its Third Way predecessors. But what is the Left actually for, and what does European social democracy mean? Three years after New Labour was declared an ex-party, we’re still waiting to discover the answer to those questions. That answer – when it emerges – might just prove of interest to socialists across Europe.

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  • Daniel Speight

    Perhaps you right Stephen. I suspect the big decision social democratic parties have to make, and which they will have to in order to survive, is dumping neo-liberalism as the economic model. It really doesn’t work during times of economic problems, and it should never have been adopted by anyone who considers them self a social democrat anyway.

    It’s only a few years ago that Alistair Campbell was challenging Diane Abbott on Andrew Neil’s show as to what she would replace neo-liberalism with. I wonder if he is still so open about his support for this economic belief?

  • Amber_Star

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    • ElenGriffiths

      Hi Amber_Star, thanks for your comment. Several people have commented on this. We will investigate and get it fixed if/when possible.

  • NT86

    Every country in Europe has individual problems, but the collapse of Greece’s Pasok should be a stark reminder to other social democratic parties. These are parties that should be on the side of working and lower middle classes, who were once their natural allies. The rise of technocracy and professionalism severed that link between the public and the centre left. Not to mention unquestioning support of the European Union, when even parties further to the left are sceptical.

    • Daniel Speight

      Yes Pasok is the warning of what will happen if Labour gets it wrong.

    • Re UKIP and similar:

      The nation state has now become a radical concept and can be used as a bulwark against imperialism – as the traditional Right, with their emphasis on the U.S. constitution, are now doing in the USA.

      Attitudes to the nation state also mark an important division within Labour: between those who use ‘humanitarian war’ as a cover for imperialist intervention (think Syria) and those who would prefer to forefront a strengthened role for the UN and international law.

  • Mouch

    It seems to me the lesson is that economic reality always trumps political ideology and promises. Was it ever thus?
    After decades of spending more on public services than we took in taxes (except for some short periods where we balanced the books or ran small surpluses) and promising unearned benefits funded from forecasted future growth, all parties will need to become more fiscally conservative. The left will find this much more difficult than the right of course. In effect we have been operating a form of state sponsored Ponzi scheme (and they tend to reach a critical mass before collapsing).
    Our previous economic largesse may have been sustainable in a time when our national overhead didn’t compromise competitiveness, but with the rise of the BRICs nations with their low overhead, our bloated state now puts us at a disadvantage.
    So, the left has lost the financial levers that it once had and also people have realised that state finances are much like their own – if you borrow it, you have to pay it back. If you don’t want to borrow it, then live within your means.
    Economics always trumps politics. Welcome to the new reality – the elephant in the room that Labour must start to talk about.

  • PaulBurgin

    The lesson we need to take into account starting with the Party Conference. To make it clear what we stand for!

  • MrSauce

    A key question is this: who was in charge when the crash came?
    In the USA it was the Republicans, cue 2-term stint for Obama.
    If your party was holding the balloon when it burst, expect problems.

  • eastender

    Lets wait to see what happens next weekend in Germany, whilst it is difficult to foresee any circumstances where Angela Merkel wont continue as Chancellor her position is not as strong as it seems. There is a feeling in the German media that the polls might not be showing the true position (in recent times the polls have shown far bigger leads for the CDU/CSU than they have actually achieved at the ballot box) and that Peer Steinbreuck might be doing better than many expected. Even if the FDP make it over the 5% hurdle to get seats in the Bundestag (it seems likely they will) there is no certainty that the current coalition would be able to command a majority, if not then the only other realistic option would be a so called grand coalition between the CDU/CSU & SPD (the SPD have ruled out, for now, forming a government with Die Linke). However this would not be a good option for the CDU, the SPD & Greens have control of the Bundesrat (the upper house) and are likely to take firmer control as a result of the elections in Hesse on the same day as the federal election. It would be likely, that at some point, the SPD would pull the plug, either to force new elections immediately or to establish a SPD led government. Angela Merkel herself has indicated that this will be her last election and there are no obvious successors. It is also worth pointing out that one of the reasons for her success is that she has very much moved to the centre, many of her policies are undistinguishable from those of the SPD, certainly not ones that the Tories would be pushing, minimum wage, rent controls……..

    The SPD seem to have taken lessons from the Labour party in that there is a big (unprecedented for Germany) GOTV operation in progress. Canvassing / voter IDing is culturally unacceptable in Germany but knocking on people’s doors just to talk to them is fine and novel. The SPD aim to talk to very large numbers of voters in the last few weeks, concentrating on key constituencies (though because of the electoral system “marginals” play a less important role). Evidence shows that this does work we shall see what effect this will have.

  • JoeDM

    Labour, ‘modernised’ Tories, Limp Demoprats – they’re all wet Social Democrats now.

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