Bruised, battered and out of power

The European left is in retreat. It stole the right's economic clothes; now the right threatens to s

The left-of-centre parties in western Europe are generally in a poor, even a critical, state. Many have recently lost elections; their memberships are declining; they are riven with disputes. Not only has the right seized the popular ground on immigration and crime, as you might expect it to do because that is traditional right-wing territory; it has also bitten deep into left-wing territory by expressing popular fears over the effects of globalisation, and posing as the true (because truly national) defender of the welfare state.

These problems afflict even those who still hold on to power. Germany's SPD, the largest social democratic party in the world, has resumed its coalition with the Greens after a narrow election success. But few commentators give it much chance of surviving a full term. Sweden's Social Democrats may seem to be in better condition: they won a convincing election victory this year while apparently bucking the trend towards tough immigration controls (see Robert Taylor, New Statesman, 23 September). But in an interview this month, Wanja Lundby-Wedin, the leader of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, which organises some 80 per cent of the workforce, said that the federation would back a "yes" vote in the expected Swedish referendum on the euro only if strong measures were taken to safeguard the welfare state. She warned that the population may come to see the parties of the populist right, campaigning for a "no" vote, as better protectors of welfare than the left parties (including Sweden's Social Democrats) which advocate entry to the euro.

Her remarks illuminate the way in which the right is now stealing the social clothes of the left, just as the left, in the past decade, has stolen the economic clothes of the right. In Denmark, the Danish People's Party (which supports but is not a member of the ruling right-wing coalition) has decided to make opposition to the euro, and even to Denmark's membership of the EU, its central campaigning issue. It warns that Denmark's welfare state, as well as its parliamentary democracy, would be threatened by an EU that expands to the east and stretches its resources thinly. In Norway (which is not an EU member), Carl Hagen, leader of the Progress Party - now scoring far higher in the polls than the three governing right-wing parties combined - promises to raid the enormous fund built up from oil tax revenues in order to protect welfare, education and health systems, and to increase infrastructure spending while also cutting taxes.

It was evident in the French presidential election that Jean-Marie le Pen, the National Front leader, had added to his anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric a powerful element of left populism - expressing sympathy with workers who had lost their jobs, or feared they might, because of low-wage competition from the developing world. It is evident, too, in Italy, in Austria and in the Netherlands - all now ruled by right-wing coalitions - that the populist parties have linked their anti-immigrant stance with claims that, in keeping out poor foreigners, they are safeguarding welfare payments for long-standing residents.

This is the growing danger for the centre left. In embracing - with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm - globalisation, open borders, free trade and liberal economics, it risks abandoning all nationalist ground to the right. The populist parties share a dislike of Europe; a belief that globalisation is bad for "their" people; and a claim that the European project is an elitist one, which is organised and pushed through by "them" against "us". Thus the left groups, in a further inversion of traditional dividing lines, become the parties of the internationalist middle class: professionals, executives and highly skilled technicians, as well as immigrant populations. The right-wing parties bid for the votes of the dispossessed, the low-skilled, the insecure and the poor.

The further danger, most evident in France and Italy, is that the left, out of power, becomes consumed in doctrinal and ideological disputes - even that it begins to turn away from democratic or parliamentary politics as a whole.

In France, the right controls both the presidency and the parliament; for the first time in two decades, there is neither personal nor ideological rivalry between the two levels of government. The left's comprehensive defeat at the polls, and the discrediting of the former prime minister and presidential candidate Lionel Jospin, has left the Socialist Party split and, for the moment, helpless. Groups such as Le Nouveau Monde and La Gauche de la Gauche excoriate the government for being too accommodating to globalisation, America and capitalism. They want a line similar to that being proposed by the populists of the right, shorn of the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Two former finance ministers, Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on the other hand, want to assure the public that the left will be tough on crime and illegal immigration.

Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party's first secretary, tries to hold the centre, arguing for a "reformism of the left". But the left of the party - and the ultra-left groups outside it, many buoyed by their "success" in the presidential election, when they split the left vote and denied Jospin a second round - believe that reformism was tried, and failed.

The left in the greatest disarray is that of Italy, where the main parties of the left are divided among each other and within themselves. Two former prime ministers, Giuliano Amato and Massimo d'Alema, recently addressed a letter to the Party of European Socialists, proposing that it open its doors to non-socialist, centrist and even Christian democratic currents. But all the parties of the left have been outflanked by large demonstrations - against Silvio Berlusconi's proposed new laws, and particularly against his labour market reforms - which have been organised mainly by people from the showbusiness and academic worlds. These demonstrations - one of which brought well over a million people to Rome this autumn - explicitly exclude politicians. The most popular figure is the film director Nanni Moretti, and the radical magazine editor Paolo Flores d'Arcais. Berlusconi's government, in which charges of corruption vie with blatant conflicts of interest, has no effective opposition, therefore.

The only opposition socialist party that seems outwardly optimistic is in Spain, where a young leader, Jose Luis Zapatero, is dragging the Socialist-Labour Party towards the centre - playing down old-style socialism, embracing some of new Labour's "third way" politics and promising better deals for the country's fissiparous regions. Yet for all the party's public bullishness about the general election expected in 2004, it privately hopes for nothing more than a cut in the right's majority.

Socialists in Europe are bruised, battered and out of power; and they look like staying that way for some time yet.