NS Essay - The left must open up more clear water between itself and its opponents

Why are social-democrat parties in such trouble in so many European countries? Have they been too qu

The European left is not in good shape. At the turn of the millennium, left or leftish governments were in power in 13 of the 15 states of the European Union, while Bill Clinton held office in Washington. All these were revisionist, Third Way governments; the Jospin coalition in France was no different, even if Lionel Jospin had a distaste for the term Third Way itself.

Now, out of the 25 EU countries today, the centre left holds power in just nine. Gerhard Schroder's Social Democratic/Green coalition in Germany has suffered unprecedented reversals in local and regional polls. The three states in eastern Europe - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - are all suffering from "post-enlargement blues" and look shaky. Goran Persson is enjoying his third term as prime minister in Sweden, but the Social Democrats do not have a majority in the Riksdag. Though the Socialists took power in Spain this year, they did so only after the Madrid bombings changed public opinion. Before that, they had looked likely to lose the election. In the UK, even Tony Blair, though still odds-on to win the next election, is in difficulties over the Iraq war.

Where the left is out of power, the situation seems even more discouraging. The Italian left appears rudderless: though Romano Prodi's return as leader of a new centre-left alliance prompts hopes for a revival, the parties and groups involved do not yet have a common programme. The French left has still not recovered from the shock of Lionel Jospin's elimination in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections. The Socialists are divided between modernisers and traditionalists, and the "plural left" that Jospin held together while in government has fallen apart.

Yet when I talked to a senior British government adviser - just before the latest Progressive Governance conference, held in Budapest from 13-14 October and organised by the international think-tank Policy Network - he was remarkably laid-back about it all. He did not think it mattered much, he said: after all, the "right-wing" parties or coalitions in some European countries are actually quite leftish in British terms.

The CDU in Germany, for example, is essentially a one-nation Tory party, far removed from current British Conservatism. Christian-democratic parties on the Continent, the adviser pointed out, have played a significant part in building and sustaining Europe's welfare institutions.

It is true that the centre of political gravity differs from country to country. It is as difficult for a government significantly to reduce taxes in Sweden, for example, as it is for a government to raise them in the UK. Moreover, as I wrote a book with the title Beyond Left and Right, you would expect me to agree that some issues no longer fall under the usual left-right divisions.

But the political composition of Europe certainly does matter. Many rightist parties or coalitions in power in Europe today are, to some degree, in hock to the far right, and most have embraced anti-immigration policies. Some - such as those in Italy and Austria - have brought far-right groups directly into government. The left absolutely needs to fight such trends.

So what explains the centre left's diminishing fortunes? The point should first be made that the decline has not been quite as marked as some suggest. There never really was a firm centre-left hegemony in 2000. Some left-of-centre parties came to power at that time largely because of the political cycle: the Social Democrats in Germany, for example, had been out of government for almost as long as Labour in the UK. Though the electorate responded positively to these parties' ideological innovations, many people simply voted for change. Moreover, in 2000, the left had a parliamentary majority in only four of the 13 countries concerned: Britain, Germany, France and Greece.

Contingent events are often more important in politics than ideology. But for a few thousand dimpled chads (or Ralph Nader's decision to stand), Al Gore, not George Bush, would have become US president in 2000. The occupant of the White House almost always has an influence on Europe's political complexion and, if Gore had been elected, a different approach to Iraq might well have prevented the splits on the Iraq war that have so damaged much of the European left.

Tactical failures also help to explain the left's declining fortunes. Left and right are everywhere internally divided, but the left is usually more prone to sectarian division. If the left had stuck behind Jospin in the first round of the French presidential election, he would at least have been able to put up a good fight against Jacques Chirac. If the Olive Tree centre-left coalition had managed to stay intact in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi might not be in power today. The principle "United we win, divided we lose" is a powerful one in politics. When Labour put its sectarian past behind it, it was accused of "control-freakery". Yet Labour's continuing electoral strength owes much to the containment of its internal schisms.

However, the weaknesses of the European left are undeniably ideological in some part. Do they flow from too much revisionism, or too little? I believe strongly that the problem is the latter. Social-democratic governments have often been either unwilling or unable to push through the programmes to which they are committed in principle.

Take Schroder in Germany. A Third Way disciple, surely? Yes, but more in spirit than in reality, I would say, at least until quite recently. He signed up to the "Blair-Schroder manifesto" in June 1999, supporting the kind of economic restructuring that new Labour has followed in the UK, but it was almost immediately disowned by many fellow Social Democrats circles in Germany. Schroder made little immediate progress in reforming a benefit system that prices German workers out of jobs. Only more recently, in his second term, has he started to make such reforms. By deferring them, he has arguably made the backlash much greater.

Labour's version of the Third Way was less original than some of its proponents believed. Active labour-market policy, for example, in the shape of the New Deal, was pioneered in the Scandinavian countries. In one key respect, however, Labour was ahead of the game: it believed that no area should be treated as "belonging to the right". Labour should generate left-of-centre solutions to "rightist" problems - such as those to do with crime or immigration.

Other social-democratic parties in Europe came round to such a standpoint too late. The Jospin government, for example, started to talk about crime reduction only late in its electoral campaign, and failed to convince the French electorate of its sincerity.

The Danish Social Democrats fell from power after they failed to anticipate and respond to a wave of right-wing populism, led by the anti-immigration Danish People's Party. Similarly, in the Netherlands, the ruling "purple coalition" was shocked to find itself ejected from government as a result of the rise of the anti-immigration campaigner Pim Fortuyn.

How can the left revive its fortunes? Despite what many have written on the subject, the populist parties as such are not a major problem for social-democratic parties. They tend to be intrinsically unstable, depending as they do on the appeal of "anti-political politicians".

Much more consequential for social democracy are the conditions that lead to right-wing populism. The stresses and strains of globalisation have created a new schism in our society. On one side are those who are at ease (or relatively so) with technological advance and the cosmopolitan interchange of cultures, and who possess the qualifications to do well in the new economy. On the other side - much further down the socio-economic scale - are those, often lacking in skills or qualifications, who feel that their jobs or even their way of life are threatened. These groups blame the "establishment" or "outsiders" or both for what is going on, and are easily attracted by racist or xeno- phobic sentiments. Many are erstwhile social-democratic voters who feel let down or disenfranchised by the mainstream parties.

Some commentators argue that populism flourishes because we no longer have the great ideological confrontations of the past. Politics, they argue, has become too mundane for voters to take much interest. The large majority, therefore, feel that "all politicians are the same" and that they are not being offered a real choice. The political vacuum is then filled with protest votes and direct action - outsiders against the establishment. If social-democrat parties are to get back on track, so this analysis goes, they must open up more clear water between themselves and their opponents on the right.

I have some sympathy with this view, which was the subject of much debate in Budapest. But we must not be naive. The third way turn in social-democratic politics is inevitable and inescapable. Left-of-centre parties will not enjoy electoral success unless they respond to change.

They have to win battles of tactics, strategy and ideology: tactics in the sense of sustaining a united front and organising election campaigns professionally; strategy in the sense of continuing to innovate in policy; ideology in the sense of giving revisionism emotional appeal. Pragmatism without passion will not command enduring political support. Social democrats must respond to populism without succumbing to it.

At the height of the social-democratic "boom", Blair talked of the aspiration to make the 21st century a "social-democratic century". So far, there is little sign of it, but the aspiration can still be realised. Outside Scandinavia, the left has never held power for long. This could change if social democrats could learn to speak for the majority, not just for sectoral interests. It could change if the left can rise to one of the biggest challenges - to promote a renewed egalitarianism, but one compatible with a dynamic and competitive economy.

The political right in Europe does not have an especially coherent political agenda. Right-wing parties dominate because they have responded more rapidly than the left to voter concerns about security and identity; and because of the left's tactical and organisational mistakes. With enough determination and intellectual effort, however - allied to a more lively and continuous exchange of ideas following on from the work of bodies such as the Policy Network - there is no intrinsic reason why the political map of Europe should not change yet again over the next few years.

But what happens in America has a big influence on Europe. The prospects for a social-democratic revival will be all the greater if, within a week, John Kerry wins the US presidency.

Anthony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics and now a member of the House of Lords, is the author of The Third Way (Polity Press, 1998)