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Mayday for the European left

Five elections in the first week of May will show whether the left can recover.

New Statesman
French Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande. Photograph: Getty Images.

The first week of May will see Europe's left contest no less than five telling elections. The deciding round of the French presidential election will take place on 6 May with the focus firmly on whether Francois Hollande can deliver the widely expected rallying point for European social democracy. In the UK, local council elections and the London mayoral ballot come at a decisive point in Ed Miliband’s leadership. And in Germany, a snap election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous region with huge political importance, could rock Angela Merkel and give a stagnating SPD much needed momentum. National contests will also take place in crisis-stricken Greece and in Serbia.

What is clear is that European voters have become increasingly sceptical about the dogmatic austerity and ill-suited remedies put forward by centre-right governments. This might well translate into election victories for the left but the critical question remains whether or not Francois Hollande and his European counterparts have a sharp and coherent political strategy for government in these straightened times.

Alas, the answer is that social democracy still has to find its way. This might be unfair, but it is the reality. The left is caught-up in a credibility trap: there is both a perceived and real delivery deficit surrounding key pillars of its political, social and economic offer.

People want governments to protect them from the myriad insecurities created by globalisation and economic change, but they also want to be empowered with more choice and control in their lives, not centralised bureaucracy. The central dilemma is that the left appears to promise much to voters, yet too many electorates are no longer convinced that centre-left parties have the capacity to deliver on their promises.

In truth, this is a dilemma not just for the left but for liberal democracy as a whole. There is a crisis of faith in politics borne of the contest between the dynamics of the global economy and the struggle of national politicians to control and temper it.

It is this often a violent swing between unfounded hope and unrealistic expectation that undermines trust and faith in governments and the political process. This crisis of politics hits the left hardest because social democrats have always espoused collective action through public institutions rooted in representative democracy and the public interest.

Addressing this credibility gap and delivery deficit goes much deeper than mere political positioning, opposition point scoring and new rhetoric. Serious intellectual debate and enquiry is needed to address the exhausted form of western capitalist democracies from a social democratic perspective.

To this end, Policy Network has published A Centre-Left Project for New Times, a distinctive manual for political renewal which sets out how left-of-centre parties can turn the tide of stagnation and attain a new vibrancy and radicalism.

The premise is that social democrats must embark on a four-legged process of political renewal and strategic thinking which draws together governing values, policy challenges, structural constraints and public attitudes.

The first leg focuses on guiding values. These work best not as grand abstract principles, but as ethical ideals and governing values that have purchase in the real world where there are inevitably hard choices and competing alternatives. It relates to what social democracy stands for today and how it should relate to other ideological families such as social liberalism and the green movement.

The second leg is policy challenges and core political concerns. Social democrats need to identify the most insistent social and economic challenges, and then outline a realistic political agenda that speaks to and protects a broad social constituency, acknowledging that many traditional pillars of the social democratic offer are exhausted. Values only have meaning to the extent they can be applied to the world as it is, not as we would prefer it to be. Only then can we set our own distinctive political agenda.

The third leg is institutional and structural constraints. Social democratic parties have acquired a wealth of governing experience over the last two decades. But they often underperformed in government as a result of fault-lines within the very system of representative democracy and governance itself. This was the consequence of a failure to understand how to overcome the institutional constraints and governing pathologies arising from the process of governing in contemporary democracies.

The fourth leg is public attitudes and preferences. The last decade has witnessed a dramatic shift in Europe’s self-belief and confidence. Grasping the extent to which this development has affected the basic attitudes and preferences of voters is absolutely indispensable for European social democracy, which in many countries stands accused of being out of touch with the political zeitgeist, and important strands of public opinion.

As is spelled out in the pamphlet, it is necessary to draw together all of these concerns. There are many obstacles, but social democracy has new opportunities and new challenges, freed from the burden of the Cold War but also facing the greatest crisis in the history of western capitalism since the Second World War. It can attain a new vibrancy if it is prepared to escape the straitjacket of past approaches and governing instruments, defining a contemporary left-of-centre political project for new times. As John Maynard Keynes once remarked, "The biggest problem is not to let people accept new ideas, but to let them forget the old ones".

Olaf Cramme, Patrick Diamond & Michael McTernan are authors of A Centre-Left Project for New Times available at Policy Network.