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Europe turns right as the progressive vote collapses

This should have been the perfect moment for centre-left parties to triumph

The social-democratic parties of the conventional centre left are in crisis across Europe this week, having been mauled in the elections for the European Parliament. A full post-mortem is yet to begin, but already some are blaming the weight of incumbency; voters often use the Euro elections as an opportunity to give the party in power a good kicking.

Here in Britain, the governing (and riven) Labour Party collapsed humiliatingly into third place, behind the UK Independence Party, with only 2.4 million votes and with a national poll share of 15.7 per cent – which dropped to less than 10 per cent in the south-east of England. It was Labour’s worst election result since 1918.

In Spain, too, the ruling Socialists suffered their first election defeat in a nationwide poll under the prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. In Portugal, the Socialists of Prime Minister José Sócrates saw their share of the vote drop 18 percentage points, with the opposition conservatives scoring a surprise victory.

Then there are those on the left who have laid the blame for the losses on various local, regional and national factors, denying that this is a Europe-wide phenomenon. The left in France has fractured into myriad parties in recent years, leaving the mainstream Socialist Party competing for votes with the New Anti-Capitalist Party, a Trotskyite movement, and the Left Front, an alliance of communists.

These explanations – or excuses – will not suffice. Incumbency did no harm to President Sarkozy’s UMP in France, Chancellor Merkel’s CDU in Germany or Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s PDL in Italy. All of these centre-right governing parties emerged triumphant over their social-democratic opponents.

The irony is that this should have been the perfect moment for centre-left parties to triumph. As the financial and economic crises have intensified, there has been much talk of the crisis of capitalism, the retreat of the right and the return of social democracy. It was not to be, and Spain’s centre-right newspaper El Mundo summed up the mood: “The traditional parties of the left should ask themselves why, in the midst of crisis, just when free-market theories appear to be most challenged, people continue to prefer [economically] liberal recipes.”

One problem for centre-left parties across the Continent, however, is that since the start of the financial crisis, parties of the right have moved left – appropriating historically centre-left policies, such as the need for higher public spending and greater regulation, not to mention the language and rhetoric of socialism. Ms Merkel has bailed out the carmaker Opel in Germany, while Mr Sarkozy has railed against the bonuses of “rascal bosses” in France.

Meanwhile, the results in Europe are all the more frustrating given the progressive political climate across the Atlantic. The conservative, free-market United States is now governed by the most social-democratic president in living memory.

So why have progressives succeeded in the US, but failed in Europe? First, as the right invades its ideological terrain, the left has no coherent narrative of how to organise the economy in the wake of the worst financial crisis in decades. Where, for instance, are the writers, thinkers and economists who offer genuinely innovative alternatives to the current economic order? Where is Britain’s, or indeed Europe’s, Paul Krugman? Second, the progressive parties in Europe remain bereft of popular, convincing leaders who can articulate their narratives. The days when Gerhard Schröder, Lionel Jospin and Tony Blair dominated their national political scenes and organised summits on the “Third Way” are gone. Gordon Brown may have earned plaudits abroad for his bank bailouts, but at home he remains weakened, insecure, and without a clear sense of ideological vision.

The hard truth remains that there is no fantasy progressive alternative, either in cabinet or languishing on the back benches, ready to galvanise Labour – no matter what Guardian writers might believe.

The Labour Party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has been compromised by its 15-year embrace of the City and the Thatcherite agenda of unrestrained free markets. It has only 11 months to convince those voters who have deserted the party that a centre-left government is still relevant and can offer a compelling vision for achieving social progress and sustainable growth.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!