Leader: The retreat of social democracy

Throughout Europe, the populist right is becoming more acceptable to many. Meanwhile, social democrats are failing to adapt to globalisation.

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The Labour leadership election has been parochial. There has been much talk of the party’s collapse in Scotland and of how Labour has given the impression of being “an elitist Westminster think tank”, as Andy Burnham, the favourite, has repeatedly bemoaned. This is all well and good, but Labour’s decline is much better understood not as something isolated but as part of a broader trend. For in Europe and throughout the west, social democracy is in crisis or retreat. The centre left is locked out of power in parliamentary systems in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and, of course, the United Kingdom. On the Continent, the experience is the same for the centre left in Germany, the Netherlands, Portu­gal, Spain, Hungary and now also Denmark, following the defeat of the centre-left bloc, which had been led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

The British left once looked to Scandinavia for inspiration and guidance. “If you want the American dream – go to Finland,” Ed Miliband observed. Yet Finland turfed out its centre-left coalition two months ago; three of the four Nordic countries now face being run by governments of the right. Only in Sweden is the centre left in power.

When Mr Miliband was elected as Labour leader in 2010, he was convinced that the world would turn left after the financial crisis. He gambled his entire leadership on this belief (and it was no more than that) – and he lost. Voters were certainly disturbed by widening inequality but just as important were desires for fiscal rectitude, balanced budgets and tighter controls on immigration.

The mainstream centre left has also produced an anaemic response to the rise of identity politics. It is true that parties of the radical left – such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain – have capitalised on a general mood of disenchantment but, significantly, both are Eurosceptic. More frequently, nationalism has been channelled by the mainstream centre right as well as populist insurgencies. Indeed, it was the rise of the right-wing Danish People’s Party – a Scandinavian version of the UK Independence Party – that contributed significantly to the defeat of the centre-left bloc in Denmark.

Throughout Europe, the populist right is becoming more acceptable to many. Meanwhile, social democrats are suffer­ing from what the political scientist Peter Mair termed “indifference on the part of both the citizenry and the ­political class: they are withdrawing and disengaging from one another”. To many voters, the feeling of solidarity between fellow citizens so crucial to social democracy has become increasingly meaningless in an age of globalised mass migration: parties of the centre left have failed to adapt to globalisation and the collapse in trade union membership. Most fundamentally, they have not convincingly answered the existential question of what the left is for when parties of both left and right are committed to cutting public spending.

All of this points to an unpalatable truth for Labour: the electorate rejected the party for reasons far deeper than Ed Miliband’s failings as leader. Unless Labour as a party can ­respond imaginatively to these broader trends, it faces another decade or more out of power. 

This article appears in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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