In 2008, as the global financial crisis afflicted the West, progressives spoke of a “centre-left moment”. A decade later, social democrats are losing throughout Europe. Otherwise disparate elections are united by one trend: the centre left invariably loses. In Italy, the Democratic Party was deprived of office on 4 March 2018 having won just 19 per cent of the vote (14 points behind the populist Five Star Movement and only two ahead of the far-right Northern League). Five months earlier, Germany’s venerable Social Democratic Party endured its worst-ever result (20.5 per cent). And in the 2017 French presidential election, the ruling Socialist Party finished fifth.
The centre left has long been in structural decline. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his 1978 Marxism Today essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”, the marginalisation of the industrial working class created the conditions for the right’s advancement. The inexorable decline in trade union membership, and the emergence of more atomised societies, deprived the left of once loyal battalions.
Social democrats believed nevertheless that the financial crisis would enable their revival. This was always a naive hope. The centre left was complicit in the deregulation and financialisation that precipitated the crash. In Europe, it championed the single currency and the creation of a monetary union without a complementary fiscal union. It was relaxed about mass migration and free movement. When the system inevitably faltered, social democrats could not credibly pose as its saviours.
The centre left’s crisis is not merely one of electoral failure but of political purpose. To an insecure and untrusting electorate, it has appeared neither radical nor credible enough. Populists of left and right have thrived by offering seductive answers to economic and cultural grievances. The centre right has secured and maintained power by trading on its perceived competence.
Globalisation has undermined the left’s historic tool of state intervention. Individual countries lack the ability to tame the forces of capital; the EU lacks the legitimacy to do so. The bonds of solidarity that underlie domestic welfare states have not been replicated on a continental level. In Greece and in Spain, social democrats accepted German-mandated austerity and were electorally vanquished.
The free movement of people, and the Middle Eastern and African refugee crisis, combined with a precipitous fall in living standards, have created profound cultural and social tensions. Brexit is but one manifestation of a Europe-wide revolt. The far right has made dramatic gains in France, Germany and Italy.
The only major European party of the left that has advanced in recent times is Labour, but it has embraced radical socialism. Until the 2017 general election, Labour too was displaying symptoms of “Pasokification” (a term derived from Greece’s routed social democrats). But by achieving the largest increase in the party’s vote since 1945 and its highest share (40 per cent) since 2001, Jeremy Corbyn defied this trend.
The Labour Party’s performance in 2017 cannot be attributed to Mr Corbyn alone. Britain’s anachronistic first-past-the-post system and its adversarial parliament help sustain two-party hegemony. And unlike its French, German and Italian counterparts, Labour has been in opposition for nearly a decade.
Yet as the radical left has done elsewhere in Europe (France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Germany’s Left party, Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos), Mr Corbyn appealed to voters who were alienated by technocratic managerialism. He recognised that the public craved transformative rather than incremental solutions, and spoke in a recognisably authentic voice. Europe’s social democrats can learn from his success even if they cannot easily replicate it.
As the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel said in a 2016 New Statesman interview, social democracy “has to return to its roots in a kind of moral and civic critique of the excesses of capitalism.”
This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war