Until recently, the centre left in many Western democracies appeared to be in steep decline. Far from being a “progressive moment” as the former Labour leader Ed Miliband once claimed, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis social democrats were routed across Europe and beyond.
Some traditional centre-left parties remain moribund. At the recent French presidential election, the Socialist Party’s candidate Anne Hidalgo recorded a mere 1.75 per cent of the vote. But elsewhere, social democrats are showing signs of recovery.
In Australia, the centre-left Labor Party has just returned to power for the first time in nearly a decade, while in New Zealand Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party won re-election by a landslide in 2020. In Germany, Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) last year ended 17 years of Christian Democrat rule and entered into coalition with the Greens. Centre-left parties have similarly regained office in Spain, Portugal and all five Nordic countries. The US, Canada and France are governed by liberals, leaving the UK as the only major European power or Anglosphere country with a conservative administration. What accounts for this electoral shift?
Though social democrats have returned to power, it would be wrong to suggest that they are in rude health or that the left is strong. The German SPD won just 25.7 per cent of the vote at the 2021 election, while its Swedish counterpart won its lowest ever share in 2018 (28.3 per cent). In a fragmented electoral landscape, the centre left has survived by managing decline rather than overcoming it, and it benefits from proportional representation.
But social democrats have also reinvented themselves according to local circumstances. In Spain and Portugal, where eurozone austerity ravaged voters, this meant aligning with the radical left (including communists) and adopting a more economically interventionist programme. Earlier this year, having dramatically reduced unemployment and boosted growth, the Portuguese Socialist Party leader, António Costa, won only the second majority in his party’s history.
In Scandinavia, meanwhile, social democrats have moved rightwards on social and cultural issues such as immigration. The Danish Social Democrats countered the far-right People’s Party and appealed to working-class voters by embracing policies such as a cap on non-Western immigrants and the deportation of asylum seekers to North Africa.
So this is not a social democratic moment comparable to the postwar Keynesian era or even to the late 1990s, when a new generation of self-styled progressive leaders embraced the “Third Way”. The more telling trend, perhaps, is the decline of the centre right. As well as losing office to social democrats, conservatives have failed to prevent liberal leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau from achieving re-election. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson won national elections, but only by embracing a form of right-wing populism that owes little to traditional conservatism.
Such defeats point to an intellectual and political malaise among the right. In our era of permanent crisis – climate change, the pandemic, collapsing living standards – conservatives are struggling to provide solutions. The Thatcher/Reagan project – which gave the right momentum as it cut taxes, privatised industries and curbed trade unions – ended, but there has been no true replacement. Nor is there an intellectual revolution comparable to the Hayekian “new right” insurgency of the late 1970s.
Could Boris Johnson, like his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, be undone by a coalition of social democrats, greens, liberals and moderate Europhile Tories? While Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan advanced by winning over the young, today’s conservatives are struggling among the under-40s. As the economist Thomas Piketty has charted, in perhaps the most important electoral shift of the past 50 years, where previously the right won among higher-educated voters, today it is the left that is dominant among the so-called Brahmin graduate class.
This is no guarantee of a “progressive future”. Brexit and Trumpism showed the fallacy of assuming the electorate is becoming ever more liberal. But there is an opening in Britain for the opposition parties finally to defeat the Tories. It will be unforgiveable if they fail to take it.
This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control