For years the centre left only led the world in decline. Far from being a “progressive moment”, social democrats were routed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis as the populist right advanced. Left parties, it was said, had fallen prey to the curse of “Pasokification” (a term coined in reference to Greece’s vanquished Pasok, which was reduced from 160 seats in 2009 to just 13 in 2015).
Today, however, it is the centre right that appears imperilled. Australian Labor’s first general election victory for nearly a decade fits a growing trend of progressive advance. Social democrats now hold power in Germany, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand and all five Nordic countries. The US, Canada and France are governed by liberals (and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has just appointed the former Socialist Party adviser Élisabeth Borne as prime minister). The UK is now the only major European power or Anglosphere country governed by the conservative right. What accounts for this reversal of fortunes?
In part, this trend is simply the normal working of the electoral cycle; in democracies, parties rarely govern indefinitely. Germany’s Christian Democrats, for instance, were politically and intellectually exhausted after 16 years in office and Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats seized the opportunity.
After being marginalised by populists in the post-crash years, the centre left has reinvented itself according to local circumstances. In Spain and Portugal, social democrats allied with the radical left (including communists) and embraced anti-austerity policies. In Scandinavia, most obviously in Denmark, they have moved sharply right on immigration (a shift which should qualify talk of progressive advance).
But there are deeper trends that should alarm the right. In a new era of permanent crisis — climate change, pandemics, collapsing living standards — conservatives are struggling to provide answers. The Thatcher/Reagan project, which gave the right such momentum as it cut taxes, privatised industries and eviscerated trade unions, ended but nothing was put in its place. Crude populism — demonising immigrants and benefit claimants — is not a recipe for long-term electoral success.
While Thatcher and Reagan advanced by winning among the young, today’s conservatives are struggling among the graduate class and the under-40s. As Thomas Piketty has charted, in perhaps the most important electoral shift of the last 50 years, where previously the right won among higher-educated voters, today it is the left that is dominant. In Australia this trend played out as conservatives lost previously safe seats to Greens and “teal independents” (centrist candidates who campaigned on a pro-climate, anti-corruption agenda), as well as losing seats to Labor.
Could a similar coalition of social democrats, liberals and disillusioned Tories yet doom the Conservative Party at the next Westminster election? Should the UK return a hung parliament, Boris Johnson will be desperately short of prospective partners.
In an era when the market is not working for the majority, conservatives risk being marooned defending an unappealing status quo. If Johnson needs proof of the consequences, he need only look across the globe.