Another week, another litany of woes for European social democracy. On 6 May Labour lost council seats and an important by-election in the post-industrial English north. On 9 May Germany’s SPD gathered (virtually) to confirm the stolid Olaf Scholz as its chancellor candidate ahead of September’s election, but the party is polling as low as 14 per cent and languishes in the shadow of the surging Greens. On 10 May, the 40th anniversary of François Mitterrand’s historic presidential win, France’s Socialist Party reflected on how far it has since fallen. Its chances of retaking the presidency in 2022 are poor to negligible. As the New Statesman went to press the once pre-eminent Dutch PVDA, which was reduced to 5.7 per cent at the recent general election, was seriously mulling becoming the ultra-junior fourth party in a new right-led coalition.
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The Labour Party’s troubles are not isolated, in other words. Across Europe the mainstream left’s old electoral coalition – spanning industrial workers, public sector employees and urban professionals – is fragmenting as class-based identities give way to multi-dimensional ones. Its more socially conservative components are turning to the centre- and far-right. Its progressive and radical ones are turning to liberals, greens and other left-wing parties. Where social democracy was the dominant force in much of the continent around the turn of the millennium, now it holds power only in a disparate handful of countries. It is to those places, where left-of-centre parties bombarded by many of those same changes nonetheless manage to wield power, that a despairing Labour may well now look.
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There is an alluring example to suit almost every faction in the party. Not so long ago the Corbynite left drew inspiration from the political party Syriza in Greece. For Blue Labour and other communitarian types there is Denmark, where the Social Democrats under Mette Frederiksen came to power in 2019 touting a more socially conservative, anti-immigration credo. Governments in Spain and Portugal offer a model that might appeal to Labour’s soft left, in which a mainstream social democratic party governs with the support of the radical left (a variant in Sweden and Finland involves support or tolerance from centrists and greens). For liberal cosmopolitans in Labour, the sort of people who may have been Macron-curious around 2017, the rise of the Greens in countries like Germany makes the case for a bourgeois-progressive formula.
The problem with all of these examples, however, is that not one of them would work under first-past-the-post (FPTP). Each relies on some form of proportional representation, under which left-led governments can be formed from two or more distinct parties that speak to different parts of a majority electoral coalition. Where Britain’s majoritarian system has partly shielded Labour from the fragmentation that has afflicted many of its counterparts – at 35 per cent it is polling higher than almost any of them – it also forces the party to gather a sprawling coalition under its own, single umbrella. Therein lie many of its current strains.
Take the Danish case, which has been touted as a model for post-Hartlepool Labour. The benefits of Frederiksen’s rightwards cultural shift are in any case exaggerated, notes the political scientist Tarik Abou-Chadi. At the cost of incinerating its moral standing (backing the confiscation of valuables from asylum seekers, for example) the party won back only 12 per cent of the far right’s voters and its overall vote-share fell. It was only able to form a government because two other parties in the left block, the social liberals and green-socialists, gained support. That formula – courting nativist voters while relying on allied parties to mop up disgruntled cosmopolitan ones – is simply not an option for Keir Starmer.
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But while there are plenty of wrong lessons for Labour to draw from comparisons with and to continental politics, there are also a few helpful ones. Here are three.
Lesson one: the make-up and outlook of the electorate is not a constant. Will the greening of industry change what we mean by “industrial working class”? How valid is the knee-jerk conflation of “blue-collar” with “white” in increasingly diverse societies? Can university-educated voters continue to be written off as an unrepresentative elite when they constitute up to half of young cohorts? Debating these questions may not make the trade-offs and tensions they chart any easier. But across Europe parties that neglect them are generally struggling, while those grappling with them are often doing better. As it plots a long-term strategy, Labour overlooks them at its peril.
Lesson two: FPTP is the problem, so at least mitigate it. While Labour is stuck with Britain’s majoritarian system for the foreseeable future, it could consider electoral pacts with the Liberal Democrats and the rising Greens to maximise support for the sort of pluralistic left-led government that its continental counterparts have been able to forge under proportional systems.
Lesson three: recognise the limits of the parallel. British politicos tend to overstate the applicability of US political methods and understate the relevance of lessons from more socio-economically similar (but non-anglophone) countries closer to home. But the US and Britain do share one important similarity that sets them apart from continental Europe: they both have majoritarian systems dominated by two main parties that compete to establish the bigger electoral tent. That Joe Biden’s underestimated blend of inoffensiveness and streaks of genuine progressivism was able to gather a sufficiently large share of a fragmented electorate to oust Donald Trump was no foregone conclusion. In looking to learn lessons from across the Channel, Labour should not ignore those from across the Atlantic.
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die