There’s not much left for Europe’s left

 16 Oct 2013 - 0:18

By Paul Taylor

What is left for Europe’s mainstream centre-left? Socialist and social democratic parties that shaped the protective European social model and ruled much of the continent a decade ago have been among the chief political casualties of the financial and economic crisis since 2008.

More than just a cyclical trough, this may be a longer-term decline because the left has lost its political narrative.

Many young and blue-collar voters, angry over mass unemployment and spending cuts, have deserted to protest parties of the anti-capitalist hard left or the Eurosceptical, anti-immigrant far right, as the political landscape fragments, polling evidence shows.

Others trust middle-of-the-road conservatives such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel more than the left to run the economy in tough times. And some have simply stopped voting out of disillusionment. Most worryingly for a movement born in the 19th century of organised labour’s struggle for better working conditions and living standards, the belief in collective social progress has lost much of its credibility in mature advanced economies.

Income inequality has increased across the industrialised West since the crisis began, according to OECD figures, widening social gaps that the left set out to close. “Social democracy nowadays basically amounts to the defence of the status quo and preventing the worst,” says Olaf Cramme, Director of Policy Network, a think-tank for progressive centre-left politics.

Germany’s opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have just recorded their second worst election result since World War Two. They now face an ugly trilemma between entering a “grand coalition” under Merkel on unequal terms, staying out and seeing her possibly team up with the Greens, the SPD’s natural partner, or being punished by voters at a rerun election. Socialists or social democrats still head 13 of the 28 EU governments and are in coalition in five others, but they are often driven to pursue unpopular policies that hit the interests of their own electorate.

“It is an extremely difficult balance,” Social Democratic Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said. “We had some reforms that have been seen as quite harsh, but they have also been necessary.  

“I think we have found the right formula, not to be popular because we have not actually reached that yet, but to do the right thing for the country,” she said.

Austria’s Socialists lost votes last month, though they remain the largest party. Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party, which now heads a shaky left-right coalition, bled votes to the anti-establishment five-star protest movement in a February election and is riven by factional squabbling. 

In Greece, Ireland and Spain, centre-left parties are paying a high electoral price for having supported public pay and pension cuts required by international creditors.

In some northern European countries such as Denmark, social democratic parties have pinned their fate on embracing an open, globalised economy and making social protection more selective.

REUTERS

By Paul Taylor

What is left for Europe’s mainstream centre-left? Socialist and social democratic parties that shaped the protective European social model and ruled much of the continent a decade ago have been among the chief political casualties of the financial and economic crisis since 2008.

More than just a cyclical trough, this may be a longer-term decline because the left has lost its political narrative.

Many young and blue-collar voters, angry over mass unemployment and spending cuts, have deserted to protest parties of the anti-capitalist hard left or the Eurosceptical, anti-immigrant far right, as the political landscape fragments, polling evidence shows.

Others trust middle-of-the-road conservatives such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel more than the left to run the economy in tough times. And some have simply stopped voting out of disillusionment. Most worryingly for a movement born in the 19th century of organised labour’s struggle for better working conditions and living standards, the belief in collective social progress has lost much of its credibility in mature advanced economies.

Income inequality has increased across the industrialised West since the crisis began, according to OECD figures, widening social gaps that the left set out to close. “Social democracy nowadays basically amounts to the defence of the status quo and preventing the worst,” says Olaf Cramme, Director of Policy Network, a think-tank for progressive centre-left politics.

Germany’s opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have just recorded their second worst election result since World War Two. They now face an ugly trilemma between entering a “grand coalition” under Merkel on unequal terms, staying out and seeing her possibly team up with the Greens, the SPD’s natural partner, or being punished by voters at a rerun election. Socialists or social democrats still head 13 of the 28 EU governments and are in coalition in five others, but they are often driven to pursue unpopular policies that hit the interests of their own electorate.

“It is an extremely difficult balance,” Social Democratic Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said. “We had some reforms that have been seen as quite harsh, but they have also been necessary.  

“I think we have found the right formula, not to be popular because we have not actually reached that yet, but to do the right thing for the country,” she said.

Austria’s Socialists lost votes last month, though they remain the largest party. Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party, which now heads a shaky left-right coalition, bled votes to the anti-establishment five-star protest movement in a February election and is riven by factional squabbling. 

In Greece, Ireland and Spain, centre-left parties are paying a high electoral price for having supported public pay and pension cuts required by international creditors.

In some northern European countries such as Denmark, social democratic parties have pinned their fate on embracing an open, globalised economy and making social protection more selective.

REUTERS