Times are tough for European social democracy. This once-proud movement--the progenitor of the modern welfare state, the default representative of the European working classes--crashed to historic lows in many countries in the first decade of this century. Followed by, well, more historic lows since then.
In recent elections, the Netherlands Labor Party polled under 6 percent, its worst showing since World War II and just barely ahead of the mighty Party for the Animals. In France, the once-massive Socialist Party polled a pathetic 7 percent, also a postwar low. In Germany, the historically powerful Social Democrats have slumped to a little over 20 percent support, a postwar low as well. The Spanish Socialist Workers Party, also polled a little over 20 percent in its last election, its worst showing since democracy returned to Spain. The Greek social democrats, PASOK, have pretty much disappeared. The Italian Democrats, what passes for a social democratic party in Italy, are polling behind the populist 5 Star Movement (and in the very recent elections in Sicily, far behind).
Other examples abound of social democratic underperformance but you get the idea. Is this a movement that has outlasted its time--headed for the ash heap of history, so to speak? Without in any way minimizing the challenges European social democrats currently face, I don't think it's time to administer the last rites.
First, not all social democratic parties have been losing ground recently. The Swedish social democrats did well in their last election and are in government. The UK Labor Party confounded expectations in the recent snap election and made significant gains, pulling 40 percent of the vote. The Portuguese Socialist Party is in government, supported by two farther-left parties, the Left Bloc and the Communist-led Democratic Unity Coalition, and is currently polling very strongly.
Second, even where social democratic parties have lost ground--which, admittedly, is more the rule than the exception--they remain parties with significant historical and political weight in their countries. The disappearing act pulled by PASOK still seems pretty far away for most of these parties.
Finally, and most importantly, they will be forced to change and, in fact, are in the process of doing so. To put it as simply as possible, social democratic parties need allies on the left to succeed electorally and, at the same time, these parties need to directly confront, and seek to change, the current poorly-performing model of postindustrial capitalism. Nothing else will arrest their downward slide.
These truths are dawning across the European left. The German social democrats have rejected another "Grand Coalition" and have gone into opposition with a new left wing leader and a professed openness to working with other parties to their left. The Spanish social democrats rejected their own establishment and elected a new left-leaning leader whose professed model is the anti-austerity left alliance strategy of the Portuguese Socialist Party. As for the Portuguese Socialists and the UK Labor Party, they are forging ahead with their new strategies and finding considerable success. Paul Mason of the UK Guardian puts these developments, and what they mean for European social democracy, in their proper context.
Until the centre-left learns to break with the logic of neoliberalism, and to construct an economic model that subordinates market forces to human needs, it will continue failing. The task is not to remedy or tweak the neoliberal economic model but replace it – just as fundamentally as Thatcher, Reagan and Berlusconi did in the economic counter-revolutions of the 80s and 90s.
The starting point is to stop characterising the small but vibrant leftist parties as “populist”, or “just as bad as the right”. Instead, social democrats need to learn from the radical left, and engage with them both ideologically and tactically. The Portuguese governing coalition – of the socialists and the Left Bloc – has revived the welfare state with an injection of cash, unfreezing pensions, raising benefits for families and disabled people, and boosting youth employment. Syriza in Greece has eclipsed the traditional socialist party, Pasok, not just through its moment of heroic defiance of the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund in 2015 – but by displaying competence in government and relative immunity to the deep corruption that pervades the rest of politics. In Ireland, Sinn Féin, together with six TDs (MPs) from a far-left coalition, has become a way more powerful voice for social justice than the pallid Labour party.
Mason's point about a new economic model is key. As I have noted before, capitalism is in a long transition from an industrial to a postindustrial, services-based model of society and so far the transition has not gone well. As this transition unfolded in the last two or three decades of the 20th century, Western capitalist societies saw a distinct slowdown in economic growth, twinned with a startling rise in inequality. The early 21st century continued these trends with the global financial crisis of 2007-08 dealing a grievous blow to advanced economies, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Many countries have recovered from this damage only recently and some have not yet done so.Only one traditional party of European social democracy has begun the necessary transformation, and that is Labour in the UK. This year’s party conference has turned the narrow streets of Brighton into a continuous milling discussion club about the politics and economics of modern socialism. Pubs, street corners, cafes, the endless queues for fringe meetings and, of course, the beach have become overcrowded with enthusiastic, educated young Labour people preparing for the radical transformation of Britain. Some of them have the labour movement in their DNA – many others would, in Germany, be just as happy inside Die Linke or the Green party; or in Italy inside the Five Star Movement. Almost none of them would be seen dead inside Greece’s Pasok.
So we are now talking about many decades of poor economic performance, particularly as it has affected those with low or modest skills whose livelihoods were connected to the old industrial economy. Elites on both the right and the left have appeared powerless to either accelerate this transition so it arrives at someplace good for most people or push it back to a better place.
This is the essence of the problem. European social democrats to many, many European voters appear precisely to be elites that are powerless to shape--or, worse, uninterested in shaping--this transition into a workable economic model that delivers a substantially better life for these voters. The vexed relationship of most European social democrats to the austerity dictates of the EU and Eurozone authorities has, of course, only intensified these perceptions.
But the clouds are lifting. European social democrats are coming out of their fog and realizing that voters are simply not interested in what they have been offering. There really is no choice other than re-embracing the historic role of social democracy in reforming capitalism and taking whatever allies they can get in doing so. The time for rest has come to an end.