The European centre-left faces several challenges

In various European countries more traditional left wing parties (British Labour, French Socialists, German SPD) lack in the polls. This, of course, didn’t happen overnight. So what is your view, does European centre-left have a problem? A what do you you think centre-left should/could do win voters back in the time of populism nd and rising radicalism? Read few comments.

Donald Sassoon, Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History, Queen Mary, University of London

The dilemma facing social democracy is that the reforms it has traditionally advocated, such as the welfare state, redistribution of wealth, and better wages tend to strengthen capitalism by providing it with both social peace and a wider market for consumer goods. Thus the paradox is that the more successful social democracy has been the better was ‘its’ capitalism’. The stronger was ‘its’ capitalism the more social democrats could obtain reforms since low unemployment and high prosperity meant they could tax and spend. And that was the case, above all, in the thirty years after 1945 in Western Europe.

This was the basis for the Left’s acceptance of the State. Now the Left has become, out of necessity, a conservative force: in the era of globalization they want to preserve the strength of the nation state (and its fiscal and welfare powers), in the era of low growth it wants to defend the welfare state. Hence its weakness when facing the new populist forces which have had the luxury of not being tested in power.

The difficulty facing those who still call themselves socialist is that, while they need capitalism and the economic growth and prosperity which it can generate, capitalism no longer needs them. Capitalism has gone global. Politics is still anchored to the nation-state. Contemporary challenges to global market forces tend to be resurgent forms of nationalism or the rise of different varieties of religious fundamentalism –paltry local reactions rather than international countervailing forces able to challenge the Onward March of Capital. Social democrats have been forced to the defensive and have little new to propose. The point of politics, however, is to win and not to stand still.

As for the future, it is prudent, particularly for the historian (whose territory is the past) to be cautious. Who would have predicted with any certainty, only a year ago, that the United Kingdom would be prepared to leave the European Union, that Trump would be President of the USA and that the Chinese communists would claim to be the main defenders of international free trade?

Bartek Pytlas, Assistant Professor, Chair of Political Systems and European Integration, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

The European centre-left faces several challenges. One of them is the fact that their traditional voters are being increasingly attracted by populist radical right parties. This is not a new development, but it has become growingly relevant in recent years. The populist radical right managed to set the debate on topics such as social policy and welfare state in terms of immigration. The centre-left seemed to have failed to sustainably counter this rhetoric.

The centre-left will not be able to win voters back by taking over the anti-immigration rhetoric of the populist radical right. This does not work and only makes the populist radical right stronger, becasue it legitimizes their ideas. Instead, the centre-left needs to provide their own informed and inclusive responses to their original core issue: social inequality. They need to “de-ethnicize” the discussion on the welfare state and stress that nativism and scapegoating of immigration cannot solve the problems. The centre-left needs to underline that social inequality affects everyone, independent on nationality and immigration status, and that it cannot be overcome if one group is scapegoated and played out against another. It also needs to underline that social inequality cannot be tackled without solidarity and a pluralist democratic society. This is the most sustainable way by which the centre-left can provide a counterweight for populist radical right parties.

Sebastian BukowWissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Forschungsinformation und Qualitätsicherung, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf

In fact I would agree that the traditional left wing / social democratic parties have a problem which is not only based on personnel, but on policies and issues . They have a problem of story-telling, since there is no convincing “social-democratic answer” to recent questions, especially addressing the lower / lower middle classes’ fears. In fact, the last social democratic “grand theory” was the third-way-concept (Blair, Giddens, Schröder), but this is no longer up to date. (This is not a problem limited to social democrats, but social democrats suffer more due to this than others: e.g. in Germany Angela Merkel is able to get at least some vote from former SPD voters, compensating losses at the right-wing). All in all, a large number of populist parties’ voters are middle-class members who are afraid of European integration and globalization, and in fact the traditional social democratic answers do not longer convince these groups.

The question “what to do” is not that easy to answer, of course. To be sure, it would not be helpful for social democrats to enter in a race with populists in populism – this would broaden populists’ acceptance but would not strengthen social democrats.  It might be useful to re-discuss social-democratic topics such as social and economic inequality, the main aspects of the future of labour etc. These topics are still “owned” by social democrats and could be the starting point for a story-telling combining social / welfare aspects in a pro-European context. Nevertheless, I would expect further “hard years” for the social democracy right now, since fighting nationalism and (left and right) populism will be an difficult – but pivotal – task for all non-populist parties.

Christian Schweiger, Senior Lecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University

On the challenges for the centre-left: I definitely think that centre-left parties in Europe have a major problem as they are losing traditional working class supporters and fail to gain new ones. In my view this is the result of the tendency of many Social Democratic parties having embraced middle ground ‘third way’ reform politics in the 1990s and 2000s, which essentially supported the free market ideology of the centre right with the addition of more investment in work-orientated education and training and the introduction of activating labour market and welfare strategies. Many traditional supporters on the lower income scale perceived this as the watering down of welfare standards as they found themselves increasingly in precarious and short-term employment (e.g. in Germany under the Schroeder Hartz labour market reforms).
Traditional working class supporters also increasingly rejected the embrace of globalisation as a positive development by centre-left parties. Modern Social Democrats like Blair, Schroeder and Prodi promised their supporters they would benefit from globalisation if is was properly managed but for many on the lower income scale this never materialised. Moreover, centre-left parties were not very determined in calling for stricter regulation of the financial sector, neither before nor after the financial crisis. The increase in precarious employment and rising poverty, which got even worse after the financial crisis, have therefore driven many traditional supporters away from the centre-left and increasingly towards radical populist parties on the extreme right and left of the political spectrum. This has been augmented further by the concerns about immigration which centre-left parties usually brush aside or are unwilling to address.

I hence think that if the centre-left wants to stand any chance of winning back public support and maintain the status of catch-all parties, their leaders need to reconnect with the concerns of particularly voters on the lower- to middle income scale, which are predominantly focused on declining wages and living standards, lack of housing and inadequate public services, lack of support for working families and young people’s education and training and ultimately also migration.

Particularly the latter is a controversial issue to address for centre-left parties as many activists consider talking about this issue as playing into the hands of populists. In the long run they will however not be able to ignore public concerns about this and the earlier they are able to offer a genuine strategy for managing migration and increasing social cohesion, the more likely we will see the revival of centre-left Social Democratic politics in Europe.

 

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