Left’s labor lost: Why Europe’s social democrats are on the ropes

May 15, 2015
Ed Miliband former leader of the Labour Party, Nick Clegg former leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron pay tribute at the Cenotaph to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day in London

Ed Miliband (L) who resigned as leader of the Labour Party, Nick Clegg who resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (R) carry wreaths of poppies as they pay tribute at the Cenotaph to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day in London, May 8, 2015. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

It’s hard to overstate the mess that European left-wing politics is in. So much of a mess that its leaders wonder  how much of a future they have in the organizations they attempt to guide.

The shock of the British Labour Party’s loss last week has   rippled through its sister parties in the European Union. The UK polls had showed victory to be quite possible, even probable for Labour; its leader, Ed Miliband, was reportedly serenely convinced that he would be able to form a coalition in parliament. That the Conservatives ended the night with a majority in the House of Commons, and more than 6 percent ahead, was a shock to Labour, to the pollsters and even — in a happy way — to the Conservatives, who could not believe their luck.

But for some center-left politicians in Europe, this outcome was hardly a surprise. At the end of last month, many senior figures from most of the center-left parties in the European Union gathered in Berlin to discuss their future. It was grim: And only in part because all, save one, were in a grim place.

Both the German Social Democrats and the Dutch Labor Party are in government, but with a more powerful center-right force. The Swedish Social Democrats retain leadership of the government only with the support of the Moderates. The Austrian party of the left also leads a coalition but, as one academic put it, is “merely continu(ing) to administer rather than actively shape the future of Austria.”

The German and the Swedish social democrats have been hegemonic forces in their societies, with hundreds of thousands of members, sub-national cultures in their own right. These cultures are thinning fast.

The French socialists govern alone, but both the party and the president, Francois Hollande, remain very low in the polls. The Spanish socialists, in opposition, have revived a little, but not convincingly. In the former Communist countries Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary, the left is weak.

Hence the sobriety in Berlin last month. Peter Mandelson, the former Labour cabinet minister who chaired the meeting, told me there was an overarching sense that the parties were “broken” — unable to campaign and convince, even in areas and with groups over which they had traditionally most influence.

These problems were years in the making, and afflict parties on the center right too. A less obvious contributor to the left’s malaise is the advance of technology and its impact on public opinion.

If Google produces successful driverless cars that begin claiming a large market share in Europe, should Germany pump taxpayer money into BMW to accelerate its driverless car program? When Uber tries to establish itself in Paris, should a socialist government support the legendarily militant French taxi drivers in keeping it out? If Fiat continues to downsize or even cut its plants in Italy in favor of lower cost, more automated, higher productivity plants elsewhere, has an Italian government of the center-left anything to say about it?

This reminds us that there is one party of the left that has been hugely successful: the Italian Partito Democratico, center-left, with a solid majority in the lower chamber of the Parliament, driven on relentlessly by Matteo Renzi, the 40-year-old prime minister. Renzi is a very New Labour centrist kind of man: indeed, many of his comrades don’t believe he is a leftist at all.

His agenda is changing the constitution to bring more stability to the electoral system; reforming the labor laws to make them more flexible for employers; slashing public spending to reduce Italy’s vast debt; and confronting trade unions, which have had an arm lock on economic change for decades. Very far from what a leftist government has traditionally seen as its role.

The Italian government illuminates the problem of the left. The working class, which produced parties of the left in the last decades of the 19th century, is no longer a mass of workers united by poor pay and poor working conditions. It’s split in myriad different groups — of which only one, relatively small, is the industrial workers who created and paired leftist parties with left-wing intellectuals.

Now, the many independent artisans and small merchants see more that attracts them on the right (sometimes the far right) than on the left. David Cameron, the triumphant winner and prime minister of the governing Conservatives, who need no coalition partners, this week proclaimed that his party — long identified by the left as one that joyfully ground the faces of the poor — was “the party of working families.”

For now, Europe’s once big beasts of the left now govern only if they stop mourning what they once had. They must reshape the society and the economy of their countries, to accommodate the technological revolutions unleashed on the world. It is the only way they will escape dying.

10 comments

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Governments have to help their economies create jobs rather than create dependence upon government, i.e. taxpayer, handouts. Unfortunately for the United States, our news organizations are promoting a far left leaning agenda which encourages the exportation of jobs and government handouts to keep people reliant upon a particular political party. Sadly, the “conservative” party is more than happy to help by agreeing with trade policies that will enrich their political backers while further hurting the middle / working class families.

Posted by KG2015 | Report as abusive

Many of the parties on the left, especially Labour, were also blindsided by voters who increasingly resent their emphasis on “identity politics” in place of economic issues.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

The left has forgotten its ideological roots, and as a pragmatic policy, fails to drive home its added value. The suggestions the author makes about what leftwing parties might do (state sponsorship of industry, tradebarriers and protectionism) are not the core of leftwing politics. Interestingly, the real core of what the left should stand up for is more relevant now than any time in the last 20 years. The inequality of reward, the selfenrichment of industry leaders and bankers, and the stagnation of wealth for the middle class. These are topics that the left should use as standards to rally around. If there is discontent with the famous “1%”, let us mobilise the 99% by supporting their point of view, by being the champion of the middle class. Instead, the left is viewed as powerless to stop the selfenrichment of moguls, part of the same corrupt system concerned only in for own interests, and tied hand and foot to exactly those that the left should be protecting the powerless against.

Posted by Niegol | Report as abusive

A good idea concerning what the left could do about the technological advances: impose capital controls, give power to the working people instead of the employers and root for socialism.

Posted by Pontryagin | Report as abusive

The left lost because too many people saw through the absurd 1% rhetoric (you know, that greedy 1% paying almost 30% of all income tax), and laughable talk of ‘fairness’ to a population with ubiquitous smart phones and cheap food, made up of a now vast middle class who are the defining economic demographic of modernity.

The left simply has nothing relevant to say or offer to most people.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

The left has good intentions but misunderstands human nature. Fairness is not providing to those who don’t deserve, but providing a system for those who get rewards and benefits for initiative, hard work and discipline.

Posted by nbtween | Report as abusive

The left can rename itself any number of times, but the fundamental fact is people are no longer swayed by the rhetoric of the left. Social media has enabled people to discuss issues in a more open and transparent way. And the base truth is that the message given by the right is having more impact and relates to working people in a way that the old left can no longer aspire to.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

Maybe voters have come to realize there really isn’t any “other people’s money that government can confiscate and redistribute?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Maybe voters have come to realize there really isn’t any “other people’s money” that government can confiscate and redistribute?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The Piketty’s book a year ago has just been a superficial wave. In every country you quote were the social democrats are loosing, conservative formations have asked for more inequity, more wealth, more nationalism on contrary of the Piketty’s capital of the 21st century was arguing to.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive