Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Twilight of the European left?

There's an interesting piece on Crooked Timber on the twilight of the European left. From near-total hegemony back in 2000, social democratic parties are now in opposition in most of Europe (and that map is pre-German elections). Rather than blaming it on the natural electoral cycle (which seems to be moving into phase in much of Europe, just as it did a few years ago in South America), Daniel Davies instead blames Blairism:

My personal view is that what we’re seeing is the end of the electoral strategy which began with Bill Clinton and which (arguably) is still being kept alive by Kevin Rudd in Australia. Basically, it’s the view that you can keep a balloon flying by constantly chucking out left-wing ballast. Which worked very well in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it does have a limited lifespan built into it. After a while, you run out of ballast to throw out and you find that the hot-air burners aren’t working any more; the traditional left-wing base of your party has switched off, the unions can’t provide blocks of support and you’re left as a more or less identikit technocrat party, largely indistinguishable from your opponents and trying to compete on the basis of more efficient provision of “public services”.
I think there's some truth in this. Those European social democrats aren't just losing elections - they're losing elections while being eaten from the left by smaller parties (including the greens), and largely because their managerial style and commitment to neoliberal economics simply fails to satisfy. Der Spiegel calls this"the credibility trap", though they're thinking about it from the wrong end: while the adoption of neoliberalism may make parties "credible" to bankers and the rich, its not very credible at all to the people who actually matter: voters.

At the same time, though, its worth noting that those "right wing" parties are only winning by moving to the left and promising to preserve those public services (witness David Cameron in the UK, or the "moderates" in Sweden). So while its a bad time for social democratic parties, its not such a bad time for social democracy - after a couple of generations, it has become a political foundation, even in the UK (where remember even Margaret Thatcher had to promise to preserve the NHS). Right-wing victories give them a chance to start unpicking that, and the radical ends of those parties are of a mind to, but they are significantly constrained in their ability to do so (not least by the need for coalition due to Europe's use of fair electoral systems - the UK being a notable exception). As for the left-wing parties, hopefully a spell in opposition will allow them to ditch their neoliberals and reconnect with their voters (and if they don't, they'll just get eaten by someone who has).

The upshot: maybe the European left isn't in as much trouble as it looks. But ask me again how it looks in eight years, after a few electoral cycles.