jump to navigation

Losing its way? June 30, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Reading this in the Guardian, about social democracy, from earlier in the month I was struck by the following:

Much of the discussion of Labour’s woes concentrates on British particularities, its Brexit strategy and the relative merits of the Blairite and Corbynite reinventions. However, the dilemmas Labour faces are far from particular. The last decade has not been kind to social democratic parties across Europe. The centre-left parties that dominated European politics for the second half of the 20th century have suffered a string of losses.


In France, the Parti Socialiste fell to under 8% of the vote in the last legislative elections, with no signs of recovery. In 2017, the German SPD experienced its worst postwar performance, a showing likely to worsen in September’s election. Even where social democrats are in power, their position is tenuous. The Swedish Social Democrats, the most electorally successful socialist party in Europe, struggled to form a government after the 2018 election.

But I wonder if most of us would tend to the view that social democracy in Europe has been in trouble since the early 1980s. I would point to the Thatcher/Reagan period as the point at which ‘traditional’ social democracy faltered. Indeed one could argue that Thatcher/Reagan was a response to social democracy, even if in retrospect that which symbolised social democracy –  which at the time was considered if not right wing, certainly right wing within the spectrum of social democracy (one thinks of, say, Jim Callaghan’s last Labour government), was by what came later pretty solidly leftish, with a much broader conception of state activity and intervention.

In other words the horizon of social democratic failure in the last ten years is too limited. 

The piece continues:

Too often, the debate about the failures of the left focuses on the past, asking why social democrats have lost traditional working-class voters. This kind of argument claims that social democrats have lost their base because they “lost their way” – moving too far to the left on new “woke” social issues, while at the same time moving too far to the right on economic issues. This perspective is at least incomplete and often misleading.

Deep changes in Europe’s class structure mean that the appeals of the social democratic heyday are increasingly electorally limited.

And it mentions increased numbers with qualifications, the ‘majority of women in paid work’ and changing structures of employment for the working class all of which have led to the creation of ‘new groups of voters with new economic and social concerns’. But it notes that social democratic policies remain popular – welfare states, workers rights and public services. 

It argues that:

Contra to the dominant narrative, this decline is not solely attributable to the loss of working-class voters. In Europe’s proportional electoral systems, highly educated voters are overrepresented among those who turned their backs on social democratic parties. Here, social democrats have often been outcompeted by moderate right and progressive left parties. Importantly, most social democratic parties have only lost a small share of their supporters to the radical right. Instead, social democrats have largely failed to construct an agenda that both communicates a clear vision of economic policy, but is not only focused on economics.

There’s an element of truth in this. The piece references the Blair governments and the German SDP which both improved economic conditions and services. And how despite that “social democrats in the post financial-crash era clearly did offer too little to voters suffering from economic austerity, focusing on economic competence rather than a vision of a fairer future. As European centre-right parties moderated their position on economic and social policies, these parties were able to attract centrist former social democrats.”

Again all this is true to a degree as is the point that… “Voters who support left economic policies also tend to favour more equitable gender relations, racial equity and a greener future. New left and green parties have often picked up voters with these demands, further squeezing social democrats”.

It concludes by suggesting:

Labour’s mobilisation through the 2010s attracted a swath of new voters to the party. In recent elections, the average age of social democrats in France and Germany was 58 and 57, but for Labour it was 45. The challenge is bridging this younger base with a broader appeal. The experience of the Biden administration suggests that articulating a more visible, progressive strategy on macro-economic policy, while supporting both organised labour and community organisations, could be a winning way forward.

Perhaps. But I wonder is this vision they offer precisely the problem. It still remains anchored in the status quo and hardly offers a compelling and attractive way forward. The reference to Biden while not entirely unuseful is indicative. Biden is not a socialist and in many respects hardly even a social democrat. I think it no insult to the man to suggest bar an affinity for aspects of the unions and labor (in the US sense) he would fit comfortably within Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. In other words he just isn’t a leftist and while the party he represents is more broad based it is clearly not a socialist, and not really a social democratic party as we would understand it. So the lessons to take from the US are more complex and perhaps less mappable onto the polities most of us here live in (though my fear is that as time goes on they may become more like the US in certain respects). 

In any case much of this ignores the reality that the left is in significant areas in retreat from a centre right and right and worse that adopts the elements of left programmes necessary to build their own coalitions but nothing that will endanger their adherence to sustaining the political and social and economic power that they protect. We’ve discussed here before how in so many ways the terrain, even for social democracy, let alone political positions further left, are marginalised by media and other social and economic structures. How this in fact permeates into the very language that is used in order to describe (or rather frame) political discourse. 

Even before leaving social democrat territory what strikes me about the contemporary strand of that particular strand of leftism is how impoverished it is in terms of the future. At one point, even relatively recently, there were those within it and those who supported it who saw it as a staging point to a genuinely egalitarian socio-economic position. But difficult not to think that the accommodations with the right and centre right as well as perhaps simple passing of time rubbed much of that away. And yet, and I’ve argued this before, a social democracy that wasn’t content simply with the status quo ante, or allow itself to start and end with reformism, might indeed be potent. One that drove leftwards in and at every opportunity seeking at all times to increase democratisation across society and in economic activities, that kept building protections and rights for workers, that sought ultimately transformation. That’d be something to see. Wasn’t that what they originally wanted? 


No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: