News / Europe

Not Much Left for Europe's Left

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside the Daily Mail headquarters in London, Oct. 6, 2013.
FILE - Demonstrators protest outside the Daily Mail headquarters in London, Oct. 6, 2013.
Reuters
Socialist and social democratic parties that shaped the protective European social model and ruled much of the continent a decade ago have been among the chief political casualties of the financial and economic crisis since 2008.
 
More than just a cyclical trough, this may be a longer-term decline; the left has lost its political narrative.
 
Polls indicate many young and blue-collar voters, angry over mass unemployment and spending cuts, have deserted to protest parties of the anti-capitalist hard left or the Euroskeptical, anti-immigrant far right, as the political landscape fragments.
 
Others trust middle-of-the-road conservatives such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel more than the left to run the economy in tough times. Some have simply stopped voting out of disillusionment.
 
Most worryingly for a movement born in the 19th century as organized labor struggle for better working conditions and living standards, the belief in collective social progress has lost much of its credibility in mature advanced economies.
 
Income inequality has increased across the industrialized West since the crisis began, according to OECD figures, widening social gaps that the left set out to close.
 
“Social democracy nowadays basically amounts to the defense of the status quo and preventing the worst,” said Olaf Cramme, director of Policy Network, a think-tank for progressive center-left politics.
 
Germany's opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have just recorded their second worst election result since WWII.
 
They now face an ugly trilemma between entering a “grand coalition” under Merkel on unequal terms, staying out and seeing her possibly team up with the Greens, the SPD's natural partner, or being punished by voters at a rerun election.
 
Socialists or social democrats still head 13 of the 28 EU governments and are in coalition in five others, but they are often driven to pursue unpopular policies that hit the interests of their own electorate.
 
“It is an extremely difficult balance,” Social Democratic Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt told Reuters in an interview. “We had some reforms that have been seen as quite harsh, but they have also been necessary… I think we have found the right formula, not to be popular because we have not actually reached that yet, but to do the right thing for the country,” she said.   
 
Austria's Socialists lost votes last month, though they remain the largest party. Italy's center-left Democratic Party, which now heads a shaky left-right coalition, bled votes to the anti-establishment 5-Star protest movement in a February election and is beset by factional squabbling.
 
In Greece, Ireland and Spain, center-left parties are paying a high electoral price for having supported public pay and pension cuts required by international creditors.
 
Fewer Members, Less Money
 
In Britain, the opposition Labour party is still distrusted because it presided over a deregulated financial market bonanza that ended in the crash of 2008, wrecking the reputation for economic competence once built by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
 
In France, one of the few countries with an absolute center-left parliamentary majority, Socialist President Francois Hollande is deeply unpopular as his government dithers between old-style tax-and-spend policies and half-hearted welfare and labor market reforms, satisfying no one.
 
With the membership and funding of mainstream parties dwindling in many countries, the center-left has rarely kept pace with new vectors of political action via social media and grassroots initiatives.
 
Some of the center-left's woes may be temporary. When voters tire of center-right governments implementing austerity policies and scandal and attrition in office take their toll, the pendulum may swing back to the mainstream opposition.
 
However, the center-left can no longer offer much prospect of a rosier future through state intervention; there are fewer fruits of economic growth to redistribute, globalization continues to exert downward pressure on wages and working conditions in developed countries, and the demographics of aging societies with shrinking workforces make welfare benefits and pensions ever harder to sustain.
 
Compounding the left's problems, some conservative leaders such as Merkel and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt have successfully occupied the middle ground.
 
“[Merkel] has taken any political polarization away by reverse-engineering the social democratic Third Way strategy,” said Henning Meyer, editor of the Social Europe Journal.
 
“Similar to what Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder did in the 1990s and 2000s, she has adopted the most popular policies of her opponents - at least rhetorically,” continued Meyer.
 
Merkel embraced the phasing out of nuclear power, increased public spending on childcare and family benefits and offered a watered-down form of minimum wage to neutralize the center-left.
 
A lurch to the left did not help the SPD regain much ground as core voters are still angry over painful reforms in the last decade that cut unemployment benefits and raised the retirement age, even though they are now credited with restoring German competitiveness.
 
Credible Social Justice?
 
The policy dilemma confronting the European left is how to offer a credible, modern vision of social justice.
 
Reformers such as Policy Network's Cramme argue that the only salvation lies in emphasizing “pre-distribution” through investment in childcare, education and job training, rather than perpetuating blanket welfare handouts.
 
“Defending acquired rights may be legitimate, but it no longer makes you a catch-all people's party,” Cramme said. “If you want to be a big-tent party again, you will have to combine reformist elements with social protection.”
 
This leaves the center-left with awkward choices.
 
Its major groups of supporters tend to be public employees and unionized industrial workers with strong job protection and secure pensions who fear privatization while resisting the easing of labor regulations and the enactment of later retirement.
 
In some northern European countries such as Denmark, social democratic parties have pinned their fate on embracing an open, globalised economy and making social protection more selective.
 
“We are trying to do four things at the same time,” Thorning-Schmidt said in an interview in her Copenhagen office, drawing four points on a piece of paper.
 
“Fiscal constraint - call it austerity – [and] on the other side growth measures. Then social welfare for the most in need and the restructuring of our welfare model,” she said.
 
The Dutch Labor party is the latest to risk electoral wrath by embracing a long-term shift from a generous welfare state to a “participatory society” in which people provide for themselves more, as outlined in the king's speech to parliament last month.
 
The SPD's bitter experience of being flayed at the polls for Schroeder's reforms may explain why France's Hollande and British Labour party leader Ed Miliband are espousing a more traditional left-wing platform, despite conventional wisdom that elections are won in the center.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Hovhannes from: Montevideo
October 26, 2013 4:34 PM
The so called protective European social model is dead. It has been a failure and a waste of tax payers' money.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs