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

    Leaving Scalia Replacement to 2017 Would Mean Unusually Long Vacancy

    History of high court shows Obama not in unique situation during final year of presidency

    US Fact Checkers Debunk Some Republican Candidate Claims 

    Slim evidence for several claims made by Republican presidential candidates at their last debate ahead of next Saturday's key nominating election in South Carolina

    Uganda Presidential Debate a Small Victory for Democracy

    In homes and bars across country, Ugandans were fixated on their screens as eight political candidates running for president took part in national debate

    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.
    New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Ugandai
    X
    Serginho Roosblad
    February 12, 2016 9:29 PM
    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video Refugees in Kenya Vie to Compete in Rio Olympics

    In Kenya, refugees from other African nations are training at a special camp and competing for a limited number of slots in this year's Rio Olympics under the flag of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Ngong, this is a first in Olympic history.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.