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.
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

800-Pound Man Determined to Slim Down

Man says he was kicked out of hospital for ordering pizza; wants to be an actor More

Australia Prepares to Resettle 12,000 Syrian Refugees

Preference will be given to refugees from persecuted minorities, and the first group is expected to arrive before late December More

S. African Miners Seek Class Action Suit Against Gold Mines

The estimated 100,000 say say they contracted the lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis in the mines More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs