Europe’s traditional left-wing parties ended 2019 in disarray. Battling a head wind of disapproval from their traditional working-class supporters, and suffering a series of electoral setbacks in most countries — Spain being an exception — they appear to be at a loss on how to rebuild winning coalitions.
Last month Britain’s storied Labour Party recorded its worst electoral performance in more than 80 years, losing seats it had held for even longer in an election rout that’s triggered internecine internal warfare. Sister parties in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Holland all have hit historic lows.
And the question some analysts are asking is whether there’s any future for them unless they adapt, as some of their Conservative opponents have managed, to a fundamental realignment in Western politics.
“Center-left social democracy and its more radical socialist cousin were founded to answer questions about the economy, but today the primary questions in politics are about culture and identity,” said British academic Matthew Goodwin, co-author of the book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, in which he argued populist revolts in Europe “were a long time in the making” and dismissed the idea they are a spasm, or just a backlash to the financial crisis that erupted in 2008, the austerity that followed, or the refugee crisis that has swept through Europe since midway through the last decade.
Examining Labour’s defeat for Britain’s The Times newspaper, Goodwin suggested left-wing parties are facing an existential crisis. “A great irony of our time is that the left has crashed at the exact moment economic growth has slowed and living standards have been squeezed, the very things it expected to bring it to power,” he said.
Labour politicians can’t agree on what went wrong for them in last month’s general election, one that’s likely to be seen as the most consequential British election in a quarter-century. Some, including defeated party leader Jeremy Corbyn, are insisting the radical socialist policies he advocated, including the nationalization of a swathe of the British economy, were individually popular and that the blame should be on Brexit.
The party is now in the throes of a leadership battle, pitching centrists against Corbyn loyalists. A key Corbyn ally, powerful trade union leader Len McCluskey, says the policies in the party's manifesto were “very popular,” but “we very evidently didn't win the argument over Brexit” and the party’s policy of holding a second referendum on European Union membership.
But centrists point out that in post-election polling, only 17 percent of Labour defectors cited Brexit as the reason for switching to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, saying Brexit-favoring working-class voters who deserted the party would have overlooked the issue of Europe, if Labour had had a more popular and centrist leader and a manifesto shorn of left-wing dogma.
“For me, the most important thing is that the Labour party is rebuilt, we learn the lessons of the last general election, reflect on them, and address them,” said Keir Starmer a leading centrist contender and the current front-runner to replace Corbyn. But left-wing activists are battling to keep their grip on Labour in the face of calls for a shift back to the center.
The struggle the Labour Party is experiencing is being repeated in other left-wing European parties.
In Germany, Social Democrats (SDP) have lurched to the left. Activists elected in November two relatively unknown left-wingers as their leaders, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, who ran against high-profile moderates. They tapped into a sense of gloom that’s gripped the party since it lost one-third of its support since the 2017 general election and is struggling to recover in opinion polls, lagging behind the Greens and jostling for third place with the hard-right Alternative for Germany.
Reversing a recent string of regional election results is a daunting prospect for the SPD, however, which is the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s governing coalition.
Many activists want the party to quit the coalition if Merkel’s Christian Democrats refuse their progressive demands for a spending splurge — a move that would likely trigger an early election, which the divided party is in no shape to fight. Party moderates fear the new leaders will take the SPD away from the center, just as Christian Democrats are nudging rightward to woo back supporters who defected to the populist Alternative for Germany.
But where exactly is the center now in Western politics? On top of being pulled in opposite directions by middle-class supporters, who have done well economically from globalization and free markets, and the working class, which has been left behind, Western left-wing parties also are facing a cultural divide they’re struggling to bridge.
Their traditional older, working-class voters have become increasingly socially conservative, while progressive activists and younger metropolitan voters are embracing very different identity politics. Conservative parties have been quicker to adapt to a realignment in Western politics that’s as much about identity as economics, warns Goodwin, among other analysts.
The question is, can the West’s left adapt?