Boris Johnson’s resounding victory in local and regional elections in Britain last week is dismaying not just for the country’s storied Labour Party, but also for mainstream leftist parties on the continent of Europe, most of which are also struggling for electoral relevancy.
From Italy to Germany, France to the countries of Central Europe, the traditional parties of social democracy are largely in the doldrums and have increasingly become political bystanders rather than participants. Britain’s Labour Party saw its vote slump by an extraordinary 25% last week in the elections for local and regional governments in England.
Labour politicians had thought their drubbing by Johnson in the general election of 2019 would mark their historic low-point — but they did even worse last week.
Speaking as the vote tallies started to unfold, and as scores of local government seats in former Labour strongholds in the north of England and the Midlands fell to the Conservatives, also known as Tories, embattled Labour leader Keir Starmer admitted his party had “lost the trust of working people.”
His deputy, Angela Rayner said Sunday she is determined to “show that the Labour Party speaks for the working class.” But while Labour and its counterparts in Europe largely grew out of trade union movements and still consider themselves parties of the working-class, the working-class voters they claim to represent are rejecting them in droves.
“Labour’s plight is similar to other traditional center-left parties on our continent,” according to Ian Birrell, a columnist with opinion-site Unherd.com. “Once their leaders could rely on a powerful alliance of middle-class progressives backed by the massed ranks of working-class voters to win elections.” Now, he says, the “brothers and sisters of socialism find themselves rebuffed, rejected and sliding into irrelevance across their European heartlands.”
Europe’s traditional left-wing parties have been in disarray for several years with 2019 being an especially gloomy year for them as they battled a head wind of disapproval from their traditional working-class supporters, who deserted to newly emerging populist parties or to traditional center-right parties who adopted successfully populist positions. They have suffered a seemingly non-stop series of electoral blows in most countries — Spain being an exception.
Labour’s sister parties in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Holland all plumbed historic new lows. The rising electoral clout of Green parties, notably in Germany, which is now more popular than Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), isn’t helping.
And they have been squabbling about how to rebuild winning electoral coalitions with moderates insisting a shift to the center is in order and progressives demanding more radical policies.
In the immediate aftermath of their defeat last week Labour politicians can’t agree on what went wrong for them. Some are blaming the defeat on the lackluster quality of the party’s top spokespeople, including party leader Starmer, a former human rights lawyer and one time director of public prosecutions. Starmer has responded with a reshuffle of his shadow Cabinet.
Others, including Starmer’s predecessor as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, insist more radical socialist policies, including the nationalization of a swathe of the British economy, would resonate with the working people. “It is new ideas from across our movement — not reshuffles or cosmetic tweaks — that will bring hope back,” Corbyn said Monday.
Much the same internecine battle has been playing out in other mainstream European parties of the left.
Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) has seen its so-called "Red Belt" in the country’s north and center unbuckled in recent years by the populists of Matteo Salvini’s Lega party— an echo of the dismantlement of Labour’s "Red Wall" in the north of England by Johnson’s populist-minded Conservatives.
The never-ending struggle for mastery between the PD’s reformists and traditional leftists resulted in the resignation in March of party leader Nicola Zingaretti, who said he was quitting because he was “ashamed of the power struggles” within the party.
Only five governments in the European Union are headed by the traditional center-left parties — an extraordinary decline from earlier in the century. In 2012 socialist Francois Hollande won the French presidency in 2012, but in 2017 his party only secured a dismal 6% of the French presidential vote.
In the Netherlands, the Labour Party was swamped by the greens, liberals, hard-left and populist right challengers and lost three-quarters of their lawmakers in the 2017 election.
Only in Scandinavia, Malta and Spain has the traditional left been able to buck the trend of defeat — either by forming short-term alliances with hard left fringe parties or by adopting tough anti-migrant policies.
No Biden boost
European leftist leaders had hoped that Joe Biden’s win on the other side of the Atlantic in November would be the harbinger of a resurgence of the traditional political left in Europe. But so far that has failed to materialize. Political commentator Janan Ganesh suggests there aren’t any lessons for Europe’s social democratic parties to learn from the U.S.
“If the Democrats stand out from a center-left malaise, it is for reasons that are not much imitable outside the U.S.” according to Ganesh, political commentator for The Financial Times. He argues the Democrats — so too the Republicans — are protected by a strict two-party system. “The liberal, labour and green veins of thought, so often distinct in Europe, are crammed into just one U.S. movement,” notes Ganesh.
Race adds a structural advantage. “The leftward tilt of minorities can be overdone [Republicans have gained, especially among Latinos] but it holds often enough to matter. Few democracies have the ethnic diversity of the U.S., so few parties of the left have the electoral reach of the Democrats,” he maintains.
Working-class voters have become increasingly socially conservative and more nationalist, while progressive activists and younger metropolitan voters are embracing very different identity politics, says British academic Matt Goodwin. Ahead of last week’s election he predicted Labour would likely perform badly.
He says the traditional left is being pulled apart by new cultural divides. “If you look at the polling data and the evidence on where Labour is at the moment I think one of the big concerns for Keir Starmer and his team is that they don't seem to be cutting through on cultural factors,” he says.