The Centre Cannot Hold – European Social Democracy is in Crisis

By Richard Dawson

Who killed European social democracy? At least, this is the question being asked by sections of the international press. The social democratic parties of Europe, which dominated much of the 20th century, are today facing electoral annihilation. As 2018 comes to a close, it’s time to assess the damage.

The above graph pulls together how each of the established social democratic parties performed at their most recent general elections. There are some truly staggering results. The French Socialist Party for example, was not only swept from office but reduced to a meagre 5th place in the presidential elections. Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party was similarly dispatched in Italy and the German Social Democratic Party recorded its lowest share of the vote since 1933. Even the hegemonic Swedish Social Democratic Party was rocked, recording its worst return since 1911.

It seems that social democracy is in crisis, with one exception. The UK Labour Party took 40% of the vote at last year’s general election and has been polling at more or less the same level ever since; by far and away the best return for the European left. The question is therefore what is it about the British Labour Party that has allowed it to maintain its electoral base when other social democratic parties have been obliterated?

It is widely understood that in the 1990s, Europe’s social democratic parties rebranded themselves, adopting a ‘third way’ political settlement between socialism and liberalism. Tony Blair’s New Labour epitomised this shift but under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party has reverted back a more radical version of its original formula. Elsewhere in Europe, other parties decided to stay the course.

And herein lies the problem. The so-called third way no doubt appeared to be a genuine platform for the left in the 1990s because it was shored up by strong economic growth, one of the short-term benefits of globalisation. Back then, the Keynesian interventionist program that social democrats had traditionally put forward was viewed as inefficient and uncompetitive in the globalizing world.

But now that the economic conditions have changed again post-2008, the third way settlement is itself no longer tenable. The social democrats who subscribe to it are now seen as culpable in the relaxation of regulatory standards and financial speculation that produced the 2008 global financial crisis. They are also thought of as collaborators in the decade-long austerity programmes that followed.

Nowhere is this more visible than in Greece, where the once formidable PASOK party has been crushed in recent elections. The party lost all support and credibility over its handling of the first Greek bailout package when it capitulated to creditor demands and implemented unprecedented austerity programmes. The Greek situation is so symbolic it even coined a new phrase, pasokification, to describe the decline of European social democracy more generally.

The toxicity of this third way brand is manifest in the unravelling of social democratic parties who failed to leave it behind. Voters across Europe have used the ballot box as a means of retribution against the politicians who abandoned them after the financial crisis.

One perceived exception to this is Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France, but on careful analysis it is no exception at all. Firstly, when the French people elected Macron, their alternative was a de-facto fascist in Marine Le Pen. His victory is therefore not symbolic of a resurgent centre-ground but rather confirmation that the French people will not be governed by fascists.

Secondly, the fact that Macron had to leave the established Socialist Party and present himself as an insurrectionist by founding En Marche is, if anything, an indictment of the idea that third way social democratic parties are today facing total electoral malaise.

The only real exception to pasokification is the British Labour Party and that is precisely because it left the third way behind. Criticisms of the Corbyn-McDonnell axis notwithstanding, the 2015 insurrection was a crucial turning point for the fate of British social democracy. Had Labour not changed course, it may well be staring into the electoral abyss with its European counterparts today.

The centre-ground is supposed to be about winning elections, but a cursory glance at European politics today shows that the centre is falling apart. To say that the third way is still a viable option, that centrism is back, is to fail to recognise the complex range of social forces driving our current moment.

If the historic German SDP or the MSZP in Hungary have any hope of recovery, they must start by recognising that the third way model was economically and historically contingent. Corbyn’s Labour Party does not have all the answers, but it has at least woken up to this reality.