Progressive Futures

Social democracy 3.0

23 May 2017

Centre-left politics across Europe appears to be in trouble. It is undeniable that there are certain political trends that are reoccurring across almost all countries, namely the declining social democratic party vote share and the general weakening of the established parties. Even centre-left parties in the European heartlands of social democracy such as Sweden have been through major changes since the late 1990s. Another key point is that electoral support is fragmenting less towards established centre-right parties as to populists on the left and the right. This indicates deep alienation from representative democracy and politics, which may be bad for social democracy in the long-term.

Patrick Diamond

Of course, it is important to be wary of over-generalisation: the experience of social democratic parties has been very different across European countries since the 1990s. Even within western European countries, there are striking divergences. The electoral experience of social democratic parties depends on the nature of the voting system, the political culture, the constitutional rules of the game, alongside changes in the social and class structure, as well as the nature of political parties. Moreover, the governing experience of centre-left parties depends to a large extent on country specific factors: the economic legacy inherited by the party, the model of capitalism, the permanence of post-war institutions such as the welfare state, and the various challenges to statecraft.

One of the toughest questions for political analysts as Andrew Gamble has highlighted is whether to interpret change as a trend or a cycle: the trends might indicate that social democracy is on a path towards inevitable decline, and that its days are numbered. It is certainly true that mass hegemonic social democratic parties winning up to 50 per cent of the vote now appears to be a thing of the past. But social democracy has been here before: after World War II, social democrats experienced long periods out of office. The 1970s appeared to sound the death knell for the European social democratic ‘golden age’ given the rise of monetarism and neo-liberalism. Yet by mid-1990s, social democratic parties in countries such as Germany and Britain were clearly recovering.

In order to revive themselves, these centre-left parties entered into a period of ideological and programmatic reconstruction. One key question is do the third way policies of the 1990s and 2000s explain the relative weakness of social democratic parties over last decade?

It has been argued that the third way led to a significant loss of support for centre-left parties. Firstly, by adopting neo-liberal policies, social democrats became increasingly indistinguishable from the right. This shift alienated working-class voters in particular, fracturing the social base of left parties.

Moreover, third way policies were held to have undermined key post-war policy achievements: welfare states, a large public sector, the maintenance of Keynesian full employment. Thirdly, the third way was perceived as an intellectually disreputable attempt to split the difference between neoliberalism and post-war statism that made social democratic parties less effective in government. As such, the third way was directly complicit in the rise of left and right challenger parties.

But there are some caveats to the claim that the third way is responsible for the electoral demise of social democracy. The class base of social democratic parties has been changing since the 1950s; the process did not begin in the 1990s. At the same time, third way models have played out differently across different countries. The UK had already been through two decades of Thatcherism and structural reform by the late 1990s, whereas Germany had not. Hence there was a very different reaction to third way and neue mitte policies. The third way did not just borrow from America either: there was policy learning within Europe, especially from the Nordic countries. It was clear by the late 1990s that there had to be some revision of post-war Keynesian social democracy, and that the corporatist models of the 1960s and 1970s could not be recreated.

If they are to recover their electoral position in the future, centre-left parties will have to deal with two key strategic issues. The first is the divide between materialism and post-materialism in European politics. What is undeniable is that the social and economic changes of last two decades have exacerbated the materialist/post-materialist cleavage within social democracy, as depicted by John Callaghan. To capture the votes of the post-1968 middle class, centre-left parties have developed a more cultural and libertarian orientation: they are more permissive on issues such as immigration, and less sensitised to core materialist concerns with full employment, alongside the defence of the welfare state and the public sector. The cosmopolitan liberalism of social democratic parties compels them to disavow any appeal to patriotism or the politics of identity.

In Northern Europe, working-class voters who were once thought to have nowhere else to go have now defected to populist parties that combine an appeal based on the politics of identity (nationalism, integration, anti-immigration, anti-Islam) with a traditional left approach to the economy and the welfare state. Southern Europe has been marked by the rise of challenger parties outside the existing party structures. Podemos has mobilised the middle-class and the young against the established economic and political system; its supporters are particularly hostile to corruption in the Spanish state. To make progress, social democratic parties will need to define positions that can create new political coalitions between ‘materialist’ and ‘post-materialist’ values, while addressing the desire for more participatory politics and democracy.

The other strategic issue for social democratic parties is whether we have entered a ‘new political landscape’ which makes it virtually impossible for any one party to attain a sustainable governing majority. While centre-left parties might dream of a return to the post-war era where they secured up to half the popular vote, the age of catch-all hegemonic parties is probably over in a more diverse and complex society. The question for social democrats in most European countries is what kind of political coalitions they are prepared to forge with greens, liberals and other left parties in pursuit of electoral and governing success.

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