Here's why socialists in Europe keep losing for the same reasons

Despite a worldwide economic crisis, the left showed few gains in the last decade as the centre right reacted quicker to the shift in the electoral base, writes Leonid Bershidsky.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: AP Photo/Thibault Camus

IT’S CLEAR after Sunday’s election in Germany that the electoral failures of established socialist parties in Europe are not a few isolated events but a trend, an existential crisis for the centre-left.

There are few better illustrations of this crisis than Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz’s futile anger at chancellor Angela Merkel in the aftermath of Sunday’s election.

Schulz called her “the biggest loser” of the race; he chastised her for “a systematic evasion of politics” that created a vacuum for nationalists to step in and declared her feel-good campaign “scandalous.”

He made it sound as though it was Merkel, whose Christian Democratic Union governed with his SPD for the last four years, who caused his party to show its worst ever election result — just 20.5% of the vote.

Considering that he’d campaigned against her, and that she’s won the election, Schulz’s charges sounded surreal. Clearly, he has no clue what happened to his party’s support, just as French Socialists had no idea why their backing collapsed in the run-up to this year’s presidential election, and just as the Dutch Labour Party struggled to comprehend its electoral implosion in March.

The incomprehension may just be denial. Some on the European left are convinced the stars are firmly aligned against the socialist parties. Here’s how Asbjoern Wahl, director of Norway’s Campaign for the Welfare State, explained the recent electoral loss of the local Labour Party:

“The golden age of social democracy was based on a class compromise and a balance of power which made it possible to move forward socially within the framework of regulated capitalism (ie, the welfare state).

“The material basis for such policies is now coming to an end with the deep crisis and stagnation of capitalism and the concomitant neo-liberal offensive. The social democratic attempt to re-establish the class compromise, with its successful tripartite co-operation and social dialogue, even without class mobilisation and confrontation, is an illusionary project in the current political conjuncture.”

How do the “neo-liberals” (the likes of Merkel or Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg) profit from the current “crisis and stagnation of capitalism”? Well, quite likely, they have simply reacted quicker to a tectonic shift in the electoral base.

Oxford University’s Jane Gingrich and University of Zurich’s Silja Haeusermann wrote in a 2015 paper that left-wing parties began losing their blue-collar support base in the 1990s as the manual working class shrank. Their new base required a new approach.

“The postindustrial welfare support coalition is predominantly anchored in the middle class, which tends to prefer social investment and activation policies over traditional redistributive policies,” the paper said.

Centre-right parties increasingly have been playing on the same field, and perhaps they were better suited to answer the call.

Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was ahead of his time when he pushed his party toward activation and social investment in his labour market revamp. But he lost the support of the SPD’s traditional base while the party allowed Merkel’s CDU to co-opt the agenda it had set. Ever since, the party has struggled to offer anything meaningful to the middle class.

For example, Schulz failed to rally voters around the idea that kindergartens should be free; most Germans can afford the small fees.

The SPD’s proposal that pensions stay at the current level rather than drop by some 5 percentage points of the average wage by 2030 isn’t particularly thrilling, either.

Like France, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, Germany is enough of a socialist country that there’s no incremental improvement in the social safety net that would entice voters to abandon the CDU for the SPD.

One could argue about the details, but generally, the middle class is going to be OK under the centre-right or the centre-left; this is not the US, where the party in power can make a difference to basic protections such as health coverage.

The socialist parties could try shifting further left, to the territory where big ideas — such as a universal basic income or mass nationalisation — still exist. But, first, that place in the political spectrum is already occupied by the likes of Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise or Germany’s uncompromising Die Linke.

These parties are vocal, good at communication and completely in charge of their agendas.

The French Socialists found out this year that going head to head with these forces can be disastrous: Their candidate Benoit Hamon, who tried bold, radical left slogans, dissolved in Melenchon’s shadow.

Besides, there’s little electoral gain to be had on the far left flank. Die Linke, after all, got less than half of the SPD’s votes in Sunday’s election — and this was a disastrous year for the SPD. The same members of the middle class who have supplanted manual workers as the left’s base tend to dismiss radical ideas as utopian.

The UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn may be more successful as he shifts his political force to the left. There’s nothing else there in the British political spectrum, and, in a two-party system, Corbyn can hope for a large protest vote as the weak Conservative government flails about.

But Corbyn’s radicalism holds no long-term attraction for the middle class, and while it can work as a tactic, it’s still a losing strategy. As soon as someone more charismatic than Theresa May shows up to confront Corbyn, he’s likely to feel the heat.

It’s possible that the only way forward for the mainstream left parties is to merge with centre-right forces - something that happened in France after Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the presidential election this year.

His La Republique en Marche party is neither left nor right, and it’s free from traditional parties’ legacy burdens such as radical union members or nationalists. It can push centrist policies without constantly looking over its shoulder.

It’s looking increasingly as though the political centre only makes sense to voters as a unified force rather than a place where established parties compete. The centrist parties that are stronger at the moment — largely, it seems, centre-right ones — will serve as the centres of gravity for mergers or steady unions. If no party is strong enough, the French scenario beckons.

Schulz’s angry refusal to entertain serving in a Merkel-led government and the SPD’s resolve to put up a fight as an opposition party are holdovers from a time when there were differences of principle between the moderate left and the moderate right — a time when they had different support bases.

Today’s competition is between the centre as a unified force and the extremes, both on the left and on the right.

If Merkel can put together a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens, it may be Germany’s clumsier answer to Macron’s universal centrist force. It’s not clear how the SPD would recast itself as an alternative to it.

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