The decline of the centre-left over the past years is one of the most alarming trends in Western politics. During the latter part of the 20th century such parties either ran the government or led the loyal Opposition in virtually every Western democracy.
Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), once the most powerful party of the left in continental Europe, currently polls in high 20s or 30s. The French Socialist Party was eviscerated in the 2017 elections, as was the Dutch Labour Party. Even the vaunted Scandinavian social democratic parties are struggling, reduced to vote shares in the 30 per cent range. The British Labour Party and the US Democrats have been protected from challengers by their country’s first-past-the-post electoral systems, but the former has recently taken a sharp turn to the hard-left under Jeremy Corbyn, while the latter, although still competitive at the national level, is a minority party at the state and local levels, where a hard-right Republican Party dominates the scene.
The decline of the centre-left has hurt Western democracy. It has left voters free to be captured by extremist parties, particularly of the far-right populist variety, which threaten the liberal and perhaps even democratic nature of Western politics. In addition, centre-left parties played a crucial role in creating and maintaining the post-war order on which stable democracy was built following the Second World War. Without a revival of the centre-left, it is hard to see how this order and perhaps even well functioning democracy can be resuscitated.
This book analyses the decline of the centre-left, and in so doing, may provide its supporters with the insights necessary to revitalise it. Why the left loses focuses on three main issues the centre-left must confront: leadership, institutions/ structural change and message/ vision.
The first is the most straightforward, but nonetheless crucial. Leaders represent and personify what parties stand for; in order to win, the centre-left needs leaders who can connect to a diverse and demanding electorate, and attractively, forcefully and effectively convey their party’s messages.
Attracting such leaders does not, of course, happen in a vacuum. Talented and ambitious individuals are drawn to parties they believe can deal with the challenges of the day.
This brings us to issues of institutions/ structural change and message/ vision. Institutional and structural changes over the last decades in domestic and international political economies have created major challenges for all traditional political parties, but particularly for those of the centre-left.
After 1945 in Western Europe (and beginning with the New Deal in the US), the West began constructing a new type of political economy, one that could ensure economic growth while at the same time protecting societies from capitalism’s destructive and destabilising consequences.
This order represented a decisive break with the past: states would not be limited to ensuring that markets could grow and flourish, nor would economic interests be given the widest possible leeway. Instead, after 1945 the state was to become the guardian of society rather than the economy, and economic imperatives would sometimes have to take a back seat to social ones.
This post-war order represented something historically unusual: capitalism remained, but it was capitalism of a very different type than had existed before the war – one tempered and limited by the power of the democratic state, and often made subservient to the goals of social stability and solidarity, rather than the other way round. This was a farcry from the revolutionary destruction of the capitalist order that orthodox Marxists, communists and others on the far left had demanded during the pre-war period, but it still varied significantly from what liberals had long favoured – namely, giving as much free rein to markets as possible.
This was, in short, a social democratic order – and it worked remarkably well. Despite fears after the war that it would perhaps take decades for Europe to recover economically, by the early 1950s most of Europe had easily surpassed interwar economic figures, and the 30 years after 1945 were Europe’s fastest period of growth ever.
The restructured political economies of the post-war era seemed to offer something to everyone, and this, in turn, helped to eliminate the belief – long held by liberals, Marxists and others – that democratic states could not or would not protect particular groups’ interests.
Because the centre-left was most closely associated with this order and the most determined defender of it, it had the most to lose from its demise. And so the pressures put on this order since the 1970s by increasing globalisation, growing government deficits and the neoliberal and eventually austerity policies adopted by the European Union (EU) have left the centre-left scrambling to come up with new strategies for getting economies moving again, while also ensuring that democratic states continued to protect citizens from the changes brought by ever-evolving capitalism.
Alongside changes in domestic and international political economies, centre-left parties have also been challenged by social and cultural shifts that began in the 1960s and threatened traditional identities, communities and mores – a process further exacerbated, particularly in Europe, by growing immigration. Together these trends helped erode the social solidarity and sense of shared national purpose that had supported the social democratic post-war order and helped to stabilise European democracies in the decades following the Second World War.
The US faced its own version of this with the growing political incorporation and mobilisation of minority groups since the civil rights era, and the increasing shift towards a non-majority white population destabilising traditional social and political patterns.
But economic, social and cultural institutional and structural changes have not doomed the centre-left to oblivion. They represent challenges, and how the centre-left (or any other party) responds to challenges determines how voters react and political systems evolve. The problem for the centre-left, in other words, is not merely the challenges it has faced over the past decades so much as its lack of convincing and coherent responses to them.
Here is where Why the left loses‘ third issue comes in: message/ vision. After the 2008 financial crisis many observers expected a significant swing to the left among Western electorates, since many blamed the economy’s problems on the neoliberal policies that had proliferated during the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.
But the centre-left lacked a convincing message for dealing with the crisis, or a more general vision of how to promote growth while protecting citizens from the harsher aspects of free markets. Instead, it kept on trying to defend out-dated policies or proposed watered-down versions of neoliberalism that barely differentiated it from the centre-right.
The centre-left also lacked a convincing message about how to deal with increasing diversity or a vision of social solidarity appropriate to changing demographic and cultural realities. Instead, the centre-left either ignored the challenge of diversity or especially among the intellectual left, put forward a message of ‘multiculturalism’ –neither of these responses was able to stem social conflict or electoral flight from the left, especially on the part of the working class.
It has now become fairly commonplace to note the support given by traditionally centre-left voters to the populist right. This connection was on obvious display in the Brexit referendum, where many traditional Labour strongholds and supporters voted to leave the EU, and it has been a prominent feature of elections in Europe as working-class voters have flocked to right-wing populist parties. And, of course, a version of this was present in the US, where Donald Trump garnered disproportionate support from less-educated and working-class voters.
What is still worth stressing, however, is the causal connection between the failures or missteps of the centre-left and the rise of right-wing populist parties that offered simple, straightforward messages in response to citizens’ economic and social fears.
Economically, the populist right promises to promote prosperity, via increased government control of the economy and limits on globalisation. Socially, the populist right promises to restore social solidarity and a sense of shared national purpose, by expelling foreigners or severely limiting immigration, diminishing the influence of the EU and globalisation, and protecting traditional values, identities and mores.
For those who bemoan the decline of the centre-left and the rise of the populist right, the challenge is clear: you can’t beat something with nothing, and if the centre-left can’t come up with more viable and attractive messages about how to solve contemporary problems, and a more attractive vision of the future than those offered by its competitors, it can expect to continue its slide into the dust heap of history.
The following chapters provide an excellent starting point for the debate about the centre-left’s future.
Why the left loses: understanding the comparative decline of the centre-left.
Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy
Since the global financial crisis (GFC), if not before, there has been a general decline in the fortunes of social democratic and labour parties. Against these recent developments, there is a long-standing literature that appraises the electoral performance and impact of the left more broadly (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986; Kitschelt, 1994; Moschonas, 2002).
Much of the literature on social democracy tends to be pessimistic, and there is a plethora of research that denotes recent developments as a ‘crisis’, on the ‘back foot’, ‘in retreat’, and perhaps most arrestingly, as ‘dead’ (Gray, 1996; Pierson, 2001; Keating and McCrone, 2013; Lavelle, 2013; Ludwigshafen et al, 2016).
In a prescient address at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 2011, David Miliband catalogued the general wreckage of the electoral fortunes of the centre-left across Western Europe. In his critical survey of European social democracy, he noted:
• The UK General Election in 2010 – the second worst result for Labour since 1918.
• Sweden, also in 2010 – the worst result since 1911.
• Germany in 2009 – the worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic, with a greater loss of support than any party in the history of the country.
• France in 2007 – the worst result since 1969.
• The Netherlands in 2009 – a traumatic transition from a junior coalition partner to Opposition.
• Italy – a yo-yo in and out of power, with personal and political divisions disabling opposition to Berlusconi.
More recent results generally confirm this overall trend, with British Labour losing both the 2015 and 2017 general elections.
The Dutch general election in early 2017 saw the worst-ever result for the Dutch Labour Party (PvDA, Partij van de Arbeid). The PvDA lost 29 seats, only holding 9 in the 150-seat Parliament. The Dutch result is something of an outlier for the misfortunes of the centre-left.
Later in this chapter we survey the state of the left more widely. This collected volume investigates the electoral fortunes of the family of centre-left labour and social democratic political parties. In this chapter we set out the aims and scope of the volume, and its contribution to understanding the comparative political decline of the centre-left.
After mapping the electoral fortunes of centre-left political parties, we then locate this volume in the current literature, and set out the distinctive approach offered here. From our perspective, one of the deficiencies of the current literature is that it focuses almost exclusively on the family of (mostly Western) European social democratic and labour parties. While much of this literature is incisive and important, we have a nagging concern that this narrow focus is missing a key part of the wider story.
As we outline below, we need to expand the explanatory universe to better understand the current plight of the centre-left.
We have been a little mischievous in the title of this volume – Why the left loses –and it would be useful here to clarify the book’s scope. The volume is not called ‘Why the left always loses’ or ‘Why the left will never win again’. Rather, the focus is on examining the current electoral performance of a cohort of the family of social democratic and labour political parties within a specific timeframe (broadly, 2008-16).
The title of the volume is deliberately provocative, in part, because we hope that it will reach a wider readership than just the academy. The term ‘left’ is deployed here as a proxy for these groups of political parties.
Our focus remains their fate of – often, but not always – the main carriers of wider social democratic values. The book does not seek to argue that the values and ideas associated with the ‘left’ are in decline –indeed, we argue that in a number of cases the opposite is true, that they have been readily co-opted by a number of parties on the centre-right, and other populist challengers. Nor are we suggesting that there are common or single causes for the current state of the full suite of centre-left political parties. And to be clear, by ‘left’ we mostly focus on the long-standing social democratic and labour parties rather than some of the alternative ‘socialist’ or ‘left’ parties such as Die Linke established in Germany in 2007.
The social democratic parties remain important political actors, even if they are not in the best of electoral health. The risk with the title Why the left loses is that by the time the volume is published, there will have been a turnaround in the electoral fortunes of the social democratic parties. Indeed, it was just at the point of Blair and Schröder declaring the hegemonic victory of the Third Way/Neue Mitte that the fortunes of the left began to decline.
As Ralf Dahrendorf noted in a telling intervention, the highpoint in the late 1990s for the centre-left masked other key changes in the party systems of the advanced industrial democracies: The real trend – which is underlined by the European elections – is towards non-traditional parties, many of which did not exist 20 years ago. (Dahrendorf, 1999)
The key issue is that while the late 1990s may have signalled something like the ‘magical return’ of social democracy, we are more circumspect in predicting a ‘second coming’ by the time this volume is released.
Moreover, if there were to be a revival of the centre-left, and clearly many of the writers in this volume would welcome a return to a more full-bloodied variant of social democratic politics, it would not necessarily undermine the central focus of the book. We look to explain why the left has been doing poorly in this period under review. Indeed, in one of our cases – state Labor in Australia – there has been something of a revival of the centre-left.
Overall, we focus predominately on the period from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s. The crucial event here is the impact of the global financial crisis (GFC), and the response of the parties to this latest rupture in the global capitalist system. The response has not been overwhelming.
The state of the left
There have been a number of recent surveys of the family of social democratic parties (Keating and McCrone, 2013; Bailey et al, 2014, p 8), with the focus predominately on the European parties. Here we offer a related, but broader, survey.
While there is no clear, uniform trend, the overall picture is rather dismal for centre-left parties (see Table 1.1). In France, the 2012 presidential election win proved a temporary highpoint for the Parti socialiste (PS) under François Hollande. Indeed, the seven-year term of the presidency arguably overstates the dominance of the PS.
As outlined by Sophie Di Francesco-Mayot (see Chapter 10), there is a strong case that while the left was in office, it was ‘losing the battle of ideas’. It was striking, and perhaps not that surprising, when Hollande announced that he would not be contesting the 2017 presidential elections –the first post-war president not to seek office. Strikingly, PS did not make the second round run-off in the 2017 presidential election, much like the dismal 2002 election. Indeed, the Macron phenomenon would suggest a further decline and fragmentation of the centre-left.
Table 1.1: Centre-left parties in Office and Opposition (2008-16)
Note: In Canada Justin Trudeau took the Liberal Party into office. There is a dispute as to whether to categorise the Liberals as centrist or social democratic, given the New Democratic Party espouses the clearest social democratic programme in Canada. Source: European data drawn in part from Bailey et al (2014, p 9)
In Germany, the centre-left SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or Social Democratic Party of Germany) has been unable for quite some time to puncture the dominance of Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union). Since 2005, Merkel has been unassailable in German politics, with the SPD first as a junior coalition partner, then back in Opposition. At the 2013 election, Merkel reluctantly turned to the SPD as junior partner once again.
In Uwe Jun’s account (see Chapter 7), the factors for the SPD’s electoral health are examined. What is striking about the SPD is that like other cases considered here, its troubles pre-date the GFC. To a large extent, the SPD, like the SAP (Swedish Social Democratic Party) and the UK Labour Party, is experiencing a prolonged hangover from its turn to the Third Way.
In Spain, the picture is arguably more pessimistic for the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). Since losing office in 2011, the party has lost consecutive general elections in 2015 and 2016, and, as Paul Kennedy outlines in his overview (see Chapter 9), it faces a range of pressures, not least the emergence of the left-populist Podemos party in 2014. Over this time, the PSOE has been haemorrhaging votes. As Kennedy notes, while the PSOE has not yet faced its own version of ‘Pasokification’ (the ultimate destruction of the once dominant Greek social democrats), its future is far from assured.
In Sweden, often claimed as having the purest form of social democracy, the SAP finds itself in turbulent times. It was in office from 1994 to 2002; it then lost both the 2006 and 2010 elections, and narrowly won the 2014 election, governing in coalition with the Green Party. The 2014 results obscure the thinness of SAP’s victory with only a minor improvement of its vote, at 31 per cent.
Here, we see a clear example of arguably a structural trend facing centre-left parties –a narrowing of its voter base. Whereas the PSOE faces a left-populist challenge, the striking characteristic of the Swedish party system has been the emergence of the nationalist right-populist Swedish Democrats. As Claes Belfrage and Mikko Kuisma argue (see Chapter 8), the SAP is confronted by long-standing economic constraints imposed by the capitalist system and is playing something of a ‘losing game’. It remains unclear how far the 2014 result signifies a meaningful revival of the centre-left.
While this volume confines its European focus to these countries, the outlook for the centre-left across Europe is mixed, at best. In Italy, the fortunes of the centre-left have been –in David Miliband’s words –something of a ‘yo-yo’. The centre-right was dominant from 2001 to 2006. Under Romano Prodi, the centre-left briefly resumed office (2006-08), before losing again to the centre-right in 2008. It is telling that after the GFC, the Italian electorate placed its faith in the ‘technocratic’ government of Mario Monti, until the centre-left bloc took over in 2013. This recent development, however, can hardly be considered stable government, and the development of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement presents another populist challenge to both left and right.
In The Netherlands, the 2017 election was catastrophic for the PvDA. Prior to this calamity, it was in Opposition between 2002 and 2006, and again between 2010 and 2012. At the 2012 elections it entered as a junior partner in coalition with the centre-right VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy). In the multi-party Dutch system, the PvDA has been unable to secure a firmer electoral base, and again, a xenophobic populist party – in this case, led by the ubiquitous Geert Wilders – poses both a strategic and ideational dilemma for both left and right. It appears that the left not only loses elections; it can’t win them outright either.
In Austria, while the SPŐ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) has been the largest partner (just) in a grand coalition, Austrian politics has seen the emergence of the far-right, and both major parties recorded their worst ever results at the 2008 legislative elections.
In Norway, Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour party (AAP) was a dominant force from 2005-13, but lost power to the centre-right bloc.
While these cases are not considered here, they remain emblematic of a range of problems and dilemmas facing social democratic and labour parties, especially in the context of a shifting party system, with new populist challengers.
We also include and survey the fortunes of the centre-left in the Anglosphere, and here we focus our attention on Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Controversially for some, we locate the UK Labour Party outside the core European family of social democratic parties (although the Brexit result provides further support for this case).
As a range of writers and indeed, Labour figures, have pointed out, the UK Labour Party often has more in common with its Antipodean Labour sisters than its European social democratic counterparts.
As Rob Manwaring and Matt Beech outline in Chapter 2, the picture here is fairly dismal for the centre-left. Labour has experienced ‘Pasokification’ in Scotland, and since the fall of New Labour in 2010 has been unable to claw its way back into power. While the 2010 result was widely anticipated, Labour’s loss to the Conservatives in 2015 was not. While Corbyn-led Labour secured a better-than-expected result at the 2017 general election, Labour has now lost three elections in a row since Tony Blair stepped down as leader.
Elsewhere, there is a catalogue of defeat for the left. In two different contexts, Canada and New Zealand, there has been a dominance of the centre-right. From 2008-15, Stephen Harper’s Conservative party has dominated Canadian politics, and it is only with the recent win of Justin Trudeau that there has been some shifting back to a more left-leaning position. Yet, as David McGrane outlines in Chapter 3, the fate of the NDP (New Democratic Party) illustrates the difficulty of seeking to impose a social democratic settlement at a time of Liberal Party resurgence. Strikingly, at the 2011 election, the NDP seemingly made a key breakthrough under the leadership of Jack Layton, but the fortunes of the NDP have since declined.
Likewise, in New Zealand, the NZ Labour Party has been unsuccessful in dislodging the centre-right National Party under the dominant leadership of John Key. Labour lost three straight elections, and despite the unexpected resignation of Key at the end of 2016, its chances of winning at the 2017 general election look marginal at best. Grant Duncan surveys the wreckage of the NZ Labour Party (in Chapter 4), and what is striking here is the flexibility of the centre-right, and, most notably, a shift away from a strident form of neoliberal politics.
Finally, in Australia, after 11 years in the wilderness, the ALP (Australian Labor Party) took office under the, initially, strong leadership of Kevin Rudd. Yet, within the space of a few years, the ALP turned in on itself, and Julia Gillard (just) secured a minority government in 2010. And in another rancorous turn, the ALP ditched Gillard weeks before the 2013 election. Since then, despite a promising election campaign in 2016, the ALP remains in Opposition.
As Carol Johnson examines in her chapter on the ALP (see Chapter 5), Labor was beset by a range of both institutional and ideational problems. Most critically, Johnson examines the central dilemma facing centre-left parties in the capitalist system.
We also include in this volume a chapter on a much neglected story of the centre-left – the Australian state Labor parties (see Chapter 6). During the mid-2000s, a rather intriguing phenomenon occurred when Labor held office in every single state and territory. Since then state Labor has been on the back foot. The chapter therefore offers the reader a clear comparative case study of sub-national social democracy to illuminate why the left loses elections.
If time and space permitted, we might also look beyond our cases and see the, at best, mixed picture for the centre-left. Critically, the 2016 presidential election victory by Donald Trump in the US seems to encapsulate many of the current dynamics of the modern party system, with a populist backlash against both major political parties.
In Latin America, left-ist parties have also suffered setbacks (Aidi, 2015), although the extent to which we locate them in the ‘social democratic’ tradition is contested.
The key issue from this brief survey is that the left is currently losing, or not winning well, and also recording some record losses in the period from the GFC to 2016. The aim of this volume is to explore and examine, comparatively, the reasons for this current state of play.
It is worth making a few caveats to this overall survey.
First, most liberal democracies in advanced industrial settings operate on some turnover of governments. We are circumspect in over-emphasising any ‘trend’ of the ‘left losing’.
Second, in many cases, the left losing is, indeed, a noted part of their histories. To take the UK Labour Party as a prominent example, until New Labour, its electoral record was patchy at best (between 1945 and 1997 it held office for just 17 of those 52 years).
Third, while we make comparative judgements, and see some common themes, such as populism, Third Way hangovers, out-dated political economic models, changing class patterns, and so on, there are specific conditions playing out. The left loses, but not always for the same reasons.
WHY THE LEFT LOSES. The decline of the centre-left in comparative perspective
Edited by Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy.
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