The recent Italian elections confirm a trend across Europe; Social Democracy is in retreat. The result shows that the Democratic Party is on 18.9% of the vote whilst there have been big increases in support for the Right-wing populist Lega Nord, receiving a massive 13.6% increase in the share of the vote whilst the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement gained around 32.2% of the vote. This confirms the trend that the centre-Left is in retreat across Europe. In France last year, the Socialist Party received a tiny 6.36% of the vote in the French Presidential elections; in Germany, the Social Democrats received their worst defeat since the 1949 election achieving just 20.5% of the vote. In the Netherlands, the Labour Party went from 38 seats in 2012 to 9 seats in 2017. Considering Poland, Greece, Czech Republic, Spain, Austria and not forgetting the decline of Labour in the 2015 election, there is a real threat that Social Democracy may in fact be concealed to the past.
Why has Social Democracy declined? The political Left in the past was focused on the working class and the decline of working class has helped in part to the decline in Social Democracy. To simply explain it as the fact that Social Democracy has done its job and is therefore no longer needed is in many ways completely wrong. A recent example of this in the Italian context, there still Great-Depression sized unemployment levels for youth at 31.5% unemployment. A good explanation for the decline in Social Democracy comes from books such as The Death of Social Democracy: Political Consequences in the 21st Century by Ashley Lavelle that the cause of the decline in Social Democracy is in part due to Neo-Liberalism or the Social Democrats who embraced Neo-Liberalism alienated voters who in turn defected to other parties, especially the Far-Right. This is very much what we have seen across Europe, whether the Scottish Labour party getting one seat in 2015 in Scotland or whether it be the electoral apocalypse of the French Socialist Party, Social Democratic parties that directly embraced Neo-Liberalism have been punished.
So why not just move to the left then? This is exactly what has happened in the UK where the Labour Party has transformed itself from a centre-Left, Blairite, Neo-Liberal party into a radical, anti-austerity, Socialist party. The problem is that there is very little evidence of movements to the political Left from the centre-Left. In Germany for example, Die Linke party which is the Far-Left wing, barely increased its share of the vote in the 2017 election. In the Netherlands, the only Left-wing party to have gained votes was the Green Party. In the Italian elections, the political Right and the populists have gained the most votes, there is no existence of Communists or Far-Left wing parties.
The places where there have been moves to the political Left in places like Greece or the UK are in the minority of European countries. The movement to the Left in Greece is in part down to austerity imposed by a foreign power. In Britain. The success of the Labour party is in part down to a divisive referendum, where a society split in two broadly voted for two political parties that reflected their positions. There has also been a political realignment in Britain, where under the 50s tend to vote Labour whilst over 50s vote Conservative. The real issue here is that despite the bar of entry is low because of the proportional representation voting system, there is little evidence of a Far-Left resurgence at all. Melenchon’s France Insoumise is the closest to a populist Left party infiltration in Europe that could replace Social Democratic parties, winning 19.8% in the first round of the French Presidential election in 2017. Britain’s Labour Party has shown the largest revival of a Social Democratic party in Europe. However, other populist Left-wing parties have not emerged in Europe, so simply moving to the Left is no guarantee of success for Social Democrats. The argument among factions of the Labour Party such as Momentum that all that Social Democrats need to do is simply embrace left-wing populism, democracy, reject austerity and move wholeheartedly to the Left is by no means a quick fix as far-Left wing populist would have already taken significant portions of the electorate, which has failed to happen in Europe thus far.
Can the decline of Social Democracy reverse its decline? For the sake of democracy, let’s hope it can.
Article by Dan Clemence