To the left? European social democracy shows signs of life
Europe Letter: Spain is proof that centre-left parties can regain lost ground with a more radical approach
Pedro Sánchez is likely to remain the only socialist leading a major European country. Photograph: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg
The dramatic recovery of the Spanish social democratic left in last weekend’s general election is a political event of Europe-wide significance, a harbinger, some believe, of its generalised resurgence.
The post-crash decade since 2008 had delivered to one of the two great political pillars of European construction a series of electoral defeats right across the EU, some said existential.
In the European Council, only eight out of 28 heads of state and government now belong to the political group known as the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). And in truth the decline of social democracy was as significant – although less spoken of – as the rise in populism on the right and left, as a defining characteristic of this politically turbulent era.
In Dublin Brendan Howlin, leader of Ireland’s beleaguered Labour Party, also a victim of the same anti-socialist tide and, some have warned, teetering on the edge of extinction, will certainly see comfort in comrades in the PSOE defying the trend and raising their seat numbers in the Cortes from 85 to 123.
Nevertheless, Pedro Sánchez is likely to remain the only socialist leading a major European country.
But is the tide turning? One swallow does not make a summer. Yet Sweden’s Social Democrats hung on to power last year, while the centre-left won Finland’s election last month. Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) is staging something of a comeback – polls show it neck and neck with the Five Star Movement at about 23 per cent each.
Portugal’s socialist prime minister António Costa has governed since 2015 with the support of far-left parties. Having delivered strong growth and rolled back austerity since the debt crisis, he is now close to winning a majority at a general election in the autumn, according to opinion polls.
Sweden, Slovakia and Malta are also led by socialists, while Greece and Romania have left-wing leaders, and in Denmark polls show socialists leading ahead of elections. (Although the socialists have effectively frozen relations with Romania’s allied ruling party over rule-of-law concerns.)
Then there’s the UK. The Labour Party could be said after 10 years in opposition to be leading the resurgent left in Europe under Jeremy Corbyn. Like in Spain it is able to capitalise on the deep divisions on the right, as the Brexit Party and Ukip look set to hoover up disillusioned Tory voters. In Spain the far-right Vox and nationalist liberals of Ciudadanos have split the right, crippling the once dominant centre-right PP.
The latter responded to the threat from the anti-immigrant right by itself moving sharply in that direction. But it should have learned from France’s Les Republicains and Italy’s Forza Italia, which were dramatically eclipsed after they legitimised the politics of the far-right of the Front National and League parties by aping them.
Corbyn’s Labour has benefited electorally from a leftward shift on economic policy away from the austerity politics of the Blair-Brown years. Sánchez and his Socialist Party have done likewise. He championed a robust social agenda, which included a 22 per cent increase in the minimum wage, and successfully wooed back voters who in previous elections backed parties further to the left, such as the unorthodox, left-populist Podemos.
That party saw its seat tally decline since the last general election from 71 to 42 – evidence that the social democrats can regain ground lost to the hard left if they rediscover an older radicalism.
Whether the Spanish tide will be able to lift social democratic parties in the larger EU countries such as France, Germany and Italy, let alone smaller countries such as Ireland, remains to be seen. But the old dog is not dead yet, its demise, to paraphrase Twain, grossly exaggerated.
And in a European Council where the balance of forces in recent times has shifted with the influx of populist voices, the safe return of Sánchez will be welcomed. “The good news for the European Union, particularly in the midst of Brexit,” Pablo Simón, a professor of politics at University Carlos III in Madrid, told the New York Times, “is that Spain now has a reinforced socialist leader who can help draw a clear axis across the Continent – running from Lisbon through Madrid and Paris to Berlin – of governments committed to more European integration.”
The old social-democratic-Christian-democratic axis that built the EU since the war is reinforced.