Social democracy in crisis

A turning point for Europe’s left

It is hardly surprising that the focus of political analysis in recent years has been on explaining the emergence of "anti-politics", the politics of alienation and the seemingly irresistible rise of the populist right in its many guises. Trumpism has been its apogee, but in Europe's troubled post-crisis political vacuum, and in the most unlikely places, groups like Italy's Five Star Movement, Finland and Sweden's Finns Party and Sweden Democrats, Austria's Freedom Party, and Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, among others, emerged from obscurity ahead of Trump's rise to claim a place at the political table. And leaders like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Nigel Farage became household names. Even autocrats like Hungary's Viktor Orban and Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski rule, directly or by proxy.

Yet while the first round in the French election suggested that the gallop of the populist right may have been stemmed, it also spoke to another political phenomenon, just as dramatic, and the other side of the same coin. It is the electoral implosion of what might be called the establishment left, social democracy, a political family that has dominated European politics since the turn of the 20th century, and that ruled in most of its states for part of it. "There is a crisis of European social democracy," warns Pierre Moscovici, France's European commissioner – "it's not a good thing for Europe. "

Major social democratic parties – well-used to governing on their own or as major partners in coalitions – like Greece's Pasok or Spain's PSOE have been dramatically eclipsed by radical insurgent parties on their left. Benoît Hamon's fifth-placed finish in Sunday's French poll is a case in point – he was outdistanced by a mile by radical leftist Jean Luc Melenchon.

Our own Labour Party paid for its participation in an "austerity" government with near annihilation. The same happened in the Netherlands two months ago. In Iceland, the Social Democrats came seventh in October elections. In Sweden, where for much of its long history, the party polled over 40 per cent, current support is down to about 29 per cent, according to polls.


In Britain, a similar process saw internal revolution and the election of Jeremy Corbyn, likely to be followed by electoral disaster on June 8th.

Germany alone has bucked the trend – its SDP has successfully reversed appalling poll standings, but only by embracing a notional "outsider" Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament.

The reasons for European social democracy’s perhaps terminal decline are not hard to discern. As Labour’s left has for years warned, its voters, unlike those of Fine Gael, do not expect their leaders to participate in austerity politics. They do not wear the “in the national interest” hairshirt argument, however worthy. And every time the party comes out of a coalition government it is duly punished. What makes 2017 different is that the phenomenon is replicated across Europe. And this time there are radical parties to assume the socialist mantle.