World View: Europe’s centre-left makes a comeback of sorts

Pandemic boosts hybrid social democracy as it battles far-right and radical left

At some point in the last decade, you will have read that social democracy is close to death, living out its last days in a few corners of Europe while a world with which it struggled to keep pace moves on. At some point this week, however, after the success of the centre-left in Germany's federal election, you will have read that social democracy is resurgent; that the pandemic has arrested voters' flight from the centre and reawakened public desire for parties that stand for equality and social justice. So which is it? Death or rebirth?

Neither. While predictions of the centre-left's demise five years ago were premature, its recent successes cannot obscure longer-term decline. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) won in Germany last week by increasing its vote by 5 points to 25.7 per cent – a strong showing but also the second-lowest in the party's postwar history. Twenty years ago, its vote was around the 40 per cent mark. Still, the SPD is in rude health when compared to some of its sister parties. In France, the Socialist Party – one of the fifth Republic's two traditional alternating power blocs – is a hollow wreck, its clothes stolen by imitators on the right and left, and its vote reduced to single digits. In the past decade the Italian Democratic Party and the Dutch Labour Party have lost half and three-quarters of their MPs, respectively. When Czech voters go to the polls next week, the Social Democratic party, winner of four of the past six elections, will be fighting to reach 5 per cent. And despite facing a government whose incompetence is its defining characteristic, the battle that most energises Britain's Labour Party is the one it is fighting with itself.

No mirage

Yet the recent signs of recovery, or at least stabilisation, in some places are not a mirage. After last month's election in Norway, Labour is set to lead the next government in Oslo. The result means Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland will simultaneously have social democratic prime ministers – the first time that has occurred since 2001. Centre-left parties also head coalition governments in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Social democrats have come up with responses that reflect  their domestic situations as well as the instincts of their dominant faction

Yet while all of these parties share common traits, they also differ sharply on some key questions. Faced with losing votes both to the far-right and the radical left, social democrats have come up with responses that reflect the peculiarities of their domestic situations as well as the instincts of their dominant factions. In the EU debate over issuing common debt, centre-left leaders from Iberia clashed with their political siblings from the Nordic states. Spain and Portugal have favoured admitting more refugees into Europe; their Scandinavian sister-parties want fewer to be allowed in. In France, the centre-left demands higher taxes on business. In Ireland, much of the left supports low taxes on big corporations and is lukewarm on a tax on the land-owning property class.


For all of these outfits – mass parties that always contained a wide range of opinion – pressure at the polls has brought internal tensions to the surface. Some, like German SPD leader Olaf Scholz and Joe Biden in the United States, have tried to find an accommodation between the left and the centre – in the process moving themselves towards more state-interventionist positions that better reflect the zeitgeist. In Spain and Portugal, the social democrats moved to the left and made themselves more amenable to coalition with other left parties, whereas Denmark's Social Democrats tried to arrest its loss of support to the far-right by combining left-wing economics with a hardline stance on immigration. The centre-left in many countries was slow to lead on the climate agenda, but it is now widely recognised that climate justice is inseparable from the wider equality agenda and that the future of the centre-left likely lies in alliances, perhaps even mergers, with the Green movement.

Fragmentation and clout

The structural reasons for the centre-left’s predicament – among them the decline of industry, ageing populations and the rupture of the old alliance of the working class and liberal middle class – will not be reversed any time soon. Neither the centre-left nor the centre-right will ever again enjoy the supremacy they did in the postwar decades. The story of European politics these days – one reflected in Ireland – is of fragmentation, with a larger number of smaller parties fighting it out for negotiating clout in post-election coalition talks. Winning, as Germany’s SPD has shown, can now mean winning a quarter of the vote.

The structural reasons for the centre-left's predicament will not be reversed any time soon

Yet social democrats can still take heart from recent shifts. The far-right’s growth has plateaued or fallen in many countries. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, people turned to the state to protect and support them; it did so, to widespread approval, by pumping money into services and intervening on a scale never seen in peacetime.

In Ireland and elsewhere, elections today are fought on social democratic terrain: decent services, fair use of public resources and social equality. That may not guarantee that social democracy, as a political tradition, will prosper. But it does at least imply that the public is receptive to its message.