These are the Left’s hard times. In the period since the Second World War popular support for democratic socialist parties in Europe was usually around the 40% mark. In France and Italy lower, because until the late 80s or 90s the left vote had to be shared with the communists. Depending on the electoral system, this bedrock of support was sufficient to make it a constant contender for power, either on its own or with junior partners. Over the last decade this has all now changed. The traditional Left is now lucky to reach 25%, most of its parties have declining memberships and are often riven with internal division.
The German Social Democrats have been suffocated by ten years as junior coalition partner. Their political platform is all but invisible as they prepare to campaign for the 2017 election, with, seemingly, their ambitions limited to continuing as cheerleaders for Mrs Merkel’s policies.
The Spanish Left is now so divided that it prefers handing power yet again to a discredited conservative government rather than building some radical anti-austerity alternative. The PSOE was once one of the most successful social democratic parties in Europe, but now has added its own leadership splits to the divisions on the left as if it were determined to relinquish the second place it clung to at the most recent elections.
The Italian Democrats are in office but internal splits and public disenchantment with the erratic political line of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi look like handing power to right wing populists.
The French left is in an even more pitiable state. 25%? Dream on. The socialists look not just certain to lose the presidency next year, but may be decimated in parliamentary elections. Their membership is now half that of supporters of the former Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron, the post-politics candidate, who has soared in the opinion polls on the basis of no programme whatsoever. Squabbling over the remains of their party, French socialists are condemned not simply to miss out on the final round of elections between Mrs LePen and the Republican nominee, but to straggle home in fourth or even fifth place.
The situation in smaller EU member states is no better. The social democratic north in Scandinavia is now in retreat. Support for Labour in the Netherlands is now in peanut territory. PASOK has been wiped out. The vice like grip of the Socialists in Wallonia enforced by graft and clientelism is being prised open. Eastern Europe is mostly a socialist-free wasteland, with scarcely comforting exceptions in the South-East Balkans.
British Labour alone appears to be having something of a death-bed revival. Its current leadership, a kind of tribute band for 1970s labourism, has attracted to the party many thousands of mostly young members, along with the rent-a-crowd gang, and a few unreconstructed Trotskyists, old enough, a lot old enough, to know better. But there is no sign that this Old Testament revivalist enthusiasm is translating into popular support, stuck in the upper twenties, and even this is judged to be very soft.
So why this collapse? Some on the left clutch at straws: the social democrats have lost out because of ‘betrayal’ of socialist principles, because to win power leaders swung to the centre, creating New Labour or the ‘Neue Mitte’ or the ‘Third way’. The alternative view is that they moved to the middle of the political spectrum to win, and in this they succeeded. Not since 1981 has a major European party of the Left won an election on a radical socialist programme.
There are other more plausible explanations for the steep decline in support traditionally enjoyed by the democratic socialist parties: the disappearance of the traditional working class and the weakening of its institutions: the undermining of the ‘socialist’ values of solidarity, collectivism, egalitarianism. Our time is one of consumerism and commercialism. Its traditional constituency so weak, for activists the Left increasingly takes cover in a redoubt of the bien pensant in the big cities and the comfortably off with consciences.
The ‘rainbow coalition’ approach (ethnic minorities, womens’ rights organisations, the disabled, LGBT) is an unreliable substitute for the solidity of the old working class vote. Experience shows, most recently in the US, that people classed as being in these ‘building blocks’ tend over time to shop around parties, on the look out for economic and social policies which address their individual concerns.
Participation in the political process itself has become very much a minority pursuit, most startlingly in Eastern Europe.
That we now live in a time of rampant inequalities, social exclusion and a sense of helplessness in an increasingly globalised world has not bolstered support for the Left. On the contrary, the simplistic nostrums of populists seem to be more in tune with the times.
What should the Left do?
First, it must cease its denial of these new realities lest 25% be not the low end of its expectations, but a ceiling.
Second, it needs to give absolute priority to creating good jobs even at the expense of some of the old protections which stifle employment. This requires raising education standards and being serious about training to make all young people employable. And it’s the jobs argument which must be deployed in the battle against the populists over protectionism and nationalism. All the rest is window-dressing.
Third, the old exclusivism of left parties must end. That’s the logic of 25%. If Left parties win elections on their own in the future then it will almost certainly be a statistical fluke: they will be able to do little with the power they have won. So they have to learn to cooperate. That cooperation should be to their left where possible (in Germany and in Spain, for example) and with both left and centre in France).
In the UK this means that the cooperative habit – a novelty for Labour previously shielded by the British electoral system – would mean Labour working with Greens, with the SNP, and with Liberal democrats (the left of the left in Britain being essentially three cave dwellers and a dog awaiting the soviet socialist paradise).
That cooperation would be first on issues (Europe for example, but also fair schooling, or saving the NHS and health spending). Then in campaigning for a new fairer electoral system. Pending this, inevitably, an electoral pact for a given number of constituencies to stand any chance of winning – the party in this progressive coalition being given a clear run where it stands a serious chance.
This ‘spirit of cooperation’ will sound like treason to many Labour traditionalists. But if progressive ideals are to survive the populist wave then working with other parties who share some of these principles, even where their programmatic response differs, is the only way of winning back the support required to save the Left from oblivion.