The Credibility Trap: Europe's Center-Left Parties Stuck in a Dead End

By Manfred Ertel, Hans-Jürgen Schlamp and Stefan Simons

Europe's social democratic parties are in the deepest crisis of their history as conservative parties co-opt their principles and far-left parties steal their traditional supporters. The glory days of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder's "third way" seem like the distant past.

Glasgow certainly has its attractive sights, such as its magnificent 13th-century St. Mungo's Cathedral and its many meticulously restored Victorian buildings. The constituency of Glasgow East, on the other hand, is not one of the city's showpiece neighborhoods.

In the notorious public housing project of Easterhouse, youth gangs armed with knives, baseball bats and attack dogs battle for dominance of the streets. The urban landscape is characterized by alcohol and graffiti. The London Times called the grim suburb on Glasgow's east side a "tough place to live, (an) easy place to die."

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Nearby, on Shettleston Road, between long rows of two-story houses, life is quieter, but not much more agreeable. Overweight young women push strollers along the streets, their upper arms adorned with colorful tattoos. Fast food restaurants and nail salons have a few customers, but the supermarkets are empty, as is the "Job Center" around the corner.

Is it worth asking for work? "Well, there isn't any to be had," says a bored-looking employee. Unemployment here is close to 50 percent and has become a normal state of affairs for many families.

Third Place

Glasgow East used to be called "Gordon Brown's backyard," at least until recently. Hardly any other election district was more solidly supportive of Brown's Labour Party than this old industrial, working-class neighborhood in Scotland's largest city. Since 1922, voters in Glasgow East have almost exclusively voted left-leaning politicians into the Parliament in London.

Until last summer, that is. In a by-election in Glasgow East, Labour candidate Margaret Curran and her party garnered only 41.7 percent of the vote, an extraordinary loss of 19 percentage points. For the first time in 87 years, a majority of voters in the district favored the nationalist Scottish National Party. But that was only the beginning.

The decline continued in June's European elections, when only 20.8 percent of Scots (a decline of 5.6 percent) supported Brown's policies with their votes, while the SNP garnered 29.1 percent of the vote, making them the strongest party by a wide margin. Across the entire United Kingdom, Labour's share of the vote dropped to 16.1 percent -- the level of a second-tier party. The party's showing was only sufficient for a third-place finish, which came as a culture shock for New Labour, whose members were claiming, only a few years ago, that they were the ones who embodied the modern, cool Great Britain.

End of an Era

Hanzala Malik matter-of-factly calls it "an erosion of our party base." And he should know. Malik is a Labour Party member of the Glasgow City Council. Unlike his party's leadership, he saw the catastrophe coming. "They weren't interested," says Malik, who has been a member of the party for decades. And now Labour is suffering the consequences.

The decline of left-leaning parties is more than a Scottish or even a British problem. The malaise, like a stubborn virus, has afflicted virtually every European social democratic party.

In a week in which left-leaning Germans are hoping that at least one in four voters will vote for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in next Sunday's election, their counterparts from Malmö to Lisbon face their biggest crisis ever. Some 26 years ago, the respected German-British sociologist Lord Ralf Dahrendorf predicted the end of the social democratic era. Now it looks like his prophecy is finally becoming reality.

At the beginning of the new century, social democrats and socialists, at the pinnacle of their power, controlled the governments in 12 of the European Union's 15 members. Reflecting the sentiments of then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, British Prime Minister Tony Blair proudly proclaimed: "We are the new radicals." The mantra of the modernization of their traditional political ideas was intoned in ponderous strategy papers. The frequently invoked "third way" was expected to lead to a "new center," in a bid to adapt social democratic policies to conform to a new social and economic reality -- and to make them appeal to new classes of voters.

The two model socialists, Schröder and Blair, met in Florence with Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, US President Bill Clinton, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and EU Commission President Romano Prodi for a "summit of modernizers" -- a meeting of the world's social democratic movers and shakers.

Today, none of these reformers is still in office, and their "third way" has proven to be a dead end.

Decline of the Left

Ironically, the decline of the social democratic movement began in Scandinavia, a model region for leftists. A center-right coalition has ruled Denmark since 2001, and in 2006 then Prime Minister Göran Persson lost the general election in Sweden to the conservatives. In Sweden, the conservatives call themselves the Moderates, are perceived as the real modernizers and -- an even sharper thorn in the side of Swedish leftists -- as "modern social democrats."

Finland, Greece and the Netherlands were next to shift into the conservative camp. In Italy, the leaders of a social-democratically oriented party alliance were brought down in rapid succession. After the fall of leftist politician Massimo D'Alema and then Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Walter Veltroni, the popular former mayor of Rome, resigned his leadership of the newly founded Democratic Party.

Lionel Jospin failed to win the French Socialist Party's nomination for president, and in 2007 Blair resigned to make way for Brown. Last September, then Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer lost another six points in a legislative election, marking his Austrian Social Democratic Party's worst result in postwar history. Gusenbauer's successor, Werner Faymann, only managed to hold onto power with a smaller grand coalition government.

Since the European election in June, Europe's social democrats and socialists now hold only a quarter of seats in the European Parliament -- a historic low -- and they could face their next series of disappointments in German and Portuguese parliamentary elections on Sunday. The only bright spot is in oil-rich Norway, which is not part of the EU and has remained largely untouched by the global economic crisis, where Social Democratic Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's coalition government won reelection in mid-September.

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