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

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."


Photo Gallery: The Decline of the Left

Foto: Francois Durand/ Getty Images

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.

Punished for Reformist Zeal

It is clearly a paradox. Europe's economies and the world's financial markets are deep in the worst crisis since capitalist countries suffered through the Great Depression in 1929, and no one can accuse the governing social democrats of having been the ones who didn't know how to handle their countries' finances.

The real culprits are to be found in banks and stock markets, and all the politicians who spent the last two decades touting neoliberal economies and the liberating forces of deregulation have suddenly fallen silent. And yet, so it seems, it is Europe's center-left parties, whose self-image has always included their historic identity as the parties of market regulation, who are now expected to take the blame.


Photo Gallery: The Decline of the Left

Foto: Francois Durand/ Getty Images

But why? Why aren't conservative and liberal parties losing their voters? Why are the social democrats, traditionally more apt to be critical of capitalism, being punished?

The search for answers leads in two directions. On the one hand, the social democrats' zealous pursuit of modernization and reform has put off some of their traditional supporters. In the search for new voters, center-left parties have neglected their base. As a result, parties like Britain's Labour and Germany's SPD have fallen into a credibility trap.

Out of national interest, former Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed for deregulation of the financial markets, thereby fueling an anything-goes mentality in London's financial district. And although Schröder's notorious Agenda 2010 labor market and social welfare reforms laid the foundation for better unemployment figures, they were unpopular with many voters, who perceived them as a betrayal of the SPD's core values.

The conservative parties, for their part, abandoned their excursions into market radicalism, reduced their demands for deregulation and embarked -- rhetorically, at least -- on a return to the center.

Poaching Supporters

Where social democrats ruled at the turn of the millennium, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are now in office. Instead of demonizing government intervention, the two leaders have approached the crisis by behaving, at least to a certain extent, like enthusiastic Keynesians. Merkel has not even shied away from nationalizing banks. By shifting toward the center, moderate conservatives are now poaching supporters of traditional social democratic principles.

The social democratic movement now faces considerable challenges. "Social justice and questions of wealth distribution must be redefined," says Wolfgang Merkel, director of the Social Science Research Center Berlin, and warns that if this does not happen, voters will continue to punish the left.

Glasgow City Council member Hanzala Malik explains what this means in a Scottish context "We have allowed a situation to develop in which some people are freezing because they can no longer pay for heat, while others hold winter barbecues in their gardens under gas heaters," says.

In the social democrats' triple battle over political freedom, economic security and social justice, the reformers have apparently abandoned the state all too thoroughly and sacrificed it to the deregulated market. They followed in the footsteps of Blair guru and prominent sociologist Anthony Giddens, who sought to create more latitude for the economy and business owners so that the markets could "do their magic."

Redefining Equality

At first, respectable election results and the formation of an SPD-Green Party coalition government in Berlin seemed to prove Blair and Schröder right. "We no longer have a left or right economic policy, but simply a modern or an un-modern policy," the German chancellor declared. And to this day, British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, one of the founders of New Labour, believes that the new path Blair and Schröder embarked upon was "fundamentally" the correct approach.

Does this mean that the pace of reform was simply too fast and that the reformers did not convey their message convincingly enough? Even though most of the people on Germany's Hartz IV welfare reform program are "practically better off," says social scientist Wolfgang Merkel, the SPD is currently "unable to argue credibly that the burdens are fairly distributed."

If, as the opinion research institute Emnid has found, 83 percent of Germans are worried about the future, close to 70 percent favor the introduction of a minimum wage and almost half are concerned about sinking into poverty, the Social Democrats have a serious credibility problem.

The center-left must "redefine equality," says Mandelson, if it doesn't want to lose the "new culture war" against populists on the left and right. But cosmetic fixes are no longer sufficient, because today's party system, which is more differentiated than it was 10 years ago, has shaken the previously invulnerable status of the left-leaning major parties.

Competition for Votes

Today, social democrats are forced to compete for voters with green and far-left parties, which have long since established their positions in the European spectrum. In the European election in France, the Greens and the Socialists were practically neck-and-neck, capturing 16.28 and 16.48 percent of the vote respectively. In Germany, the left-wing Left Party, formed through the merger of western Germany's leftist WASG party and the eastern Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party to East Germany's Communists, has been stealing votes from the SPD.


Photo Gallery: The Decline of the Left

Foto: Francois Durand/ Getty Images

In Germany, support for the left as a whole has remained about the same -- there has been no significant migration to the other side of the political spectrum, as was the case in Great Britain. Moreover, the German Social Democrats' lack of inspiring leaders isn't making their task any easier. The SPD's chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier may have gained respect as Germany's foreign minister, but most voters prefer their politicians to be more charismatic. "Steinmeier would probably make a good chancellor, but he isn't an optimal chancellor candidate," says Berlin political scientist Wolfgang Merkel.

Mediocrity currently dominates the political landscape. Power-hungry men stand in the way of a handful of more impressive candidates, particularly if they are female. For instance, former Swedish Prime Minister Persson bullied the popular Swedish EU Commissioner Margot Wallström out of the way.

The intrigue-filled infighting among the French Socialists demonstrates how difficult it can be for the beleagured center-left to bring about an urgently needed new beginning. As the magazine Le Point concluded in a cover story, Sarkozy has thoroughly "taken the wind" out of the Socialists' sails. The title of the analysis read: "Is Sarkozy Left-Wing?"

Sarkozy demonstrated that, even in France, a centrist conservative can cut the ground from under his opponents' feet. When Tony Blair congratulated Sarkozy on his 2007 election win, calling his campaign "phenomenal," Sarkozy coyly replied: "I did a Tony Blair."

Meanwhile, Sarkozy has clearly embarked on forays to the left of the center. He surrounds himself with Socialist luminaries like Jack Lang, whom he often meets for conversations, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whom he supported in his successful bid for the post of head of the International Monetary Fund. Sarkozy often quotes former Socialist President François Mitterrand. "The president borrows his words and his ideas from the left," writes Le Point.

Internal Strife

The Socialists are poorly equipped to oppose Sarkozy. The internal strife within the party was all too apparent during its recent summer convention in La Rochelle.

Ségolène Royal, 55, who lost to Sarkozy in France's last presidential election, held court at the city's maritime museum, where Loire Valley wines and soft goat cheese were served on wooden tables. About 300 supporters, including members of the party's youth organization and dyed-in-the-wool Socialists, jostled around the buffet, but this time they were there as informal members of Royal's personal fan club "Désirs d'avenir" (Desires for the Future). A few hours earlier, Royal had sought to portray herself as a model environmentalist by taken a short ride in an electric car.

Meanwhile her main rival, party leader Martine Aubry, hosted a cocktail party at the local museum of natural history, enticing her guests with a lavish spread in the former city palace. Over oyster, smoked salmon and fish pastries, the 59-year-old Socialist and her young party members demonstrated their understanding of liberty, equality and fraternity. "We are back, and the party is looking to the future," Aubry said. "We are united in solidarity."

It was a blatant lie. In fact, for weeks the Socialist Party has been running political ads to drum up enthusiasm among its own troops, a group that appears to be pursuing the principle of every man for himself. "There is a truce at the seafood buffet, but once the meal is over, the party infighting will start again," a German Social Democrat attending the event said derisively.

In October, the French Socialists plan to vote on a fundamental "revitalization of the party." But the party seems more interested in holding backroom debates about who will hold which posts than talking about what this revitalization will actually look like. At any rate, says Thomas Klau of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Paris, France's Socialists lost their reputation as the "better managers of capitalism" long ago. He could easily be talking about center-left parties all across Europe.

Boards for the Coffin

But what would a new beginning look like? Europe's social democratic parties are still being run by politicians like Brown, Aubry and Steinmeier, the same people who held government offices during the glory years at the beginning of the century and whose former bosses have long since been voted out of office. For this reason, it seems doubtful that they are capable of serving as their parties' great innovators. The social democrats' share of the political spectrum had not yet been eaten into by competitors further to the left, who have claimed the buzzword of "equality" for themselves, and the greens, with their claims to future-oriented policies, were not yet considered true rivals.

For now, social democrats are left with the fear that they still haven't found a way to stop the rampant decline of Europe's established center-left parties. "Maybe the coffin isn't quite ready yet, but the boards have already been planed," says Klau.

Perhaps a few more boards will be added in Berlin after the election on Sept. 27.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan