Ben Margulies

For those of us who consider ourselves left of centre, the past several months have seen the fall of some unpleasant records. On the climate front, we are starting to see a succession of “hottest months on record.”  On the electoral front looms the lengthening trail of unprecedentedly poor results by the flagship party families of the European left, the social democrats. In Spain, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party scored a mere 22 percent at the polls in December 2015, by far its worst showing since the death of Franco. Two months later, the Irish Labour Party won 6.6 percent of the vote and only seven seats in the Irish lower house. The ghastly example of Greece’s Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok, as in “Pasokification”) hangs over the whole party family. Discussions of the social democratic crisis fill booksmagazines and blog posts.

Are social democratic parties doomed? Not necessarily. But they do face more structural challenges to its coalition than their centre-right opponents. Without a commitment to redistribution and a mixed economy, social democracy is becoming indistinguishable from the leftist strands of the liberal tradition. As such, the fate of the liberal party family may hold a worrying precedent for social democrats.

All mainstream parties are seeing a decline in support, and electorates are increasingly unwilling to identify with them in a stable and durable way, as Peter Mair so magisterially explained. Spain’s December election saw the two main parties win, collectively, about 51 percent of the vote.  But the social democrats seem to face greater pressures. Both mainstream left and mainstream right are losing socially conservative, authoritarian and anti-immigrant voters to the populist right. For example, UKIP wins support from both lower-middle class and socially conservative voters who once favoured the Conservatives, as well as traditionalist, “left-behind” working-class voters from Labour. The Alternative for Germany draws votes from social conservatives once loyal to Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Christian Social allies. These right-populists often support the protection of the welfare state, as well as withdrawal from the European Union and thus global competition and migration dynamics.

Social Democrats, however, must also contend with a variety of left-wing alternatives.  In some countries, these take the form of potent Green or left-liberal parties – The Economist cites the growth of the GreenLeft and Democrats 66 among young Dutch voters. In Scotland, it is a left-leaning nationalism that has obliterated the Labour Party. In other cases, left-populist parties, appealing to the young disenfranchised on a redistributionist, but not orthodox Marxist, platform, are eating into social democratic votes. This was the main engine of Pasokification (the rise of Syriza), while young unemployed voters and students in Spain leaned towardsPodemos, rather than the Socialists.

The social democrats face several dilemmas. The first is erosion of the industrial working class and their associated civil society institutions (mainly trade unions). There are simply fewer working-class voters, and these are no longer necessarily socialized to think of themselves as “working class.” Second is the growing relevance of the post-materialist values cleavage – the contest between socially liberal attitudes towards minorities, individualism and immigration and their conservative opponents – are prising apart their coalitions. Their middle-class voters are increasingly on the social liberal pole; the workers on the conservative. Unable to span that gap, the social democrats are prone to losing voters to Greens or left-liberals on one end and right-populists on the other.

Then there is the problem of the neoliberal consensus – the belief that the market is the sole legitimate allocator of resources in the global and national economy. Social democrats accepted this, mostly, during the 1990s – the “Third Way,” but at the cost of diminishing what made them distinct from the right. The final problem is the current neoliberal order in Europe is creating winners and losers that cut across mainstream coalitions. The working and lower-middle classes are losers; so, often, are the young, socially liberal but subject to high levels of unemployment and low salaries (especially in Southern Europe). They, increasingly, are outside the mainstream. Within the mainstream are capital-owners, public-sector workers, labour-market insiders with permanent job contracts, most of the middle classes more generally, and in some cases, pensioners (eg in the United Kingdom).

In terms of policy, these two camps are divided between the mainstream’s commitment to a neoliberalism of balanced budgets, low inflation and export-led growth, while the outsiders – often populists of left or right – seek Keynesian wealth redistribution, more political control over markets, and protectionism. In other words, they want real, old-fashioned social democracy, for various reasons and in various forms. We are already starting to see this division in the European Parliament, where in the 2009-14 legislature mainstream pro-Europe parties regularly supported austerity policies, regardless of whether they were nominally left or right.

These days, in terms of both electorate and policy, social democrats and Greens are not so much part of “the left” as part of the left of the mainstream, with another left (Syriza, Podemos, Die Linke) outside the mainstream, or two if you count the protectionist right-populists. Hausermann and Gingrich found that, outside Southern Europe, there are more middle-class social democratic voters than there are working-class ones (and that may have changed in the most recent round of elections in Southern Europe, held after their study was completed). Instead of trying to bring the outsiders into the system, as the early social democrats did, the current social democrats merely represent a segment of the insiders. They cannot provide the protection or new resources that the outsiders demand, be they Spanish youth, Greek teachers or Swedish workers. Worse, being pro-austerity, they cannot do much even for their insiders if they must, like the French Socialists, risk alienating protected workers.

What does this mean for social democrats in the long run? As someone who did his doctoral work on the liberal party family, I cannot but see a parallel between the liberal parties of the 19th  and early 20th centuries and the social democrats of today. Prior to the full emergence of social democracies, liberals served as the main party of the left in most European countries. (This is why both traditional Danish liberal parties keep Venstreor “left” in their names, as does the Norwegian Liberal Party.) But since most workers could not vote, they were very much the middle-class left – urban bourgeois, anti-clericals, free-traders and in the United Kingdom, non-Anglicans. In many ways, the modest welfarism of pro-capitalist progressive liberals, like Asquith and Lloyd George in the United Kingdom, resembles the middle-class Third Way politics of modern social democrats, with the same basic acceptance of an un-mixed capitalist economy.

With the rise of socialism, the liberals increasingly found themselves the weaker of two sets of middle-class parties – there simply weren’t enough middle-class left voters to maintain a fully independent political role. The stress of the socialist challenge forced the middle-class left to subsume itself in the more potent force within the mainstream (the conservatives) or ally with the outsiders, or both at different times. In general, it simply led to decline – by the 1920s, Ralph Miliband wrote, “for those who did not want to vote Conservative, there was now no serious alternative to the Labour Party, just as there was no longer any serious alternative to the Conservative Party for those who would not vote Labour.”

If the social democrats are merely a middle-class left, will this happen to the social democrats? Let me stress that, in most countries, the liberals did not precisely die out – they merely declined, and even then not to the same degree everywhere (they remain strong in the  Low Countries, Switzerland and Denmark). Social democrats have the advantage of more definite bases among public-sector and service-sector workers; liberals had no such strong occupational bases.

However, if mainstream European politics continues to follow a singular path of austerity politics and social liberalism, then there will be increasingly little to distinguish the mainstream party families from one another. The more that populist outsiders eat into the mainstream’s vote shares, the more likely it is that the establishment parties will have to form grand coalitions, further occluding the differences between them and their policies. Since the social democrats have often been the smaller element of these coalitions (eg in Germany and Ireland), they will have to yield more, and suffer the rising backlash of their voters, weakening them further. Furthermore, middle-class voters, if faced with a choice between a right-wing populist party composed of former working-class allies; a feeble social democratic party; and the safe conservative mainstream, might choose the conservatives.

The end of postwar European growth, and then the end of Communism, left the social democrats without their traditional voting base, their traditional ideology, and the traditional means of state intervention and redistribution that had served both. Now, they are struggling to adapt to an entirely new class structure in Europe. If they cannot, they may find themselves, like the polar bears, facing an ever-shrinking habitat and not much hope of rescue.


Ben Margulies is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the ERC Diasporas Project at the University of Warwick. He tweets @ChequeredFuture.

Image: ΠΑΣΟΚ via CC by 2.0