De Balie is a cozy and chic cultural venue on Leidseplein in Amsterdam and the center of Dutch liberal intellectual life. On May 3, it hosted two thinkers representing views that are dividing the European left. Gloria Wekker is a black Dutch academic who argues that the Netherlands suffers from structural racism. Susan Neiman, an American-born German-Jewish philosopher, recently published a book (“The Left Wakes Up”) calling for an abandonment of identity politics and a renewed embrace of universal values. Ms Neiman said the left must “present what we are trying to achieve” rather than simply denouncing oppressive taxonomies.
This one, like many debates on the left, is taking place inside a bubble. Amsterdam is a multicultural city with bike lanes and tolerant drug policies, governed by a coalition of Liberal (D66) and left-wing parties (Labour and Green Left). But elsewhere in the Netherlands, anti-immigration populism has transformed politics. In provincial elections on March 15, right-wing populist parties collectively won more than one-third of the national vote. BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmers’ Citizens’ Movement), a four-year-old organization focused on fighting environmental regulations, attracted 19 percent support. On the left, Labor got just 8 percent and the Green Left 9 percent.
The problems of the Dutch left are reflected throughout Western Europe. (Left parties in Eastern Europe, born out of Soviet-era communists, face different problems.) Social Democrats are in decline; Social Democrats are in decline. Voters see them as weak and elitist. They face competition from the Green Party as well as radical groups offering a socialist economy or awakened politics. All are vying for a shrinking pie besieged by conservative populism. Much of the left faces the problem Ms. Neiman points out: a lack of credible vision.
This should be a favorable time for the European left. Inflation fueled calls for more government benefits. Surveys show that citizens are more concerned about climate change and the cost of living than crime. Antipathy towards the EU has subsided since the 2010s. Confidence in small government has been in decline since the financial crisis, and the pandemic has all but destroyed it. A recent study of six European countries by opinion pollsters André Krouwel and Yordan Kutiyski found that a large majority of people around the world agree that “country should play a greater role in economic regulation”.
In fact, as recently as 2021, the left looked healthy when it ruled all four Nordic countries plus Portugal and Spain. At the end of the same year, the Social Democrats (SPD) led by Olaf Scholz took power in Germany in coalition with the Green Party and the Free Democrats. But the moment proved fleeting. In the 2022 French general election, the center-left Socialist Party has all but been wiped out. Far-right parties in Italy and Sweden currently hold or share power, while joint talks are underway in Finland. The centre-right appears poised to retain power in Greece, while leftist parties underperform in the May 21 general election. Spain’s Socialists are calling snap elections, and they look likely to lose. In Germany, Mr Scholz’s coalition is divided and increasingly unpopular.
The problems of the left start with the once great Social Democrats. In Western Europe in the early 2000s they averaged nearly 30 percent of the vote. Since the global financial crisis in 2008, this share has declined steadily to just over 20% (see chart). Most centre-left parties embraced free market economics during the “third way” period of the 1990s and supported austerity after the financial crisis. According to Bjorn Bremer of the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, this is a huge mistake: Voters can no longer see the difference between the centre-left and the centre-right.
In some countries, this led to crashes. When Emmanuel Macron launched his own presidential campaign after the indecisive French Socialist Party governed from 2012-17, he brought many centrists with him. A former Socialist politician said the party’s image had since become “weak and lacking in focus”. Its candidates won just 2 percent of last year’s presidential election. Meanwhile, the Dutch Labor Party joined the centre-right in government between 2012 and 2017, sharing responsibility for budget cuts. Its share of the vote fell from 25% to 6% in the 2017 election, and it is not faring much better in 2021. These parties are now too centrist to offer an alternative and too small for voters to believe they can win.
Center-left groups like the SPD are still strong enough for voters to see them as contenders. In Spain and Portugal, socialist governments managed to hold on to power on the back of solid economies. Italy’s featureless Democratic Party remains the second-largest party in parliament. Finland’s Social Democrats, led by outgoing prime minister Sanna Marin (pictured), almost won the latest elections, as did Sweden. But their voter base is aging. Sweden’s centre-left is “extremely unpopular among young people”, says Max Jenecke of the Stockholm School of Economics. “The zeitgeist is against them.”
Voters disaffected by the timid Social Democrats tended to switch to more radical parties. In France, for example, the leadership of the left has shifted to Les Insubordinate France (LFI), a hardline organization that seeks to revive the working-class left of yore. A café near the National Assembly was packed with MPs in suits, with François Ruffin, one of the LFI’s newest delegates, the only one in a leather jacket. He has laid out his own plan to end the “neoliberal bracket” launched by Socialist President François Mitterrand 40 years ago by privatizing state-owned enterprises and deregulating financial markets. Mr Ruffin has called for protectionism and linking the wages of state workers to inflation.
The LFI’s old-fashioned socialism and its 71-year-old leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are surprisingly popular with young people. The wounded Socialist Party joined the LFI and the often irresponsible French Greens in a coalition called NUPES, which forms the largest opposition bloc in parliament. But despite its image clarity, NUPES’ rejectionism has been unable to win a majority or join a broad coalition.
The Italian Democratic Party (PD) appears to be following France’s left turn. In February, the party elected a young leftist leader, Elly Schlein, with progressive positions on gay rights and immigration. She’s seen as a breath of fresh air, and Democrats are doing better in the polls. But Italy’s left is also divided: many left-leaning voters support the unpredictable populist 5-Star Movement.
Tensions with the radicals could also mean the end of centre-left rule in Spain. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has just called snap elections in which he faces a challenge from a new leftist group called Sumar. Elsewhere the radical left is not doing so well. Syriza, the far-left party, was in power in Greece from 2015-19 after a failed response to the euro crisis and suffered a crushing defeat in the May 21 Greek election. Portugal’s long-ruling Socialist government has successfully worked with the radicals, but its popularity is also declining.
At least the Greens have a clear vision for the future. Many on the left hope they can succeed the Social Democrats and lead a national revival. But only Germany’s Green Party comes close to doing so. Germany’s Greens did well in 2021, but have been severely damaged since then by high energy prices and new rules for installing heat pumps in private homes. As the cost of the zero-carbon transition expires, voters are revolting.
If not environmentalism, then what? The idea of intersectoral social justice that so enthrals progressive Americans is less popular in Europe. They raise the thorny issue of integration, which has been seen as a vote loser since the immigration crisis of 2015-16. Some see Denmark’s ruling Social Democratic Party as a model. They turned to punitive anti-immigration policies. But research shows that emulating the right’s tough approach to immigration won’t win voters for the left. Tarik Abou-Chadi of the University of Oxford said this would at best deter less engaged voters from voting.
A decade ago, when interest rates were negative and unemployment was high, Europe seemed ripe for a revival of Keynesian economics. Thinkers such as the French economist Thomas Piketty have advocated government stimulus to reduce inequality and pay for the green energy transition. But few governments have seized the moment. Leftist parties offering more government spending today face two problems.
First, they no longer have fiscal space as inflation, interest rates and debt have risen sharply. The second is that when it comes to state intervention, they won the argument. Almost everyone in European politics, from right to left, now accepts that governments must play an important role in the economy. This makes it difficult for leftist parties to stand out.
Optimistic progressives point out that the centre-right in Europe is also having difficulties. Yet perhaps the best argument that the western European left is not in crisis is that it has never been as powerful as many imagine. Outside of the Nordic countries and the Iberian Peninsula, the right has come to power far more often than the left since 1960. To remain a contender, the left must reinvent itself. The question is how.
© 2023, The Economist Limited. all rights reserved. From The Economist, published with permission.Original content available at www.economist.com