The Crisis of the Democratic Left in Europe
June 2008
The democratic left in Europe faces its gravest crisis in more than half a century. With the return of Silvio Berlusconi to power in Italy there now are only three of the twenty-seven EU member states – Britain, Spain and Portugal - which are controlled exclusively by one of the member parties of the Party of European Socialists. In other countries like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands democratic left parties are in coalition. London and Paris are controlled by populist xenophobic Mayors.
Across Europe democratic left parties face turmoil as they seek a renewal of ideology, values, membership and leadership. Labour’s difficulties in Britain need no underlining. In France, while the socialists pick up the anti-Sarkozy protest vote in regional and municipal elections there is no settled programme or leadership capable of replacing the right in the fight to control of the presidency and Parliament. In Germany, the SPD are shrinking back to winning at best a third of votes in key elections. The arrival of a left populist nationalist party in the shape of Die Linke which is an amalgam of left-over East German communists and the angry left always opposed to social democracy’s historic compromises whether under a Willy Brandt, a Helmut Schmidt or a Gerhard Schroeder has given Europe’s key nation a giant left protest party. As with the French Communist Party between 1950 and 1981, Die Linke may block the chances for some time of German social democracy winning outright control of the federal government.
The Italian effort to create a Democratic Party – the use of the American name was deliberate – out of the reformed communists and liberals and democratic socialists – was a political success but an electoral disaster. Does the left move to the left, a reversion to the language and demands of Labour in the 1980s such as Compass argues for, or can the left camp in the centre with outreach to a broader coalition of support?
For Britain, the crisis of the European left is almost precisely reflected in the difficulties that the post-Blair Labour Party faces. In examining what is not working and what has gone wrong in Europe it will be possible to reveal some of what needs to be done in Britain. Achieving renewal and infusing party members and winning electoral support is infinitely more difficult when in government. Many centre-left parties can win a second election and even a third mandate. But to extend hegemonic electoral control for more than ten or perhaps a dozen years means a party completely re-inventing itself while its key leaders are trapped in the difficulties of government administration and have no time to think.
New thinking is urgently needed. The parties of the right in power in Europe have shown and are showing themselves spectacularly incapable of managing the present crisis of world capitalism or addressing in a coherent and sensitive way the new demands from today’s citizens. The management of the French economy and society which has been in the hands of a rightist president since 1995 and a right-wing government since 2002 has never been worse. Silvio Berlusconi and Angela Merkel are managers of their nations not leaders of change. The democratic left still has a better record as we can see in today’s Spain or Britain. But it is no use the democratic left proclaiming its intellectual or governance superiority if it fails to win the vote to put modern progressive reformism into practice.
So what is going on and why is the left in such dire straights? Albert Camus noted that "for the Greeks, values were pre-existent to every action, and marked out its exact limits. Modern philosophy places its values at the end of actions." Exchange the word politics for philosophy and Camus’ indictment sums up the dilemma of the modern left.
What has been extraordinary about the left in Europe so far this century is its almost complete indifference to the material base of society. One does not have to have had early lessons in Marxism to consider the prospects of employment and income for the mass of the population to be at the heart of any intelligent left political project. Yet in country after country in Europe (and here Britain is an important exception) there has been a complacent refusal to embrace any of the necessary economic reforms to put people back into work. France twenty-five years ago had a GDP that was fifteen per cent bigger than that of the United Kingdom’s and much more stable employment. France today has a GDP ten per cent smaller than that of the UK and continues to be ravaged by mass unemployment, especially amongst the five million French Muslim citizens of North African descent.
There is no longer an obvious answer from across the Channel but the problems Labour faces are mirrored right across the democratic left in Europe. If no answers are found and found quickly, the 21st century will see the mass socialist, social democratic and labour parties of the 20th century face real problems not just of renewal but of survival.