Europe's Crisis of Social Democracy: Shall the Social Democrats Be the Ones to Blame?

This article was published in Tribune
Is the left's decline terminal?
26 November 2010
That there is a crisis of social democracy in Europe is not in doubt. The question is whether it is terminal. The symptoms are worrying. In Vienna, home city a century ago to anti-Semitic, brownshirt politics, 27 per cent of voters supported the extremism of the late and unlamented Jorg Haider's party in this autumn's elections. For the first time in a century, the Swedish social democrats were defeated in two successive elections. The Swedish Democrat Party — a liberal title for a deeply illiberal anti-Muslim party — won 20 seats in the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament. Greens have overtaken social democrats in German opinion polls. Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi are unpopular, but neither the Parti Socialiste nor the Partito Democratico looks like forming replacement governments in France or Italy. 
Nothing seems to work. The Swedish social democrats held their noses and entered into a triple alliance with a former communist party and the Greens. The party called for higher state spending and support for public employees. The voters turned away.
In Spain and Greece, the socialist governments face strikes and protests as they desperately seek to regain control of public finances.But it is too late. The necessary reforms were put off because it meant telling the truth to corporations or unions who traded their votes in exchange for no challenge to their comfort zone agreements on taxes and pay. In Spain, those shut out of the labour market by corporatist protectionism, have deserted the left en masse. Organised social democratic parties in the new member states of the EU are weak and marginalised to the point of irrelevance.
In the past, the left debated the future. Now it debates identity. The de-alignment of class politics into a mush of interest group politics has left the left without a voice. You cannot square anti-nuclear greens with those who believe in industry and the right of citizens to press a switch and get light, heat and power. You cannot square the Muslim-hating right or those who preach "Dutch jobs for Dutch people" with any of the anti-racist liberal traditions that the European left painfully acquired in recent generations.

"Wikicapitalism" is constantly morphing and changing. One defeated Labour MP, who could not find another job after the May general election, has been trading shares on her computer. She has made a tidy £32,000 in the past six months. Yes, it is casino capitalism, but the ways of making money are no longer traceable and nor can they be easily reduced to any one particular group to which the left can appeal.
There are 14 2 million holders of ISAs in Britain alone. Some 500,000 local authority tenants bought their council homes after Labour took power in 1997. Many of these homes are let out to new incomers, asylum seekers or social cases that local authorities pay for in order to keep people from sleeping on the streets. Some have gone from council tenant to landlord within a single generation.
These are the new capitalisms the left has to understand. The three great gluepots of Europe's 20th century social democratic left the nation, the working class and its unions, and the welfare state — make less and less sense in the 21st century.
In Italy, Spain, Belgium and Britain, the unitary nation is under threat. Spanish socialists have to make pacts with Catalan socialists, but they do not see the Iberian peninsular through the same eyes. After 1979, Labour became heavily influenced by its Scottish and Welsh regions. The party had a policy for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It had no policy for England.
The great movement of people that accelerated after the end of communism's border controls in 1990 has brought new communities, new cultures, new religion and new demands for rights. Asylum seekers who never went home, relatives who demanded the right to settle and, more recently, hardworking, skilled, white Catholics from east Europe came in and changed townscapes. In big cities, they were absorbed. But when every small town had to absorb the incomers keen to make a new life, tensions became far greater and opened the way to the new politics of identity.
For most of Europe's populist and nationalist right, Muslims have replaced the Jews as those to be targeted as the enemy — a non-indigenous presence owing external allegiances. The myth of "Eurabia" — the idea that Europe is coming under Muslim control — is almost a new fashion.
Geert Wilders, the Dutch Islamaphobe, told a rally in Berlin recently that: "Germany full of mosques and veiled women is no longer the Germany of Schiller, Bach and Mendelssohn." This is drivel. Many Muslims in Germany are Turkish fashionistas or thirdgeneration Turkish-Germans. In contrast to Wilders' wild assertions, Germany has re-created a Jewish community with subsidies for synagogues and an open door to any Russian Jew who claims some German ancestry dating back centuries. However, despite his extreme rants, the Conservatives and Liberals in the Netherlands have accepted Wilders' support to form a coalition government.
In one sense, European social democracy has been too successful. The long era of welfare state capitalism with open borders has proved extremely attractive to those in poorer counties, both in Europe (Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, among others), as well as to the poor in Africa and Asia and the conflict-ridden Middle East.
The welfare state paid for over generations by local people buckled, as it had to support new arrivals. Social housing — social democracy's great gift to its supporters after 1950 had dried up by 2000. As voters moved from renting to owning and saw little hope for their own children to get rented social housing, they wondered if the left any longer represented their interests.
Many of these problems and most of these incomers could be absorbed by stronglygrowing and job-creating economies. But social democracy in Europe shuns the liberalism of dynamic markets because of their unfairness. Gerhard Schroder became Chancellor of Germany in 1998 with four million unemployed. He left office in 2005 with four million unemployed. He did unfreeze the labour market and Germany now is seeing unemployment fall and growth increase. But Schroder was ousted as Chancellor. The European left has policies for women, gays, children and artists, but does it have one for the working class? Trade unions in all European countries have long given up confronting capitalism. Instead they confront the public with strikes that deny the poor access to transport, council services and schooling. The rich drive past the picket lines of public sector strikers and feel no impact. It is not the fault of unions. The public sector is where recruitment is possible. Which union leader has the organising hunger to get up at 3m to try and recruit Lithuanian fruit pickers or greet the new female proletariat coining off the dawn cleaning shift? 
There are no commonly-read European social democratic thinkers. The German, French or British left intellectual writes for his or her fellow commentators in his or her own country. Whereas the right can unite across borders around a few themes — a smaller state, curbs on Muslims, the reduction of union rights — the left produces long shopping lists of demands and wishes, and refuses to create priorities or a running order.
The left appears incapable of supporting the compromises of power. In Britain, The Guardian began digging Labour's grave soon after Blair and Brown won power in 1997. By May 2010, the main newspaper of the centreleft was urging a vote for Liberal Democrats on the eve of that party ditching its principles and purpose to provide a few ministerial salaries for its chieftains. In the United States, the left-liberal commentariat has used its columns and blogs to undermine the tortuous efforts of Barack Obama to get any progressive legislation through the thickets of the legislative system. Now Britain is run by the Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition and the right controls the US Congress.
Social democratic party organisation remains national. Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin, Gerhard Schroder, Wim Kok and Massimo d'Alema were all prime ministers a decade ago. But this dominance in office was never shaped into a common philosophy or confidence in power. The nationalism of the indigenous left always trumped the hopes of a common European social democracy.
Is it all over? There are plenty of gravediggers of the left. However, for decades after WWII, the Christian democratic right was in permanent power in Italy. Germany and France spent years under rightist control before Willy Brandt and Francois Mitterrand arrived on the scene. Labour spent nearly 20 years in the wilderness after 1979.
Change can happen. It will need brave leaders willing to change the way we see the world. Ed Miliband was right to say that Labour was always at its best when it challenged the conventional wisdom. There is too much conventional wisdom in the higher councils of European social democracy. But to challenge this is to take risks. When European social democracy is ready to bury its past myths, it will again be ready to give birth to a new future.