The Crisis of European Social Democracy and the Radical Left

Both statistics and political science research show that European Social Democracy is currently undergoing the most serious crisis since its foundation.

Since the end of WW II until now, the average vote for Social Democratic parties in parliamentary elections has decreased from 33 to 26 percent (from the 1950s to 2011), which means by more than one fifth. At first sight this does not seem dramatic. Yet, if we take the numbers from the Golden Age of European Social Democracy, the 1970s and 80s, as a starting-point, we get a more serious and, indeed, dramatic picture. The decrease then is from 41 to 28 (slightly less than a third!).
Which ones are the political elements characteristic of this period following upon the conservative governments after WW II, which can well be called the “Golden Age” of European Social Democracy?
1. The almost simultaneous coming to power of Social Democratic governments in Germany, Austria, France and the UK.
2. The zenith of the impact of the Euro-Communist project and the zenith of the influence of the PCI.
3. The democratic revolutions and the taking office of governments formed by Social Democratic parties in the democracies in Spain and Portugal, still young at that time.
4. And last not least, the military and political détente of the East-West-conflict.
Regarded in a merely superficial way this constellation seemed to repeat itself in the 1990s. Once again, Social Democratic parties came to power almost simultaneously so in Germany, France, Italy and Spain; the Northern enlargement of the EU led to a strengthening of European Socialists due to the integration of the powerful Social Democracies in Scandinavia, Finland and Austria. In addition to that, a further seeming parallel became obvious when compared to the end of the 1970s: the emergence of new democracies in this case in the East of Europe, where Social Democracies arising from the defeated Communist state parties managed to successfully offer the prospect of a synthesis between social welfare state, democratization and catching-up modernisation, thus becoming leading political forces in the respective countries.
For 20 years now an unprecedented decline has been taking place. Just to mention the most remarkable examples:
Germany: The Social Democratic Party of Germany led by Schröder and Lafontaine, which gained 20 million votes or 41 % in 1999 and formed the government together with the Greens, dropped to 10 million votes or 26 % only ten years later.  
UK: Labour Party: 1997, led by Blair: 43 %; 29 % in 2010.
Sweden: Between the 1950s and the 1990s the Social Democratic Workers Party fell from 48 to 40 % and now stands at 31 % in 2014. 
Denmark: The average vote in the 1990s was at 36 %, in 2011 only at 25 %.
Southern Europe: PASOK (12 %), PSOE (29 %) – no need to dwell on this!
But which I would like to mention are most telling examples in Central and Eastern Europe, to which we usually do not pay sufficiently attention. There is for example the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD-UP) in Poland, which scored 41 % in 2001 and achieved 8.2 % in 2011. And there is of course the striking example of Hungary where the Socialist party (MSZP) declined from 43.2 % in 2006 to 19.3 % in 2010: 19.3 % functioned as the door opener for both the populist and the neo-fascist Right. The picture did not even change in 2014 when MSZP collected 25.6 %.
The decline has accelerated in the course of time. Half the losses suffered by the European Social Democracy as compared to the time its influence was strongest occurred only in the five years between 2009 and 2014! This cannot be explained by conventional wisdom of political science which refers to social and structural factors and changes in people’s ways of living.   
But it is ideas that count in politics!
Indeed, the European Social Democracy of the 1970s pursued its own political agenda hegemonic in society, which distinguished it from Communist states on the one, the Conservatives on the other hand and which also made it attractive to the democracies which were emerging from the dictatorships in the European South.  
The Social democrats of the 1970s, such as Willy Brandt, Olaf Palme and Bruno Kreisky were of a different breed. The cornerstones of their agenda were the

  • Welfare state and full employment
  • Modernisation in the sense of political and cultural liberalism
  • And the pursuing of a peace agenda

From this agenda only political and cultural liberalism remained in the 1990s when Social Democrats were represented in 12 out of 15 European governments and held the post of President of the European Commission.
In the 1970s the Social Democratic agenda prevailed in a general conservative climate against the reactionary policies of Adenauer, Macmillan and De Gaulle. Responsible for their victory were favourable international conditions, e.g. the competitions of systems, but first and foremost the willingness of social democratic leaders to embrace at least partially the agenda of the big social movements at the end of the 1960s. 
In the 1990s the situation was completely reversed: The Maastricht Treaty and the Schröder-Blair paper confirmed the capitulation of the mainstream of European Social Democracy in the face of Neoliberalism, deregulated market economy and generalised competition.
The social crisis which has seized the European East first – unfortunately not many seem aware of this –, showed that the Social Democratic parties did not only estrange their traditional core voters but also were not capable of stabilising the alliance with the middle classes intended by the Third Way to Socialism.
In the East as well as in the West, in the South and in the North they are currently and simultaneously paying a high price for the foreseeable failure of this strategy.
The results of the European parliamentary elections have given rise to the impression that the comparative position of the Social Democracy vis-à-vis the Christian Democrats and the Conservatives has not worsened but, on the contrary, that it has improved. This is true, but it is no good news, since it means that the crisis of Social Democracy is part of a bigger process, namely of the crisis of the political systems and of European integration.
This vacuum is in many countries filled by the radical and populist Right. The dangers arising from this for democracy are becoming ever more evident.
On the other hand there is also a new chance lying in this situation. The rise of SYRIZA, the developments within the Left in Spain, the strategic discussions in the French Left, the red-red-green government coalition in Thuringia or the foundation of “Altra Europa con Tsipras” in Italy are all proof of this.
The radical Left of Europe exists and is prepared to open this historical window, the last one perhaps, into a foreseeable future. What can be wished for is that the progressive forces in societies, in the trade unions and in the social movements – and also those responsible within the European Social Democracies, that have not yet resorted to resignation and cynicism – realize that they are being addressed; that the window opened by the radical Left opens a new possibility also for all other progressive forces.

* Presentation given at the Seminar "The Neoliberal Agenda and European Social Democracies" in Florence on 16 November 2014. Read the short report here.