Parties of the left are out of power in three of the Big Four now, and everyone expects Labour to lose the next General Election in Britain. Going down the list to the Next-Biggest Four, we have Spain (Zapatero’s center-left government hanging in there), Poland (center-right), Romania (grand coalition of the two largest parties; can’t exactly say left-right, because Romanian politics always don’t map well on that axis) and the Netherlands (bizarre Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Labour, with Labour far down in the polls and expected to be kicked out soon). It’s not unreasonable to expect that by next summer, Spain might be the only large country in Europe with a left-of-center government.
There’s a recent post over at Crooked Timber deploring this, and suggesting that it’s because
[Weâ€™re seeing] the end of the electoral strategy which began with Bill Clinton and which (arguably) is still being kept alive by Kevin Rudd in Australia. Basically, itâ€™s the view that you can keep a balloon flying by constantly chucking out left-wing ballast. Which worked very well in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it does have a limited lifespan built into it. After a while, you run out of ballast to throw out and you find that the hot-air burners arenâ€™t working any more; the traditional left-wing base of your party has switched off, the unions canâ€™t provide blocks of support and youâ€™re left as a more or less identikit technocrat party, largely indistinguishable from your opponents and trying to compete on the basis of more efficient provision of â€œpublic servicesâ€.
Well… maybe. I submit that this model works tolerably well for Britain (though I have some reservations); somewhat less well for Germany; and hardly at all for France. (Italian and Spanish politics I leave to those who are better informed.)
Britain, yes, New Labour did swing rather far towards the center, didn’t it? On the other hand, the sullen murmurs from the left were a lot more muted back in the days when Tony Blair was winning great crushing victories. When I look at the Labour platforms of 2001 or 2005, I have trouble seeing how they’re very far away from where Labour is today.
There are also contingent elements. Imagine an alternate universe where Tony Blair had kept George Bush firmly at arm’s length, and either refused to join the Iraq adventure or pulled British troops out within a year or two. Would it make much difference to Labour’s current predicament? Very little? None? How about the world where David Cameron chokes on a digestive biscuit just before the Tory party conference of 2005, and David Davis is leading the party instead? And then there’s the electoral cycle; just because Thatcher-Major pullled it off, doesn’t mean it’s normal for one party to win four general elections in a row. You’d expect the electorate to be getting pretty sick of Labour by now.
Germany: it’s clear that at least some voters abandoned the SPD because of their centerwards shift. (Did anyone like Agenda 2010? Not traditional voters of the left, it seems.)
On the other hand, three things. One, if you step back and look at the long run, the SPD has been in opposition a lot more than otherwise. The Bundesrepublik was founded in 1949. Of the 60 years since then, Germany has had a Socialist Prime Minister for only 20. (Germany has only had three Socialist PMs, ever. By way of comparison, Britain had six Labour Prime Ministers over that same period, while the US elected six Democratic Presidents.) The CDU/CSU has run the country for 40 out of those 60 years — 33 of them in coalition with the Liberals. So you could argue that this is just reversion to the historical norm.
Two, while the SPD has been hit hardest, the CDU/CSU has also suffered painfully from the shift to a five-party system. The combined vote of the two Volkspartei is now well under 60%, which was unthinkable just one cycle ago. (Heck, it barely seemed plausible six months ago.)
Three, the flight of young voters from the Socialists seems… odd. I haven’t yet seen a German source give a plausible explanation of this. Young people abandoned the SPD in droves. But they didn’t go across the aisle to the Conservatives so much. Some went to Die Linke, but by far the biggest group defected to… the Liberals. Which just seems weird.
Again, one is left wondering about contingencies. Merkel has proven to be much more competent than anyone expected back in 2005. Suppose the CDU/CSU had gone with Stoiber the Bavarian instead, or Freidrich Merz. (Does anyone even remember him?) Same outcome?
Anyway. As someone pointed out a post or two back, parties of the left have won recent elections handily in Greece, Norway and Portugal. (And Montenegro, if you consider Montenegro’s parties to be left and right. Which I don’t; parties there are “Djukanovic” and “other”, and always have been.) So the left still has a few twitches left. But overall it’s not looking so good.
Which brings us back to the question of why. As I said above, I don’t think “the left moved too far to the center” is a very strong explanation, especially on a Europe-wide scale. On the other hand, I’m not seeing a much better one. One that has been floated is “the center-left is a victim of its own long-term successes in establishing social democracy and the welfare state; those great battles won, why keep voting for them?” Well… perhaps. With regard to the larger states, this seems like the mirror image of the earlier one; it seems plausible in France, somewhat less so in Germany, in Britain hardly at all.
Another possibility is that the rivals of the traditional center-left have been doing something right. But… what?
Another is that the center-left is just having a bad run — electoral cycles swinging against them in several states at once, pure random chance. I don’t rule this out. On the other hand, when you look at the scope and scale of the losses… well, that would be one impressive run of bad luck.
The question is placed before the commentariat.