Fall of the European Left, revisited

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

[We’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, it’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 aren’t working any more; the traditional left-wing base of your party has switched off, the unions can’t provide blocks of support and you’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 “public services”.

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.

33 thoughts on “Fall of the European Left, revisited

  1. Lots of interesting points. Before getting to my main comment though, why do you think that a switch from the SPD to the FDP is weird. A switch from the SPD to the CDU would be weird, but if you are on the right of the SPD, then you are unlikely to switch to the Linke. You might switch to the Greens, or if you are hung up on issues of privacy, etc. you might very well switch to the FDP.

    In fact I suspect that the SPD has abandoned a lot of low-key, and maybe not very vocal, support in the centre with its chaotic lurching to the left. I would cut of my hand before voting for Christian Democrats, but if I had a vote here in Germany (I don’t) I might easily vote FDP, esp. if the Fundi side of the Greens had been too visible recently. The FDP at least is not the rotary club in government, and they have high profile concerns for civil rights.

    As for the basic point, I suspect that now that european politics has – probably, at least baring a catastrophe – shifted to the technocratic centre, more or less, and since pretty much all the historical social democratic program of the last hundred years has been implemented, social democracy is getting more and more fissiparous. This is a bad thing, but I am not sure that one can do anything about it.

  2. I should also add, as a footnote, that I did not think the SPD would be better off back in govt. I think that junior partner status in the grand coalition was shaping up as a strategic disaster, and opposition, where they can think about what they want to do, and try to get their act together, is probably the better alternative (though whatever way you look at it, the SPD is not in good shape).

  3. Of the 60 years since then, Germany has had a Socialist Prime Minister for only 20.

    Under my count, zero. The SPD, at least in its iterations that came to power, is a social-democratic party, not a socialist party.

    This is probably a major part of the reason it finds a national coalition with the Left discomforting (another big reason being Oskar Lafontaine).

  4. A little dazed you could write all this without taking into consideration Muslim mass immigration, jihadi bombs, 9-11, political context really. It’s what happened in the US during Nixon: An alliance between the anti-tax crowd and people who didn’t like blacks. It’s the same in Europe today, since immigration-hostile policy finds a natural home with right wing parties.

  5. I side with Claus.

    I think immigration-related issues are very important here. Remember that most of the European states have been ‘nation-states’ for quite some time. The ethnically homogenous nation-state is obviously obsolete, and at the moment the left is being punished, as right-wing extrememism and national-conservatism looks attractive for many voter groups finding their identity threaten.

    And since migration patterns are very unlikely to be reversed anytime soon, I find it reasonable to believe that this trend will continue until the left find some solution to the migration challenge that is compatible both with their ideological foundations and voter groups desires.

    Or perhaps we need to replace the obviously obsolete left-right thinking of politics? I think new parties will come, that fits poorly into the left-right division we see today.

  6. It probably is a combination of all the factors mentioned. Another thing to consider is that the right has also made some concessions to the left. It seems that they have accepted certain terms of the left agenda already implemented in the system (such as national health system in Britain) and have stopped opposing it. The right in Europe is not so right after all.

  7. Germany has actually never, ever had a single prime minister (only the states — the “Laender” — have prime ministers). In Germany, we call the leader of the ruling coalition (who is not technically head of state) a chancellor — “Kanzler”.

  8. “Three, the flight of young voters from the Socialists seems… odd.”

    Firstly, the young putting an emphasis on freedom is ancient. The association between liberty and socialism has been broken, at least in Germany. What we are seeing is not youth becoming conservative, which would be odd, but liberal in the 19th century mold. The rise of the Pirate Party really leaves little room for an alternate explanation.

    Secondly, there is a demographical element. The big parties cannot adapt to young people’s preferences, as the old are the majority. As young people know that government won’t be on their side, they are better off with less government.

  9. Klaus, Todd, I considered that hypothesis and rejected it. In France and the UK, xenophobia and overt racism are funneled off into fringe parties that will never be allowed to take power. In Germany, they’re simply not allowed.

    There’s no Western European equivalent to Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Berlusconi’s race-baiting in Italy is about the nearest thing, and it’s not very close.

    In a couple of Eastern European countries, you can get closer — anti-Hungarian sentiment in Slovakia, for instance, or anti-Roma stuff in Hungary. And then of course there’s Austria. But even in Eastern Europe, it’s not a guaranteed winner — last month’s Greek election was won in a landslide by the party that was much less obnoxiously ethno-nationalist.

    Doug M.

  10. Doug:

    the German political landscape features xenophobia and overt racism just as much. The outcry afterwards might be a bit stronger, but that is not to say that it’s absolutely not “allowed”. Transgressions rarely have consequences. There are also fringe parties which absorb the most extreme spectrum and which are generally ostracised by the other parties (NPD, Republikaner etc.).

    Mainstream German politicians and parties have campaigned on anti-foreigner platforms (see [1] for an example, although the article does not describe what happened back then very well, but basically people came to the campaign booths and asked “where do I sign up against migrants/foreigners?” even if the campaign itself was not ‘against foreigners’ of course, but the CDU knew what it was doign and how it would be received very well).

    Similarly, the Bavarian “sister party” of the CDU, CSU, is no stranger to xenophobia.

    I would argue though that xenophobia and racism are generally expressed in slightly more subtle ways by mainstream politicians than in other countries.

    As for what’s happening to the centre-left in Germany: I don’t think it’s specific to the SPD – the same thing basically happened to the CDU. Both parties were faced with one of the worst results in their history. It’s simply that parties not in government can present and express more radical policies, whether they’re feasible or not. Incumbent parties, esp. big parties who would actually be in charge for the most part in case of a victory, just can’t do that to the same extent. So all of FDP, die Gruenen and Die Linke have gained quite a bit. I don’t think there’s anything SPD or centre-left specific to this.

    [1] http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/CDU/CSU-Unterschriftenaktion_gegen_die_Reform_des_deutschen_Staatsbürgerschaftsrechts

  11. Taking the Kärcher to the banlieues doesn’t count?
    The conservatives are evidently more nationalist and readier to cut immigration. That is not the same thing as overt xenophobia, but there’s a clear difference between the left and the right, probably larger than in economic policy.

    Comparing it to the Southern Strategy is sensible only if you think about it as a conservative victory. That is not a necessary viewpoint. You can equally well consider it a socialist failure to deliver. The socialist voters want economic nationalism the socialists won’t deliver. The conservatives haven’t changed much.
    Remember that, in Germany at least, the SPD lost most to the non-voters.

    “Berlusconi’s race-baiting in Italy is about the nearest thing”

    Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands?

  12. “Another possibility is that the rivals of the traditional center-left have been doing something right. But… what?”

    I can speak only about Germany. The CDU has learned to focus on the middle class. In particular they have learned to run welfare not as a means of redistribution but as a safety net for the middle class.

    Look at Kohl’s public insurance against frailty and Merkel’s child care benefits. Both benefit the middle class most.
    And contrast that to Schröder’s unemployment benefit which benefited every able-bodies jobless worker, whether he contributed to an insurance or not. It cost him the chancellorship.

  13. Klaus, Todd, I considered that hypothesis and rejected it. In France and the UK, xenophobia and overt racism are funneled off into fringe parties that will never be allowed to take power. In Germany, they’re simply not allowed.

    Then you need to study the history of ‘dog whistles’ more. When Sarkozy mentioned “identity” and talked about “the rabble”, people knew what he was alluding to. No, the centre-right doesn’t deal in overt racism, instead they formulate (IMO quite legitimate) concerns about the consequences of mass immigration as a euphemism for xenophobia.

  14. Doug, another great comparative-politics piece, and I’m flattered you mentioned my comments about recent left victories as going unnoticed (or less noticed).

    A couple more points – you’re right that Montenegro can’t seriously count as “left” but then neither can Berlusconi count as “right”. And for every impending takeover by the right, such as what you mention in the UK, there are impending takeovers by the left, in places like Sweden and Croatia. I think there is more balance here than it seems at first glance.

    Your point about the long-term dominance of the right in Germany is well taken. But surely that applies even more to France (the Fifth republic has seen only 1 Socialist President against 5 Gaullist ones) and the Netherlands (which took nigh 50 years to form the first government without the Christian Democrats, and even then it didn’t last very long). Of course this applies just as well in reverse in Sweden, where it’s difficult to see the current Moderate Party-led coalition as anything but a respite before a nearly certain return to power by the Social Democrats in 2010.

    Let’s not indulge the typically American fallacy of thinking of Europe as an amorphous mass across which trends flow without regard to borders or local conditions. Voters in the UK aren’t going to vote Tory out of a desire to emulate Germany, or because they want to be different from the Spanish. IN fact their voting choices probably aren’t meaningfully affected by those elections at all. Nor is there alignment at the party level – there’s not a lot of similarity between Zapatero’s PSOE and the Austrian Socialists, even though they occupy the same “wing” of the political spectrum.

    Finally, as you say and as I was saying in the previous post on the subject, many countries have political systems that are difficult to map onto the traditional left-right axes (mostly the newer Eastern European democracies, but also Ireland and Belgium), and still others have Parliaments which trend towards consensus, and in which “cross-center” governing coalitions are the norm (Finland, Denmark). But I think you can take this even one step further, and say that, really, every European country is so full of particularities and idiosyncrasies that it quickly becomes difficult if not impossible to draw broad conclusions.

    Looking forward to you picking apart my arguments. :)

  15. [glyph of eyes rolling]

    Klaus, I didn’t say this is not an issue. I said that your initial statement — which implied it was an /extremely important/ issue, and explicitly compared it to the Nixon’s Southern strategy — was wrong.

    Anti-immigrant xenophobia and fear of the “Muslim jihad” is not a central or dominant issue in the politics of most western European countries. It’s an issue, sure, but it’s just /not that big/. Certainly it’s nowhere near big enough to explain the continent-wide collapse of the center-left.

    Note that two of the recent victories of the left came in countries with huge immigrant populations: Greece and Norway. Greece is home to over half a million Albanians — some legal, many not — while more than 10% of Norway’s population is immigrants, including over 200,000 non-Europeans. Yet Greece elected a center-left government, and Norway re-elected theirs — both by large margins.

    On the other hand, I can think of at least four countries with quite small populations of non-European immigrants, and no plausible “Muslim jihad” security concerns, that have dealt painful beatdowns to their center-left parties.

    – I notice you mentioned “jihadi bombs”. The bombs on the London Tube had surprisingly little long-term effect on British politics, and have absolutely nothing to do with Labour’s current problems. The bombs in Madrid… I’d say those make a tolerably strong argument against your position, since they resulted in the conservatives getting kicked out and the center-left party taking power for the next five years (and counting).

    Again, nobody’s saying that xenophobia isn’t an issue. But connecting it to the decline of center-left parties across Europe is something else again. I’m not seeing a convincing case for that.

    Doug M.

  16. Okay, uh…

    Douglas Muir is absolutely correct. Xenophobia is an important contributer to political dynamics, but it isn’t a central focus or hinge on which political identity swings in Europe–at least not to the extent that this is true of the US post-Civil Rights. Remember, during the Civil Rights era and prior, Republicans and Democratics had regional alignments that often fustrated a straight right-left alignment.

    Nixon help drive the classical (and episodic) white anglo-saxon protestant reactionary response to modernity towards the Republican party as the Democratic party had to manage a coalition of different groups strained by ethnic tensions. This helped the Reaganite party collect traditionally democratic union ethnics into its ruling coalition.

    Now, at the end of the era, pretty much *everything* about the republican party that matters is about race and xenophobia as it represents a regional area and populace that *cares* about this stuff out of proportion to the rest of the country. Outside of Big Media B smacking around gypsies and east africans, there is just isn’t a comparison to the kind of dynamic that Muir is asking for. Voters in Europe, by and large, will not vote for the xenos even if they are wrong on the other issues.

  17. You are ignoring the aspects of trade. Wages have been stagnating. Cuts have been blamed on international competition. Taxation of capital gains and corporate profits have been decreased to fight capital flight and attract investors.

    The left has failed to find an answer to globalisation. The workers now want protectionism.
    In addition they don’t like immigration.

  18. “The workers now want protectionism”

    …makes little sense, in an EU context. Europe is one ginormous free trade zone. Hysteria about Polish plumbers notwithstanding, all major parties everywhere buy into this.

    Also, there’s no correlation between cutting corporate taxes and the center-right taking power. There are just too many countries that have one and not the other.

    Doug M.

  19. “Europe is one ginormous free trade zone. Hysteria about Polish plumbers notwithstanding, all major parties everywhere buy into this.”

    The parties do indeed, but do the voters?
    Basically globalisation increases the cost of regulations and decreases effectiveness. Yet lower income voters want regulation in their favor.

    “Also, there’s no correlation between cutting corporate taxes and the center-right taking power. There are just too many countries that have one and not the other.”

    Interesting. Which ones and have they cut services?

  20. I don’t think that there is one overarching reason across the continent. However, I do think that immigration/integration of foreigners is significant in most countries. I also believe that there is litle connection between how many immigrants there are and the place the policy area occupies in the public mind.

    One of the most significant aspects of the Norwegian election was the lurch to the right of the Labour party in this area. Norway is now embarking on a rather tough tightening of the rules for immigration/refugees. I do believe that this unfortunatly is an important reason that the left won in Norway. This is mirroered in the loss of the smaller parties in the coalition with more liberal outlook lost backing in the election.

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  22. One more thing about Germany:
    There’s Germany before and after the unification. Before it, there was a strong asymmetry favoring the CDU/CSU with the SPD depending on the liberal (in a truely liberal, i.e. rather right-wing sense) FDP to abandon CDU/CSU.

    This is no longer the case. In three consecutive elections (1998, 2002, 2005) the left wing parties obtained more than 50 % of the votes and seats. The party system has a changed a lot in the past 20 years. You cannot dismiss Crooked Timber’s thesis by pointing to a “normalisation” in electoral outcomes in Germany because the Republic of Berlin is not the Republic of Bonn.

  23. A few figures to support my claim: since unification Germany’s major non-leftist parties (CDU/CSU and FDP + some others in the 50′s) only managed to get more than 50 % of the votes in 1990 (2 months after unification). Since then they came in well below this threshold. In contrast to this the easily got more than 50 % in all elections from 1953 to 1987.

  24. Douglas,

    Immigration/the unwashed hordes were a big factor in France and Italy’s elections, and that’s two of the big four. If they had left wing governments, no one would be talking about a collapse. Centre-left parties have furthermore moved significantly to the right on immigration, but often do not appear sincere. The political movement is clear.

    Note that two of the recent victories of the left came in countries with huge immigrant populations: Greece and Norway.

    Don’t know anything about Greek politics, but Norway has definitely gone to the right on immigration. Fremskrittspartiet is a major factor, it is the dominant opposition party, and but for immigration / Muslim / nationalist issues the social democratic parties would be permanently in power. As soon as a Norwegian Anders Fogh Rasmussen shows up, the right wing bloc will solidify and take over.

    – I notice you mentioned “jihadi bombs”. The bombs on the London Tube had surprisingly little long-term effect on British politics, and have absolutely nothing to do with Labour’s current problems. The bombs in Madrid… I’d say those make a tolerably strong argument against your position, since they resulted in the conservatives getting kicked out and the center-left party taking power for the next five years (and counting).

    Political contingencies. Immigration, while a strong factor (and one you didn’t mention at all), is one among many others. The 7/7 bombs certainly did have a very chilling effect on the UK, but the Tories looked complete shite back then, pre-Cameron. That’s the two-party system for you. Meanwhile the Aznar government simply lied about the Madrid bombs and unsurprisingly were devastated at polls a few days after. As for Germany: The right wing parties definitely use anti-immigration rhetoric, though of course outright racism is for historical reasons a third rail. Personally I think it’s the shadow of Schröder.

    Again, nobody’s saying that xenophobia isn’t an issue. But connecting it to the decline of center-left parties across Europe is something else again. I’m not seeing a convincing case for that.

    Then I suggest there is no single cause for the decline, and each country should be looked at separately. With regard to immigration, for example, various countries have different political customs: What passes in Denmark as mainstream would be taken as fascism in Sweden. As a result, the anti-immigration party in Sweden, Sverige Demokraterna, is far more extreme (with clear ties to the Nazi underground) and hence far less influential than the Danish People’s Party, even while gaining significantly in strength lately.

  25. Italians have 28 parties, few of which get attention. As an American marrying into an Italian/German family I find Italians vote a blank vote if they don’t like Berlusconi although most don’t ‘mind’ his biz n media ventures (unlike americans they don’t believe anything they watch, that’s why they watch the variety shows or the political shows which just have a bunch of guys talking and talking and talking and swearing)or his tax evasion. They’re not fussed much as the focus is on family n small business enterprise, mostly.

    Italy doesn’t have that emotional investment into gov’t that we do. Culture feels ‘healthier’ than most; no drink problem (they like pot, sometimes), money’s rarely an issue as the parents often have an extra apartment for the kids when they finally move out, salaries are ‘relatively lower’, food’s great due to the volcanic ash and how they cook.

    Every country has their own immigration problem, but Italians address it by marrying them into their society……and yes, drug n crime problems down south, racist issues up north, but very, very isolated….no country’s perfect to be sure…just a perception

  26. I am astonished you call the Dutch coalition weird. Traditionally Holland has 4 big parties (from right to left): VVD (the right liberals – for the business types), CDA (the Christian democrats), D’66 (the left liberals – obsessed with human rights, refenda, etc.) and PvdA (the social-democrats). For decades you had the CDA in a coalition with alternatingly the VVD and the PvdA. The purple coalitions (1994-2002: VVD, D’66 and PvdA) were the only break in that pattern and in my opinion they were the most weird as – just as Germany’s grand coalition – they denied the differences of interest between left and right. However, some liberals were happy to see the back of their hated Christians and to be able to shop on sunday. The present coalition fits the traditional pattern.

    I don’t believe that the nation-state is outdated. I still don’t see any alternative. Nation-states tend to be about language. And given the connection between language knowledge, education and jobs that is crucial in modern society. I don’t know a country that has found an alternative.

    In my opinion the main reason for the decay of the social-democrats is that they have surrendered to the neo-liberal belief. In both Western Europe and the US inequality is steadily rising – also under left governments. For example: here in Holland we got just a decrease in the inheritance tax, while the government is considering to increase the VAT. Brittain is more unequal than ever – thanks to 12 years left rule. So why should people vote social-democrat? If they are poor and they want someone to represent their interests this doesn’t seem the right party. If they prefer “merit” above “equality” they will vote for the real thing: right. My expectation is that the social-democrats will have to choose: either they incorporate some of the ideas of the parties to their left (Die Linke in Germany, SP in Holland) or they will be replaced and may at best find a place somewhere in the center.

    Any thoughts about the Butmir negotiations in Bosnia?

  27. “The left has failed to find an answer to globalisation. ”
    For me it’s the main reason. The left has nothing to say about the workers problems, unlike between WWII and sau the 70s.

    The problem of immigration in France plays may be a role, but generally in France the right is on charge 3/4 of the time. The right is generally at 55% of the vote.
    Unless the right is worn down by the exercise of power the win elections.

  28. “In my opinion the main reason for the decay of the social-democrats is that they have surrendered to the neo-liberal belief. In both Western Europe and the US inequality is steadily rising – also under left governments.”

    But why? They didn’t do it gladly. Globalisation made them.

  29. “Globalisation made them”

    Really? The present leader of the social-democrats in Holland is a former Shell manager. His predecessor had done some business school. If you go to party meetings you will find middle and upper class people; the underclass is almost completely absent. In my perception they have gone from a party for workers to a party for people with working class parents and idealists. Initially those ideals centered on economic equality, but nowadays they are mostly about women and gay rights, the environment, the third world, etc. The party has nothing left to offer to the underclass and if you look at their internal discussions you will see that the rising inequality is hardly a subject. When occassionally the party does pick up an inequality issue it is always about protecting existing rights, not an effort to find creative solutions for our time.

    Globalization is often used as an excuse. But you can’t use that as an excuse when you are privatizing public transport, electricity or health care: all natural monopolies.

    There is another explanation for this change of the party. It is that the middle class has changed its identification with the rising prosperity. Much more people than in the past have shares in companies. But we saw the same thing happening in the 1920s and we know how that ended.

  30. “In my perception they have gone from a party for workers to a party for people with working class parents and idealists. Initially those ideals centered on economic equality, but nowadays they are mostly about women and gay rights, the environment, the third world, etc.”

    I would say that traditionally the European Left was a cooperation between intellectuals with a special emphasis on equality and people who want to improve the lot of the working class. It seems to me that the latter kind of people has left. But why is this so? Again I do blame globalisation. It makes the working class left seek illiberal solutions which horrify the intellectual left.

    “Globalization is often used as an excuse. But you can’t use that as an excuse when you are privatizing public transport, electricity or health care”

    Why not? Lower taxes mean less revenues, so you sell assets.

    “It is that the middle class has changed its identification with the rising prosperity. Much more people than in the past have shares in companies.”

    Interesting theory.
    If this is so we should see correlation with ownership rates. Do we?

  31. “Again I do blame globalisation”

    Compare it to the 1920s. Then too globalization had reached a top. Then too inequality was also at a top. But was it the cause? Then too finance was grossly oversized and the governments had grown very tolerant towards corporate crime. So in my view what really was/is going on was that the balance between merit and equality – as reflected in government policy and public opinion – has reached an extreme point in the favor of “merit” whereby the mere possession of money is seen as the reflection of some kind of merit. In the 1930s the balance swung back with increasing social security legislation and pro-trade union legislation.

    As I see it globalization has contributed to this swing, but it certainly is not the only factor.

    ”Lower taxes mean less revenues, so you sell assets.”

    Depends on how you see it. If you expect that after privatization you will have to pay more you will think twice. If you believe that the private sector is always more efficient you will jump at it. Social-democrats have traditionally been suspicious towards business in this respect, but the last decades they have fully embraced the faith. Yet actual experience is rather mixed.

    >>”It is that the middle class has changed its identification with the rising prosperity. Much more people than in the past have shares in companies.”<<
    ” Interesting theory. If this is so we should see correlation with ownership rates. Do we?”

    This is a rather common explanation why traditional social-democratic themes didn’t work anymore. Take a bus driver. Traditionally working class. Now he may own a house, a holiday cottage in Spain and still have some ten or twenty thousand in the bank to play with on the stock exchange or to invest otherwise. He may have a big mortgage too, but that doesn’t take away that he now feels himself “middle class” instead of “working class”. It changes also his political outlook. He will feel less attracted by politicians who see him as disenfranchised and instead be more attracted to politicians who claim that his tax money is wasted.

    At the moment you see more and more of these professions under stress and getting large pay cuts. At the moment here in Holland the postmen are facing a huge pay cut. The reason is a government policy of liberalization.

    So times are changing and I think that you can expect that “equality” themes will come back in the political debate.

  32. the american perspective: It’s the economy, stupid. And nothing else.

    Don’t forget John McCain was polling 53% in the US before Lehmann. Incumbent parties always lose during a major recession. Always. If you had a socialist government during a recession, they will get beat. If you have a conservative gov’t during a recession, they will get beat. There’s nothing else going on here… It’s merely the incumbent parties which are getting ousted, has nothing to do w/ left vs. right.

  33. //Incumbent parties always lose during a major recession. Always.//

    Nope. For instance, Norway’s social-democratic coalition where re-elected with a handsome margin last month. So where Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.

    A competent incumbent certainly have the chance to survive an election during a recession. Incompetents, however… May not.