The lame left?

Newsweek has a longish (for Newsweek) article this week about how the center-left is in trouble in pretty much all the large European countries:

No matter what they call themselves—Social Democrats, Socialists or Labour—rarely have they simultaneously appeared so troubled. In Britain, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s popularity has hit rock bottom. Germany’s Social Democrats are a dwindling party, squeezed between conservatives in the center and populist extremists on the left. In France and Italy, telegenic new-style rightists have managed to reduce the left-wing opposition to tatters. Even Spain’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the last unchallenged mainstream-left ruler of a major European power, looks increasingly besieged as the Spanish economic miracle crashes all around him…

Last week Germany’s Social Democrats dumped their fourth chairman in as many years and nominated a charisma-free career bureaucrat, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to face off against the popular Chancellor Angela Merkel in the September 2009 national election. Only days earlier the annual late-summer confab of the French Socialists in La Rochelle erupted in discord and intrigue over the party’s direction.

So far, reasonable enough. Unfortunately, the article then tries to explain just why the left is in trouble:

To be sure, each party’s troubles are shaped by personnel and circumstance—from British voters’ ennui with Brown after 11 years of Labour rule to Italy’s venerated tradition of a fractious, self-destructive left. Yet they are also struggling with a common clutch of problems. Among them, they are facing a center-right that is increasingly adept at cherry-picking policies that used to be considered “left”—like education, environmentalism and social justice. The current economic downturn also tends to favor conservatives, whom voters generally see as more prudent on issues affecting the economy.

They do? The average, say, British voter sees Cameron & Friends as “more prudent” than Labour? Hmm.

But the biggest dilemma is that most parties on the left have not figured out how to adapt their old welfare-statist ideologies to modern economic realities—while appealing to voters who see modern reform as a betrayal of their parties’ traditional socialist ideals, and who often have more-extreme left-wing parties to turn to. David Marquand, a former British Labour M.P., says the left finds it much more difficult than the right to co-opt or even engage the opposition. “Their inheritance as class-based parties has kept alive a powerful myth of class treachery and betrayal if they try to cooperate with the right,” he says. The result: Europe’s mainstream leftist parties are facing not a temporary downturn but the gravest crisis in decades.

The left is being destroyed because their core voters see “modern reform as a betrayal of their socialist ideals”? Tony Blair, please pick up the white phone.

It goes downhill from there. The rest of the article is a mishmash of stuff (yes, true, Berlusconi has imposed a “Robin Hood tax” — but Berlusconi being a clever opportunist hardly signals that the right generally is good at co-opting socialist policies) and nonsense (“The right has also been good at exploiting European worries over immigration with policies that go beyond the usual tough stance on borders and crime. Under leaders like Merkel and Sarkozy, the right has pushed to develop ways to integrate poor Muslim minorities, leaving behind the left’s traditional laissez-faire multiculturalism that has failed in the past.”) They also lump Spain’s Zapatero — whose drop in popularity is quite recent — along with the others, despite the fact that Zapatero does not exactly face an energized and resurgent Right.

All that said, the article raises a very interesting question (even if it gives stupid answers). In the EU’s four largest economies — accounting for about half of the EU’s population and 60% of its GDP — the center-left is in trouble, both in the countries where it’s in power (Britain, Germany) and in those where it’s not (Italy, France).

Is this a coincidence? Or is some deeper correlation of forces at work — and if so, what?

9 thoughts on “The lame left?

  1. Thank you, I thought that article was pretty crap as well. It’s strange, whenever you have interviews with Newsweek reporters (Eric Alter, Fareed Zacharia) they come across as intelligent people, but most of their articles are quite poor. It’s like they feel the need to dumb them down with cliches (‘multiculturalism sux’/principled Left can’t ‘reform’) instead of doing some actual research.

  2. I bet that as of this moment, every right-wing blog is gathering together in one big, collective (whoops, did that sound leftist?) climax.

    I can just imagine the statements that will be made by all the talking-heads.

  3. Actually, at least when it comes to the current steady downhill of the Social Democratic Party in Finland, the article is right on the mark. Therefore, it’s rather strange that the writers have ignored the one example that would support their case the best.

    The problem is that prior to the parliamentary elections of 2007, the Social Democrats mounted a campaign based on open fear-mongering of how the victorious Right would destroy the welfare state. Basically, after the elections, the only thing that the Centre and the National Coalition had to do to disprove the accusations of the SDP was simply not to go crazy.

    And, in fact, the Centre-Right coalition has, on balance, managed to conduct a responsible social policy. So yes, in that respect, the government has certainly managed to “cherry-pick policies that used to be considered social democratic”, as the article states.

    The voters also have a long memory. The fact is that the old Centre-Left coalition of 2003-2007 conducted policies which were identical to those advocated by the National Coalition. By 2007, majority of the Finnish adult population had decided that with that sort of outcome, voting for the National Coalition makes more sense; at least those fellows are honest about their program.

    So, the comment how the left-wing parties have alienated their old voters is also accurate. For twelve long years, the SDP pursued policies which was manifestly in contrast to its traditional position. When the Right emerged from its lethargy and came back, the Social Democrats tried to revert to the form as fast as possible. It didn’t work.

    Consequently, the traditional left-wing campaign mounted by the SDP in 2007 proved to be simply hypocritical and self-destructive. I wrote of this back then, and predicted that the tailspin would become consistent, leading to eventual demise of the party as a political force:

    http://tinyurl.com/3rjb7e

    … and so far, it seems that I was right. The credibility of the SDP is lower than ever, they have not managed to regain any of their support in spite of the several SNAFUs of the cabinet, and hardly anyone outside the party takes them seriously.

    Having self-identification problems doesn’t help. The attempts of the new chairman to present the party as a “centrist” force (because, you know, the actual Centre has presumably become “right-wing”) are most demonstrably not working.

    Also, SDP’s criticism that the government is issuing tax cuts irresponsibly might have a bit more credibility if SDP wasn’t promising new, extensive social services just as irresponsibly and with no sense of reality.

    Appealing to “emotions” and “dreams” doesn’t help when the Centre-Right has the facts on their side. By the way, there used to be a time when the SDP and the Left-Wing Alliance had actual experts and real intellectuals in their ranks. Whatever happened to them?

    And meanwhile, their cherished president has made herself a laughing-stock and a political liability.

    So yes, at least when it comes to Finland, the article is correct, both in stating the factual situtation and also, to an extent, in naming the reasons for it.

    Of course, I realize that this may be difficult to swallow for some people.

    Cheers,

    J. J.

  4. As far as Germany is concerned the decline of the social democrats and the rise of the new left must be attributed to the labor market reforms of the Schröder government.

  5. By the way, I might add that a concise survey of this very topic was recently published in Finland by Tommi Uschanov, a philosopher and a political scientist. The title is, quite simply “What’s wrong with the Left”?

    His answer to the question is, in short; the lack of psychological acumen, the lack of any aesthetic sense, reluctance to rely on factual information, intellectual laziness, outdated views of the world.

    Also, the traditional Left has managed to turn itself into an extremely exclusive club. While the politics of the present-day Europe require a new, genuine broad-tent approach, the Left still insists that all prospective members must be ready to subscribe to their program completely, in detail.

    And it’s not enough to subscribe to the _political_ program; no, you have to share their aesthetics, their view on history, everything. You have to be ready to wade through Noam Chomsky’s pamphlets and, even though you may not have to completely agree with them, you have to at least make a nod and state that “the author makes very interesting comments, and we need more challenging statements of this sort”.
    And, of course, you have to be ready to agree with the Left’s interpretations of historic events and historic figures.

    The Left still has articles of faith, and enforces them in a soft-core totalitarian manner.

    In short, Douglas, it would not be inaccurate to state that the European Left is losing followers (and failing to attract new ones) more or less for the same reasons that, well, the American conservative movement lost you twenty years ago.

    Cheers,

    J. J.

  6. Uh, forgive my stupid question, but in what sense is the center-left in power in Germany? I don’t think of the CDU as center left, and I don’t think they think of themselves that way, and you have to go down to Rheinland-Pfalz to find an SPD-controlled Land government (i.e. normalized by population most of the Länder are CDU controlled).

  7. Scott, Grand Coalition, CDU/CSU-SPD. Merkel is Chancellor, but the SPD is in the cabinet. Opposition parties are Greens, FDP and Left.

    Part of the SPD’s problem is that the support for left-of-center policies in Germany is split between the SPD and the Left, so they have a structural obstacle to overcome. Another is that they have been part of the ruling coalition for 10 years now. Every party gets worn down, and people want change. (Ditto Labour in the UK.)

    Newsweek’s characterization of Steinmeier is correct, but irrelevant. It’s not as if Merkel sailed into office on the overwhelming power of her charisma, now, is it?

  8. You got cause and effect reversed. The political left in Germany has split because the SPD does so badly, not the other way round.

    As for being worn down, the argument would carry weight if the erosion hadn’t started in Schröder’s first term.

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