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 themselvesâ€”Social Democrats, Socialists or Labourâ€”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 JosÃ© Luis RodrÃguez 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 circumstanceâ€”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”â€”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 realitiesâ€”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?