'The Left Must Open Up More Clear Water between Itself and Its Opponents': Why Are Social-Democrat Parties in Such Trouble in So Many European Countries? Have They Been Too Quick to Break with Their Traditional Policies, or Too Slow?

Article excerpt

The European left is not in good shape. At the turn of the millennium, left or leftish governments were in power in 13 of the 15 states of the European Union, while Bill Clinton held office in Washington. All these were revisionist, Third Way governments; the Jospin coalition in France was no different, even if Lionel Jospin had a distaste for the term Third Way itself.

Now, out of the 25 EU countries today, the centre left holds power in just nine. Gerhard Schroder's Social Democratic/Green coalition in Germany has suffered unprecedented reversals in local and regional polls. The three states in eastern Europe--the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland--are all suffering from "post-enlargement blues" and look shaky. Goran Persson is enjoying his third term as prime minister in Sweden, but the Social Democrats do not have a majority in the Riksdag. Though the Socialists took power in Spain this year, they did so only after the Madrid bombings changed public opinion. Before that, they had looked likely to lose the election. In the UK, even Tony Blair, though still odds-on to win the next election, is in difficulties over the Iraq war.

Where the left is out of power, the situation seems even more discouraging. The Italian left appears rudderless: though Romano Prodi's return as leader of a new centre-left alliance prompts hopes for a revival, the parties and groups involved do not yet have a common programme. The French left has still not recovered from the shock of Lionel Jospin's elimination in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections. The Socialists are divided between modernisers and traditionalists, and the "pluralleft" that Jospin held together while in government has fallen apart.

Yet when I talked to a senior British government adviser--just before the latest Progressive Governance conference, held in Budapest from 13-14 October and organised by the international think-tank Policy Network--he was remarkably laid-back about it all. He did not think it mattered much, he said: after all, the "right-wing" parties or coalitions in some European countries are actually quite leftish in British terms.

The CDU in Germany, for example, is essentially a one-nation Tory party, far removed from current British Conservatism. Christian-democratic parties on the Continent, the adviser pointed out, have played a significant part in building and sustaining Europe's welfare institutions.

It is true that the centre of political gravity differs from country to country. It is as difficult for a government significantly to reduce taxes in Sweden, for example, as it is for a government to raise them in the UK. Moreover, as I wrote a book with the title Beyond Left and Right, you would expect me to agree that some issues no longer fall under the usual left-right divisions.

But the political composition of Europe certainly does matter. Many rightist parties or coalitions in power in Europe today are, to some degree, in hock to the far right, and most have embraced anti-immigration policies. Some--such as those in Italy and Austria--have brought far-right groups directly into government. The left absolutely needs to fight such trends.

So what explains the centre left's diminishing fortunes? The point should first be made that the decline has not been quite as marked as some suggest. There never really was a firm centre-left hegemony in 2000. Some left-of-centre parties came to power at that time largely because of the political cycle: the Social Democrats in Germany, for example, had been out of government for almost as long as Labour in the UK. Though the electorate responded positively to these parties' ideological innovations, many people simply voted for change. Moreover, in 2000, the left had a parliamentary majority in only four of the 13 countries concerned: Britain, Germany, France and Greece.

Contingent events are often more important in politics than ideology. …