Mark Wickham-Jones, Professor of Political Science in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol
It comes as no surprise that advocates of progressive politics across Europe, as well as North America for that matter, currently confront a number of severe challenges to their favoured project. The crisis in the eurozone raises profound question marks about the nature of the left's economic model, most obviously in its capacity to combine economic recovery with the social commitments that define a reformist approach. The banking crisis of 2008 filtered through the collapse of housing markets, most notably in the United States, and an explosion of public debt, paved the way for prolonged recession across many advanced industrial economies. Though left governments were by no means the only candidates for blame, the economic downturn challenged assumptions about a number of variants of the progressive model, whether in terms of New Labour's predominantly neo-liberal approach with its emphasis on a lightly regulated financial sector or of the differing forms of the social model to be found across continental Europe. Most obviously, of course, the emphasis currently placed on retrenchment and spending cuts as the necessary means of stabilising debt challenges the notion of a progressive politics.
At the same time, many European social democratic parties have experienced severe reversals at the ballot box. After thirteen years in power and three successive general election victories, New Labour lost office in May 2010. It was not alone. Since September 2009 and September 2006 respectively, the German SPD and the Swedish social democrats have been in opposition. The success of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed an isolated example of progressive success, one that is arguable in its orientation and, in the mind of many, disappointing in its execution. Only recently with the success of Francois Hollande in the 2012 French presidential elections, and the re-election of Obama, have the fortunes of the left turned up slightly.
The publication of What's Left of the Left, edited by James Cronin, George Ross and James Shoch, marks, accordingly, a particularly useful point at which to appraise the conjuncture. How did progressive politics come to be in such a situation and what are the prospects for such an outlook at the present time? What's Left of the Left brings together an impressive range of scholars, mostly based in North America. Different chapters in the volume develop historical and thematic perspectives as well as a number of case studies and the book is notable in offering a direct comparison between European social democ-racy and progressive politics in the United States. This roundtable, held at the University of Bristol in June 2012 and organised by the Labour Movements Group of the Political Studies Association, addresses these questions through a discussion of the volume. Perhaps inevitably, a particular focus is on the British situation and the case of New Labour (tackled by James Cronin in the book).
Developing the social democratic model in Britain and Sweden
Twenty years ago, in a panoramic survey of social democratic politics, Perry Anderson (1992, 1994) drew a distinction between reformist parties in Northern Europe and those in the south of the continent. The former, including the British Labour Party as well as the Swedish social democrats, were characterised by a general sense of retreat as they lost ground in political and intellectual terms. By contrast, reformist parties in Southern Europe enjoyed better, though still mixed, fortunes. Consolidating democratic reforms and enacting some welfare provision, social democrats in such polities had enjoyed some successes and offered greater future potential than their northern counterparts. Two decades later, aspects of Northern social democracy, typified by the trajectories of the British Labour Party and the Swedish social democrats, may have proved more durable than critics had anticipated earlier. …