The European Trap: From France and the Netherlands to Italy and Germany, the Centre Left and Social Democrats Are Losing and Radicals and Populists Are Rising

By Bickerton, Chris | New Statesman (1996), April 27, 2018 | Go to article overview

The European Trap: From France and the Netherlands to Italy and Germany, the Centre Left and Social Democrats Are Losing and Radicals and Populists Are Rising


Bickerton, Chris, New Statesman (1996)


It is one of the great ironies of our times. While inequality returns as an urgent concern in Western democracies, social democratic parties are in crisis. From France to Austria and the Netherlands to Italy, the mainstream left is losing. The French economist Thomas Piketty sums up the puzzle. His book Capital, charting the rise of inequality, has sold millions of copies. Translating his research into a political choice, Piketty backed Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party (PS) candidate in the 2017 French presidential elections. Hamon came fifth, the former ruling party lost most of its deputies in the following month's legislative elections, and the PS put its historic Rue de Solferino headquarters in Paris up for sale in order to pay off its creditors.

Popular concern about the injustices of contemporary capitalism are not doing much for the fortunes of the centre left in Europe. The rise of populist radical-right parties is well documented but the more powerful trend is one of fragmentation across the political spectrum, on the right and the left. Much of this fragmentation is driven by the unravelling of the social democratic left as a credible political force.

In many countries, centre-left governments have presided over a decline in the share of national wealth going to wages, to the benefit of shareholders and landlords. Inequalities in how the wage share is divided up have ballooned as company directors reward themselves with ever greater payouts. The concentration of wealth at the top of society has eroded social norms of solidarity and hollowed out public institutions. This is true even for countries with a strong social democratic culture, such as Norway. Governed by a mixture of centre-left and centre-right governments, with a long centre-left interlude between 2005 and 2013, the famously egalitarian Norwegian social contract is coming apart under the twin pressures of increasing income inequality and booming property prices.

The failure of the centre left to set the political agenda in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was notable. This period turned out not to be the social democratic moment that the former Labour leader Ed Miliband and many others believed it would be. Instead, it was a period of fiscal retrenchment, or "austerity", as governments grappled with debt crises.

Faced with such an ineffectual centre left, voters have come to prefer the authenticity of a far-left firebrand, such as Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, or the curious blend of populism and the promise of more effective government found in the Czech Republic's Andrej Babis, Italy's Luigi Di Maio and France's Emmanuel Macron.

The picture is not entirely bleak, however. Transformations taking place on the left across Europe suggest both decline and renewal. Change is happening within the existing political parties themselves (such as the Labour Party in Britain) and through the rise of new parties and new citizen movements. And the future of the left in Europe depends on the fate of these different national transformations.

Yet there is also a bigger issue lurking in the background, which is whether the left should embrace or reject closer European integration. The left's uncertainty over the question of Europe is one of the biggest obstacles to its renewal.

Few parties illustrate better the combination of decline and renewal than the German Social Democrats (SPD). The social conditions in Germany are favourable for a party of the left. The transformation of the German labour market in the 2000s produced a "Hartz IV" generation--named after reformer Peter Hartz--for whom work takes the form of fixed-term or part-time contracts, modest wage growth and a rising sense of financial insecurity. The social and cultural divide between west and east Germany, nearly 30 years after reunification, is still there. It is precisely the gap between the booming aggregate economic performance of the Federal Republic and the everyday reality for many Germans that one would expect the SPD to exploit. …

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