Europe Politics

Does social democracy have a future in Europe?

It is the saga of PASOK, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, that epitomises the apparent collapse of the centre-left, social-democratic party throughout the continent. Between the 1996 election and the 2009 election it was one of the most popular parties in Europe, with vote shares ranging between a low of 38.5% in 2007 and 43.9% in 2009; in the 2012 election it fell spectacularly to a mere 12.3% of the vote, a share that has fallen further since. This drubbing of centre-left parties has been seen to a varying degree across much of Europe for much of the last 2 decades, leading many to write off European social democracy for good, as an idea that has had its day; indeed, it was the dramatic fall of PASOK that gave this phenomenon its current term of Pasokification. However, this essay shall argue that in fact, social democracy does have a future in Europe for four reasons; the time-specific causes of their recent decline that will struggle to be replicated, the fact that in parts of Europe social democrats are already recovering, the move of left wing parties in power to more social democratic platforms, the personality driven source of their opponents appeal that long term will change, and finally the rise and fall of political movements in the past in a way that provides hope for the future of this movement.

The first cause for hope is the fact that their general decline was due to a set of highly specific, difficult to replicate series of circumstances; the first of these was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008/9, which was in many places the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the second was the Eurozone Debt Crisis that followed soon after in 2012/13. This can be clearly linked to the fortunes of social democratic parties across Europe as, in legislative election % vote results (as of each country’s latest election), social democrats in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechia, Switzerland, Greece, Ireland, Hungary, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Slovakia, Iceland, Slovenia and Luxembourg are all performing worse than they did in the election prior to the GFC and the Eurozone Crisis; the fact that, in a range of countries as diverse as these, all have seen a decline in social democratic shares of the vote in the same period points to these two events as causes. The fact that these unique events were the cause of social democratic unpopularity it as good sign for the future of the movement as it means their present weakness isn’t due to long-term trends but instead specific events from which they can recover. The other reason to believe there is a future for European social democrats is that these two events and the rapid decline they preceded only took place in the last 12 years, meaning that there has been little time to allow social democrats to recover to their former strength. After all, in the UK the Conservatives did well between 1979 and 1992 in terms of vote share, but in 1997 they collapsed due to a specific cocktail of circumstances, such as sleaze, controversial figures such as former PM Margaret Thatcher and what Theresa May called an image of being the “nasty party”1; it took them 13 years to regain power, and from 1992 it took them 25 years to reach a similar share of the vote. This shows that it takes time for political parties to recover from setbacks, and assuming social democrats can do it in a decade is foolish. Thus there is reason to believe that social democracy does have a future in Europe based on the nature of their recent decline.

The second reason to believe that social democracy has a future in Europe is that in much of it they are still in power, or have regained it following a decline; this shows it has been possible for the movement to adapt and stay relevant, providing hope for the movement’s survival. Examples include Switzerland, where the SP remains the 2nd largest party and has retained 2 representatives of the Federal Council, or Spain and Portugal, which both have governments led by social democratic parties (the PSOE and PS respectively) after a period in opposition following the GFC; in addition social democrats in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway remain powerful, leading governments in the first three and being the largest party in the latter. Even in Germany, despite poor electoral performances since Gerhard Schroeder’s leadership, the SPD remains in power through a “grand coalition” with the CDU/CSU, and in Italy the PD has been in government with the M5S party since 2019. Thus across Europe and in many of its most powerful nations the social democrats remain in government, and despite many having received below average vote shares in recent elections they have remained influential. Indeed, across Europe in the last couple of years many social democratic parties have shown signs of recovering from these lows, with the Polish SLD rising from a historic low of 7.6% of the vote in 2015 to 12.6% as part of the Lewica alliance in 2019, the Portuguese PS consistently increasing its vote share since 2011, the Spanish PSOE recovering from its poor 2015/16 performances in the two 2019 elections, and even in the UK Labour’s poor result in 2019 in vote % terms was higher than in 2010 or 2015. All this demonstrates that there is indeed a future for social democrats in Europe, as their parties both continue to govern much of Europe and have begun to recover at the polls, demonstrating the staying power of the movement and its adherents.

Sometimes however, social democratic parties have found themselves replaced by a more left-wing party; an example of this is Greece, which in the last decade has seen the social democratic PASOK party replaced as the largest party of the left by SYRIZA, a more anti-establishment, left-wing movement. Yet this in fact provides hope for the future of social democracy in Europe, as during SYRIZA’s time in government from 2015-19 it carried out a relatively moderate social democratic programme where it could, such as by lightening some of the austerity burden and by pursuing a more conciliatory policy to North Macedonia, but did not act in as radical a manner as expected, as they did not end Greek participation in the Euro or austerity measures, or make any attempt to undermine NATO; this shows that more left-wing outfits do, under the pressure of governing, resort to more moderate social democratic policies and thus that even if traditional social democratic parties are replaced, their replacements carry out similar policies. Even if the parties do not collapse but are merely considerably weakened, as the PS in Portugal was in 2011 (winning 28% of the vote, their lowest total since 1991), remaining relatively so in 2015, they can still run a relatively normal social democratic government; in 2015 the PS allied with smaller, much more left-wing parties such as the Left Bloc to form a government (creating the “Geringonca”, or “contraption”), and yet this government remained soft-left, replacing austerity only slowly with no major radical actions. Thus social democracy sees a future even in parts of Europe where it has weakened and been overtaken by or must be buttressed with more left-wing movements, as these movements moderate once in power, resulting in the continuation of social democratic governments in Europe even with weaker social democratic parties.

The fourth reason to hope for a future for social democracy in Europe combines the current moment in the political cycle that Europe finds itself in, and the nature of many of the parties that have taken votes from them in the last decade; in a lot of cases they are populist parties driven to electoral success by a charismatic leader, and in the long term once their leaders step down they struggle in a way that established parties (such as social democrats) do not. For example in the UK in 2015 UKIP won 12.6% of the vote under an influential leader, Nigel Farage, taking many votes from Labour (although not nearly to the extent that they collapsed); however at the following election, once he had stepped down, UKIP won a mere 1.8% of the vote (with a higher % of 2015 UKIP voters voting Labour than voting for UKIP in 2017). This demonstrates the dependency on specific personalities that the populist parties across Europe (that decimate the social democratic vote) have. Another clear example is Italy, where in 2013 the PD went from 33.8% of the vote in the prior election of 2008 to 25.5%, and then 18.8% in 2018, due to the surge in support for the populist M5S party (which won 25.6% in 2013 and 32.7% in 2018) which was founded by popular comedian Beppe Grillo. However, as the comedian took a more back-seat role, and the party entered government, it rapidly lost support in the opinion polls, and from May 2019 until the time of writing has been polling consistently behind the PD2; this demonstrates the weakness of populist parties once their popular leadership leaves, and thus provides hope for social democracy in Europe by showing it can outlast these populist outfits and regain support lost to them. In terms of the political cycle, movements and parties across post-war Europe have seen times of great strength and great weakness; currently social democracy is facing a moment of weakness. However, recent evidence suggests this is temporary. For parties of the centre-right the late 1990s and early 2000s across much of Europe was a bad time; in the UK the Conservatives won a mere 30.7% of the vote in 1997, their lowest post-war share, and in Austria the OVP fell into 3rd place in 1999 with only 26.9% of the vote; both now head governments in their respective countries, and in each countries’ 2019 elections the Conservatives won 43.6% of the vote, and the OVP 37.5%. For the social democratic SPD in Germany the 1980s and early 1990s was a time of poor showings at the polls, with the party finishing 10 points behind the CDU/CSU in both the 1983 and 1990 elections; however in 1998 they won 40.9% of the vote and went on to head governments until 2005. Thus the evidence implies that parties fall and rise on a cycle, and so temporary social democratic weakness now does not at all bar them from future success; in the same vein, temporary strength of populist parties based on personality is not a long term threat to social democrats in Europe.

In conclusion, there are 4 key reasons, backed up by evidence from across Europe, that social democracy does indeed have a future in the continent. The specific cause of their recent unpopularity implies a temporary setback, rather than long-term decline; thus they can (and have begun to) bounce back. Added to this is the fact that across Europe social democrats remain in government, either leading coalitions or taking part in them, and the number doing so has begun to increase again in the last 5 years; as well as this even when they are replaced by or reliant on those parties further to the left, once in government those parties hew to a much more social democratic line than would be expected. The final reason combines the nature of their competition and the political cycles that have brought them low; their opposition is strong now, but only due to populist personalities and the current moment in the political cycle, both of which are the evidence suggests are short term factors. It is for these reasons this essay argues that there is indeed hope for social democracy in Europe.

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