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The mirage of social democracy’s ‘resurgence’

A number of recent European election results show not a return to the centre, but a gathering of an increasing number of fragments out of which to construct governments, writes KEVIN OVENDEN

THE Norwegian and German general elections last September — the Portuguese last month.

Each, especially the last with the surprise majority for the centre-left prime minister Antonio Costa, has been taken as evidence of a revival of the European social democratic parties after nearly three decades of apparently inexorable decline.

Norway and Germany have social democratic-led governments replacing previous coalitions dominated by the centre right.

The centre left holds office across the Nordic countries and on the Iberian peninsula.

Optimists point to the rising polling for KiNAL in Greece, which is the successor party to Pasok and has taken support from both the governing New Democracy party and its predecessor in office, Syriza.

Taken together with Joe Biden’s and the Democrats’ election victories in the US over a year ago these have provided the basis for much transatlantic chatter about not only the return of social democracy, but the end of the political polarisation and the “populist” upheavals of the last decade. 

The German and Portuguese results also come with a prescription for other parties to pursue the kind of programme and politics that some hold to be responsible for those victories.

That is more attention to social welfare issues and class inequalities than the European centre left showed at the height of the neoliberal “Third Way” turn 25 years ago — but not a return to the labour politics of before then.

At that turning point it was largely centre-left parties in power across the EU and Britain.

They were the ones that accelerated privatisation programmes and modernisation of the welfare state through benefit “reform,” a huge assault on pensions and slashing labour rights. Unsurprisingly, it was those parties that bore the brunt of ensuing popular reaction.

The new concern for the inequalities in society is not some reversal of that period. It is to be carefully within the bounds of corporate capitalism and to rule out flatly the kind of deep, structural reforms or rupture with the neoliberal period the radical left has advocated.

For a British example, think of Labour’s windfall tax on energy profits but rejecting nationalisation, which is supported by about 60 per cent of the population. Even the tight conventional bounds were already shifting before the pandemic.

In notoriously penny-pinching Germany big business was urging greater state investment.

Biden’s infrastructure spending programme is the one that passed Congress in the US, where bridges falling down in one state or another is a regular occurrence.

His programme improving workers’ living standards was blocked even though the Democrats control Congress.

The huge level of state intervention into the economy due to Covid further moved the terms of reference as one economy after another has floated on a sea of central bank and government-generated cash.

But there are already ominous signs of economic stimulus being withdrawn, interest rates rising and a resulting debt crisis for states, companies and households.

However all of that pans out, two related questions are posed. Is there a new and successful model for the traditional governing left, both at elections and in government? And what does that mean for the radical left and those committed to more fundamental change?

If rumours of the death of social democracy 10 years ago were premature, heralding its renaissance would be light-minded indeed.

It was perhaps the dramatic collapse of Pasok in Greece in 2012 that encouraged a one-sided exaggeration of the demise of the centre left. Of course there was an acute decline in one country after another. But it was never true that that would lead simply to the disappearance of these parties.

The point about Greece is not that Pasok tip-toed off the stage. It was that there was a political force, Syriza, capable of shoving it into the orchestra pit.

That was not the case elsewhere. Even in Spain, where the insurgent party Podemos grew out of the 2011 revolt against austerity and the Movement of the Squares, it was not able to dislodge the centre-left PSOE.

When the wave of radical left advance faltered and in some countries began to retreat in the later 2010s, it revealed a much-diminished, but crucially extant, centre left with its decades-old bonds of loyalty at the base of society and its Establishment relations at the top.

In many cases, despite all its weaknesses, it was able to present itself as the leading force of all those who looked more leftwards in the conditions of sharpening political polarisation and radicalisation on the right exemplified by the rise of Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Antonio Costa in Portugal pointed to the rise of the far-right Chega party — whose leader got 12 per cent in last year’s presidential election — as a reason to vote to make the centre left the big winner in order to prevent a possible right/far-right administration. 

So the picture over the last 10 years is more mixed — certainly in Britain where, exceptionally, the political expression of radicalisation to the left in 2015 took place via the least likely political vehicle, the British Labour Party. 

An equally sober view today reveals immense limitations and contradictions confounding the story of a Lazarean resurrection of social democracy.

First, there is enormous unevenness and national specificity. A week after the Portuguese election, opinion polls in France put the centre-left candidate on just 1.5 per cent in the forthcoming presidential election. Christ himself would struggle with that resurrection. The radical left Jean-Luc Melenchon is on 13 per cent.

The Norwegian gain for the centre left came out of in fact losing a seat and with still historically low support, but thanks to serious gains by parties to its left. That produced a more fragmented parliament in which it could form a coalition — to its right. Similarly in other Nordic countries. 

The “great success” of the SPD in Germany amounted to going from 20 per cent to 25 per cent for the grand historic party of the country that used to poll well above 40 per cent. It too relied on a more fractured parliament that now requires three parties to form a government.

So there is not so much a resurgence of social democracy and a swing back to the centre. It is more the gathering of an increasing number of fragments out of which to construct governments.

That means, for example, that in Norway the new “left-of-centre” government is wholly committed to the oil industry thanks to whom it is in coalition and despite an actual swing to the left in the election. 

In Germany, the reform programme of the SPD helped it to take votes from Die Linke to its left last year. But it is in government with the ultra-free-market FDP (and the Greens) and has had to trim its already modest proposals.

The Portuguese prime minister boasts that he is free from reliance on the parliamentary votes of the radical left, which lost two-thirds of its seats.

He can now disburse EU Covid recovery funds so as to help big business and not in ways that would change the structural iniquities of the Portuguese economy.

For those hailing the “Portuguese model,” Costa is clear that he will govern little differently from the centre right (shorn of its radical elements).

There’ll be differences on social liberal rights, which Costa claims credit for even though the radical left pushed them. 

That is why the right-wing president and most of the media were happy to support him.

On policy and programme, the social democratic parties remain conventional and anti-radical. It’s just that the conventions are not exactly the same as 10 years ago.

On electoral success, there is no formula and more defeat than victory. The Nordic parties depended upon advances by the radical left. Germany and Portugal depended upon pillaging the radical left’s votes.

There is no evidence that those voters abandoned the transformative policy commitments they had voted for previously. It is much more that what was on offer in both instances was a government led by the social democrats with some ginger group pressure from radical left parties. Thus the radical left was squeezed electorally. 

It would be a mistake to read this as a social swing to the right. As big a mistake is to read the party opinion polling in Britain as an endorsement of the direction Keir Starmer is taking Labour. It is much more a reflection of people moving against the Tory government, as will likely be seen on the streets across Britain today.

What it does do is pose very sharply how the socialist left should respond. Here, the central issue is surely this: the radical left’s previous advances in all cases depended upon big social movements crashing against the crumbling old political system a decade or more ago.

In an attenuated form in the US, Bernie Sanders’s run in 2016 was the Occupy movement of 2011 going to the polls.

The renewal of the left and managing to hold advances rather than finding our energies and support absorbed by centrist government contraptions depends critically upon a return to those insurgent struggles of working people. 

It also means a better understanding and politics than flipping between the idea one minute that social democracy is going down the plug hole, and next that it is rejuvenating and is the only game in town.

Instead we need a more stable politics that is of and does not lose touch with the class struggles without which no progress is possible. 

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