The Left in Europe: A House Divided

The center left in Europe is ceding ground almost everywhere. The British Labour Party not only lost the May 2015 elections but then threw itself into the arms of Jeremy Corbyn. Barring a Brexit debacle for the ruling conservatives, Labour is unlikely to return to power in the next decade despite Corbyn’s success at recruiting new party activists. The Spanish socialist workers party (PSOE), having been weakened by widespread corruption, jettisoned its leader and looks ready to offer tacit support for a minority government led by the conservative Popular Party (PP) to avoid facing the voters this December.

The British and Spanish cases are hardly unique. The latest polls suggest that the Dutch Party of Labour will lose some 28 of its 38 seats in parliament when the Netherlands holds national elections in March of next year. French President Francois Hollande is expected to drop out after the first round of the presidential elections the following May. If he does, Hollande will leave Marine Le Pen from the far-right National Front to face whomever stands for the center-right. The German Social Democrats are also losing ground and may struggle to form another grand coalition with the center-right Christian Democrats next autumn. The Christian Democrats may well prefer to coalesce with the Greens and the Liberal FDP if the numbers add up. By contrast, the Italian Democratic Party looks like a pillar of strength. Even there, however, recent polls suggest the center-left is losing ground to the populist Five Star Movement.

The reason this is happening is not that Europeans have suddenly shifted to the right. Rather it is that that the left is everywhere weak and divided. The Scottish nationalist party broke the British Labour Party with its left-leaning economic agenda in Scotland long before the UK Independence Party tried to pick up some of the pieces in the north of England. The real enemy of the PSOE is not the PP but Podemos (which has a left-leaning support base despite pretending not to be of the Left). The Dutch Party of Labour is losing votes to center-left liberals, the green left, and a new political movement representing people over the age of 50. The French Socialists have to contend with several challengers to the left; the German social democrats have to hold off Die Linke while losing votes to the Greens. (The return of the liberal FDP should be counted as a rightward shift in Germany, but the combined vote shares of the center-right Christian Democrats and the more right-wing Alternative for Germany is expected to come out lower next autumn than it did in 2013).

This division on the left of the political spectrum is unsurprising. The problem for center-left politicians is that the ‘Left’ means too many different things. While the ‘Right’ can focus on protecting market relationships, traditional values, and national identity, the Left has to wrestle with a complex agenda that ranges from worker protection to equality of opportunity, and from preservation of the environment to acceptance alternative lifestyles and cultures. Moreover, within this broad agenda, the Left has multiple traditions and cultures of its own – communist, non-communist, Christian Democratic, green and libertarian.

This diversity on the Left is a source of richness but it also creates division and conflict. The European Left (and, hence also center-left) is often its own worst enemy. The combined vote shares of the center-left and left-wing parties actually increased over their previous performance hen Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean- Marie, beat the French Socialist Lionel Jospin into the second round of the May 2002 French Presidential elections. Moreover, that conflict tends to intensify when center-left governments try to engage in sweeping reforms (and so provoke controversy among their own ranks). The collapse of the German SPD between 2002 and 2009 is a good illustration. The party did not lose voters to the Right so much as it triggered the defection of a substantial number of its own members to form Die Linke with the remnants of the East German communists. The victory of Ed Milliband in the 2010 Labour Party leadership contest after more than a decade of New Labour in Britain is worth noting as well. Ed Milliband defeated his more popular brother with the support of traditionalists among the trade unions. This both alienated much of the party’s center and pulled the membership to the left. Corbyn’s leadership is a continuation (and exaggeration) of that trend.

There is no easy formula for unifying the center-left. On the contrary, it may be easier for the center-left to vanish into ineffectiveness. The performance of the Austrian social democrats in the first round of the country’s recent presidential elections is one illustration. The collapse of the center left in Hungary and Poland is even worse. The question is whether the center left elsewhere in Europe will choose to unite or face disintegration. We know that the center-left is ceding ground; what center-left politicians will do about that remains to be seen.

This article was originally published in Italian as: ‘Il male oscuro della sinistra europea,’ Panorama (19 October 2016) pp. 26-27.