On Sunday, we’ll find out how members of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) voted on whether to enter into a ‘grand coalition’ with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).
Whichever way it goes, the vote is an absurdity. A grand coalition is an agreement between the major parties in a democracy to form a government (thereby leaving the minor parties in opposition).
Germany, however, only has one major party – Merkel’s lot. The Social Democrats have lost their old status and must be counted among the minor parties. Indeed, they can’t even count on being the biggest of the minor parties; some polls now show them on roughly the same share of the vote as the populist AfD.
How did it come to this, not just for the SPD, but for left-wing parties across Europe?
It’s a phenomenon that Jan Rovny contemplates in a blog post for the LSE’s EUROPP blog:
“Last year was an ‘annus horribilis’ for the European left. In Austria, France, and the Czech Republic, the left lost its governing position, and the same might occur in Italy in a few weeks. Today, only Portugal, Greece, Sweden, Slovakia, and Malta are governed by the left. The 2017 collapse was precipitous. The Dutch Workers’ party went from roughly 25% to 6%; the French Socialist Party went from roughly 30% to 7%. The Czech Social Democrats went from 20% to 7%. And the Czech Communist party saw its worst result in its almost 100-year history.”
Rovny’s conclusion is not just that the Left has lost its traditional voter base, but that this base no longer exists:
“These electorates did not so much ‘switch’ away from the left, they have rather disappeared as a comprehensible social group.”
What might seem like bad news for the Left, is therefore disastrous – because if winning back an alienated voter base is difficult, winning back a non-existent one is impossible.
But hang-on, these lost voters haven’t disappeared into thin air – they’re still around somewhere aren’t they? As people, yes they are – but what Rovny understands is that a voter base isn’t just the sum of its individual members:
“…the parties of the left have primarily leaned on a significant and relatively homogenous group of working class electorates. These electorates were since the late 19th century defined by a strong sense of group belonging, or ‘class consciousness’. This consciousness was constructed from the cradle and lasted to the grave. It was passed on from parents to children… Together with workers’ unions organising the work on factory floors, and later in offices, these organisations helped construct a working-class subculture that permeated the social as well as the political…”
This institutional understanding of the Left is really quite conservative. However, its leadership is now overwhelmingly liberal and/or radical – espousing value systems that advance by consuming institutions, including those that once underpinned working-class solidarity.
In my view, Rovny puts too positive a gloss on this process:
“…the left’s success precipitated its own demise in a dialectic fashion. First, the emancipation of the working class – primarily the extension of access to higher education – changed the working class and its dependence on left-wing subcultures and organisations”
I would argue that it was the left’s failure that wrecked working class institutions and thereby precipitated its own demise: The failure of welfarism. The failure of ‘progressive’ education. The failure of postwar urban planning. The failure to control the rate of immigration or to integrate immigrant communities. The failure to address, or even recognise, family breakdown. The failure to reform, as to opposed to merely extracting revenue from, crony capitalism.
Liberals of the Right are also complicit in these failures – indeed they usually lead the governments responsible. Thus we see a fracturing of the left-wing vote between insurgent parties of protest and (increasingly) junior parties of government.
Of course, the Left could reject either of these options and commit itself to the rebuilding of institutions and a coherent programme for the reform of capitalism. However, that would require a degree of self-criticism that appears to exceed current capabilities.
Perhaps the Right will get there first.
The centre-left will never defeat European populism if it fails to first understand it
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