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Can social democracy survive?

Across much of the West, Tony Blair's beloved project is on life support. Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Across much of the West, Tony Blair's beloved project is on life support. Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

September 27, 2018   8 mins

Across much of the West, social democracy is in decline. At a string of recent elections, centre-Left social democratic parties have tumbled to historic lows. In Germany, social democrats are not only trailing the national populist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), but are on barely 17% in the polls. Were that figure replicated at the next election, it would mark the centre-Left’s worst showing since 1887.

In Sweden, social democrats just ‘won’ the election, but astute observers will know that they did so with only 28% of the vote, their lowest since 1908. In Italy, meanwhile, the centre-Left has slumped to 15% in the polls, their lowest on record. In the Czech Republic, they just polled 7%, their lowest share since the arrival of democracy in the early 1990s. In Poland they are down to 5%, another record low.

Certainly, there are exceptions. American Democrats enthusiastically point to Hillary Clinton’s larger share of the popular vote, while British Corbynistas point to the fact that last year Labour attracted its highest share of the vote since Tony Blair’s second landslide in 2001. But the awkward fact remains that these movements too are out of power. And this in turn owes much to the way in which large numbers of their working-class voters without degrees defected to the opposition, whether to Donald Trump, in key swing states such as Michigan, or to Theresa May’s Conservative Party, in industrial seats such as Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent South.

Furthermore, neither the Democrats nor Corbynistas seem to have an answer to the question of how, over the long-term, they can sustain and mobilise both their culturally liberal, degree-holding middle-class supporters, and their more socially conservative workers.

That social democracy more generally has not found an answer to this question is reflected in its stubbornly persistent decline. Back in 2000, for example, Left-wing parties governed 10 of the 15 states that at that time comprised the EU. But today they are only in power in four of the much larger 28 (soon to be 27) member states. Furthermore, and with the exception of Spain, these outliers include Luxembourg, Malta and Portugal, which, with all due respect, are not exactly major powers. So, apart from having to figure out how to hold together markedly different (or some might say irreconcilable) sets of views among their followers, increasingly it appears that social democrats are faced with a more pressing question: how to prevent a total wipe-out.

Of course, you don’t hear much about any of this from centre-Left, middle-class types in Britain who dream of reviving the economically and socially liberal Third Way and replicating what they see as its natural successor: Macron’s surge in France. Those such as  Tony Blair, David Miliband and Lord Adonis conveniently gloss the fact that across much of the West their beloved project is on life support while even where it has been successful, as in France, Macron’s ratings have crashed to just 29%.

So why did all of this happen? I think the answer has two parts. The first is rooted in a gamble that was made by social democrats in the 1990s. The second is reflected in how today’s political issue agenda has been radically transformed.

Let’s begin with the gamble. Among others, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schröder all essentially calculated that they could win over the newly-ascendant groups that had an increasingly loud voice in our media, public and political debates – university graduates, ethnic minorities and the professional middle-class. The demands of the newly ascendant were not just heard but addressed by a plethora of New Left politicians, movements and lobby groups that together entrenched a new liberal consensus.

This basically celebrated mass immigration and the expansion of minority rights, prioritised supranational integration over the nation-state, felt at ease with economic liberalism, and constructed social norms in society that framed any dissent or questioning of these processes as ignorance or bigotry. At least in the short-term, the result was electoral success.

While targeting the newly-ascendant groups, these figures also shared a fateful assumption that other groups in society – the left behind, left out and unheard – essentially had nowhere else to go. Either their votes were piled up in historically safe bastions or there was an absence of credible competitors. As we now know, this was a major miscalculation.

To understand, we need to consider a second change in the political issue agenda. Unlike the 1990s and early 2000s, as the West passed through the early years of the 21st century – through rising levels of immigration, the global financial crash, a pan-European refugee crisis and new terrorist attacks – the priority list of voters began to change in important ways. Unlike the 1990s, when generally the economy and public services were seen to be the most important issues, by 2015-16 voters were now voicing much stronger worries over migration, borders, identity and security.

Across Europe, for example, immigration and terrorism were frequently seen as the top issues facing the EU, while in countries such as Britain, Austria, Sweden and Germany, there emerged evidence of intense public anxiety not only about how national communities were changing but about the pace of this change. Crucially, these issues often cut across traditional party allegiances.

So, by the time of the political shocks of 2016, the landscape had changed markedly. Indeed, we should have seen Trump and Brexit coming. Only a short time before these two events, between 40 and 50% of working-class Brits and white Americans had reached the same conclusion: ‘people like me have no say in government’. This concern was partly about political systems that were seen to be unresponsive

But it was also wrapped up in more specific worries about immigration, the move toward supranational institutions and the speed at which these disruptive changes were challenging established ways of life, communities and identities. These are worries that unite blue-collar workers and affluent traditional social conservatives, who not only feel unheard but also think far more about the nation and the group than their own economic self-interest –something that liberals have never really understood.

Thus, Blair found himself partly an architect of Brexit in the same way that the Democrats of the 1990s are at least partly an architect of Trump. By marginalising, if not dismissing, groups outside their own coalition they prepared the ground for an almighty backlash – and one that will be with us for a while yet.

For those on the Left, therefore, the intriguing question is where to go now? There are basically two schools of thought. One ‘comfort blanket’ school of thought argues that amid the likes of Brexit, Trump and national populism in Europe, social democrats simply have to wait for generational change to deliver a fresh electorate of newly-ascendant groups.

This is most often heard in the US, where strategists contend that minorities and millennials will soon propel Democrat after Democrat into the White House. It is a seductive argument, not least because it does not require anybody actually to deal with the grievances that led people to vote for Trump. But it is also fatally flawed. When 43% of white millennials in the US opted for Trump, and Marine Le Pen picked up most of her support from the under-40s, it does not take a seasoned data analyst to unpick the obvious problems.

An alternative and far more interesting approach basically contends that the Left has to wake up to the new reality by fundamentally overhauling its position. Aufstehen in Germany, which translates as ‘Stand Up’ or ‘Rise Up’, is doing this. More of a network than a party, it has opened its arms to the radical Left, social democrats, the Greens and the unaffiliated. It has made public its intention of winning over people who either abandoned the mainstream or came out of apathy to vote for the AfD, which last year polled nearly 13% and took more than 90 seats in the Bundestag1

Rise Up is interesting because it not only takes aim at the Left’s traditional targets, such as neoliberal economics, inequality, the erosion of the welfare state and foreign wars, but also ventures into territory that is largely uncharted and uncomfortable for Left-wingers. Some of its leaders, notably Sahra Wagenknecht, argue against open borders and the idea of allowing migrants unlimited access to Germany’s labour market.

She has also made Eurosceptic noises and linked terror attacks to Angela Merkel’s initially very liberal stance on the refugee crisis. Some of her arguments about the dangers of the mass inward migration of low-skilled workers would find support among the “Lexit” tradition in Britain, which never really found its full expression during the 2016 referendum, and among the Blue Labour camp, which has similarly struggled to fulfil its early promise of triggering a broad debate in Labour about faith, flag and family.

Unsurprisingly, Wagenknecht has won praise from the AfD as well as some national populist magazines, all of which will feed the charge that her movement is “populist-lite”. But amid continuing losses at elections, it is the ideological mix of cultural conservativism and economic interventionism that has at least got some wondering whether the Left might have finally struck upon a formula that is more suited to the current era. A point at which public concerns about identity and borders easily trump worries about jobs, GDP and the economy.

Wagenknecht and her colleagues are not the only ones to be sensing the changing winds. In the United States, the (conservative) American Muslim writer Reihan Salam has called for politicians on both the Left and Right to accept reduced immigration and stronger integration policies in order to fend off growing polarisation and segregation; it’s an argument that would find support from the likes of David Goodhart in Britain, who also views immigration control and an assimilationist cultural nationalism as key to preserving ongoing public support for welfare. Elsewhere in Europe, social democrats are also merging the traditional call for economic redistribution with a decidedly more culturally conservative pitch on immigration and integration.

In Sweden, social democracy defeated national populism only after promising to halve the number of refugees, curb welfare for unsuccessful asylum-seekers, strengthen identity checks, prohibit failed asylum-seekers who do not leave the country voluntarily from ever returning to Sweden, and allow migrants only to fill jobs that cannot be filled by native Swedes.

Similarly in Denmark – albeit a traditionally conservative state – the ruling government has just announced a suite of tough policies to eliminate ‘parallel societies’ or ‘ghettos’ by 2030, which have been implicitly supported by the centre-Left social democrats. They, too, recently toughened up their stance on immigration, arguing that their traditional working-class voters should be protected from immigrants who would otherwise compete for jobs and places in schools.

There is no doubt that the same ideological mix could find a receptive audience elsewhere, including here in Britain.

It is no coincidence, for example, that Prime Minister Theresa May was riding high in the polls and overseeing successful incursions into Labour areas at the 2017 local elections when she promised to tackle both burning (economic) injustices and reform immigration, amid the delivery of Brexit. Similarly, recent polling by YouGov concluded that while there is space for a new party in Britain, it is unlikely to be filled by anti-Brexit centrists preaching to urban, professional, FT-reading liberals.

Rather, the top five issues on which the ranks of the unheard were largest pointed in a direction where one might yet find a UK-equivalent to Wagenknecht: (1) toughening up the justice system; (2) introducing a more restrictive immigration policy; (3) ending military interventions abroad; (4) more regulation for big business; and (5) curbing welfare benefits.

It would though be a mistake to view this polling in isolation. Rather, it should be seen alongside other evidence that large numbers of Brits are openly sceptical about capitalism, executive pay, tax avoidance and the banks, while large numbers agree that globalisation is fuelling social inequalities and more than seven in 10 back the nationalisation of utilities and rail, all views that are fairly widespread in Europe today. Stick a more economically protectionist wing on the Conservative Party or even UKIP, or a more culturally conservative wing on Labour, and you are beginning to fill this space.

Indeed, I have no doubt that one reason why Jeremy Corbyn did not suffer more working-class losses at the 2017 general election is precisely because he preached economic interventionism while at least recognising the need to respect the Brexit vote and reform freedom of movement. Had Corbyn instead called, à la Blair, to reverse the vote while making the case for open borders, then the result would likely have been very different, just as it would had Prime Minister May followed up her promise to tackle burning injustices with concrete action and a competent campaign.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Democrats might yet experience another profound loss should they fail to reconnect with white workers while doubling down on identity politics and hyper-liberalism. So far, there seems to be little interest in engaging in the actual cause of the first defeat.

Can social democracy survive? Perhaps – by putting itself in uncomfortable territory and speaking not only to people’s need for protection from the excesses of economic globalisation but also to their clear desire for a greater degree of protectionism in the cultural and social sphere.

It could advocate for slowing the pace of change, lowering migration, improving integration, recognising that such requests do not amount to racism and bigotry, and triggering a broader debate about the extent to which the current economic and social settlement really is fair for all. But if it fails to acknowledge such concerns, it’s hard to see it finding a way back.

  1.  Many of these votes came from traditional bastions of the Left in Eastern Germany, where it was the national populists who emerged as the most popular party among men.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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