June 23, 2022 - 11:15am

Looking across the politics of entire western world, there are two trends that characterise the 21st century. Firstly, the rise of populist parties and politicians; and, secondly, the decline of the mainstream parties of the centre-Left. 

Because the cultural establishment is still dominated by Left-leaning liberals, it’s not surprising to see journalists, academics and other commentators clutching at straws. Any sign of life among Europe’s social democratic parties (plus the Democrats in America) is taken as evidence that a centre-Left revival is underway. 

One of the first to light this beacon of hope was George Eaton, of New Statesman. Writing in 2019, he cited developments in Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Denmark as evidence that a “quiet social democratic revival” was underway.   

Though Eaton was tentative in his conclusions, his article was followed by many others in the same vein. “Europe’s Social Democrats show signs of life” said the New York Times, “The West’s centre-left is having a moment” was the Washington Post headline; “New grounds for optimism,” proclaimed The Guardian. 

And to be fair to these various sources their optimism wasn’t entirely without foundation. Donald Trump was defeated in America, and there were election victories for the centre-Left in Germany and Norway. Some commentators, including the Guardian leader writers, theorised that the experience of Covid was taking politics in a more communal direction.

But, now, on the other side of the pandemic, things don’t look quite so rosy for the centre-Left. 

In America, President Biden’s ratings are abysmal and the Democrats are heading for disaster in the mid-terms. In Germany, the latest polls put the SPD back in third place — which is where they started last year, before the simultaneous implosions of both the Christian Democrat and Green election campaigns. Olaf Scholz was freakishly lucky to become Chancellor, but the underlying pattern of German politics is reasserting itself. 

In France, there’s been a lot of talk of a resurgent Left. This overlooks the fact that the once dominant Socialists actually lost seats in the legislative elections on Sunday. Most of the Left-wing gains were made by the Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI party — the French centre-Left is now an appendage to a bunch of anti-establishment Eurosceptics.

Meanwhile in Spain, the socialists have suffered a second stunning defeat in the southern region of Andalusia. This was the socialist heartland — the Spanish equivalent of the Red Wall — but now the conservative Popular Party rules the region with an absolute majority. As for Italy, the Right — which is dominated by two populist parties — is still on course to form the next government. 

Meanwhile in Eastern Europe, Viktor Orbán had no trouble seeing off the opposition challenge in this year’s general election. In Poland, the social democrats are making no progress at all; and in Czechia they lost all of their seats.

Looking across Europe as a whole, the brightest spot for social democracy is Brexit Britain — where Labour leads the opinion polls. That means that the viability of the revival narrative now mainly depends on Keir Starmer — which says it all really. 

Note: Post edited to correctly refer to George Eaton, not Stephen Bush, as the author of the New Statesman article.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.