by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 23
June 2022
Debate
11:15

The myth of the centre-Left ‘revival’

Liberal publications keep making the wrong predictions
by Peter Franklin
He doesn’t stand a chance. Credit: Getty

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.

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Peter B
Peter B
2 days ago

These delusional predictions are down to a simple fact: journalists are – for the most part – now active campaigners and not reporters. Their mission is to define a “narrative” and attempt to make that normal so it gradually becomes reality. Reporting things as they are died in the late 1980s.
Back to the core of the article. It would be interesting to know if there is some research about the proportion of people who are actively voting for a party (or set of beliefs) versus those who are voting against a party (or set of beliefs). My suspicion is that we have drifted into a world where the voting against approach has become increasingly important. Indeed, I would suggest that Boris Johnson in 2019 was a huge beneficiary from this. Also, that the recent increase in current Labour polls is down to the same reason. And how else to explain the Liberal Democrat by-election win in Chesham where their candidate campaigned against HS2 (which the Lib Dems as a party support and is now irreversible in the Chilterns (the tunnel is largely built) ?
Given that voting against behaviour is probably inherently more volatile than voting for, it is no suprise that politics is so fluid in Europe.
To be really successful, I suspect you need to be able to appeal to both voting for and voting against groups. It’s arguable that both Thatcher and Blair were able to do this. Boris Johnson seems to have lost connection with much of his voting for support. Keir Starmer looks like he has a weak appeal to both groups.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
2 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’ve always regarded elections as merely an opportunity to vote for the least worst option. After all, no one gets the government they want, not even party leaders since manifestos are inevitably compromises.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

“It would be interesting to know if there is some research about the proportion of people who are actively voting for a party”

That’s a really good point. I’ve tried to do some research on the collapse of the Lib Dem vote after the coalition government. Lord Ashcroft’s polling found that many Lib Dems central identity wasn’t that they were Lib Dems but that they weren’t Labour or Tories. They derived a certain satisfaction from been able to say “don’t blame me , I voted Lib Dem” once in power, they abandoned the party in disgust when forced to implicate themselves in hard choices of government. I suspect we will see the Green Party increasingly playing this role going forward. Which will actually probably play into the Tories hands, as left of centre voters who don’t want see the consequences of a Labour-SNP-Lib Dem government, chose it as an opt out.

bill hughes
bill hughes
2 days ago

Eisenhower set the trend for post war politics, with his offer a chicken in the fridge and 2 cars on the drive for every American (or something like that). The point is, it was a ‘social contract’ that made sense: vote for us and things’ll get better for you. And until about the Reagan-Thatcher era, that was a credible proposition. But now, whether its because of their own ideas or incompetence or market forces, political ‘elites’ simply don’t deliver for ordinary people. Most have experienced 25 years of stagnant wages, the benefits of mass immigration, collapsing public services, and a handful of people getting rich in a way unimaginable 40 odd years ago. So yes, they are going to give the ‘populists’ a try. Why not, when all the ‘elite’ can offer is rubbish that no-one wants and seems not to benefit the plain man.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 days ago

Britain’s conservative government is not centre left, it is draconian woke extreme left

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 days ago

Absolutely agreed, but for whom do we now vote

Jim Jam
Jim Jam
2 days ago

Its amusing to see the left scratching their heads or reacting with hysterical anger and/or despair at the ground being gained across the western world by right leaning populists.

What they don’t seem to realise (or simply cant bring themselves to accept) is the simple fact that if one makes strenuous, continous efforts to shift the overton window, the people who politically speaking stay still become opponents.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
2 days ago

Canada, Australia and NZ seem to buck the trend, and the US in part, if the ability to rig an election counts.

David George
David George
2 days ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

The Australian Labor party had a poor result in the recent election, that they managed to form a government is down to the rise of independents under their preferential voting system. In New Zealand Labour support has collapsed despite the continuing (and thoroughly undeserved) popularity of their leader.
Things are pretty bad here (NZ) with every social and economic metric getting worse and an ongoing divisive, and deeply unpopular, racial separatist agenda being forced on the people. Labour are toast, unfortunately the next election is over a year away.
I can’t comment on Canada.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 days ago
Reply to  David George

I’m willing to wager that Labour will win the next election in NZ. While Arderns popularity was never going to stay at the high levels she enjoyed at the start of her tenure, especially during a worldwide recession, the opposition are absolutely clueless.
Tax cuts for top earners (who already pay a much lower rate of income tax than most first world countries) as well as tax cuts for landlords and property speculators during a housing crisis aren’t likely to win them the working class votes they need to attract to win the next election. An austerity drive and wage freezes when more people are experiencing a cost of living crisis will be an electoral disaster

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
23 hours ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

I suspect Canada may just be behind the curve a little. There seems to be increasing unrest in terms of the Liberals approach. We’ve not been lucky in our Conservative Party leaders of late which also has an impact.
I don’t think Biden would have won had Trump been a little more careful. I know a few people who voted for Biden, without really wanting to, their main worry with Trump was that he was unstable.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 days ago

Only this week the Washington Post ran an article on the resurgence of the left after various elections in South America leaving the USA on the sidelines. It seems a bit desperate given the tumultuous nature of South American politics to be looking there for leadership of the left.