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The biggest loser? State of the left in the age of right-wing populism

While Europe’s renewed rightwards turn presents the Left with a range of difficult challenges, it also creates opportunities. Español

lead Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa speaks during a bi-monthly debate at the Portuguese parliament,Lisbon in March, 2018. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved. Across the European continent, support for the populist radical right has increased over the last three decades. Even in countries that had seemed immune to such tendencies for decades, including FinlandSweden and, above all, Germany, right-wing populist parties have made their way into the political arena. On the other side of the political spectrum, support for centre-left parties appears to be in free fall. Following the substantial losses suffered by social democratic parties in the Netherlands, France and Germany, the Italian centre-left Democratic Party (PD) was recently outflanked by populists by losing nearly 7 percentage points (down to 19 percent overall) in the 2018 general elections. In the light of these developments, the future looks bleak for the mainstream left.

The decline of Europe’s social democrats on the one hand, and the surge of the far right, on the other, tend to be presented as two correlated trends. However, electoral politics is not a zero-sum-game where gains made by one party can simply be explained by the losses of another. While social democratic parties have suffered major blows in numerous countries, they are not in decline everywhere. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the UK Labour Party has crowned itself a ‘government-in-waiting’ after booking a net gain of 30 seats by winning 40 percent of the vote in the 2017 general elections – their strongest result since 2001. On the continent, the Walloon Parti Socialiste remains the largest party in francophone Belgium, despite losing support earlier this year over a series of corruption scandals. Meanwhile, the mainstream left is flourishing in Portugal. It is clearly too early to bid farewell to social democracy. 

Party systems across Europe have become more fragmented, thereby making electoral politics increasingly volatile and hence less predictable. Moreover, the decline of the mainstream left cannot simply be attributed to the rise of the radical right. Social democratic parties have lost votes to parties across the political spectrum. In sum, political fragmentation affects all parties, and the vote-swing from social democrats to the populist radical right should not be exaggerated. 

What is Left?

The causes for the electoral losses suffered by social democratic parties in recent decades are manifold, including partisan dealignment and an overall decline in their core electorate. This incentivised social democratic parties to broaden their voter base by moving to the political centre in order to appeal to the growing middle class. This, in turn, paved the way for a period of centrist politics that became widely known as the ‘Third Way’. 

Towards the end of the twentieth century, the ideological convergence between centre-left and centre-right gave rise to a number of centrist coalition governments. While these ‘grand coalitions’ (and the policies they promulgated) worked well initially, they ultimately paved the way for populist challengers. Political convergence generally forces parties to compromise their ideals by agreeing on a lowest common denominator. This is likely to frustrate voters who feel that they are being robbed of a real choice.

In the light of these developments, what does the future hold for Europe’s social democratic parties? Is the Left doomed? There are no easy answers to these questions; given the splintering of the left’s electorate, there certainly is no such thing as a silver bullet to win back voters. However, in the face of rising inequality, the faltering support for social democratic parties cannot be attributed to a lack of demand. Instead, the problem seems to be a shortage of supply – notably the absence of a credible left-wing alternative. The centrifugal forces of the past have opened up space for such an alternative. To use the words of the American critical theorist Nancy Fraser, we are facing ‘an interregnum, an open and unstable situation in which hearts and minds are up for grabs. In this situation, there is not only danger but also opportunity: the chance to build a new new left.’

What might this reincarnated Left look like? In many European countries, mainstream parties (including those of the centre-left) have sought to counter the rise of right-wing populist parties by cosying up to them – either by entering into coalitions with them, or by copying some of their policy items. For instance, in the run-up to the 2018 general elections, the ruling Social Democrats in Sweden recently announced that they want to impose stricter regulations on immigration. Following a logic of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, mainstream parties may seek to decrease the political space towards the populist radical right, in the hope that this might help them win (back) voters that may otherwise choose the far right.

While these accommodative strategies may benefit centre-right parties, they are particularly risky for the left. Firstly, voters are likely to prefer the original over the copy. Secondly, by cosying up to the populist radical right, left-wing parties will likely end up alienating some of their most loyal voters. Besides, cosying up to right-wing populist parties may even result in legitimising them. 

Another option for the left might be a rejuvenated form of centrism, such as the one proposed by Emmanuel Macron with his En Marche movement. Not unlike the leaders of the ‘Third Way’, the French President has managed to appeal to voters from both sides of the political spectrum by insisting that he is both right and left (“et droite, et gauche”), and by seeking to reconcile a socially progressive vision with a neoliberal economic agenda. His vision may become clearer in the months and years to come, as Macron seeks to transpose his ideas to the European level in the runup to the 2019 European elections. However, thus far, Macron’s movement is not meaningfully divergent from what the centre-left has been trying for the past decades. His ‘middle of the road’ strategy, trying to be everything to everyone, is unlikely to succeed in the long run, as political convergence risks satisfying nobody and may end up alienating voters on both sides of the political spectrum. 

A third and perhaps more hopeful solution for the Left is to move away from the centre and (re)turn to the traditional tenets of left-wing politics. There are different possibilities for such a leftwards turn. The Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, for instance, has argued that left-wing populism is the only viable solution to revitalise the Left and counter the right-wing populist tide. According to Mouffe, centre-left parties cannot offer a solution to rescue progressivism because they were complicit in the creation of a neoliberal order. To put it bluntly, the centre-left is part of the problem; after all, ‘Third Way’ policies resulting from decades of consensual politics failed to give a voice to voters on the left. To Mouffe, democratic politics is a struggle between adversarial groups – that is, the people and the elites – over full control of the political terrain. Populism, she argues, is the only way to give a voice back to ‘the people’. 

However, a populist solution to salvage the future of progressive politics is risky at best because it involves polarisation by deepening the rift between ‘us’ and ‘them’. After all, populism hinges on a belief in societal division, as it pits the pure and virtuous people against a morally corrupt and evil elite. To be sure, in small doses, populism can act as a political corrective. Indeed, it can flag up public discontent and issues that may otherwise go unaddressed. However, populism tends to leave very little room for nuance and pluralism.

The future of progressive politics

Any viable, long-term solution for the challenges that left-wing parties are facing will require overcoming societal divisions by combining expertise with a deep, genuine concern for what voters actually want. It will involve finding ways to re-establish trust in politicians by bridging the gap that has emerged between representatives and voters. To do so, the left ought to start by rethinking what it actually stands for. This is likely to require a difficult combination of being able to detect problems locally whilst offering transnational answers. This, in turn, will involve addressing thorny questions, including whether to operate at a national or pan-European level

Above all, the left must find creative ways to promote people’s interest in democratic decision-making. It will involve overcoming factionalism and restoring coalitions between their splintered electorate, for instance by fostering alliances between working class voters, trade unions and urban, middle-class intellectuals. Lessons from Portugal and Wallonia indicate that this could bear some promise. These two polities have yet to witness the rise of a successful right-wing populist challenger party. The failure of the far right in these regions can partly be explained by the fact that social democratic parties have not moved too far to the centre, thus maintaining close ties to their core voters. This suggests that social democratic parties could act as ‘buffers’or ‘protective shields’ to the far right – but only if they manage to provide voters with a clear alternative.

About the author

Léonie de Jonge is a PhD Researcher at the Department of Politics & International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on right-wing populist parties in Western Europe. You can follow her on Twitter under @L_deJonge

Léonie de Jonge es investigadora doctoranda en el Departamento de Políticas y Estudios Internacionales de la Universidad de Cambridge. Su investigación se centra en los partidos populistas de derechas en Europa Occidental. Síguela en Twitter @L_deJonge


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