Can Europe Make It?

The left's way forward

Why modern social democracy must be flexible and multifaceted if the left wishes to reclaim power in Europe.

Alessio Colonnelli
30 July 2015

The Danish Alternative (Alternitivet). Wikipedia/public domain.If we take three major European social democratic parties: UK’s Labour, Germany’s SPD and Italy’s PD then some of you might well say – perhaps correctly – that all three are imbued with neoliberal ideas. That is to say, that they’ve forgotten their origins and that, therefore, they’re not particularly concerned with the issues of, for example, the precariat: the new struggling class masterfully depicted by the British economist Guy Standing, and others within society.

For instance, Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi, PD’s leader, showed just that with his 2014 Jobs Act, which will affect many young people negatively. Furthermore, the SPD’s opposition to the centre-right minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has, to put it mildly, not been very vocal with regards to Greece.

Across Europe new determined groups have rejected that line. While Podemos and Syriza are clearly the most conspicuous manifestations of this, you’ll also find one, for example, in seemingly unproblematic Denmark’s newly founded The Alternative. Commentators crassly label Podemos and Syriza as “radical”, having, in their minds, arbitrarily shifted the political centre elsewhere. Whatever your views, however, these two southern European parties have garnered momentum by opposing the Spanish and Greek equivalents of the big three above, PSOE and PASOK respectively.

Whilst you may argue that PSOE is still influential, PASOK is clearly dead and buried. While Podemos, hoping to claw some centre vote consensus, refuses to be called leftist, its leaders are openly sympathetic towards Syriza’s endeavours. Greece’s PM Alexis Tsipras has had to accept the Eurogroup’s diktat. The turbo-neoliberal thinking pervading Europe’s higher spheres is clearly a nut impossible to crack and Syriza was broken up instead.

So what is all this leading to? It’s difficult to say. It appears as though the big three mentioned at the beginning (plus their Dutch and French equivalents) feel distanced from their past legacies and fundamental values. Their current policies do, however, emerge from multifaceted parties that actually try their best to keep the broader centre-left afloat.

Conservative forces rule Europe now. As an added bonus, right-wing populism props them up. True, social democracy is following them by abandoning even the centre (forget any left field notions), venturing into the choppy waters of the enemy’s territory. Variegated and flexible: today these are social democracy’s vital assets. It’d be six feet under without them.

So, isn’t this just the best way to try and claw power back? Labour, for instance, is strong enough to remain intact whilst still allowing a broad spectrum within itself without imploding (see for example Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising candidacy set against Harriet Harman’s latest welfare bill strategy).

Nevertheless, it’s not always plain sailing; far from it. A recent Guardian editorial about Labour noted that “the loss of marginal seats means fewer MPs having regular constituency contact with swing voters”. In this way the “party closes itself off to outsiders and alienates moderate supporters.” Aspiring to govern a country? Ambitious parties need to get the votes in. Unchecked moral high-grounds can, instead, lead to cultural marginalisation. Labour seems to remember this; if only just.

SPD and PD have also become monoliths following Labour’s (New Labour’s?) recipe, even if it is a shame that neither have women leading them. Whilst PD is certainly more troubled than its German counterpart, to put it simply: that’s Italy for you. Historically, squabbles do rip outfits apart from one day to the next in Italy, so PD’s actual size is in this respect is admirable.

Going through its deepest crisis since the 1978 Constitution, PSOE is resorting to precisely those contemporary assets, plus all other tactics available, to regain its former status, including the appointment of a relatively young leader (a man, again). Podemos will have a tough job snatching further consensus than it already has; they’re likely to form a coalition in autumn, with PSOE playing the bigger partner (unless energetic, centre-right Ciudadanos outperforms itself). PASOK – well it just couldn’t handle it. The Greeks inflicted a possibly deserved damnatio memoriae on it: a worst-case scenario example of what could happen to social democracy elsewhere.

So, are Europe’s big progressive parties capable of holding together while reinventing themselves? Hopefully yes. It’d be the leftists’ only chance; so-called “radicals” can help, of course, by contributing positively to government coalitions and influencing them from within, rather than by opposing social democracy out and out for its lack of dogma. This happened in Italy in the late ’90s when the communists brought down a perfectly functioning centre-left government; there was only Silvio Berlusconi after that, for many years - a spectacular waste.

Charming and energetic “radicals” seem to grow tetchy and unfocused once they get into power – are they scared by it? Can the broader left afford to be wrong-footed when playing in its own half? This is something that Tsipras would, deep down, agree with, especially after 13 July, but there remains a fast-growing minority who wouldn’t. It is here that the intrinsic, historical weakness of a frequently inflexible left lies – one that is now even infected with Euroscepticism. Has the left really lost sight of the way forward?

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