All across the developed world, mainstream centre-left parties are in decline. In France, the Netherlands and Greece, they have ceased to be even remotely relevant. In countries like Ireland and Italy, they have been replaced by left-wing populist movements- Sinn Fein and M5S respectively. In France and to a lesser extent Spain, they have been replaced by centrist, pro-EU parties. Even in the best-cases, such as Portugal and Sweden, the centre-left governs in fractious coalitions with more left-wing parties. There are several reasons for this, which I will explain. But apart from in countries like the US and the UK, where the voting system and political culture only allows for two viable national parties, I think the fate of the international centre-left is all but sealed.
To a very large extent, the decline of the left is result of the declining economic performance of the developed world. After WW2, most developed countries adopted the mixed economy, where private enterprise was permitted but highly regulated and the government controlled large swathes of the economy to achieve strategic aims and provide a comprehensive social insurance system. Although there have been some market-orientated reforms to the mixed economy in recent years, the overall structure of the economy has stayed the same. The problem is that in the 21st century, and particularly since the 2008 crash, the mixed economy has failed to provide for the needs of the masses. Wage growth is virtually stagnant, inequality is generally increasing, and the national welfare systems seem powerless to protect the working class against the might of international capital and the forces of globalised free trade. The traditional welfare state can no longer offer people the social security it once could, particularly as an ageing population is making welfare increasingly expensive and unsustainable.
The social democratic parties of Europe have traditionally relied on the support of the working class. But over time, the relative size of the working class has shrunk, and a vast proportion of people now consider themselves middle class. This has been caused by a decline in traditional manufacturing and agricultural jobs, and an increase in professional jobs that require a degree. These well-heeled professionals don’t feel the allegiance to the centre-left their working class parents would have done. Alongside the decline of the working class numerically has been the decline of working class culture. Trade unions, working man’s clubs and small-town pubs and community centres have all diminished. As a result, the centre-left no longer has a visceral appeal to the working class, who increasingly identify with either the soft patriotism of the centre-right, or the overt nationalism of the far-right.
Mostly importantly, there is a three-way division of those who used to support the quintessential centre-left policy programme. First are those who believe the current manifestation of the social market economy is insufficient to protect the working class against the global wealthy elite. Therefore, far more radical and overtly leftist measures are necessary. Amongst these modern socialists include Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras. Their supporters are diverse: they include young people who feel pessimistic and economically insecure, working class people who feel the brunt of automation and casual labour, and a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities, especially Muslims.
The second group are those who still believe in centre-left economics, but are much more passionate in their belief in internationalism, and in particular, the European Union. They strongly reject any notion of embracing nationalism and isolationism to win back disaffected working class former centre-left voters, preferring to focus on winning young professionals and middle-aged moderates. These people include Britain’s Liberal Democrats, Spain’s Citizens, and Macron in France. They are the most passionately pro-immigration of the three groups, yet they aren’t as popular with ethnic minorities as the leftist radicals; they have a reputation for being almost entirely white and middle class.
The third and perhaps the most interesting group are those who agree with the principles of the mixed economy, but vehemently reject the internationalism and free-trade ideas the centre-left has adopted more recently. They now vote for parties like Poland’s Law and Justice, Hungary’s Fidesz, or France’s Front National, who combine social democratic ideas like child tax credits and generous pensions with a nationalist approach to migration, law and order, and the EU. They tend to be working class, but are older and more nostalgic for a time when their status in society was greater and countries could act more independently.
My point is that the decline of the developed world’s economic performance, the decline of the working class, and the increasing divisions in what should be the centre-left’s natural supporters, mean that centre-left parties are increasingly outdated, and there is virtually nothing that can be done to reverse that trend. The only way our nations can thrive in a post-social democratic era is if our political systems allow for these new divisions to be represented fairly and proportionately. Trying to shut people down, or to downplay the salience of the centre-left’s fracturing, will only lead to disaster.