Social democracy is back, according to jubilant SPD officials. And after Germany’s oldest political party edged the narrowest of wins against its conservative CDU/CSU rival, there is indeed a temptation to believe that Europe’s centre left is stirring.
Not everywhere, though: in France, the Socialist party shows no sign of recovering from its near-obliteration in 2017, when it failed to make the second round of the presidential election and crashed from 280 MPs to 30 and just 7.4% of the vote.
The Dutch Labour party (PvdA), another traditional centre-left party of government that collapsed to historic lows in 2017, winning less than 6% of the vote and losing three-quarters of its MPs, fared no better in parliamentary elections in March this year.
And in next month’s elections in the Czech Republic, the Social Democratic party (CSSD), which has won four of the past six elections and finished second in the rest, may fail to clear the 5% threshold needed for parties to return candidates to parliament.
But in Norway, after eight years out of power, Labour is in talks to form a left-leaning coalition, having emerged as comfortably the largest party in elections this month, a result that means all five Nordic governments should soon be led by social democrats.
On Sunday, Germany’s SPD staged its comeback, recovering from a catastrophic score of 20.5% five years ago – its lowest since 1949 – to narrowly beat the conservatives of the outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, with a swing of more than five percentage points.
Centre-left parties head coalition governments in Italy and Spain and are leading what looks increasingly like a functioning opposition in Hungary. Reports of the death of Europe’s centre left were perhaps somewhat exaggerated.
The 2008 financial crash and its fallout (high unemployment, low living standards, austerity and public spending cuts) combined with longer-term trends (globalisation, automation, immigration) to erode traditional centre-left support, especially for those parties unfortunate enough to find themselves in government.
Populist far-right parties, meanwhile, played to precisely those concerns, attracting historically centre-left voters. At the other end of the spectrum, a new anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, anti-establishment far left proved just as big a threat.
If all those factors may help to explain the centre left’s decline, the reasons for its cautious, uneven comeback – if that is what it is – look as varied and as uncertain.
After 16 years of conservative-led government in Germany and eight in Norway, the centre left (but also other parties) plainly benefited from voters’ desire for change. “There’s turnover, you know,” said Tarik Abou-Chadi, a political scientist at Zurich and Oxford universities. “It happens.”
Equally important is the continuing fragmentation of Europe’s politics, with small parties getting bigger and the mainstream parties of government – which once reliably won 40% of the vote and now struggle to pass 20% – shrinking.
With many more parties in parliament, relatively low scores can secure victory. But they also make it harder to govern. In Norway, Labour finished first, as it has in every election for nearly a century, but with its second worst score since 1924. The SPD’s vote share was barely half what it regularly won in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Sweden’s social democrats clung to power in 2018 with their worst performance since 1908.
“Actually, the parties of the mainstream right lost,” said Abou-Chadi. “The centre-left won, but they did so with historically low scores. In Germany, the left bloc grew for the first time since 1998, so we may be seeing an underlying shift. But mainly the mainstream right’s hitting its own structural crisis.”
Amid such fragmentation, he said, what matters is “who becomes the challenger party on the left. And that may not necessarily be the centre left. In Germany, until June it was clearly the Greens, but they slipped. In the Netherlands it turned out to be D66” – the progressive, socially liberal party that finished second.
Some centre-left politicians, including the SPD’s chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, and Norwegian Labour leaders, have seen a theme in the pandemic, which they argue has increased voters’ sense of social justice. Better pay and conditions for key workers in essential, unglamorous jobs was a central plank of the victorious centre-left campaigns in both countries.
Analysis of US and French election results suggests the pandemic boosted candidates from mainstream parties by as much as 15 points, in what academics call a “flight to safety” in times of anxiety, with centre-left parties more likely to benefit from voters’ desire for strong government institutions, high welfare spending and social unity.
Covid may also have helped knock back rightwing populist parties, half of which saw their support fall during the pandemic – if only by small amounts – as they struggled to adapt their anti-institutional message to the realities of the pandemic.
All these factors may perhaps be helping the centre left in some countries. But the overall picture remains one of ever greater fragmentation, unstable, difficult-to-form coalitions, and fickle voters. That will inevitably favour some parties, but probably only temporarily.
“I think it’s a bit soon to start celebrating the return of social democracy,” said Jonathan Hopkin, a comparative politics professor at the London School of Economics. “These are poor results by historical standards … and fit in with what we know about party politics these days: volatility, flighty voters, increasing interest in voting for what used to be fringe parties.”
To maintain its advance, Hopkin said, he saw little option but for the SPD in particular to “embrace fundamental economic change”. Staying with neoliberal policies plus “a few gestures to post-material concerns … will not get them very far. They need to act like a party that exists to challenge capitalism, not to slightly dilute it.”
In what shows every sign of being a messy coalition, that may not be easy.