Social democratic parties seem to excel at rejuvenating and repackaging themselves – with every electoral failure comes an ideological revision that appears to transform the centre-left into a renewed political force ready again to do battle with the centre-right.
Since the defeat of the European social democratic party family in the 2009 European Parliament elections (i.e. whilst the neoliberal project was at what seemed at the time as its lowest ebb) the centre-left has been widely viewed as in desperate need of revival. Across the EU, there have been 24 national elections since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – the centre-left have lost 19 of these. There are currently only two centre-left governments in the EU – Austria and Denmark.
In the French Parti Socialiste, the party used a new US-style primary election to select its Presidential candidate, with Francoise Hollande winning the candidacy on 18 October. Hollande defeated rival candidate Martine Aubry (architect of the 35-hour week in the Jospin Government and daughter of ex- European Commission President Jacques Delors). Yet, this election rather failed to excite, with Antoine Colambani commenting that ‘since the 2012 Socialist election platform was adopted a few months ago, the candidates have displayed little difference on substance. This was largely confirmed during the debate itself, despite relatively minor disagreements over nuclear power or the decriminalisation of cannabis consumption’. The programmes of both candidates favoured a reduction in the fiscal deficit and caution in the light of the risks to economic stability given the ongoing Eurozone crisis. Left candidate, Arnaud Montebourg, was the surprise success of the primaries, with his apparently far-left (but notably vacuous) anti-globalization message seeing him gain popularity. The election of the more centrist of the candidates (Hollande), however, potentially risks the Parti Socialiste going through a process of cosmetic repackaging rather than a more thoroughgoing rejuvenation.
In March 2011 the Swedish Social Democratic Party elected a new party leader, Håkan Juholt, who represented a return to traditional social democratic values, coming from a labour movement background and voicing leftist sounding rhetoric prior to getting elected. In the words of Eric Sundström he was considered to have a balanced political position: ‘popular in trade union circles, politically main-stream in the party (pro-nuclear, pro-euro, almost pro-Nato – but to the left in issues regarding privatisation, free-schools and the opening up of the welfare state to free competition).’ This followed the electoral defeats of his predecessors, Mona Sahlin (leader 2007 – 2011) and Goran Persson (leader 1996-2007). Since election as party leader, however, Juholt has faced difficulties in filling seats in his shadow cabinet, been forced to rethink pensions and budgets proposals, adopted a confused response to a fellow party leader’s immigration policy (which some have likened to apartheid) and become engulfed in an expenses scandal. The Swedish Social Democratic Party has, from 2006 onwards, received its worst electoral results in its post-WW2 history. The performance of Juholt since becoming party leader suggests that its recovery is not just around the corner. More details of these problems here.
In Denmark, the one recent instance of social democratic ‘success’, Denmark’s newly-elected social democratic Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, has witnessed her party’s support in the electoral polls decline from its already-historically low level of 24.8% as a result of a confused coalition programme and the abandonment of some of the more high-profile leftist manifesto pledges (such as a banking tax and a millionaire tax).
In the UK, after the Labour party lost the 2010 election, expectations were raised that the Labour Party might respond to electoral defeat through a more visible move leftwards, especially following the election of ‘Red Ed’ Miliband as party leader on the basis of his support by major TUs. Nevertheless, policies adopted by the Labour Party in opposition have shown little sign of a move towards more left-leaning redistributive or market-challenging measures. For instance, in outlining the initial position being adopted during the course of internal policy reforms, the Labour Party announced that ‘[w]e want a relentless focus on private sector growth across all areas of the country, with more people working in businesses, leading business and setting up business’. Similarly, in setting out its education policy, the Labour Party restated its support for a productivist welfare agenda in claiming that ‘[s]chools, colleges and universities need to be far better connected to the world of work, business and jobs. Parents want their children to learn the skills that employers demand’. The absence of a return to a more traditional social democratic position under Ed Miliband was also evident in his response to public sector industrial action, publicly stating that, ‘this action is wrong. Negotiations are ongoing. So it is a mistake to go on strike because of the effect on the people who rely upon these services’ and risked further confrontation with TUs when he told the TUC that the Hutton Report on which the coalition Government’s pensions reforms were based was a ‘decent report’ and that ‘There are cuts that the Tories will impose that we will not be able to reverse when we return to government’ – a speech for which he was heckled by trade unionists at the TUC. This was followed in January 2012 with an even more dramatic announcement that the Labour Party effectively backed the public sector cuts that the Con-Dems are implementing – there is, it would seem, no longer any pretence by the Labour Party that it would seek to promote public services if it returned to office.
In Spain, the November 20 national election witnessed the Spanish socialists (PSOE) record their worst electoral performance since democracy was re-introduced in 1978 – achieving just 28.7% of the vote. This followed a muddled response to the crisis, in which the PSOE first adopted a reflationary approach but which subsequently prompted a rise in the government deficit to 11% of GDP, prompting the need for fiscal consolidation, which was itself subsequently reversed in the run-up to the election as PSOE sought to avoid the alienation of the growing indignados movement in Spain. The result of this muddled position was a large share of the PSOE vote shifting to the centre-right, and a significant share simply abstaining.