‘Left parties are losing elections more comprehensively than ever before,’ says David Miliband. Jamie O’Brien makes a different diagnosis.

The Left in Europe is in trouble, apparently. The historic heartland of Social Democracy – Britain, France, Sweden, Germany, France and Italy – has, according to the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, seen a fragmentation and weakening of centre-left parties, whilst the Right has crystallised and strengthened.

Timo Soini, charismatic demagogue

The most recent elections in these countries has seen reformist social democratic parties losing out to the Right. The British General Election in 2010 was the second worst result for the Labour party since 1918, the 2009 election in Germany saw the greatest fall in support for parties of the Left since the founding of the Federal Republic. And the trend continues in France (the worst result for the Left since 1969), Holland, and, most recently, Finland.

But is Miliband right to assert that this is a broad failure of the Left? Or is it a failure, not of social democracy, but rather of democracy in general?

For it is not just parties of the Left that are being swept from power, but those of the Right too. A historic election in Ireland saw a centre-right party swept from power, and the incumbents in Germany and France are suffering from terrible ratings. Indeed, the recent regional elections in Germany saw the Christian Democrats voted out in Baden-Württemberg, a region they had held for 58 years. It is a bad time, it seems, to be an incumbent, rather than simply an incumbent of the Left.

And there appears to be a common attitude from Europeans towards their governments. A recent ICM poll found that one person in five trusts their governments to solve the country’s problems, and a startling one in ten feel they can trust their politicians to be straight. These figures do not make pleasant reading for any government, or indeed opposition parties for that matter. The suggestion is that mainstream politics is failing to deliver what the people want.

What European parties, of both the Left and Right, are failing to do is deliver clear and cogent messages. Gone are the days in which elections could be won on foggy manifestos and vague platforms. There is a yearning for simple messages delivered by politicians of charisma, of which Europe is in painfully short supply.

For Miliband is wrong to say that the Left is failing in Britain and Europe. It is the message of mainstream, centrist politics that is failing. What recent elections have shown is not the failure of social democracy, but rather the success of populist movements with a simple, clear message: a message that is often defined in opposition to very simple enemies. So, in Finland the New Finns have recently seen their vote rise from 4% to 19%, from five seats to 39. Their enemy is Greece and the ‘incompetent’ southern economies, and the New Finns’ meteoric rise has thrown the success of the Portuguese bail-out into relief. Their leader is Timo Soini who, in contrast to his European counterparts, is a man people want to go out and listen to. His charisma has ensured that a unified anti-euro, anti-EU and anti-immigration party is challenging both the Social Democratic Party and the conservative National Coalition Party in their support of a bail-out.

And the success of populist parties is a European-wide phenomenon: the Swedish Democrats are campaigning, and enjoying success, on a simple anti-immigration platform. The Danish People’s Party is campaigning on ‘traditional values’. And then there is Geert Wilders and his Party For Freedom that have made Islam into the key electoral issue in Holland.

It seems then that the Left is in crisis, but so then are the vast majority of centrist, mainstream parties in Europe. It is a European-wide problem, and not confined to one afflicted social democracy. Miliband seems to have missed the bigger European picture: social democracy is not failing; the European Project, however, is. As the stronger Northern European states continue to subsidise the unemployment of the South, a volatile north-south divide seems inevitable.

And such a divide would only stoke the rise of populist parties, for the European model at the moment relies on northern bail-outs to the south. Inevitably, the Portuguese, Greeks and, perhaps, the Spanish will rail at harsh economic policies being forced upon them by German bankers, whilst Germans, Finns, the British and French will look unkindly at higher taxes being levied to help poor southern neighbours. In such a situation clear, populist messages would be more powerful than ever, against which parties of the mainstream Left and Right would struggle to compete. The Eurozone, not the Left, is in crisis.


Jamie O’Brien