The left is trying to take back centre ground in Europe

By Marc Leijendekker

Many social democrats in Europe are looking at the Dutch election battle with high expectations, hoping Labour leader Job Cohen could reverse the electoral disasters of the last years.

The mood on the left in most European countries is gloomy. The British labour party has been voted out of office after thirteen years. Last September, the German SPD booked its worst results since the Second World War. In France the Parti Socialiste has regained confidence after the good results of the regional elections in March, but the internal division remains great and history shows that presidential elections (due in 2012) are a very different game. Across Europe the centre-left suffered a painful defeat during the elections for the European Parliament last June.

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The left is also a struggling with its message. "Social democracy now has less appeal than at any time since the Second World War, while political conservatism is 'social democratising' itself," said German sociologist and economist Alfred Pfaller.

The French political scientist Philippe Marlière reckons the social democrats have lost ground in Europe almost constantly over the past 50 years, apart from a resurgence in the 1990s. Social democracy is in such crisis that it must fight for its survival, he said. "Has social democracy anything distinctive to say about many of the problems we currently face? No."

The refrain of 'the vacuum on the left' is heard in many places. It has often been observed how paradoxical it is. The financial crisis has laid bare the faults in an economic model in which free market thinking takes centre stage and the state plays a supporting role. But virtually nowhere in Europe has this crisis led to a shift to the left among the electorate. In some countries centre-right parties have embraced policies that traditionally belonged to the left. French president Nicolas Sarkozy said last year: "The idea that the markets are always right was a ridiculous idea (...) The laissez-faire attitude is over." German chancellor Angela Merkel has been pushing for hedge funds to be curbed, something even the British Conservatives no longer reject out of hand.

Neo-liberal

Another explanation of the paradox is that, in a number of countries, is has been the left that was pushing for the neo-liberal model of 'more market and less state', and therefore for more individual responsibility. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, he promised a 'third way'. There have been endless theoretical discussions about its ideological meaning. Inpractice it meant that left-wing politicians -- who between 1997 and 2002 were in power in 12 of the then 15 EU member states -- carried out an economic policy traditionally deemed right-wing.

The price for these policies has been growing social inequality. As Blair's minister Peter Mandelson famously said: "We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes."

Now Labour is out of 10 Downing Street and the third way has finally been buried. All over Europe, social democrats are trying to formulate a 21st century update for it. An internet website called Social Europe debates 'the Good Society'. Think-tanks affiliated to the Dutch and British Labour parties are collaborating on a long-running discussion programme called the Amsterdam Process, that aims for 'ideological renewal of European Social Democracy'.

Of course, there are differences between countries. In Spain, the socialists are still the modernisers, compared with the right-wing opposition. In Sweden and Denmark, the social democrats are dealing with a feeling of superfluousness because no one is openly questioning the social system. In Italy, the centre-left is in a permanent state of disarray.

Inequality appears to be the key in the contemporary interpretation of social democratic ideology. "The focus has narrowed," said the German sociology professor Helmut Wiesenthal. "Today's issues are social justice, income inequality and the changes on the labour market."

Division of wealth

"The main issue in the coming years will be the division of wealth," confirmed his colleague Marlière, ignoring the cutbacks being prepared by socialist governments in Greece, Spain and Portugal. "There is wealth enough. It's just that, in the last 15 or so years, governing social democrats have accepted that that wealth was increasingly unequally divided. A growing portion has gone to financial capitalism, where it's never enough. Look at the unrealistic salaries and bonuses in that sector. We know how to create wealth. We now need a much better division of the wealth. For that, more regulation is necessary."

Related themes often mentioned are the revaluation of the state, limiting market thinking and a wider understanding of wealth, in which not just growth and production are considered.

An influential figure in this debate is the British historian Tony Judt. Despite a terminal muscle disease, he published a much-discussed pamphlet in March: Ill Fares the Land. In it he wrote: "We have long practised something resembling social democracy, but we have forgotten how to preach it."

Judt too puts the fight against inequality first and couples this with a plea for a revaluation of the public sector. He accuses the left of a "marked reluctance to defend the public sector with a call for collective interests or principles". This must change, he argues. Let social democrats consider in depth whether society is better served when public transport, post, healthcare and other public facilities are privatised.

Political philosopher Rutger Claassen, who is involved in the Amsterdam Process, supports Judt's criticism of market forces. But he warns against a return to old reflexes. "Social democrats must not narrow their vision to just social inequality. There are other important themes: environment and sustainability, further democratisation, immigration. I don't hear enough about these issues."

Opinion polls show things are going well for social democracy in the Netherlands, where a new parliament will be voted in on June 9. And there may be some good months to come. For elections in the Czech Republic (May 28 and 29), Slovakia (June 12) and Belgium (June 13) electoral prospects look good for the centre-left. In Sweden 'red-green' has a good chance of taking over from the current centre-right government in September.

Perhaps electoral successes will give an impulse to the ideological debate. But the looming austerity measures may thwart a social democratic recalibration. With huge cutbacks in the making, it is difficult to plead a larger role for the state.

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Election 2010