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The problems plaguing the western European left are not just cyclical

Mane Balie, a A cozy and chic cultural venue on Leidseplein in Amsterdam, the center of liberal intellectual life in the Netherlands. On May 3, it hosted two thinkers representing ideas on the left that divided Europe. Gloria Wekker, a black Dutch academic, argues that the Netherlands suffers from structural racism. The American-born German-Jewish philosopher Susan Neiman recently published a book (“The Left Wakes Up”) calling for an abandonment of identity politics and a renewed embrace of universal values. Ms Neiman said the left had to “figure out what we’re heading towards” rather than simply condemning oppressive taxonomies.

Like many debates on the left, this one takes place in a bubble. Amsterdam, a multicultural city with bike lanes and tolerant drug policies, is run by the Libertarian Union (Man66) and parties of the left (Labor and the Green Left). But elsewhere in the Netherlands, politics have been transformed by anti-immigration populism. In provincial elections on March 15, right-wing populist parties combined won more than a third of the national vote. BoerBurgerBeweging, a four-year-old campaign against environmental regulations, attracted 19 percent of its supporters. On the left, Labor got just 8 per cent and GreenLeft 9 per cent.

The problems of the Dutch left are reflected throughout Western Europe. (Left parties in Eastern Europe, descendants of Soviet-era communists, face different problems.) Social Democrats are in decline; voters see them as befuddled and elitist. They face competition from the Green Party, as well as from radical groups offering socialist economics or awakened politics. All are fighting for a shrinking pie surrounded by conservative populism. Much of the left faces the problem Ms. Neiman points out: a lack of credible vision.

This should be a good time for the European Left. Inflation fueled calls for more government benefits. Surveys show that citizens are more concerned about climate change and the cost of living than crime.disgusted European Union Has faded since the 2010s. Belief in small government has been in decline since the financial crisis, but was all but killed by the coronavirus pandemic. A recent study of six European countries by pollsters André Krouwel and Yordan Kutiyski found that overwhelming majorities everywhere agree that “the state should play a bigger role in economic regulation”.

In fact, as recently as 2021, the left looked healthy when it ruled all four Nordic countries plus Portugal and Spain. At the end of that year, Olaf Schulz’s Social Democrats (surge protector) came to power in Germany in coalition with the Green Party and the liberal Free Democrats. But that moment proved fleeting. In the 2022 French general election, the center-left Socialist Party has almost been wiped out. Far-right parties now hold or share power in Italy and Sweden, while coalition talks are underway in Finland. The center-right appears poised to retain power in Greece, with left-wing parties performing poorly in general elections on May 21. The Spanish Socialists are holding snap elections, and they are likely to lose. In Germany, Mr Schulz’s coalition is divided and increasingly unpopular.

The problems of the left start with the once great Social Democrats. In Western Europe in the early 2000s they averaged nearly 30 percent of the vote. They have fallen steadily since the global financial crisis of 2008, to just over 20% (see chart). After embracing free market economics during the “third way” period of the 1990s, most centre-left parties supported austerity policies after the financial crisis. According to Björn Bremer of the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, this is a colossal mistake: Voters can no longer tell the difference between centre-left and centre-right.

In some countries, this led to crashes. The French Socialist Party was indecisive in power from 2012-17, and when Emmanuel Macron launched his own presidential campaign, he took away many centrists. A former Socialist politician said the party’s image has since become “empty and disorganized”. Its candidates won just 2% of last year’s presidential election. Meanwhile, the Dutch Labor Party joined the government’s center-right camp between 2012 and 2017, sharing responsibility for budget cuts. Its share of the vote fell from 25% to 6% in the 2017 election, and it is not faring much better in 2021. These parties are now too centrist to offer an alternative, and the electorate is too small to believe they will win.

center left like germany surge protector Still enough for voters to see them as contenders. In Spain and Portugal, socialist governments managed to come to power with solid economic backing. Italy’s colorless Democratic Party remains the second-largest party in parliament. Like Sweden, Finland’s Social Democrats, led by outgoing prime minister Sanna Marin (pictured), came close to winning recent elections. But their voter base is aging. Sweden’s center-left is “extremely unpopular among young people”, says Max Jeneke of the Stockholm School of Economics. “The zeitgeist is against them.”

Finland's outgoing Prime Minister Sanna Marin speaks during London Tech Week in London, England, June 14, 2023.
Sanna Marin’s party is over

Voters disaffected by moderate Social Democrats often turn to more radical parties.In France, for example, the leadership of the Left has been handed over to La France Insoumise (“France of Disobedience”, or low frequency filter), a hardline group that seeks to revive the working-class left of yore. In a café near the National Assembly, CongressmanFrançois Ruffin in a suit, one of the low frequency filterThe up-and-coming NPC deputies were the only ones wearing leather jackets. He laid out his own plan to end the “neoliberal bracket” initiated by Socialist President François Mitterrand 40 years ago through privatization of state-owned enterprises and deregulation of financial markets. Mr Ruffin has called for protectionism and linking state workers’ wages to inflation.

low frequency filterFrance’s old-fashioned socialism and its 71-year-old leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are surprisingly popular among young people.wounded socialists joined low frequency filter Forging an alliance with France’s often irresponsible Greens NUPES, which constitutes the largest opposition bloc in parliament.but although NUPESThe rejectionism has given it a clear image that it is unlikely to win a majority or join a broad coalition.

Italian Democratic Party (Partial Discharge) seems to imitate a French turn left. In February, it elected a young leftist leader, Elly Schlein, with progressive positions on gay rights and immigration.She is seen as a breath of fresh air, while Partial Discharge Do better in the polls. But Italy’s left is also divided: many left-leaning voters support the unpredictable populist 5-star movement.

Tensions with the radicals could also herald the end of centre-left rule in Spain. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has just called snap elections in which he faces a challenge from a new leftist group called Sumar. Elsewhere the radical left fared poorly; Syriza, the far-left party that botched Greece’s response to the euro crisis while in power from 2015-19, was crushed in the country’s May 21 elections. Portugal’s long-ruling Socialist government has successfully joined forces with radicals, but its popularity is also declining.

At least the Greens have a clear vision for the future. Many leftists hope they can succeed the Social Democrats and lead the national revival. But only in Germany did the Greens come close to doing so. Germany’s Greens did well in 2021, but have since been wrecked by high energy prices and new rules mandating the use of heat pumps in private homes. As the cost of the zero-carbon transition expires, voters are revolting.

If not environmentalism, then what? The idea of ​​intersectional social justice that inspires progressive Americans is less popular in Europe. They raise thorny integration issues that have been seen as losers since the immigration crisis of 2015-16. Some point to Denmark’s ruling Social Democratic Party as a model. They have turned to punitive anti-immigration policies. But research shows that mimicking the right’s harsh approach to immigration won’t win back voters for the left. Tarik Abou-Chadi of the University of Oxford said at best it could prevent low-engagement voters from voting.

A decade ago, when interest rates were negative and unemployment was high, Europe seemed ripe for a revival of Keynesian economics. Thinkers such as the French economist Thomas Piketty have argued for government stimulus to reduce inequality and pay for the green energy transition. But few governments have seized the opportunity. Today, leftist parties offering more government spending face two problems.

The first is that inflation, interest rates and debt are much higher and they no longer have fiscal space. The second is that they won the argument on state interference. Almost everyone in European politics, from right to left, now accepts that governments must play an important role in the economy. This makes it difficult for leftist parties to stand out.

Optimistic progressives point out that the centre-right in Europe is also having difficulties. Yet perhaps the best argument that the western European left is not in crisis is that it has never been as powerful as many imagine. Outside of the Nordic countries and Iberia, the right has come to power far more often than the left since 1960. To remain a contender, the left must reinvent itself. The question is how.

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