In electoral terms, 2017 has been a tough year for the centre-left. A suite of elections has taken place across Western Europe and other advanced industrial nations. In most cases, the main social democratic parties lost out. In the Netherlands, Germany, and France, the centre-left has been languishing. Whilst Corbyn-led British Labour has revived the party, it has now lost three straight elections. Two of the most recent elections highlight key strategic and electoral dilemmas for the centre-left.
In Austria, the results of the October 15 election offered little succour to the centre-left. Whilst Christian Kern’s SPÖ’s neither lost nor gained seats over the 2013 election (52 seats), they could do little to stave off a resurgent hard right FPÖ that secured one of its best ever results (51 seats). Kern had led a centre-left coalition government from 2007. At this stage, a Coalition of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP – 62 seats) with the FPÖ looks likely. What was striking was that the SPÖ had dropped a 30-year ban on being in coalition with the hard-right. At the heart of this remains an unresolved strategic dilemma for the centre-left – how best to cope with hard-right, populist parties with strong anti-immigration (and racist) policies, but who also have a strong current of anti-neoliberal or austerity economic policies.
The same dilemma, but with a contrasting result, played out on the other side of the globe. The centre-left had a rare moment of celebration when Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand Labour party unexpectedly won office, by out-manoeuvring Bill English’s National Party to forge a coalition with Winston Peter’s NZ First Party. Whilst Ardern’s campaign electrified NZ politics, and improved upon the 2014 result, NZ Labour won just 46 seats to the National’s 56 (37% of the vote to National’s 44%, with NZ First winning 9 seats on 7.2%). Peters’ NZ First party are a hybrid of nationalist and populist ideas, with a strong socially conservative and anti-immigrant agenda. In this respect, Adern’s deal with NZ First was a gamble that paid off, where Kern’s failed. Unlike the Austrian case, NZ First had worked with Labour in the past.
If Adern’s New Labour was an unexpected win, this then begs the question – why does the left keep losing? This is the core question at the heart of a new edited volume ‘Why the Left Loses’ (edited with my colleague Paul Kennedy from the University of Bath). In this volume, we examine the electoral toils of a range of cases of centre-left parties in both Europe (Germany, Sweden, France, Spain) and the ‘Anglosphere’ (UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada).
We examine the main social democratic and labour parties through three lenses; institutional, ideational, and ‘individual’ factors. ‘Individuals’ here refers to the role of agency, and specifically political leadership. Institutional factors point to the wider structural and related changes taking place. We find both common factors in explaining the current plight of the centre-left, but also, inevitably specific and localised factors at play.
One aim is to broaden the debate about the state of the centre-left. Often, this tends to be dominated the western European centre-left parties. For example, Bailey et al (2014), and Keating and McCrone’s (2015) focus on the crisis of European social democracy. These studies yield key insights, but the European focus tends to marginalise other variants of social democracy, especially the longstanding Antipoedean sister parties. Hans Keman’s recent book is a useful reminder of the variety within the social democratic family. A second limitation is that these studies might over-estimate the extent to which the long shadow of the EU contributes to the centre-left’s problems.
The crisis within the EU does very little to explain why the centre-left is out of office in Australia, why Clinton lost to Trump, why the NDP has fallen back in Canada, and (until recently) the Labour has toiled in New Zealand. By applying a broader focus, we argue that centre-left is caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of its social democratic roots and a changing global political economy. This appears to be a cleavage keenly exploited by populists on both left and right (Podemos, Swedish Democrats, the Austrian FPÖ, the German AfD, to name but four).
Crucially, in many of our chapters and cases, we find a lingering ideational crisis in many of the social democratic and labour parties – and for many a ‘third way’ hangover from the 1990s and early 2000s. The promise of third way important for two reasons. First it seemed to enable a ‘renewed’ centre-left to win elections (New Labour, the SPD). Second, it seemed to offer an answer to the wider identity crisis – how to civilise globalized capital with a focus on social inclusion/exclusion. Yet, the underlying tensions and contradictions became exposed, and in countries like Sweden and Australia, the centre-left has not been able to move beyond this third way formula. What was striking about Ed Miliband’ time as Labour leader was his ideational restlessness (predistribution, One Nation, and so on) – unable to settle on what Labour stood for. This has always been an ongoing ideational struggle for the centre-left, but in the context of fragmenting party systems, the electoral consequences have been hard.
Unless these deeper ideational and structural problems, such as the changing electoral sociology are grappled with, then Arden’s win might well prove short-lived.
Rob Manwaring is a Senior Lecturer at Flinders University, Australia. He has worked for the UK's Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) as a senior policy adviser, and also for the South Australian Council of Social Services (SACOSS).
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