The Dutch election provided a sense of relief, as right-wing xenophobic populists did not enjoy the success that was predicted. It is also encouraging to see increased voter turnout, which turned the tide. But the dismal outcome for the Labour Party (PvdA) paints the picture that again it is an established social democratic party that is primarily paying the price for the prevalent feeling of disappointment and disenfranchisement that seems to dominate European (and indeed American) politics in our time.
The issue is close to my heart as the Social Democratic Alliance in Iceland experienced a similar fate last autumn, polling just under 6% of the vote. The road to annihilation was in many ways like the one taken by the PvdA – we led the response to the financial crisis from a position of strength in government, polling 30% in 2009, only to poll 13% in 2013. The last years in opposition were marred by infighting, preventing the party from developing a recovering strategy and ending with a change in leadership and a 5.7% share of the vote. It beggars belief to see strong social democratic parties reduced to 6% support. But just as we saw with Brexit, my fear is that we have not seen an end to these developments.
All over Europe the symptoms are the same: The social democratic core vote regards these parties increasingly as on the side of the establishment and interprets their key role in advocating internationalism and undertaking responsibility in government in difficult times as proof of that. The policy of the Third Way – increased international trade, support for international institutions and the reliance on free markets – has surely served to reduce income inequalities worldwide and lift hundreds of millions out of poverty. But the picture that appears to their core voters is that social democrats are indifferent to the personal cost in terms of loss of jobs to foreign competition, be it to companies operating in faraway countries or to workers of different nationality in one’s neighbourhood. In addition, the role of social democratic parties in stabilising economies following the financial crisis of 2008 has enabled populist competitors to paint them as being in the pockets of big banks and vested financial interests. European social democracy has completely failed to provide a leadership critical of financial conglomerates and squarely on the side of the people.
Big parties of the moderate right have tended to suffer too in recent years. Nonetheless, they seem in general better able to withstand these pressures and carve out a role with continued key influence, albeit with a reduced share of the vote. Maybe it is because they are ideologically and historically more closely tied to the idea of the nation and find it easier to address concerns regarding immigration and open borders, while social democracy is historically more intrinsically linked to internationalism.
This is something progressive forces on the left need to address urgently, but without succumbing to the temptation of quick fix solutions. We cannot promise people that the world can stand still or that the modern economy’s evolution towards increased know-how and technology can be reversed. Blatant populism never sits easy with serious social democracy. And adopting increasingly isolationist policies and playing with xenophobia is a dangerous game, which can easily backfire and can lead both those who have left us and those that though remain within the fold equally disillusioned. But if we stare 6% in the face, we need to develop bold answers and need to avoid feeling shackled by history or allegiance to different groups of voters that have historically voted our way or the other way. All that is gone now.
As a result of the social democratic focus on skills, open borders, general education and social services, the reality of the labour market and the accumulation and distribution of wealth and knowledge is today totally different from 30 years ago. It should suffice to recall that for all the social democratic preoccupation with class, seven out of the ten richest individuals in the world today are self-made (five of them from IT alone), at the same time as the traditional working class leads the exodus of voters from social democratic parties. How do the traditional classifications of “us” and “them” sit in this new world? Against this background, it is imperative to develop progressive policies that combine the core values of internationalism and fraternity inherent in social democracy with practical policies that deal properly with a society that has changed enormously because of the very success of social democrats. That is a worthy task for social democrats all over Europe in the coming years and work on that must start now.