A unity cemented by tolerance is needed for social-democratic success in the elections to the European Parliament.
If the state of social democracy in Europe is much discussed, the conclusion often depends on the cycle. In 2012-13 many elections in Europe were won by the left and social democrats often led coalitions; a decade on and most elections have resulted in losses for progressives and gains for the far right. Yet for socialists the 2024 European Parliament elections are an opportunity—although overcoming internal strife will be at a premium.
If social democracy has suffered erosion in recent years, three trios of distinguished social scientists—Giacomo Benedetto, Simon Hix and Nicola Mastrorocco; Tarik Abou-Chadi, Reto Mitteregger and Cas Mudde; Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty—have dug deep to improve our understanding. They have pointing to sociological transformations of European countries, engendering party-political shifts.
Yet the erosion is not endless. True, due to a new international division of labour the blue-collar working class represents a smaller share in society, but it is not disappearing. And its shrinkage has not implied a bigger, more affluent middle class but social polarisation, the rise of the precariat and a ‘squeezed middle’. So if new forms or organisation are needed, the social-democratic programme is not losing its relevance.
Moreover, when the social-democratic electorate shrinks, a more pluralistic party landscape emerges—the Netherlands being the most extreme case. Those who thought in recent years that the green parties, perhaps on a generational basis, would progressively replace the social democrats as the leading party of the centre-left will have to think again: important alliances have been formed but ‘crowding out’ is not apparent. When progressive coalitions form, most often they are led by social democrats, still the ‘catch all’ party on the progressive side.
Sudden drops in social-democratic support may be conjunctural rather than structural, because of a shock hitting the progressive party in office, with the consequences largely borne by the left. Socialist or labour parties in Ireland, Spain and Greece were all hit by austerity, yet Spain shows how reconstruction and a return to strength can be plotted.
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In some cases parties organised by tycoons have eaten into the voting base of social democracy. Centrist parties led by individuals who aquired their wealth in private business command much greater resources than the centre-left. This has been the case in Slovenia (the Freedom Movement), Czechia (ANO) and Hungary (the Democratic Coalition). In the Czech case, the drop was so dramatic that the parliament remained without progressives—although, as previously in Poland, this can be remedied at the next elections.
Division and fragmentation
Beyond erosion, shocks and hostile takeovers, recent years have been marked by division and fragmentation, which can be a consequence of shocks but also of leadership failure. Splits can cause large and lasting damage to political movements. Internal divisions are generated not only by external issues—such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza—but also by internal policies, starting with economics.
Economic governance within the European Union regularly triggers debates between but also within political camps. The EU fiscal rules, suspended at the onset of the pandemic and inherited from the 20th century, are probably beyond repair. Some believe the new rules could be not so different from the old ones, whiles others advocate a more decisive break with the austerity-focused ancien régime, to be more supportive of growth and social progress. The debate continues, including among political friends.
On social questions one might expect the centre-left to be united. And most believed that the European Pillar of Social Rights should inspire common European action, for example the co-ordination of minimum-wage setting—yet a minority, mainly Scandinavian parties, opposed this until the end of the legislative process.
Asylum and migration is an arena of even more polarisation. Some on the progressive side continue to pursue a human-rights based approach, while others take a harsher line (Mette Frederiksen in Denmark, Robert Fico in Slovakia). Some governments which include social-democratic parties have introduced border checks with questionable argumentation, frustrating the Schengen rules and making it more difficult to enlarge the zone of free movement.
Coalition choices can also invite diverse responses. As explained above, very few socialist parties can now form a government alone. Creating a coalition with left and green parties, such as the previous government in Finland, appears a luxury to others which need to team up with stronger centrists or form grand coalitions (Slovenia, Luxembourg, Romania). In some cases, there seems to be no alternative to relying on various nationalists (Spain, Slovakia), which may also raise eyebrows.
Foreign affairs can be particularly divisive, since international conflict demands EU unity while in different corners of Europe geopolitical traditions and interests may differ. For example, there is broad agreement about the need to relaunch enlargement, in particular to the western Balkans, yet Kosovo remains unrecognised as an independent state by a few countries (Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia), even where socialists govern them.
On the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European centre-left has been remarkably united and formed part of a broader consensus. Yet some were more keen than others, especially when it came to supporting not only the defensive struggle of Ukraine but also its counter-offensive. And, starting with Slovakia, debates are emerging about the limited capacity to provide continued military and financial support.
The unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7th and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza have already led to resignations from the Labour Party in Britain and this issue will continue to be divisive. The call by the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza has stimulated polarised debate within the broader political family. In addition to the war in Ukraine, it can be another critical issue on which the judgement of social democrats in Europe and progressives in the ‘global south’ might differ—and not only on nuances.
Social democracy has a great tradition of cultivating a range of progressive opinions but remaining united nevertheless. The recent leadership election in the Austrian social-democratic party (SPÖ) manifested three more or less equal blocs within it. The party’s (first) female and liberal-socialist leader was challenged by a nationalistic, ‘law and order’ former minister. But after a voting mix-up, the party narrowly elected the radical-socialist and xenophilic Andreas Badler.
The capacity of the SPÖ to overcome internal rivalries can be contrasted with the freefall in France of the Parti socialiste after the disintegration of its leadership. Not dissimilar to Austria, the PS contained representatives of a liberal wing (Pierre Moscovici), radical socialists (Benoît Hamon) and ‘law and order’ nationalists (Manuel Valls). But fracture followed, which cannot be blamed only on the French political system, organised around the president and his supportive bloc.
The social-democratic movement can be colourful, which gives it strength, but it takes effort to prevent factional antagonisms which result in splits. In the past decade and a half, the decline of the formerly dominant ‘third way’ approach and various calls for a return to the roots of the labour movement have driven internal polarisation. (Apart from Labour in Britain, the Italian Democratic Party is another instance.)
While the credibility of any movement requires consistency with its basic values—equality, solidarity and social justice in particular—public appeal and relevance also necessitate modernisation. The two should not be seen as mutually exclusive, even if within an organisation these concerns might be represented by rival personalities.
Big-tent parties differ from single-issue parties or those framed by a fixed ideology. Where social-democratic parties have been major players or even hegemonic, they have pursued multiple objectives and drawn members representing a broad spectrum of beliefs—hence the catch-all characterisation. If debates remain within proportions and do not lead to splits, they are enriching.
With that approach, the Party of European Socialists—whose congress opens in Málaga tomorrow—can endeavour to become the strongest group in the European Parliament after the June elections. It is not a sufficient condition but it is a necessary one.
Maintaining a big-tent mentality is not only a matter for the party as a whole but also for the individuals leading it—not least the soon-to-be-selected socialist Spitzenkandidat for the elections. As we saw in 2019, with the remarkable performance of Frans Timmermans, it matters how integrative the lead candidate can be. Inclusive internal discussions to forge broad and consensual strategies in the coming season are the best way to maximise organisational power and develop the programmatic and personal offer for European voters ahead of June.
New social contract
Thematically speaking, socialists can fight much of the election on home turf. By the spring the cost-of-living crisis will not have gone away. If the war in Ukraine continues, it will be necessary to fund and supply it; if it ends, Europeans will have to pay the lion’s share of the costs of reconstruction and organise large-scale transfers—holding out a leading role in rebuilding the structures of east-European economic co-operation.
A new social contract in support of Europe’s political values and geopolitical objectives will be in demand, testing the passion and creativity of social democrats. To live up to this historic task, preserving internal unity and a wide common platform within the political family will be of prime importance.