Many authors took the opportunity of the Good Society Debate to discuss the origins of the social democratic crisis in Europe and two questions in particular: First, why did the economic crisis not benefit social democrats but seemed to have had the opposite effect? And second – partially related to the first question – why do social democrats lose so many elections?
Regarding the first question, the British MP Denis McShane pointed out that it was simply wrong to assume that an economic crisis would naturally benefit the centre-left. McShane argued that “when citizens are scared for their jobs and salaries, or the future of their children, they vote defensively and stay with conservatives.”
PES President Poul Nyrup Rasmussen stressed, with a view on the European elections, that “the biggest vote winner in 2009 has been without a doubt the ‘sofa’ party. It is apathy that has topped the polls across almost the whole European Union – 57 per cent of Europe’s 375 million citizens did not turn up to vote in June.” Rasmussen further referred to the rise of extremist parties as one of the reasons for the poor social democratic election showings and gave the gloomy prediction that the crisis “will reveal the gaping chasm between right-wing rhetoric and reality. Necessary investments to raise educational levels, cut unemployment and build a strong and sustainable economy will not take place. Loud denouncements of financial excesses will not compel conservatives to fight for financial reform in the EU and the G20. The truth is that, under conservative leadership, people will end up paying the costs of the crisis three times over. First, through picking up the bill for bank and company bailouts; then through losses in their jobs and livelihoods; and finally through stealth cuts and public under-investment, which will undermine our well-being and long-term growth potential.”
Other commentators did not refer to external factors but were more critical with social democratic parties themselves, criticising above all the “Third Way” and associated political reform projects of the 1990s and early 2000s for the loss of credibility and public trust. Philippe Marliere of University College London (UCL) in particular criticised that “since the 1980s, social democrats have blindly promoted free markets. They forgot that the most economically successful and fairest societies have been those where the state has kept a strong regulating role, and where public services have been consistently funded and kept in public hands. With Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, uncritical support of globalisation became the new mantra. (…) In reality, the gap between rich and poor has significantly increased while social democrats have been in government. And the middle classes, who cannot any longer rely on effective and cheap public services, are also increasingly struggling. Peter Mandelson once famously said that he was ‘relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. His wish has come true.”
It was indeed a recurring theme in many contributions (see for instance Klaus Mehrens, Jenny Andersson, Henri Weber and Rene Cuperus), that social democracy has lost credibility and trust as a direct result of the modernisation programmes of the last one and a half decades. Rene Cuperus of the Dutch Wiardi Beckmann Stichting summarised this notion eloquently when he argued that “European social democracy faces an existential crisis for one reason: the electorate is of the opinion that social democracy is betraying the good society it once promised and stood for – the good society of equal citizenship, solidarity, social mobility, trust and strong community. The electorate thinks that this good society has been undermined and destroyed by an elitist, pseudo-cosmopolitan concept of the good society, built around neoliberal globalisation, European unification, permanent welfare state reform, ill managed mass migration, the rise of individualism and a knowledge-based meritocracy.”
In his video contribution to the debate, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone took the criticism of recent social democratic politics even further. Livingstone argued that because of the progressing adjustment of social democratic politics to the neoliberal mainstream, social democratic parties have neglected the development of an alternative political programme. In contrast to conservatives, who used the “golden years” of social democracy to develop an alternative political project to be ready to step in once the social democratic consensus appeared vulnerable, social democrats in recent years have not done the same. As a consequence, social democrats had no political alternative to offer when the confidence in neoliberalism started to wane in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent recession.
So in sum many of the contributors judged that “Third Way” reformism left social democrats without “political clothes” and at the same time destroyed trust and credibility amongst the public. When the crisis struck social democrats had not only little to offer in terms of an alternative model but were perceived by many as collaborators in a failing project.
Another negative factor that was frequently pointed out was the social democratic parties’ loss of societal alliances, above all with trade unions and green movements (see for instance Arjun Singh-Muchelle and Lucile Schmidt). Henning Meyer pointed out that the focus on interest politics associated with “Third Way” Big Tent strategies was wrong because it was based on a rather simplistic behaviouralist view of the voter as utility maximiser. The concentration on policies for particular electorates in the “centre” was one of the driving forces that alienated large parts of the traditional social democratic electorate.
Some authors such as Mike Cole (Bishop Grosseteste University College) and Jeremy Gilbert (University of East London) even argued that the dual crisis of capitalism and social democracy revealed deeper philosophical flaws that required a radical cure. Gilbert argued that “the lesson we must draw is that social democrats were always quite mistaken to imagine that they had somehow tamed capitalism, domesticated it, reinvented it. This was never what had really happened. Capitalism had been fought back, pushed out of large areas of social life, kept at bay by the threat of labour militancy or even military conquest; but it had never been transformed. In fact it could never have been transformed: the history of the past few decades has made very clear that it cannot be. It can only be contained, regulated, opposed to various degrees (or not, as the case may be). The language of much contemporary social democracy continues to imply that there are many possible kinds of capitalism, from the fierce purity of American liberal capitalism to the cosy egalitarianism of the German or even Scandinavian models of ‘welfare capitalism’. In fact, this is a catastrophic analytical mistake.”
This text is part of a more comprehensive summary paper of the Good Society Debate. Click here to download the full paper.