The betrayal of Europe’s left
Matteo Renzi’s defeat in the referendum is one more event in the sinking of European social-democracy which has been left without a program or an ideology since the financial crisis of 2008. In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, the political vacuum created by the left’s mistakes is being filled by populists whether they are the Five Star Movement, Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece.
This trend is not a new one. One has to go back to the beginning of the century when left wing governments were dominant in Europe. Back then, Tony Blair’s « New Labor » had found the magical formula called « The third way». The idea was to imitate Bill Clinton, and borrow from the right what was best in its program while only keeping the best ideas of the left’s program. In other words, Blairist social democrats moved to the center and implemented an economic policy more common to the liberal right and only kept from their own agenda the defense of individual rights. In the case of Zapatero’s Spain they focused on social issues and revisited the history of the Civil war. The magical formula worked well as long as the economy was growing and benefits could be shared. But as soon as the crisis arrived, things changed dramatically.
Everywhere, socialist and labour parties created to defend the interests of workers and the underprivileged moved away from their initial purpose. Instead of fighting for more equality in favour of their traditional electorate they became the managers of the economy as it was and ended up representing the elite rather than the workers. This became more obvious in Southern Europe because of the fiscal austerity imposed from Germany and its Northern allies while the left was incapable of offering an alternative.
In Greece, the socialist party Pasok collapsed in 2012 after alternating with the right in government since the return of democracy in 1974. The populists of Syriza came to power but were unable to change the way of ruling the country. They lowered the socialist’s score down to only 6 or 7% of the voters.
The failure of socialism is more dramatic in Greece because of the bankrupcy of the country but the same trend is working all over Europe. In Spain, the PSOE pays a high price for not having seen the crisis coming. Just like the Pasok with Syriza, it might well loose its dominance of the left in favour of Podemos. In Italy, the Matteo Renzi’s center-right which wanted to get rid of the old political class as « il Rottomatore » cannot resist the pressure of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.
In France, François Hollande’s presidency failure is obvious now that he has given up on a second mandate. Now a candidate, Manuel Valls will have a hard time defending his socialist government’s record in the campaign for next year’s election. His party has hardly ever been as divided, the liberal social-democrats being attracted by the former Economy minister Emmanuel Macron, while the more radical are supporting Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
The weakness of the French left helps explain Marine Le Pen’s strength. The National Front has won over many voters among the workers by embracing an economic program closer to an anti-capitalist and anti-european extreme left than to the liberal right.
Even in Germany, Gerhard Shröder’s Hartz reforms of the labour market, in 2003 to 2005, cost him his reelection and allowed Angela Merkel to come to power. Those daring reforms had the Social Democrats lose part of their electoral base which joined the new party Die Linke. In Great Britain, the Labour Party has hardly recovered from Gordon Brown’s 2010 defeat and is today in the hands of a left wing leader, Jeremy Corbin, whose chances of bringing it back to power seem quite slim.
Although with slightly different effects, the same fundamental trends are working in Eastern and in Northern Europe. Everywhere the feeling of having been betrayed by leaders who had forgotten the founding principle of their own parties leads people to turn towards other political offerings — populists, whether of the right or the left, anti-elitists or nationalists.
The European left’s ideological defeat is complete. By accepting, with the crisis, to implement an economic policy dictated by the liberal right without defending the interests of its own electorate, European social-democracy has lost the key to coming to power that it used to possess when growth was forthcoming.
The failure of the left has infected the European Institutions which it had dominated for a long time and which are now considered a breeding ground for those elites whom the populists so despise. It is the mission of a responsible right to fill the void that has been created in order to stop those same populists from destroying what is left of Europe.
(This article was first published in Spanish by La Razón on December 6)