Tribune leader, 12 March 1993
In Germany, the Social Democrats dropped a stunning 8 percentage points in local elections in their Hesse heartland last weekend, even though Helmut Kohl’s Centre-Right coalition Government in Bonn is in the doldrums. The French Socialist Party is heading for humiliation in next weekend’s general election.
Meanwhile, the Italian Socialist Party, utterly compromised by its corruption, faces near-extinction at the next general election, likely later this year, with the former-communist (and relatively clean) Party of the Democratic Left, now also a member of the Socialist International, slumping to around 17 per cent of the popular vote. Spain’s ruling Socialist Workers’ Party is also on the slide in the wake of revelations that it has been involved in bribery rackets.
If one adds the electoral failures in recent years of the Greek, Swedish and Dutch socialists and the miserable experience of democratic socialists in the former communist countries of eastern Europe, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that social democracy is in a real mess across the continent. And that is before Labour’s plight in Britain is taken into account.
So what has gone wrong with European social democracy? There is, of course, no single answer. In eastern Europe, socialism is understandably unpopular, even in democratic garb. In the west, each socialist party has particular reasons for not doing well: corruption here, an incompetent leadership there.
But, once the east-west divide is taken into account, to consider only the problems faced by each party in its own country is to miss the point. It is not merely a coincidence of unpropitious national circumstances that is responsible for the mess in which west European socialists find themselves.
Every socialist party is suffering from the collapse in the past 20 years of the national Keynesian model of economic management, a collapse that has pushed social democracy inexorably towards accommodation with economic neo-liberal-ism. Not one left party in Europe has an economic strategy capable of persuading voters that it can do any more about unemployment than the free-market right.
Every socialist party has also been hit by much the same social changes. Everywhere in western Europe, the manual working class has declined. Everywhere, social democracy’s attempts to augment class-based politics with technocratic managerialism have failed to provide a stable new electoral base. Young people in particular find social democratic parties a major turn-off throughout the continent.
In short, European social democracy faces a crisis – not the one so long predicted by Leninists, according to whom social democrats would be outflanked by a militant working class under Leninist leadership, but something just as profound. The fact that so few in the Labour Party have recognised that this crisis exists (let alone thought it through) is a deeply depressing comment on the parochialism and lack of intellectual depth that now characterises Labour’s political culture.