Political science literature has extensively described social democracy’s ‘two metamorphoses’. First there was the establishment of social democratic parties as major government parties in the ‘Keynesian State’ period and then their ‘de-social-democratisation’ after the 1970s, while the renovation promoted by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder was associated with electoral success at the end of the 1990s. The propulsive power of this new social democratic identity was then rapidly exhausted.
Until the last days before the 2014 European elections, opinion polls carried out in EU member countries allowed the social democrats to hope that they could pass the 200-seat threshold in the 751-seat European Parliament (EP) and make good the setback they had suffered five years earlier. Indeed, in 2009 only a quarter of the MEPs belonged to the EP’s S&D group, which was at an historically low level.
We will first show that social democracy managed to stabilise its weight in the EP only while continuing to decline in percentage of votes. This result should be seen in the context of the historic trajectory of a political family of parties that we extensively studied in The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy.2We will next address the present state of this family of parties in the middle of capitalism’s structural crisis and the dilemmas it faces in the very peculiar regime of the European Union. The social democrats, because of their own history, have tied themselves up in a bundle of constraints — which are creating their present difficulties. For this reason, they will probably not be of much help in putting an end to the austerity that is devastating the European continent. This will be the last point covered by this article.
In general, after the recent elections, the European Parliamentary groups have kept the same names, but their internal balances have been markedly altered though not in the direction of greater coherence.
The historic groups that form the ‘central bloc’ supporting European integration have remained the majority. These are the conservative and Christian democrats of the European People’s Party (EPP), the liberals of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and last but not least the social democrats of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament.
The EP groups only very approximately correspond with the outlines of the political families that political analysts can identify in Europe on the basis of shared socio-historic origins and ideological characteristics. This weak correspondence expresses the de-structuring of national party systems in Europe, highlighted by the decline of some major parties and the emergence of new contentious forces, which, however, often have difficulty in stabilising themselves. Indeed, the gradual ebbing of government parties is reflected in the contraction of the Parliament’s ‘central bloc’ of Europe-wide parties (PES (Party of European Socialists)-EPP-ALDE) from 72.4 per cent in 2009 to 63.7 per cent in 2014.
In this context, the EPP has remained the largest group, while the social democrats have to be content with second place. The net gain in seats, compared with 2009, is seven – from 184 to 191. Importantly, the group’s weight is virtually identical to that of 2009, whereas it had been able to hold a third of the seats at the beginning of the 1990s.
Regarding the heterogeneous character of the S&D group, it is striking that its position is due to the contribution of the Romanian contingent, hardly steeped in social democratic culture, as well as the ten extra seats won by the Italian Democratic Party, a centre-left party whose leader, Matteo Renzi, grew up in the Christian Democratic tradition.
Some gains have certainly also been made by the more ‘traditional’ organisations of the social democratic family, for example in Germany (which will strengthen its already considerable influence within the group and in the Parliament in general) and in Great Britain (whose Labour MEPs nevertheless refused to support the common candidate Martin Schulz). These gains, however, were counterbalanced by poor scores in other countries.
In the Netherlands, the Labour Party scored less than ten per cent, behind the Radical Left and the social-liberal D66; in Hungary and in the Czech Republic some parties already in difficulty saw their score drop by a third; in Greece (-28 per cent), in Spain (-15.4 per cent), and in Ireland (-8 per cent) these parties paid a heavy price for their participation in ‘austerity’ governments. In several countries, regardless of regional zones, the weight of social democracy within the left has been diluted, even in those where it maintained its seats as in Sweden and Austria. Thus social democracy has marked time in the European elections (20.2 per cent on average – a historic low) – which is consistent with the declining electoral trend of this political family in the last few years.3
The state of affairs that The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy describes supports Stefan Berger’s judgement that contemporary social democracy no longer has ‘any model, ideological originality or […] specific and easily identifiable electorate’.4 Any convergence there may be within the family is due to a lack, or the ‘rubbing out’, of specific characteristics, which had marked each of its historic components.
The western and eastern social democrats continue to belong to very different political universes that leave little room for exchanging recipes of good practice and adopting common stands. There are marked differences between these two ‘distant cousins’ as there also are within the so-called eastern branch.
This is notable in terms of the normal orientations of East European parties. Their programme positions are, indeed, particularly orthodox in economic matters. In the West, the social composition of the social democratic electorates is marked by a tendency to a decline in the relative weight of industrial workers and an increase in the weight of the middle strata with a higher level of education.
In the East, there are fairly different configurations that vary from a plebeian kind of support base, both agrarian and working class (as in Romania) to a materially better off electoral profile with graduates such as could be found in centre-right parties (as in Estonia). The Baltic countries have a weak electoral base (in Latvia social democracy is on the verge of extinction) and have a virtually centrist position in the political spectrum.
On the other hand, those in central Europe (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) regularly get between a fifth and two-fifths of the vote and clearly dominate the left in their national political scene. This is also the case in Bulgaria and Romania, where the latter country’s social democratic party’s particularly high score can be explained by its alliance with the liberals.
It could be thought that the western party configurations could converge with those of the East.5 Indeed, the volatility of political leaders and electorate, the poor social and ideological roots of the central eastern political parties, and, more broadly, the difficulty of structuring party political systems in societies during a crisis,6 could be compared with the different expressions of exhaustion of the representative regimes in the West. The downward tendencies of voter turnouts and weight of major government parties, the uneven paths of ‘third’ and/or ‘protest’ parties, and the accelerating decline of electoral stability all tend towards this.7
Another observation could be drawn from the overview presented by The Palgrave Handbook: the virtually universal process of the weakening of European social democracy. This is shown by several phenomena:
• The difficulty in renewing the body of activists and forming bonds with a mobilised civil society
The social democratic parties are no longer mass parties. They have faced a virtual mass exodus of activists since the beginning of the 2000s. This problem involves their capacity to maintain the number of consistent activists but also the aging of the active members.
In Austria, party membership dropped by half between 1970 and 2000, while the Swedish SP dropped by a third. In the Netherlands, while PvdA membership reached a historic low point in 2012, the proportion of those over sixty years of age rose from thirty to fifty per cent in the last decade. In Luxembourg, a quarter of the members are over 65 and less than a sixth are under 35; in Germany half of them are over sixty and only six per cent are under thirty. The French Socialist Party (PS), on the other hand can boast of relative youthfulness, but the average age is still high, with 61 per cent of its members over fifty in 2011.
Where the social democrats have maintained strong links with the trade union movement, as in Austria, this puts them out on a limb with regard to other groups, such as the ecological organisations, which can connect with a younger electorate that is increasing in number. However, in most cases, the organic links with the trade unions have crumbled or been long broken. In these cases, other kinds of social movements have not replaced them.
• A declining capacity to mobilise large sections of the electorate
This trend goes back to the 1970s for some of the biggest parties of the social-democratic family, but it is once again noticeable in the recent period. The Finnish SDP, for example dropped below the twenty per cent level in the 2009 European elections and in the 2011 national parliamentary ones and has dropped to 12.31 per cent in the 2014 European elections. The German SDP lost fifteen per cent between the general elections of 2002 and those of 2009, and the Swedish Social Democrats lost ten per cent over the same period. The most impressive drops were suffered by the southern socialist parties following the sovereign debt crises. In Greece PASOK lost its position as a major alternative party.
Only a few parties escaped this tendency to decline in the last decade: the French speaking Socialist Party in Belgium (but not its Flemish equivalent), the Maltese Labour Party (which got back into office in a virtually perfect two-party system), and the few parties that play a secondary role in their respective party systems (as in Ireland and Cyprus). The French Socialist Party (PS) progressed in opposition, but its electoral base remains modest in relation to the power it now has in the Republic.
The fact remains that, compared with the boom after the Second World War, the social democratic family has lost between fifteen and twenty per cent of its electoral strength. This has affected its ability to govern on its own or to lead coalitions and crucially raises the question of alliances. The Dutch, German, Swedish, and Greek cases can be cited as illustrations. Moreover, the eastern social democrats have not escaped the problem of general electoral decline. Having said this, the changes over the last decade are much more dramatic and rapid there, as in the Polish and Slovak cases, and have included some spectacular rises.
• Ideological confusion
The attempts to redefine social democracy in terms of a ‘Third Way’ have fizzled out. The parties most marked by this have discretely distanced themselves from a legacy that continues to weigh on their fortunes, and they find themselves in a doctrinal vacuum. Points of reference are sometimes sought outside the social democratic tradition in trying to structure a discourse that enhances national cohesion and solidarity, but these attempts are not inter-connected and no motivating proposals have emerged in the 2000s.
Nevertheless, the social democrats continue, with a few exceptions, to dominate the left political space. Most of them, at the risk of diluting their historic identity, have managed to open up to new social strata of the post-Fordist era. This has been reflected in the orientation of their programmes, confirming their commitment to improving the rights of women and sexual minorities and including more pro-ecology positions than in the past. Although many of these issues are occupied by other organisations, sometimes with greater coherence and conviction, the social democrats can claim to have more prospects of getting into office and acting on them.
On the organisational level, many organisations have started to open up and make their machinery more democratic by using similar means: direct election of national and/or local leaders, including sympathising non-members in internal votes. The existence of real primaries remains the privilege of Italy, France, and Greece.
It should also be noted that when some major parties invested their sympathisers with real powers of decision, they escaped – momentarily at any rate – the activist decline that hit their counterparts. These attempts at regeneration ‘from below’ have been accompanied by an attempt ‘from above’ to Europeanise the social democratic family.8
Compared with other political forces, these attempts have been rather successful. The crisis has created a moment of self-affirmation by the Party of European Socialists (PES) through its representatives in the European Parliament and the European think tank, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies. However, the success of this double strategy remains slight. The democratisation and opening of some parties are, in fact, limited.
The 2008 economic crisis had little impact on the doctrinal character or strategic thinking of some social democrats. Its consequences can be gauged by some negative aspects, like the difficulties it presented for left governments facing stagnation in production, soaring unemployment, and sometimes market speculation on the public debt.
The socialist parties of southern Europe were exemplary victims. The return to office that took place after the defeat in the 2009 European elections should not obscure the continued tendency to decline. This can be measured by looking at the social democratic parties among the original fifteen members of the EU, comparing the six-year periods before and after the crisis; the average drop is five per cent. This does not mean that the decline is only due to the crisis – it largely preceded it – but the crisis definitely did not improve the social democrats’ fortunes.
Over five years after the start of the crisis, the activity and thinking of the social democrats has remained confined within the previously established pacts, and no political innovation seems to have emerged. On the contrary, the social democrats persist in emphasising two choices, both of them double-edged: European integration and a competitive knowledge-based economy.
The social democrats entered into a ‘Faustian bargain’ that grew as they supported European integration.9 It is not that opting for Europe was diabolic in itself; the problem is that in seeking eternal life – that is, the maintenance of its status as the major governmental alternative – social democracy risked losing its soul.
Social democracy’s opting for Europe was not so much motivated by a possible renewed taste for internationalism as by its desire, after the crisis of the 1970s, to restore the conditions to which it had owed its post-war success. If Keynesianism had failed inside national borders it was necessary to restore it on a continental scale; if the economic sectors that promised high levels of productivity typical of the Fordist era had run out of steam, new high technology sectors had to be encouraged.
Hence the attraction for the social democrats of the project of European integration and their enthusiasm for knowledge-based economics. In both cases, changes were to enable the launching of a new wave of growth, which in turn was to provide a material basis for a new compromise between capital and labour. In this new context, which was more adapted to the regulation of a ‘globalised’ capitalism, the single currency was to help put an end to currency speculation, and a knowledge-based economy (promoted by the Lisbon Strategy) was to offer the prospect of growth in contrast to the weary Fordist industries.
These beliefs indicate the invariable ideas behind social democratic thinking – productivism and the rejection of conflict when its cost rises – but are paid for by the reinforcement of the neoliberal form of capitalism. On the one hand, social democracy completed its rallying to the European project at a time when the logic of negative integration – measures to regulate, ensure and make durable the establishment of competitiveness between socio-productive systems – was getting the upper hand over the logic of positive integration – harmonisation to control this competition and the private agents.10 On the other hand, the social democrats did not seek to explore the non-commodified potentials of the knowledge-based economy but in the name of the latter endorsed a Lisbon Strategy replete with neoliberal recommendations.11
Perhaps confident that it was possible to correct the defects once the EU system was built, the social democrats embraced European integration at a time when the turn it took undermined the possibility of achieving their hope. The EU’s logic, indeed, is not one based on party conflicts, which the social democrats would have needed to establish their own distinct views and escape the consensus that by default and by the institutional construction itself is anti-social democratic.
In fact, the EU is distinguished by the absence of real European parties and by the weakness of the connections between the arena of governing (the decision-making arena) and the parliamentary and electoral arena.12 Its structure is also marked by the tearing away of whole sections of economic policy from the sovereignty of the states and peoples and by a ‘pro-market’ orientation imprinted in these policies. This is especially visible in the case of the single currency, which completely fulfils its function of currency stability for the financial community but badly fails in ensuring the social cohesion of the population of the euro area, which is under the control of a central bank enjoying a degree of autonomy unparalleled in the world.
However, alongside its historic roots in the working-class movement, another hallmark of social democracy as a family is its leading role in defending the ‘primacy of politics’ over market forces and private interests. Among the ways of ensuring this primacy, which can assume authoritarian forms, it favoured the democratic way.
Although the history of some of its members may have been stained by the repression of popular movements, this family was one of those most concerned with the civic integration of the masses excluded from the political system. Its present support, even though hesitant, for an EU marked by the ‘primacy of competition’ and the withdrawal of the decision-making process from ‘democratic passions’ is very costly on the level of the identity of social democracy and also on the strategic level, since it makes its alternative proposals to neoliberalism unconvincing.
Even non-revolutionary solutions, like a coherent Keynesian revival and protection of companies from capital markets, require the reversal of the institutional constraints in which social democratic arguments are inaudible or divided. Such contradictions could be read between the lines of the manifesto published by the Party of European Socialists for the European elections. A step back from the one produced in 2009, it only contained generalities and did not even mention the European Central Bank.
Since social democracy has difficulty in providing solutions that tackle the deep roots of the crisis, the social democratic stagnation is not just electoral; it also characterises the strategic and doctrinal thinking of this political family. It must clarify its relations with the institutions and with the principles of popular sovereignty if it hopes to reconnect with wider sections of the electorate and with the partners on the left that it will need in order to return to government in certain countries.
The European Parliament has seen its powers increased throughout its existence, even if it still compares negatively to any national lower house. This has been expressed by some striking votes, like the rejection of the ACTA trade agreement because of the danger it poses to freedom of expression and privacy.
But what of the austerity policies in the EU, described as ‘crazy’ by the economist Paul Krugman?13 Do the economic deregulations attacked by radical political forces, both in the creditor and the debtor nations of the euro area, have any chance of being dealt with in a new way?
The right-wing radical or national-sovereignty groups carry too little weight and are too isolated to claim any influence on these issues. Similarly, the solutions put forward during the campaign by the left radical leader Alexis Tsipras will not be considered for a single second by the European elites – or would only be considered in the event of an extreme scenario like the imminent collapse of the banking system.
On the other hand, in a more realistic scenario, some expect a moderation of economic policies in the direction of the centre-left, arguing that the balance of forces has shifted in favour of the social democrats. This diagnosis is based partly on the increase in the number of votes they now have in the European Council (a dozen member states have a government or governing coalition led by the left), partly on the slight increase in left EP groups, and partly on the sharp decline of the EPP, which has strengthened the relative weight of the social democrats in the pro-European central bloc.
Recently, several senior leaders of the PES (notably Matteo Renzi, Sigmar Gabriel, and Martin Schulz) have spoken in favour of a softening of austerity14 to give priority to growth policies. However, although carrying out their proposals would probably make a momentary difference in terms of the struggle against unemployment, it would only represent a variation of the present constraint-based path.
The balance of power remains unfavourable to the European left. Obliged to compromise, the national executives are still dominated by the right. Moreover, political colour only partly reflects the real divergent interests; the challenge for the euro area is to make different socio-productive models live together under the same currency.
As for the European Parliament, as many observers have already noted, the gradual erosion of the central bloc through the growth of the radical left, on the one side, and the radical or extreme right, on the other, makes an even closer cooperation probable between the PES, the EPP, and the liberals (and Greens) in the European Parliament. Yet it is precisely the consensual character of the European political system that makes invisible the specific contribution of the social democrats who find themselves identified with institutions and economic orientations inconsistent with their ‘genetic code’.
The fact that the MEPs opposed to the existing European integration are now more numerous will be a means of blackmailing the social democrats. It will probably be used shamelessly by the ‘pro-EU’ right through warnings that there must be ‘compromise or chaos’. Although the social democrats claim to have insisted on conditioning their support of Juncker as president of the Commission, it is by no means certain that they are in a position to set conditions.
Fritz Scharpf has shown in a fairly convincing manner that whatever the preferences of the actors on the European scene, the present structures of the EU, made concrete through its laws and institutions, are profoundly biased against those capitalist economies that are more socialised and that provide more space for state intervention.15 Instead, they favour the varieties of capitalism closest to a ‘pure liberal model’, and the national economies are pressured to move towards this model. Thus the EU has a kind of ‘natural inclination’, which would require exceptional circumstances to reverse, especially after its extension to the countries of central and eastern Europe. This creates a problem for the left that echoes the ‘Faustian bargain’ mentioned above.
Even if the left recognises this diagnosis, the framework it has in which to act will not be exhilarating. It can either be trapped in a long and uncertain struggle inside the EU, in which it is a minority, or it can pursue a strategy of disobedience and rejection, which will make it hard to gather consensus and runs the risk of isolating the left or exposing it to the danger of hijacking by nationalism.
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Sloam, James and Isabelle Hertner, ‘The Europeanization of Social Democracy: Politics Without Policy and Policy without Politics’, Henning Meyer and Jonathan Rutherford (eds), The Future of European Social Democracy, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
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Vieira, Mathieu, ‘Does a European Party System Exist? A Conceptual Framework for Analysis’, Cahiers du CEVIPOL 2011/1, <http://dev.ulb.ac.be/cevipol/dossiers_fichiers/cahiers-du-cevipol-2011-1.pdf>.