Centre-left in Europe victims of own success

Voters take social welfare for granted, and reject globalisation amid economic crisis

PARIS • When Mr Donald Trump shocked the world with an upset victory in the United States presidential election earlier this month, much of Europe was aghast.

But in one critical sense, the result could not have been more European: Across the continent, parties of the centre-left that have dominated politics for decades - and that have given Europe its reputation for generous social welfare systems - now find themselves beaten, divided and directionless.

In Germany and Britain, once- mighty centre-left parties have been badly diminished, locked out of their nations' top jobs. In Spain and Greece, they have been usurped by newer, more radical alternatives. And in France and Italy, they are still governing - but their days in power may be numbered. The rout of the centre-left has even extended deep into Scandinavia, perhaps the world's premier bastion of social democracy.

Overall, the total vote share for the continent's traditional centre- left parties is now at its lowest level since at least World War II. They have been marginalised, with little influence over policy as the right prepares to place its stamp on the Western world in a way that could endure for decades."If the left and the centre-left don't get their act together, then we're looking at a period of very unstable right-wing hegemony," said European studies professor Alex Callinicos at King's College London.

The centre-left's decline is part of an unravelling of Europe's mainstream consensus as electorates fracture and a political kaleidoscope of alternatives emerges.

As recently as a decade ago, the picture was very different. Mr Tony Blair in Britain was at the vanguard of a generation of European centre-left leaders who had emulated Mr Bill Clinton's pragmatic Third Way politics and seemed poised to ride their marriage of social democracy with market liberalisation to an unlimited future of electoral success.

But the Great Recession - and the deeply unequal recovery that followed - fundamentally changed that. "With the economic crisis, and the negative effects of globalisation, the socialists couldn't convince the populations in their respective countries that the future lies in a liberal Europe," said socialism historian Gerard Grunberg at Sciences Po university in Paris.

"This is the end of the European utopia." That "utopia" emerged in the aftermath of 1945, when politicians across war-torn Europe banded together to build a new continent that would never repeat the grave mistakes of the recent past. This was the genesis of the European Union: an economic union that was meant to become committed to the common cause of social justice, largely a leftist ideal.

If the three decades that followed World War II coincided with the longest period of growth in Europe's history, voters today see neither leftist economic policies nor the EU itself as necessarily worth preserving. Britain voted to leave the bloc in June, and separatist movements have spread across the continent to France, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

To historians, the unlikely abandonment of this former European bedrock is partly a function of its own achievements. "It was a failure by success," said Mr Timothy Snyder, a historian of 20th-century Europe at Yale University.

"Once the left becomes not revolutionary but transformative, and once that transformation succeeds, people start taking it for granted. Europeans take for granted that they will have public education, free healthcare and social services. And the left doesn't get votes on this any more."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2016, with the headline 'Centre-left in Europe victims of own success'. Print Edition | Subscribe