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Europe’s center-left is fighting for survival. Last year alone, the continent’s social-democratic parties lost 12 out of 18 national elections, and backed the losing side in critical referenda in Italy and the United Kingdom. And as voters in France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands head to the polls in 2017, the future of the center-left seems even more ominous.
There are many reasons for this decline—the dissolution of the traditional working-class being one of them—but all share a common cause, as grim as it is simple: European workers are turning their backs on workers’ parties. In large parts of the continent, blue-collar voters are either abstaining from the ballot box or supporting populists. In Austria’s presidential election re-run in December, 85 percent of workers voted for the right-wing populist Norbert Hofer, and in Germany’s 2016 regional elections, the populist Alternative for Germany party received more than 60 percent of its support from workers and the unemployed. A similar story is unfolding in France, where in regional elections in 2015, only 20 percent of workers voted for the Socialist Party—a painful decline from 70 percent in the 1970s—and 43 percent for the right-wing National Front. A major reason is that center-left parties have abandoned workers’ interests and shifted to the ideological center. Beginning in the 1990s, social-democratic leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder reinvented their parties by advocating for pro-market economic reforms, privatization, and deregulation. As a result, many blue-collar voters were left without a political home.
Faced with this existential threat, Europe’s center-left parties are now shifting back to the left on socio-economic issues in an attempt to stop the decline. Sergei Stanishev, president of the Party of European Socialists, captured this new consensus in a December op-ed in Politico, where he wrote that the “winning strategy” for social-democrats was to fight the “battle for social rights, solidarity, and equality.” Just this week, for instance, the staunchly left-wing outsider Benoît Hamon won the first round of the French Socialist Party primaries based on a promise to introduce a universal basic income. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, recently floated the related idea of introducing “some kind of high earnings cap,” while Austrian Chancellor and Social Democratic Party leader Christian Kern has promised his country a “New Deal.” Kern invoked a Bernie Sanders-style “democratic revolution,” complete with “increased public investment, …higher minimum wages,” and “abolishing tax benefits for banks and the super-rich.”
For center-left parties bleeding working class support, this shift to the economic left seems like a plausible strategy. But if they want to know whether it will work, Europe’s social democrats should look outward, to a country that has already tried it: Israel.
Like its center-left counterparts in Europe, the Israeli Labor Party was for decades a political force to be reckoned with. From the country’s founding in 1948 until 1977, every Israeli prime minister hailed from the Labor Party. Although its success waned in later years, during the 1980s and 1990s Labor still occasionally succeeded at the polls, scoring its final outright victory in 1999, when Ehud Barak became prime minister on the basis of his credentials as “Israel’s Number One Soldier,” in the words of his campaign ads.
Today, however, Israel’s center-left is marginalized. Labor has not had a prime minister since Barak’s defeat at the hands of Ariel Sharon in 2001, and its popularity has only decreased in the interim. According to recent polls, if an election were held today the Zionist Union, a coalition between Labor and the liberal Hatnuah Party, would receive eight seats in the Knesset—less than even the anti-Zionist Joint List, which is dominated by Arab parties.
The reasons for this decline are complex. On one level, Labor is paying the price for clinging to power. Time and again, Labor joined as a junior partner in conservative-led governments despite its recurring electoral defeats. From 2001 to 2013, Labor failed to win a single election, but served in four different governing coalitions. Predictably, this approach damaged the party’s credibility as an independent force for change and widened the gap between Labor and its core constituency—the country’s culturally liberal Ashkenazi elite. This was particularly painful at a time when the electoral importance of this constituency was dwindling. Beginning in the 1990s, Israel welcomed 1.6 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their first-hand experience with actually existing socialism, these immigrants were reluctant to embrace even moderately socialist ideals such as those championed by the Israeli left. The new arrivals instead flocked to conservative and religious parties, transforming them, rather than Labor, into the stewards of the low-income vote.
More important than the demographic changes, however, was the issue of security. Even as Labor leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Oslo peace process, Israeli voters grew increasingly uncertain whether Labor could keep them safe, because the process failed to produce any tangible results. When the Oslo peace process finally collapsed in 2000 following Yasir Arafat’s rejection of the Israeli offer at Camp David, the electorate blamed Labor, which had pushed for the talks. Thus, when Barak infamously declared that there was “no partner for peace” in 2001, he inadvertently undermined one of the core pillars of the Israeli left—the possibility of a peaceful solution with the Palestinians. In the turbulent years since then, perceived mismanagement by high-ranking Labor government ministers—such as Defense Minister Amir Peretz’ poor performance in the second Lebanon War of 2006—has fueled the perception that only the political right could guarantee security.
In an attempt to overcome this predicament, Labor has in recent years shifted its attention from peace and security to socio-economic questions. In November 2005 it installed Amir Peretz, the leader of the left-wing Histadrut labor union, at the helm of the party. Peretz derided Labor’s perceived elitism and neoliberal positions—which it had adopted as a by-product of continuous coalition-agreements with the political right—and vowed to “eradicate child poverty within two years,” focusing his 2006 election campaign on economic and social issues. The result was a 0.6 percent increase in the Labor share of the vote. Shelly Yachimovich, who rose to the Labor leadership in 2011, likewise emphasized housing, inequality, and corruption, while all but refusing to address the traditional questions of Israeli politics: peace and security—a strategy she has continued to pursue since being elected to the Knesset.
This shift toward a focus on the economy was rooted in real concerns. After all, in 2011 hundreds of thousands of Israelis had protested against inflated housing prices and a rising cost of living, concerns shared not only by a majority of Israelis, but even by 85 percent of right-wing Likud-voters. But as the left was soon to discover, opinion polls and elections are not always in sync. The right was able to strengthen its position thanks to a controversial Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations, vigorous campaigning over the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, and a successful prisoner exchange deal, engineered by Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that brought Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit home from Palestinian captivity. In the 2013 elections, Yachimovich’s Labor received a mere 11.3 percent—down from 15.1 percent in 2006—and came in third behind Likud and the newly founded Yesh Atid.
Based on this experience the party once again promised change: Isaac Herzog, the son of former President Chaim Herzog, replaced Yachimovich in November 2013 and initially focused on security. But in the 2015 elections Labor once again campaigned on unemployment and the costs of living. Running as the lead member of the left-wing Zionist Union electoral list, the party improved on its 2013 performance, scoring 18 percent and installing Herzog as the leader of the opposition. But it failed in its goal of pushing Netanyahu out of office. In the words of the Israeli journalist Sever Plocker, Herzog’s “obsession with the economy came at the expense of a marginal-to-negligible engagement in crucial national issues.” Quite simply, Labor had failed to address the actual priorities of the Israeli public, for whom the security threats represented by regional turmoil, the Iranian threat, and the Palestinians trumped legitimate economic concerns.
The decline of the Israeli left holds important lessons for Europe today. Although major differences certainly exist, Europe has in many ways turned into Israel writ large. Faced with real or perceived existential threats from migration and terrorism, security and identity have, in large parts of Europe, come to eclipse economic concerns. According to the most recent Eurobarometer poll from July 2016, migration and the threat of terrorism are by far the most pressing concerns for European voters—way ahead of the economy, public finances, and unemployment.
Faced with real or perceived existential threats from migration and terrorism, security and identity have, in large parts of Europe, come to eclipse economic concerns.
In such circumstances, a well-argued yet one-sided focus on economics is no panacea, and may indeed be a poisoned chalice—as the demise of the Israeli left has demonstrated. Rather than running narrow campaigns rooted in their traditional left-wing ideologies, European center–left parties should address a wider range of issues, such as voters’ security concerns and the challenge of controlling migration without surrendering their core beliefs in international solidarity and cooperation. This is challenging given that the remaining center–left voters have in many cases placed anti-racism and pro-migration stances at the heart of their political agenda. But the perceived conflict between security and solidarity is not impossible to overcome, as demonstrated by Canada. Although Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accepted humanitarian responsibility for Syrian refugees, he has combined this open-arms approach with background checks, realistic limits on inward migration, and a multi-layered program to facilitate the actual integration of refugees.
Another way to address this quandary could be to rebrand Europe as a bulwark of stability and security in an ever changing world. This is an approach recently explored by the German Social Democrats, whose future party leader and candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, declared on Tuesday that European integration was “a fundamental precondition for peace and prosperity” and that addressing the “deep uncertainty” of the electorate was the order of the day.
Such a strategy may or may not succeed. In view of increasing economic and political insecurity, however, it is imperative to address European voters’ concerns for safety as well as embrace social democracy’s traditional focus on justice. If the center-left fails to do so, it could hasten its descent into irrelevance; but if it succeeds, it may not only protect a glorious legacy of emancipation, equality and justice, but secure a glorious future as well.