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 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.”
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