European social democracy is in crisis. Denmark, Finland, Portugal, Hungary, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands – no matter the local context, the retreat of the centre-left is near total. Even in those few outposts where we do wield power we are either on the back foot – as in France or Sweden – or do so only at the grace of a hegemonic centre-right party, as in Germany.
In this context, Labour’s crushing defeat – which on the campaign trail felt a far more cultural collapse than in 2010 – is just one example of a far bigger trend. We are not alone. And what we need now is a debate which goes beyond parochial policy concerns and explores the deeper explanations for this almost pathological decline.
Sifting through the wreckage reveals a squeeze coming from two distinct directions. First, from a resurgent and intellectually confident right. Second, from populist movements which – on the left at least – combine community-focused activism with a resistance to austerity and an aggrieved sense of nationhood.
It should not need saying, but it does: a rejection of the need to balance the books would be electoral suicide for the Labour party. Podemos-like populism has so far only benefited the centre-right at national elections, with the exceptional case of Greece only serving to prove the rule.
But we are not Spain or Greece and this is not 2011. In fact, we are not even Scotland where – as the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out during the election – the Scottish National party’s fiscal policies fail to match their anti-austerity rhetoric. Our economy is growing and the budget deficit stands at five per cent: even John Maynard Keynes would be balancing the books now. Or is Stafford Cripps, who delivered austerity budgets during the 1945 government that created the NHS and welfare state, now a ‘Tory’ too?
Yet to understand the emotional appeal of such parties we first need to realise that the anti-austerity message is about more than economic policy. Rather, what anti-austerity and nationalist movements across the continent express in equal measure is a popular resistance to ‘status quo’ technocracy. This is more obvious in Europe where the eurozone crisis has made national conflict and cultural issues the dominant political questions. Despite voters remaining – even in Greece – broadly pro-European, voters now want their parties to demonstrate a completely new level of aggression against distant elites when it comes to pursuing the national interest.
This hurts consensual, pro-European social democrats twice over. Not only because we came into being to represent the people not the elite. But also because rightwing, conservative and nationalist parties are usually perceived to have a deeper, more emotional affinity with the national culture and interest. However, clearly such forces are now at play in our own fragile union. During the election Labour appeared to Scotland as the European Union does to Greece: a foreign technocratic elite telling them they could not be trusted with their own affairs. Meanwhile, the Tories ruthlessly exploited English concerns about SNP influence to burnish their own patriotic credentials.
What are we to make of all this? That in a summer where all parts of the Labour movement need to hear hard truths, we need to absorb some of our own. A traditional modernising approach is not enough: what worked in 1997 – a message combining economic efficiency, social justice and strong leadership – fails to take account of the populist challenge. It must now be combined with a greater sense of patriotism and an understanding that that we need radical party, constitutional and devolutionary reform in order to try and dispel concerns about technocracy.
Mainstream social democracy faces an unbelievably daunting task. Not only do we need to restore our respective parties’ fortunes, we also need to restore wider trust in politics. Our Labour values must connect to a more obvious sense of national identity. Our party activism must do far more with communities than ask for their vote once every five years. And we must still deliver the centre-ground basics: fiscal responsibility, progressive ambition, acute antennae for the country’s concerns, and a tin-ear towards partisan preoccupations.
The United Kingdom is changing and Europe is floundering. We will need emotional intelligence and economic competence just to survive.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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