One of the few electoral bright spots for the European centre left in recent years was Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s victory in the 2011 Danish general election. Last week, however, her Social Democrats lost office, thus continuing the trend which has seen no major centre-left governing party in Europe win re-election since the onset of the crisis.
As Kristian Weise details for this month’s State of the Left, there was a paradox in the result: the Social Democrats gained votes and seats but, thanks to a rise in support for the populist right, the left bloc narrowly lost power. There are clear parallels with Labour’s defeat in Britain last month in which Ukip – eating into the party’s support in many places – played a role. The Danish People’s party's strong second-place finish came on the back of not only its anti-immigration stance, but also a pledge to defend the welfare state. Whether the centre left claims to be tough on immigration – as both Labour and Thorning-Schmidt did – or not, it loses.
The result confirms that, amid fears about economic insecurity, immigration and the EU, the populist right poses a potent threat to many of the centre-left’s traditional sources of support. The need for the left to develop a response which marries a programme for economic change with an inclusive narrative around national identity is highlighted by Katrine Marçal, who reports from Sweden on the plight of Scandinavia’s sole remaining centre-left government.
What of Europe’s other social democratic parties which are in government? The picture is largely bleak. Jérémie Gagné and Michael Miebach find the Germany SPD unable to capitalise in the polls on its creditable record as Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner. In France, Gérard Grunberg suggests few Socialists believe Francois Hollande can win re-election (although his reformist prime minister, Manuel Valls, remains popular and emerged stronger from a recent party congress). And in Italy, voters fired a warning shot across Matteo Renzi’s bows in last month’s regional and local elections. From the latter, at least, the message to the prime minister, believes Mattia Guidi, may be that his efforts to reform the Democratic party may not have gone far enough. In government or on the opposition benches, there is, perhaps, a wider lesson in that for social democrats across the continent.