Losing the Big Red Cities
The Social Democrat Fight in Europe
Two leading European countries with centre-left parties in power held local elections last week: the Netherlands and France. It was the first round of the French contest that generated the big headlines – "A Front National bombshell"… "An incredible surge"… "Fear for our Cities" – owing to the breakthrough of Marine Le Pen’s movement in symbolic target seats (though they scored only 5% of the vote).
To many European observers the emotive Le Pen threat and the continuing troubles of François Hollande – the PS suffered another major setback – may have distracted from the 10% showing of the Dutch Labour party. The PvdA lost the ‘Red Big Cities’ and ‘The Red North’, the traditional strongholds of Dutch social democracy. It lost Amsterdam. It lost Rotterdam. It lost The Hague, Enschede and Groningen.
This electoral collapse cannot be laid squarely at the door of Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom. Wilders ran a limited local campaign, and abhorred large sections of Dutch society by leading an anti-Moroccan chant on election night. The big blows were struck by absentation (an all-time high of 47%) and the rise of local independent parties across the country (30% of the vote).
The open political system of the Netherlands again highlights, at the extreme end, the challenge for the left in fashioning an effective response to the crisis and building winning electoral coalitions from it. Adding to growing social and value divisions in European societies, heightened post-crisis distributional conflicts are splitting up the vote. In this vortex, votes are increasingly leaked on all fronts: to Populists as well as Social Liberals, Conservatives, Greens and Socialists; to local and single-issue parties, or to absentation and protest.
Populism in this sense is the menacing - and headlining grabbing - element of a long tail of challengers. In this hostile environment focus-group led politics looks no substitute for effective leadership.
This is the social democrat fight. Across Europe it takes different forms, with new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi being the most aggressive agitator for a centre-left revival. His ‘bulldozer’ style and volley of political promises has set him apart. Then there is the hope of “Milibandism” in the UK; a more principled game-plan to put equality centre stage. In Sweden, there is a quieter war of attrition: the approach of Stefan Löfven, tipped to win the 2014 election in September, is anchored in credibility and cautious statesmanship.
Angela Merkel’s score of 42% in the 2013 German federal election shows that big wins are still achievable (albeit recorded in comparatively favourable economic circumstances). But it will take some-thing special in a fractured political landscape. This is the latest lesson from the Dutch political laboratory.
This month’s State of the Left combines reporting on political developments and elections in eight countries with three in-depth feature essays: JÜRGEN KRÖNIG on Germany’s volatile energy politics
; PAU MARI-KLOSE et al on the effect of the crisis on the Spanish Social model
: and MICHAEL LIND on the emerging political order in the United States
View the latest opinion polls on social democratic parties from around the world.
Our political observers:
Netherlands: Electoral bloodbath for Dutch Labour
"Nationwide, Labour took just over 10% of the vote, down from 15% four years ago: a major drubbing, representing a loss of 1/3 of their vote...this electoral result reconfirms Dutch Society polarising further, putting massive pressure on the Big Tent centre parties, who increasingly fail to bridge different interests and voices."
By René Cuperus
UK: Miliband’s vision for Britain
"Referencing Thatcher was not done to celebrate her or her legacy but to stake his own claim as a radical and transformative leader. Miliband has indeed some claim to be so regarded. He has staked out a vision of a Britain very different from David Cameron's...Baldly, and boldly, to put equality back at the centre of British politics."
By John McTernan
France: More debilitating blows hit the Hollande Government
"The municipal elections were a disappointment and Hollande has shipped fire from Brussels.... He has to quickly decide on whether or not to replace his prime minister; a decision which could either give a shot in the arm to his waning administration, deeply divide the party (but potentially enliven the wider electorate), or see him shot down for embracing the status quo."
By Gérard Grunberg
Italy: Politics in a hurry: The dizzying speed of Matteo Renzi
"The new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has shaken up the political establishment with his social media focused delivery style and his opening flurry of fast-paced and bold reforms. Can he maintain this high-intensity blitz of political promises?"
By Mattia Guidi
Finland: Old-time religion? Facing up to an identity crisis
"With a leadership contest in May, beyond the mere identity of the party leader, what is at stake is the very identity of the social democratic movement. Will the SDP be seen as a catch-all party with an appeal also to the middle class centre ground, or will it be treated – rightly or wrongly – merely as an extended arm of the trade unions?"
By Mikko Majander
Sweden: Fredrik Reinfeldt's worn-out political playbook
"The free movement of political slogans is now a reality in Europe - whether we like it or not...Voters are confused by the Swedish prime minister’s Merkel-style approach to electoral campaigning. The Social Democrat polling position thus looks strong ahead of the September 2014 elections."
By Katrine Kielos
Denmark: Goldman deal shakes up Danish centre-left
"Events have passed that not even the writers of the TV-hit Borgen could have imagined or made up...The deal that saw Goldman Sachs acquire part ownership in a Danish utility company has led to the Socialist party exit from government."
By Kristian Weise
Australia: Labor's quiet re-positioning
"Despite a series of missteps by the new government, the Labor opposition have been laying uncharacteristically low. The party is trying to absorb the lessons of its election defeat. The question is whether a rebuilt Labor will be willing to take meaningful political risks in support of its values."
By David Hetherington
Feature│Energy problems in the German powerhouse
"The coalition agreement between the German Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU) has seen SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel become Minister for Economy and Energy in the Merkel cabinet. In a country with spiralling energy costs, he faces a daunting challenge to balance industrial competitiveness, social justice, green goals and energy security."
By Jürgen Krönig
Feature│The Spanish social model in the crisis years
"Before the financial crisis Spain went through a series of generous reform packages geared towards catching-up with the social models of Northern and Central European countries. The crisis in public finances has meant wide scale retrenchment has been necessary; but some of the ideological turns of the Rajoy government have deeply altered the social model."
By Pau Marí-Klose, Francisco Javier Moreno-Fuentes & Eloisa del Pino-Matute
Feature│The emerging political order in the United States
"American politics looks to be on the verge of a grand transition from one political era to another: the declining coherency of the politics espoused by both Reaganite Conservatives and Clintonite New Democrats has opened the way for more assertive social democratic progressives and a more libertarian, anti-statist right."
By Michael Lind