Scenes already lived, scenarios already written. The situation of Europe’s centre left reminds us of the anguished vision portrayed by David Bowie in his beautiful song Life on Mars? Indeed, from Spain to Ireland, from Sweden to France, social democrats are running out of space and have nowhere to go.
In Spain’s general election, challenger parties Ciudadanos and Podemos made huge gains. The country’s politics is now in deadlock, with no new government in sight. Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists have become the pivotal actor in coalition talks, but the party’s position is unenviable. A grand coalition with the centre-right People’s party would be tantamount to electoral suicide. But the alternative – repeat elections – is equally dangerous for Sánchez, with Podemos tactically seeking to exploit the Socialists’ internal divisions in the hope of leapfrogging them and becoming the leading party of the left.
France’s established parties are also grappling with how best to react to the populist insurgency after the Front National’s vote share exploded in the recent regional elections. Though the party failed to seize power in any particular area, Marine Le Pen looks increasingly likely to reach the runoff stage of next year’s presidential election. The Socialists are seeking to build a broad church ahead of 2017, attempting to appeal both to their radical flanks and potential centrist allies. Yet no one truly believes the party will be in serious contention.
In Ireland, a swathe of independents and other challengers also look set to shake up the forthcoming election, as voters voice their distrust of the traditionally dominant Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. This does not really benefit the Labour party, which is also seen as part of the establishment. The appetite for a so-called ‘new politics’ is all the more overt in Ireland as the insurgents seek to distinguish themselves purely in these terms, rather than making ideologically distinctive appeals.
Meanwhile, in Portugal, cracks are already beginning to show in the motley coalition of socialists, democratic anti-capitalists and diehard communists that assembled following the country’s recent election. There is now speculation that the fragmentation of the historically dominant forces will necessitate a redefining of the party system itself.
Finally, social democrats are feeling the populist pressure more than ever in Denmark and Sweden, where the predominant issue of Europe’s refugee crisis continues to cast its shadow. Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven has faced severe criticism from those within his own party after U-turning on the country’s initially welcoming stance. Denmark’s Social Democrats might be leading in the polls, but this comes at a price. Bruised after recently losing office, the party has now rallied around a position of compromise over the issues of immigration, asylum seekers and the welfare system – one which puts them at odds with other leftwing forces.
What these painful realities show is that progressives should work hard on forging their own space and conducting themselves on their own terms. By doing so they could be heroes again – and more than just for one day.