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Sun 22 September 2019
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In Spain, Portugal, Netherlands and today Denmark, after years of struggling, social democracy seems to be on its way back. Will it last?

They were given up for dead but against all odds, it seems that European social democrats are coming back.

It first started in Spain two months ago when social democratic Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez gained with a landslide victory the snap election he called earlier. And it continued at the European Elections when Frans Timmermans’ PdvA surprised pollsters and overtook centre right and right wing parties in the Netherland.

There is light at the end of the tunnel but it seems clear that European social democrats are still in the tunnel.

And the pink dream seems to continue as Danish social democrats are set to win the General Election the party will hold tomorrow (June 5th), likely marking the return to office of a centre-left coalition and of the second female Prime Minister, many years after Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

The post card looks lovely and has, so far, overjoyed centre left enthusiasts across the old continent, But the broader picture is way more worry. The social democratic renaissance is not happening tomorrow. Here’s why.


Social Democrat Victories are mostly at the cost of Centre Right parties

Firstly, social democrats have not really won. They rose thanks to the division of the right but the overall balance left – right has not changed.

In Spain for example, Pedro Sanchez’s PSOE won a landslide victory in April – 28%, thus securing 35% of Cortes seats. But taken in their totality, Ciudadanos liberals, Partito Popular conservatives and Vox nationalists among a few other regionalist parties have lost only 2% since the last election in 2016. They represented 51% while the left (PSOE + Podemos + regionalist parties) represented 49%.

On issues like social regulation, tackling the use of pesticides or trade deals, the group has split on several occasions highlighting the very little political and ideological cohesion bounding the group.

In 2019, figures have reversed and now the left represents some 51%. This tedious analysis shows no major change in Spanish society as parity seems to prevail once again. It’s impossible to conclude that the left has prevailed because of its cultural dominance or political efficiency but rather thanks to an electoral system that advantages major parties.

The Netherlands surprised everybody because the PdvA did win, defying what polls suggested. Here again the balance did not change drastically: centre right parties are still dominating and the far right has only mutated into another party but is not eliminated. And although Dutch social liberals performed well, it’s rather a stabilisation, a return to a former position, than a victory.

Nothing too impressive then.


The Social Democrats Renaissance hasn’t yet started

Secondly, while Spanish, Dutch or Danish social democrats may be in good shape but have a look at the French, German, Romanian or Hungarian centre left.

It would be fair to say that French and German socialists/social democrats used to be the biggest parties and yet they are on the verge of destruction in Germany. French socialists lost every election since 2012, only had 6% in the last presidential election and a similar figure at the last European election.

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In Germany, for the first time in its history since World War II, the party has been overtaken by another party – the Greens – and came third. They received 15%, the lowest vote share since 1887 (except for the Nazi period when the party was forbidden). The party even lost control of their stronghold, the Lander of Bremen, that it had controlled since 1946.

In the UK, social democrats have been similarly crushed by centrist LibDems and by far right Brexit Party, and here again were only a few percent ahead of the Greens. In May, the Party of European Socialists (PES) lost nearly 38 seats, losing ground in many countries including in Italy, Greece and Romania. Far from a renaissance.


There is No ‘European’ single social democracy

Thirdly, there is no cohesion among European social democrats. They may all be gathered under the same S&D banner but defections to the ALDE group put apart (which is the case for Hungarian and Romanian social democrats), the group is not united.

There is a huge, huge, huge gap between Dutch or German social liberals, neoliberals and Portuguese or Greek socialists. On issues like social regulation, tackling the use of pesticides or trade deals, the group has split on several occasions highlighting the very little political and ideological cohesion bounding the group.

This is the reason why the social democratic message struggles to be heard across Europe whereas ALDE – En Marche liberals are far more united. The far right might be divided on some issues but at least manages quite easily to carry out its message and win elections.

There is light at the end of the tunnel but it seems clear that European social democrats are still in the tunnel. Far from rejoicing marginal victories, they should really start rethinking who they are, seek ideological cohesion over weak and placid consensus. And as Steve Bannon is uniting and structuring Far Right parties across Europe, it seems the time for a proper and similarly structured progressive response has come.

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