The new centre-left phenomenon in Europe

Executive summary:

The era of domination by the exclusive club of tycoons, big corporations and the wealthy elites appears to be drawing to a close. In its place, the economic orthodoxies long considered in terminal decline are showcasing signs of a return. For years, Center-left parties across various countries in the West were teetering toward collapse or, at best, licking their wounds. President Donald Trump’s unlikely victory had crystallised the failings and complacency of the U.S. Democrats. In France and the Netherlands, among other nations, traditional social democratic factions that had long been mainstays in national political life had shrunk into irrelevance. Germany’s Social Democrats, one of Europe’s most venerable parties, found itself in steep decline as a junior partner in center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition.


The technocrats of the center-left are seemingly once more a serious force, at the expense of both the establishment conservatism that prevailed among Western democracies for much of the 21st century, and the right-wing populism that arose in backlash to the status quo.

The biggest indication of what was unfolding was in Germany’s recent elections. The next government brings together an unprecedented partnership — a coalition of center-left Social Democrats, market-liberal Free Democrats, and Greens. It may be tempting to believe Europe’s centre left is stirring.
Olaf Scholz, the former finance minister who is the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) will be the new chancellor. The most notable element of his election campaign was his championing of the work of Michael Sandel. Last year, the Harvard philosopher published The Tyranny of Merit, a trenchant critique of the way western societies has distributed both wealth and social prestige in recent decades.

Mr Scholz echoed this argument almost to the letter, criticising “a meritocratic exuberance that has led people to believe their success is completely self-made”. As a result, he continued, “those who actually keep the show on the road don’t get the respect they deserve … Manual labourers don’t deserve less respect than academics.” This kind of judgment became commonplace during the pandemic, as key workers on poor pay kept lockdown societies functioning. “Respect”, concretely demonstrated by better pay and working conditions for unglamorous but vital occupations, has accordingly been a central idea in Mr Scholz’s campaign.

The attraction and absorption of such ideas is seemingly not limited to just Germany and has rather become a feature not a bug. President Biden is in the White House and attempting to push through a slate of ambitious social spending projects. In Norway, the left-wing opposition is now back in power, following the recent election, meaning for the first time since 2001 all three countries of the region, including Denmark and Sweden, will have social democrat prime ministers. Meanwhile, center-left parties all hold sway or rule in coalitions in Italy, Spain and Portugal. In Canada, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fended off challenges from both the right and further to the left to win a third term in power after calling snap elections earlier this year.

In different contexts, these parties and ideas parties previously suffered from a shared malaise. In some cases, critics claimed they had grown too disconnected from working-class bases in industrial heartlands that once comprised their prime sources of strength. They had aligned themselves, instead, to policies of neoliberal austerity and the growing economic inequities that followed. In all instances, they appeared to represent a fraying post-Cold War status quo, at risk of being cast adrift by the ruptures of globalization and the shocks of the financial and political crises of the past couple of decades.

Yet now the political winds seem to be blowing in a different direction. With figures showing individuals worth more than $1 million constitute just 1.1% of the world’s population, they hold 45.8% of global wealth. On the other end of the spectrum, 55% of the population owns only 1.3% of global wealth. This disparity has been growing and is seemingly proof of a broken model.
The appetite for a different economic approach has grown, particularly in light of the pandemic.

Indeed, The Norwegian Labour party’s successful election slogan was: “It’s the ordinary people’s turn now”. Its manifesto included pledges to boost employment rights and union membership, and raise taxes on unearned wealth.

Covid-19 seems to have led to a greater concern and emphasis on “common welfare”. A new vocabulary of respect and dignity, and a focus on “ordinary” occupations and lives, points to a post-pandemic politics of the left focused on redistributing status as well as income.
With figures showing individuals worth more than $1 million constitute just 1.1% of the world’s population, they hold 45.8% of global wealth. On the other end of the spectrum, 55% of the population owns only 1.3% of global wealth. This disparity has been growing and is seemingly proof of a broken model.

Indeed, polls worldwide also show lopsided support for vaccine mandates, greater welfare spending and other pandemic policies that fit better with the agendas of the left than the right.
Enrico Letta, a former Italian prime minister who returned to lead the Democratic party last March stated that recent trends that “the right is beatable”, after a period in which the far-right Brothers of Italy party and the nationalist League have consistently topped polls.

The change transcends just the political economy, and is extended towards the environmental realm. Across Europe the Greens and their ideals continue to increase in popularity. In the recent German elections, the Greens obtained 14.8% of the vote share and became the kingmakers. Their membership has also doubled in the last year.

There is also a steely approach to foreign policy for the Greens. For the first time in 16 years the Greens will take charge of the foreign ministry under a coalition deal reached this week with the Social Democrats and liberals that could have big implications for partners and adversaries alike.
Relations with China and Russia in particular could be set for a bumpy ride. The Greens announced late on Thursday that the job of foreign minister would go to Annalena Baerbock, the Green co-leader, who has argued strongly for a foreign policy “guided by human rights and values”.

That could be read as a veiled attack on Angela Merkel, who will retire from politics next month after 16 years as chancellor. The Greens have long argued that Merkel placed Germany’s commercial interests ahead of defending western values such as the rule of law and democracy.

The Greens viewed the longtime chancellor as too soft on China, failing to speak out strongly enough on abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. She pursued sanctions on Russia over Crimea but also backed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline carrying Russian gas directly to Germany — a project that critics said would hurt Ukraine and expand the Kremlin’s grip on EU energy markets.

“We have to stop [equating] German interests with German economic interests,” said Franziska Brantner, the Greens’ spokeswoman on Europe, at a conference on foreign policy this week. “We as Germans really have to change course. If we continue, we will pay a very heavy price.” The coalition agreement suggests the foreign policy stance may change.

The rhetoric on Russia, too, is tough. “They are no longer dreaming about the Russia we wish we had, the Russia that lies just beyond the horizon,” said Jana Puglierin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They have a much more clear-eyed and realistic view.”
It appears as though there is a robust realignment taking place in Germany, whereby the domestic and outward outlook is shifting, and could be indicative of the type of approach that could be common in the continent.

Importantly, the recent wave of left wing success is not an anomaly, but rather a continuation of the type of politics that has surfaced in the last decade. A break from the neo-liberal orthodoxy has been under way. It was not long-ago Greece and Spain were on the receiving end of a resurgence of left-wing ideas by Syriza and Podemos respectively. Speaking in egalitarian terms, in what can be considered a break from the usual rhetoric rhetoric that main political parties transmit, they both enjoyed political prominence. Now the ideas for a fairer and more just society that advocated for are proving popular.

Momentum, the grassroots organisation in the UK born out of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, also offered a blueprint for a new left wing strategy. Momentum has a broad set of objectives including redistribution and class initiatives, opposition to privatisation, worker support, action on climate change and an end to discrimination. It also strives to promote the interests of minority groups in British. Throughout the tenure of veteran MP Jeremy Corbyn in the party, the shrewd mode of operation and network with an innovative and energetic dynamic, which utilises activism of all sorts, encourages participation and concurrently mobilises support.

For example, Momentum’s Facebook videos reached over 23million views and were watched by 12.7million users in the last week of the 2017 general election in Britain. Their most viral video, achieved 5.4million views in just 48 hours, while a clip of Theresa May refusing to debate with Jeremy Corbyn garnered 4.3million views within just three days.

For those who have grown apathetic to the dominant political arrangement, networks and political movements like Momentum, Syriza and Podemos generate a feeling of belonging to a constructive, energetic and positive political community that offers a vision and potential for change.

Populist insurgencies and the pandemic – which showcased the value of the protective state – have dealt a heavy blow to the divisive, individualistic politics that flourished in the last decade. In the US, Joe Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus package is part of an attempt to place blue-collar workers and “flyover” communities at the centre of the economic recovery. The ethos of collective responsibility and mutual respect is growing.

Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, told Today’s WorldView. The right tends to fare better when “sociocultural” questions of identity and immigration crowd the agenda. Once-ascendant far-right populists have seen their advance stall, if not reverse.
Half of Europe’s right-wing populist parties saw their support decline under the pandemic, though often by small amounts, according to a study by Cas Mudde and Jakub Wondreys at the University of Georgia. Only one in six gained supports.

“It is possible that Covid-19 may have exposed the soft underbelly of populist politics,” Vittorio Bufacchi, a scholar at the University College Cork, wrote last year.
The populists who indulged anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine sentiments suffered the most in polls, such as Donald J. Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

However, the direction can still change. The conditions that drove the breakdown of establishment parties in recent decades still hold. This remains an era of unstable coalitions and shifting electorates, which only momentarily favour the brand of identity politics that it previously almost killed.

Nevertheless, it appears that the political and economic needle is shifting. The ideals of neoliberalism, associated with deregulation, tax cuts and free market ideals are slowly being replaced with a greater belief of a Keynesian hint, with state intervention, a strong welfare state, addressing socioeconomic inequality and improving infrastructure. That is not to say that the direction has completely changed overnight, but social democratic parties appear to have momentum again as they focus on enhancing the role of the state.


• Seemingly a realignment is taking place. The traditional left wing alternative methods of operating and opposing the existing arrangement are being abandoned for a newer, dynamic and bottom-up approach. There appears a realisation that apathy is rife among the public, and the movements seeking to represent the people are reaching out in those terms.
• The fundamental driving force which is changing and altering political strategies is the role of the state. The pandemic crystallised the extent to which free market capitalism and its ideals – privatisation, deregulation and a small state dynamic – are outdated and ineffective. The need for a robust safety net and the widening inequality and its impact on people’s socioeconomic standards has been made clear. The future political strategy appears to be centred on the need for further investment and a greater degree of state intervention alongside a more inclusive approach. The political and economic conversation is showing signs of dramatic change, and those capitalising and offering alternatives appear to be enjoying electoral success.

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