Social Democratic Dilemmas

Credit: Flickr / Gunnar Lundh, 1938

Eric Shaw examines the factors weakening Labour and social democratic parties across Europe

Too much of the debate over Labour’s programme, strategy, ideology and above all electoral future is insular and parochial, ignoring what is happening in the rest of the world and especially Western Europe. Thus, many of the interpretations of Labour’s plight since the fall of the Brown government in 2010 have focused narrowly on purely national factors. What this approach ignores is the fact that Labour is by no means the only social democratic party which has faltered in efforts to gain or retain governmental power. Indeed, if we extend our angle of vison to include Labour’s sister parties in the rest of Western Europe a clear, common pattern emerges almost without exception over the last couple of decades their electorates have been shrinking.   A shared political trajectory strongly suggests that common causal forces are at work, and the rest of this article is devoted to uncovering them.

First a couple of simple facts. Compared to twenty years ago far fewer social democratic parties are in power. Furthermore, in virtually every case their share of the vote has diminished, on average between 10% and 20%. Parties that previously might obtain 35-40% of the vote, such as the German and Swedish Social Democrats now struggle to reach 30% whilst the French Socialist party, not so long ago in government, languishes at around 5%. Of course, in each country and each party there are particular circumstances but the trend in social democracy as a whole is clearly downwards.

Phenomena such as these have many and complex causes but in what follows I will concentrate on just those which seem to be of particular relevance, one operating at the level of society as a whole, the other at that of economic policy.

The rise of new cleavage patterns

In the past the strength of social democracy has depended upon its capacity to mobilize the working class and (more latterly) routine white collar workers. This has reflected the importance of social class as the major political fulcrum of electoral politics. As is well known, over the years class-based cleavages have gradually weakened for a range of reasons, loosening the ties that connect class position to partisan preferences; at the same time, the working class was shrinking as a proportion of the electorate.  On the more positive side social democratic parties proved quite successful in gaining more adherents, especially in the public sector middle class.

But since the 1990s social democratic parties have faced a deeper challenge, the emergence, institutionalization and intensification of a new social divide which, in some countries, is now overshadowing the old class-based cleavage. This divide takes the form of opposing attitudes towards such issues as gender, sexual orientation, crime, immigration, racism and the status of ethnic minorities. Numerous studies have documented its steadily increasing importance which has led to a differentiation between two distinct value orientations: on the one hand the socially liberal with its emphasis on human rights, toleration, openness and internationalism; and on the other the socially conservative with its accent on authority, discipline, ethnic identities and nationalism.

The overwhelming evidence is that one’s placement on the socio-cultural spectrum is largely a function of education, with the more highly educated concentrated on the liberal end and the less well-educated on the conservative. This has contributed to a process of political re-alignment cutting across the class-based cleavages as the socially liberal middle increasingly gravitates to the left, and the socially more conservative working class to the right. More precisely, what is occurring is a split within the middle class, now the largest portion of the electorate in Western Europe, between what Thomas Piketty and his colleagues have called the ‘Merchant right’ and the ‘Brahmin left’.  The former largely consists of   higher grade white collar workers employed in the private sector in finance, industry and private services; the latter those working mainly in the public sector in health, education, welfare and the creative industries. The former are solidly aligned to the right, the latter to the left.

This has left the working class and lower income voters as a whole contested terrain. The majority still   tend to be left-inclined and collectivist-minded   on economic issues but socially conservative: a combination understood by parties of the radical right who have fused an appeal to socially conservative sentiment, in particular hostility towards immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities (especially Muslims) with  “welfare chauvinism” which favours comprehensive  public services – but not for immigrants.

This platform has proved attractive to many, especially in lower income groups. France offers one interesting and dramatic example of this as the National Rally led by Marine Le Pen appeals to the industrial North West, the Bouches du Rhone in the South and many of the working class suburbs around Paris. Sweden offers another with the Social Democrats which at one time had been able to organise a very high percentage of working-class voters witnessing the defection of many of them to the far-right Sweden Democrats, at present propping up the country’s centre-right government.  The same shift can be seen in Italy where radical right-wing parties have invaded many traditional left-wing strongholds in the North and the so-called Red Belt.

The key issue here has been immigration. The influx of refugees and economic migrants, the growing Muslim population, terrorism, and the rising incidence of crime (often linked to immigrants involved in the drug trade, notably in Sweden) have made many, especially in  lower income groups,  feel   threatened and insecure, and a sense that traditional ways of life –  the  familiar and the customary  – are now being imperilled.   The result has been the redefinition and reimagining of working-class identities in populist and ethno-nationalist terms. The sense of “us” and “them” persists and, indeed, has become more obtrusive, but with “us” now characterised as “the white working class”, and “them” as a mixture of immigrants/ethnic minorities– and the “liberal cosmopolitan elite”, into which category social democratic parties are often fitted. Crucially, in this radical right narrative, the “elite” has ceased to be defined by economic categories, the ownership and control of property and assets and more by cultural one’s education and the holding of liberal views.

All this has faced social democratic parties with a quandary: whether to contest such narratives, accommodate to them (as in the case of Danish Social Democrats) or – as has been most commonly the case – a mixture of both. Evidence suggests that none of these responses has been particularly effective so the problem may be insoluble – until such times as polarisation along the socio-cultural axis abates.

The political economy 

But the exodus of working-class voters from the moderate left has not solely been due to the backlash against immigration and other cultural questions. There is also a widespread sense that social democratic parties are no longer stalwart custodians of working-class interests. There is no doubt that most social democratic parties in Western Europe have moved to the right on many issues, drifting away from egalitarian and collectivist policies and losing interest in contesting social and economic arrangements which benefit the privileged.  Some commentators attribute this the shifting class composition of social democratic electorates and the rising influence of the socially liberal middle class whose radicalism on cultural matters is coupled with lack of enthusiasm for redistribution thereby alienating working class voters accordingly more receptive to the appeals of the radical right.   Recent research in fact does not substantiate this argument:  to the contrary it shows that the socially liberal middle class is strongly in favour of redistributive measures and the welfare state.’ 

We have to look elsewhere to explain the move to the right by many social democratic parties. Here we can highlight two main factors. The first is the importance of ideas. Since the  late 1990s most of these parties (or, at least, their leaders) have  lost confidence in what had been called ‘Keynesian social democracy’  and were heavily influenced by market-oriented  and neo-liberal ideas which had increasingly come to shape  public discourse on matters such as the organisation of the public sector  and the management of the economy. The result, inevitably, was a rise in inequality not only in countries such as Germany but even in the social democratic Nordic heartlands. Any ambiguities of the right-wing tilt in most   social democratic parties was the response of most of those in office to the 2008 global financial crash which was to reject Keynesian solutions in favour of austerity.  This was not solely for economic reasons, and here we come to the second factor. Party strategists came to believe that the only way they could convince voters of their capacity to manage the economy and acquire ‘economic credibility’ – so important to winning elections – was through accepting strict controls over spending and borrowing.

However, this proved to be a serious misjudgement as evidence has accumulated that the more closely social democratic parties have been associated with austerity the greater their electoral losses, with a stream of disenchanted working-class voters deserting – and largely to the radical right.

Social democracy in Western Europe plainly faces difficult dilemmas to which there are no obvious or easy solutions. At present right-wing coalitions which dominate much of Western Europe are faltering but the main beneficiaries seem to be the populist far right parties. Their influence on government is steadily growing but as they are forced to shoulder responsibility for policies unlikely to work, their popularity may well dwindle – creating space for a left-wing revival. But that in turn will require a ruthless self-examination and much hard thinking – of which they may or may not be capable.


  1. All the factors included here are relevant, but what has become clear is the weakness of the idea of a state that has the interests of ordinary people at heart. The hostility to foreigners is not a new phenomenon, and links the European and American political cultures. Well before the first world war the Tory government of Arthur Balfour passed an aliens act which even in a world where only 40% of the adult population voted was based on shrewd electoral calculation.

    However as Eric pointed out with Gerry Hassan in their book in 2012, Labour has been unable to see clearly evident threats developing. Miliband’s leadership opted to ignore the trends which they pointed out, and at the 2015 election Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats mainly to the SNP. The current Starmer approach of wooing the Tory voter and ignoring the progressive voter is a variation on a refusal to look beyond the immediate short term which has been well evidenced in the European context since Social Democracy began a decline which was certainly clear under Blair, accelerated under Gordon Brown and has never been addressed since Labour lost in 2010.

    Trevor Fisher

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