The dismal state of the European left

The situation for the left in Europe’s big three is dismal: Defeat of Labour in Britain, horribly unpopular president and several local election defeats in France, and a junior partner in a governing coalition while stuck at a low point in the polls in Germany. It’s not a good time to be on the center-left in any of these countries, and to make it worse, it doesn’t seem that it will get any better anytime soon.

Labour suffered a crushing defeat in the latest UK general election, losing 24 seats, despite being in the opposition for five years and leading in the (now useless) polls during most of that time. It was also nearly wiped out of Scotland, thanks mainly in part to its decision to stand beside the Tories in the Scottish referendum campaign to keep the country together. Outside of London and its urban strongholds in the north of England, the party does not seem able to resonate with voters. Even worse, it appears the party might have to forget Scotland and try to win more English voters outside of the cities.

In France, President Hollande’s approval ratings have kept sinking, plummeting to the lower 20s. In the recent departmental elections, his Socialist party (PS) suffered a heavy defeat–finishing with control of just 34 councils compared to 61 before the election. The polls for the upcoming 2017 presidential election do not look much better, often putting the National Front’s (FN) Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy of the UMP (now the Republicans, after yet another name change) through to the second round.

President Hollande has been vastly unpopular for years, with the French economy consistently performing badly, especially compared to neighboring Germany. Growth has been sluggish if not negative, and unemployment has continued its rise over 10%. The economy has recently shown signs that it may be improving, but an improving economy and the national feeling after the January Charlie Hebdo attacks are not enough to bring Hollande and the PS up in the polls. The party continues to lose support across the country, especially in the north, its historical stronghold, where it is losing its long-time supporters to the FN.

In Germany the situation for the centre-left socialists (SPD) is better but not by much. The good news for the party is two fold: firstly it is in government and thus has some power, but also the fact that it is not facing a steep decline in its support. The bad news is that it is just the junior coalition partner in a grand coalition government and it has not been able to move up in the polls, reducing its status as a major party in Germany.

The German Socialists, following a disappointing election result in 2013, winning just 25% of the vote, entered into a grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU). Angela’s immense popularity in the country has propelled the CDU to win over 40% of the vote  in 2013 and to still be at that same level in the polls. It does not appear that this popularity will subside soon, leading to another Angela mandate in 2017 that will lead the SPD to either be a junior coalition partner again or in opposition.

The SPD has also been unable to inspire German voters in recent years. Following its weak performance of 25% in 2013, the party has more or less stayed at this same level of support in the polls since. The party now risks being permanently relegated to a junior partner in government, or in opposition. Its only hope is for a large political scandal or shakeup to give the party a jump, or at least lead the CDU to fall. Perhaps its only hope is to wait until the end of Merkel’s reign. In either case, the SPD needs to keep a watchful eye to its left, to ensure a more leftist party (besides the already established Green and Linke parties) does not start appealing to a large slice of the leftist electorate. The Pirates came and gone, but the next one might not fade so easily.

Another parallel is running through these countries that should be helping the left–a divided right. In the UK, UKIP has made serious gains in winning the 2014 European elections, doing well in recent local elections, and scoring 12% of the vote in the 2015 general election–although winning just 1 seat in Westminster thanks to the UK electoral system.

In France, the FN has also won the European elections of last year as well as many local and departmental elections. Although it did not manage to win a department in the country, its candidates were elected in several different parts of the country (notably in the far north and the southeast). Marine Le Pen continues to poll well, and her party nearly won the most popular votes in the departmental elections.

The CDU in Germany has also seen a recent threat in the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) which positions itself on the right as well, but advocates for leaving the euro (while staying in the EU). Although the weakest newcomer to the right in the three examples given, it could still pose a threat to the CDU who is now on its own on the right, after the collapse of the FDP.

In all these cases the center-left have been unable to capitalize on a divided right. It speaks a lot to the divides within the left itself, despite largely still holding its large parties together. The left, in all of these countries, has also failed to impress the electorate. A lack of new and bold policies has left these parties fall victim to the decades-old trend of decreasing support for major parties in Europe. It is time for the center-left to stake its claim to the left and come up with bolder initiatives to get the electorate motivated, or else it risks the same fate of the right, to fall victim to new anti-establishment parties that easily strike a chord with the electorate.


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