Faced with gloomy polling ratings and a seemingly endless series of electoral defeats, Europe’s center-left parties are increasingly turning to more progressive economics to save them. In Italy last week the Partito Democratico elected former communist Nicola Zingaretti as party leader. Immediately after his victory in open primaries, Zingaretti promised to “turn the page” on the history of centrism and to redirect his focus on “creating jobs”.
In Germany, the struggling Social Democrats are embarking on a similar path. They have officially broken with the pro-market Hartz–reforms put in place by social-democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder some 14 years ago. Party leader Andrea Nahles now calls for an expansion of the welfare-state, for raising the minimum wage and for increasing basic pensions for poorer retirees. Meanwhile in France, what remains of the battered Parti Socialiste is forging an alliance with Place Publique, a new movement with the objective of countering “outrageous economic liberalism”. And in Spain the socialist government of Pedro Sanchez has used its short time in office to force through the largest increase in the country’s minimum wage in 40 years.
Generally, rank and file party members across the continent enthusiastically welcome these steps – and it is not hard to see why. Many feel inspired by the apparent public appeal of self-proclaimed socialists such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US. After years of pragmatic concessions, they crave the straightforwardness of authentic ideological purity.
Economic centrism, it is argued, has not only alienated traditional left-wing supporters but it has also fueled the rise of Europe’s populists. In light of growing economic disparities, tackling inequality has become the order of the day for any left-wing movement attempting to recapture public support.
All of this makes perfect sense. So far, however, the plan does not seem to be working. In Germany, the ideological shift boosted public support for the center-left by about 2 percent– for two short weeks only – in Italy by 1.3 percent. In France, total support for the Parti Socialisteremains in the single digits, while the Spanish prime minister is likely to be ousted by a rightwing alliance in snap elections next month.
These facts point at a truth that is hard to digest for Europe’s left: enthusiasm for the socialist turn in economics seems widespread within center-left parties but is largely absent beyond its ever-shrinking circle of supporters.
To truly turn the tide, Europe’s progressives will need to combine progressive economics with convincing answers to the cultural issues that have driven a wedge between Europe’s workers and European labour and workers’ parties. Among other things, this will mean confronting widespread blue-collar concern about irregular immigration, asylum and integration.
Here, the case of the Danish Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterne) offers valuable insights. The party is currently in opposition but at the end of last month supported a “paradigm shift” bill aimed at limiting the number of refugees who stay in Denmark indefinitely, with the clear objective of defusing this toxic issue in advance of upcoming elections. Already last year, the party adopted a more critical stance on unregulated migration by proposing the establishment of extraterritorial reception centres to decide on asylum claims and a new party platform to tackle “unacceptable parallel societies”. At the same time, the party committed to humanitarian responsibilities by calling for stronger cooperation with the United Nations and for a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Africa.
Pro-immigration groups in Denmark and some progressives abroad criticized these steps as ”legitimizing the far right”. Danish voters, however, seem to disagree. In fact, the Social Democrats have a good chance of ousting the current center-right government in elections in June, while the populist-right Danish People’s Party is at its lowest support level since November 2016.
Clearly, the lesson for Europe’s center-left is not to simply copy the xenophobic rhetoric of Europe’s populist right. Progressive European parties, however, should take the case of Denmark as a reminder not to misread their voters’ priorities. At a time when politics is defined not only by economic but also by cultural and identity issues, the center-left needs to seek to address the concerns of all voters – and not just select parts of the electorate. Addressing widespread cultural and economic concerns could prove to be the key to Europe’s center-left coming back into the heart of European politics.