Friday, January 6, 2012

Is Social Democracy Dead?

Although the financial crisis has caused a fair number of casualties for incumbent governments, with voters holding governing parties of whatever political stripe responsible for the crisis, these are especially hard times for social democracy.  Since Lehman declared bankruptcy in 2008, social democrats have lost 19 of 24 elections in Europe, prompting a lot of speculation about whether social democracy is dead.

Reports of its death are certainly premature and some feel on the left that publics will inevitably tire of austerity and may bring them back to power in those countries experiencing tax hikes and stark cuts in services and entitlements. But there is no denying the sense of malaise with respect to the social democratic project and its identity. Where social democratic parties are blamed for the crisis and have been voted out, they’ve lost credibility as stewards of the economy, making it essential that they regain the confidence of voters by offering a convincing argument that the can indeed be trusted again with the keys to the Treasury.

But how? This clearly takes time, the articulation of a viable alternative and possibly an admission to the public that some of their policies while in power were flawed. All of these can exacerbate internal party tensions.  These dynamics are playing out in several countries.

In the UK, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband is struggling both with growing internal criticism of his leadership and getting his vision for a radical rethinking of Labour politics across to the public.  Yesterday, Lord Glasman, one of the leaders of Blue Labour and ally and close supporter of Miliband, published a piece in New Statesman that ignited the Twittersphere and sent conservative-leaning media into a frenzy.  Glasman’s claim that Miliband, who already trails Cameron in polls, has “no strategy, no narrative and little energy” comes on top of weeks of relentless pounding by the press that the party leader is not up to the task and whispers of discontent within the party.

But in many ways, when read in context, Glasman's piece is not the act of treachery many are making it out to be, even if this loose cannon academic ought to have known how it would be portrayed. Marc Stears, also aligned with Miliband, defends Labour’s leader as having to navigate what is essentially new territory for the Left: coming up with a program in an age of austerity when the traditional toolbox of the Left is empty.

It is true that Miliband has been slow to articulate his vision for reconfiguring Britain and addressing the ‘squeezed middle’ and he may have waited too long to dispel the view that he is unelectable.  And aside from any missteps by the leader, Labour may simply have to wait it out until they are no longer blamed for the crisis in Britain by voters, something that would be true no matter whom the party had selected as head. 

But the next few weeks will be interesting as Miliband does try to connect with voters with his vision for a non-Blairite, non-Brownite Labour program. There are hints of that vision in various recent speeches: his focus on responsible rather than predatory capitalism­­, addressing the anger and hopelessness of many in the middle, but so far there have been few concrete policy formulations around these.  If he is able to articulate some, he may set a tone and agenda for the European left, and in the process perhaps even save his job.

Next post, I’ll look at some of the internal leadership struggles in Spain as the Socialists there grapple with electoral defeat and a crushing economic situation.

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