Socialist Worker

What’s behind the downfall of social democracy?

Following Labour’s poor showing in recent by-elections, Nick Clark explores the pattern of declining support for social democratic parties across Europe.

Issue No. 2761

Syriza gained mass support by offering a radical alternative to Greek social democracy.

Syriza gained mass support by offering a radical alternative to Greek social democracy. (Pic: Michalis Famelis/Flickr)


Even Labour’s politicians don’t know what their party’s purpose is. As MPs got nervous ahead of this most recent by‑­election, anonymous “Labour ­figures” complained to their favoured journalists that Keir Starmer has no strategy.

Most of those who secretly want Starmer to go blame his failures, or those of his aides. So the “debate” centres on who should replace Starmer, or which policies must change.

The problem is none of them—left or right—have any answers either.

Left wing MPs can’t agree whether to back a challenge by deputy leader Angela Rayner, who has already turned her back on them. And the right begrudgingly accepts Starmer must stay.

Labour’s crisis is bigger than its leader. The malaise is the symptom of a sickness every Labour-type party in Europe is suffering.

Labour holds on in Batley and Spen, but the crisis remains
Labour holds on in Batley and Spen, but the crisis remains
  Read More

The voters Labour lost in Hartlepool and Batley and Spen are only the latest in a much longer term collapse in its support among working class people.

Except for 2015 and 2017, the number of people voting Labour has fallen in every ­general election since 1997.

Left Labour activists rightly say this is the legacy of their party’s plunge to the right under Tony Blair, his invasion of Iraq and the abandonment of the working class.

But what’s telling is this same disintegration has happened to similar parties throughout Europe, and all at the same time.

Labour-type—or social democratic—parties have declined, collapsed or been almost entirely wiped out.

These are parties with real claims to represent working class people, often through their links to trade union ­leaders. Many used to at least pay lip service to socialism.

In reality what they offered was something different—to manage the system with ­promises of improvements for working class people.

Union leaders founded or supported these parties to do in politics what they did in the workplace. That is to mediate between workers and their bosses, without the need to organise strikes.

This meant they could ­usually be sure of support from substantial numbers of working class people, even when they didn’t win elections.

These parties were far from socialist.

In government they would often fail to deliver the reforms they promised, and even turn on their working class voters when bankers demanded it.

They were always caught between having to manage the bosses’ system whilst trying to improve it for working class people.

Managing the system always came first. But they used to at least promise to do it differently to the Tories.

Now, managing the system means a commitment to unrestrained, free market policies—a method of running capitalism known as neoliberalism. The “neoliberal consensus” is that almost every mainstream party in every government agrees this is how the system should run.

Social democratic parties have lost what made them seem different.

This began towards the end of the 1970s. In response to an economic crisis, bosses demanded privatisations, lower wages and minimal government spending. It was driven through with an assault on trade unions.

Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government in Britain pioneered this. But even after she was forced out by working class revolt against her hated poll tax, bosses demanded whatever government followed would continue the project.

Strikes hit Greece as Syriza sinks to a new low
Strikes hit Greece as Syriza sinks to a new low
  Read More

Tony Blair responded by ­reinventing Labour as an ­explicitly pro-business party.

Labour governments from 1997 onwards pushed through privatisations and slashed public sector wages and jobs. Blair went to war alongside the US in Iraq.

And Labour haemorrhaged votes and members because of it.

Similar things happened in social democratic parties all over Europe. The case of the German SPD is almost identical.

Gerhard Schroeder’s SPD government was elected a year after Blair’s Labour ­government in Britain. It also began an immediate programme of cuts—followed by a massive assault on the welfare state.

Its “Agenda 2010” ­programme slashed unemployment benefits and introduced charges in the health service. As a result, at least 130,000 SPD members quit the party and its vote halved between 1998 and 2010.

In other countries, the collapse of social democracy was even more dramatic. The financial crash of 2007 was the tipping point for many.

The fate of Greece’s social democratic party is probably the most symbolic. So much so it even gave its name to this process—Pasokification.

Bowing to the explicit demands of European banks, Pasok pushed through some of the harshest austerity measures in Europe.

These included tens of ­thousands of public sector ­sackings and swingeing ­pensions cuts. Unemployment reached nearly 25 percent.

Pasok collapsed almost entirely. Having got 42 ­percent of the vote in 2009, it was booted out in 2012 with just 12 percent.

It was once one of the ­dominant parties in Greece. It’s now folded into a lash-up of struggling centre left parties that between them have just 22 MPs.

Syriza one year on - what went wrong?
Syriza one year on - what went wrong?
  Read More

It’s a similar story in France. The Labour-type Socialist Party won parliamentary and presidential elections with its leader Francois Hollande. He ­promised a change from the hated and corrupt Tory president Nicolas Sarkozy and a “softer,” “fairer” austerity.

Hollande soon abandoned that and in 2014 launched a programme of tens of billions of pounds worth of public ­spending cuts and tax cuts for businesses. He followed it up with a sweeping assault on workplace rights that sparked a revolt of strikes and protests on the streets.

These confrontations with workers added another side to social democratic parties’ crisis.

It wasn’t just working class people who became bitter at the parties they’d ended up fighting against—it was union leaders too.

The parties union leaders had founded or supported to defend their interests were now ­attacking them. The ­pressure to defend their members—and their positions—sometimes led them to lead strikes against ­governments where social ­democratic parties were in office.

Labour’s attacks on workers while in government—and its refusal to support them in strikes against the Tories—led even right wing union leaders to criticise it openly.

Some union leaders began talking about breaking with their social democratic ­parties. Some even did just that. Mostly they avoided any final break or major confrontation, trying and mostly succeeding to contain strikes in favour of negotiations.

But this strained ­relationship between social democratic ­parties and their most significant backers contributed to the erosion of their support among union activists.

This collapse in support for mainstream parties—left and right—has created openings for other parties. In far too many places, right wing and racist parties have made the running.

But in other cases the left made headway too

The most obvious examples are the once‑radical left wing party Syriza in Greece, which was elected to government in 2015, and Podemos in Spain, which joined a coalition.

They both grew as explicit alternatives to the social democratic parties. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party represented the same anger at the party’s old leaders—and hope for a better politics.

But unlike Syriza in Greece, Corbyn helped to sustain Britain’s social democratic party.

Socialists and Corbyn’s ­supporters often point out that his leadership temporarily reversed Labour’s decline. His general election campaign in 2017 was the first time Labour increased its share of the vote in 20 years.

But another way of looking at it is that Corbyn’s leadership simply delayed Labour’s crisis.

Corbyn never managed to get over the pressure to convince his MPs and bosses that he could be allowed to run a government. His attempts to do that led to his downfall.

Syriza and Podemos could never square this circle either. In government, Syriza repeated Pasok’s performance and implemented austerity demanded by bankers. Podemos joined a coalition with the social ­democratic party it once claimed to be replacing.

Social democratic ­parties—and their supposed left wing alternatives—are all in crisis because none of them can deliver the reforms they promise within a system that demands constant attacks on working class people.

Overcoming that takes more than a change of leadership. It needs an organisation and a fight based on challenging the system, not working for reforms within it.


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