Does European Social Democracy have a Future?

Does European Social Democracy have a Future?

A luxurious hotel in rural Hertfordshire on the outskirts of London might seem a surprising venue for a conference of the world’s self-declared progressives. But members of the democratic center-left power elites, mainly from Europe, but with a sprinkling from Latin America and elsewhere, were in residence this spring to discuss the theme of “An Inclusive Globalisation; Promoting Prosperity for All.”

The mood of the well-heeled participants was surprisingly upbeat and complacent. The social democrats of the world seem still to believe they remain a political force to be reckoned with.

It is true that participants like Kevin Rudd, the recently elected Australian Labour prime minister, joined by his counterparts Helen Clark from New Zealand and the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, could point to the recent electoral success of their respective parties. But many of the policy professionals and functionaries from the ranks of European social democracy were deceiving themselves if they really believed the once confident, optimistic political ideology that did so much to bring about a prolonged period of unparalleled prosperity and peace in the western part of the continent after the end of the Second World War is still triumphant.

It is true that the Socialist Party’s second successive victory in the March general election in Spain, as well as the substantial gains made by the French Socialists—despite their divisions—in the spring local council contests in cities such as Toulouse, Caen, and Strasbourg might suggest that the forces of European social democracy are once again on the march. In Sweden, the opposition Social Democrats and their left-wing Party allies are way ahead in the opinion polls against the country’s non-socialist government, but the next Swedish general election is not scheduled until September 2010.

The broader political picture in Europe does not suggest that social democracy has rediscovered its former winning ways. In Italy the left suffered a humiliating defeat in the April general election, with the dramatic return to power in Rome of that disreputable right-wing demagogue Silvio Berlusconi. The ruling British Labour Party under Gordon Brown has some of the worst public opinion ratings since the days more than a quarter of a century ago when it was led by the left-winger Michael Foot.

The Danish Social Democrats lost heavily in their country’s general election last year and polled little more than one in five of the votes cast. Across much of central and eastern Europe—with the exception of Hungary—the outlook is not much better. In some of those countries the parties of social democracy are neither in government nor, in some cases, such as in Poland, do they even constitute the main parliamentary opposition. The two most powerful political leaders in Europe are both firmly on the democratic right—Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany and the French president, Nic...