Rock Bottom: Can Europe’s Left learn from Corbyn to reverse its decline?

Europe’s centre-left is locked in a cycle of decay. Across the continent historically unassailable parties are sliding into electoral oblivion, failing to take advantage of growing discontent with the status quo.

The recent failure of Renzi’s centre-left coalition in Italy is just the latest in a string of brutal defeats for the European left. There is hope for Europe’s progressives though, if they can learn from the few success stories of the European left then they may be able to reverse this decline.

Matteo Renzi has overseen the most recent electoral disaster for the European Left

The recent failures of Europe’s left are numerous and seem to repeat similar stories of lack of identity in crowded political environments:

  • In 2017 the Dutch Labour Party was reduced from a close second place to the seventh largest party, pushed out of a crowded electoral field that instead rewarded the radical GreenLeft and Gert Wilder’s far-right Freedom Party.
  • The French Socialist Party was similarly heavily defeated last year in both the presidential and legislative elections after being outflanked on the left and centre by Mélenchon and Macron. The party achieved only 36% of the vote and was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election, then lost 286 seats in parliamentary elections soon after.
  • The German SDP suffered an equally disappointing result, which stung bitterly after the ‘Shultz-mania’ polling surge of last year. This ultimately fizzled-out into a bitter defeat, with the party achieving only 5% of the vote. To make matters worse, despite the efforts of radical young activists, the SDP have now repeated their previous mistake and signed a new ‘grand coalition’ deal that leaves the party unable to do the necessary soul-searching needed to redefine itself outside of the trappings of government.

The latest in this series of progressive defeats was Italy’s Centre-Left Coalition which has now fallen into third place after defeat in March to the populist Five Star Movement and the Centre-Right Coalition. This is a particularly disheartening case, as the centre-left coalition had taken Italy out of recession and achieved slow but steady economic growth over the course of its term, showing that even proven economic competence is no longer enough to save moderate social democratic parties.

Polling shows that even Sweden’s Social Democratic Party – historically Europe’s most successful progressive party – is maintaining only a slim poll lead as it faces serious challenges from parties of the far and centre right in September’s upcoming election.

So why is the European left facing such steep decline? To answer this question, it is necessary to contrast the performance of the moderate parties above with some of the rare success stories of Europe’s contemporary left.

One of the few exceptions to the trend is the UK’s Labour Party, which has increased its votes, seats and party membership over the past two years. Despite an unexpected, heavy defeat in 2015 the party unexpectedly revived its electoral fortunes thanks to a considerable shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn. The party defied expectations and overcame a twenty-point polling deficit to take away the parliamentary majority of the Conservative Party, and Labour have maintained a slim but growing poll lead ever since. Although the party remains in opposition, they are testament to the impact that radical political redefining can have on a mainstream party in decline.

The Portuguese Socialist Party is another impressive exception to the trend. A radical, anti-austerity party that is simultaneously popular and properly exercising these principles in power. Portugal can now boast significant deficit reduction and sustained growth thanks to a bold, anti-austerity programme. Portugal’s success has defied negative predictions, with the left overcoming serious economic difficulties and continuing to win-big in elections. It is an enviable model for the rest of the Europe.

The example of Portugal is a stark contrast to Syriza in Greece. In 2015 Syriza rose from a fringe-party to a decisive victory in Greece on a radical anti-austerity platform. This victory of radical politics was held-up at the time as an example of how to save the European left. However, the party is now paying the price in the polls after failing to stick to these principles and being forced to submit to severe austerity measures by the ‘troika’ made up of the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. Clearly radical politics can be a route to power but mean very little if they are not enforced once in office.

So, what can be learned from these contrasting stories of failure and success?

Firstly, it is clear that embracing radical politics is paying off for the mainstream social democratic parties with the courage to accept change. The UK’s Labour Party and Portugal’s Socialist Party clearly show that radical anti-austerity programmes are the only way to differentiate progressive parties in a context of increasingly populist politics.

Secondly, mainstream parties that refuse to set out bold political positions are being outflanked by radical parties from both the left and right. Italy, Holland, France and Germany have all demonstrated the rising threat from small parties across the spectrum to mainstream progressive parties. This trend cannot go unaddressed.

Thirdly, winning power for the sake of it won’t pay off if principles aren’t stuck to. The decline of Greece’s Syriza after capitulating to the austerity demands of the European Union demonstrates this, as does the steady decline of Germany’s SDP after a series of ‘grand coalition’ agreements. In contrast, parties that have stuck to bold political principles after winning power – like Portugal’s Socialist Party – have remained both popular and effective in office.

If the European left is to be saved from decline and irrelevance they will need to be bold and principled. European voters across the political spectrum are looking for radical alternatives, and if the left is to survive it will have to learn from its mistakes to meet that challenge.