A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the news from Germany and Italy could not be more different. In Germany, the Social Democratic Party’s decision to enter a new “grand coalition” with Angela Merkel has been greeted with relief in Brussels and on financial markets, with the threat of fresh elections in Europe’s most powerful nation averted. In Italy, by seeming contrast, populist, anti-immigrant and Euro-sceptic parties surged to record votes in Sunday’s general election, bringing new fears of instability in a major and vulnerable EU state. It all sounds like the traditional mixture of German order and Italian chaos — almost reassuring in its familiarity.
Yet these events are closely related and are two of the most significant chapters so far in a sad and ever clearer story: the death of the moderate left in Europe. As of this week, parties led by social democrats or moderate socialists neither head the government nor provide the main opposition to it in any of Britain, France, Germany or Italy — a situation not witnessed in peacetime in the past 100 years.
Germany’s beaten Social Democrats faced a choice between further losses in a fresh election or the eclipse that comes over all junior partners in coalitions — asked whether they wanted to be massacred now or later they understandably chose later, after a period of government. Britain’s own Liberal Democrats are experts in that choice and its consequences. Failing to heed the pleas of their own youth wing, their decision provides temporary stability at a huge price: the far-right will now provide the main opposition in Germany, an extraordinary event in itself, and the far-left will outflank its moderate rivals with new ideas. Neighbouring Austria, where repeated grand coalitions have led to the ultra-right Freedom Party entering government, demonstrates the risks all too well.
Only two and a half years ago, the Italian Democratic Party was a majority government under Matteo Renzi and on the brink of sustained reform of the Eurozone’s soft underbelly. Today, his party is out of the picture, perhaps down to less than 20 per cent of the vote. It is a common fate. Support for Spanish socialists has fallen by half in the past decade. The Dutch Labour Party lost four-fifths of its seats in last year’s election. In France, the socialists fell from holding the presidency to just 7 per cent, their support going to the hard-left or a new president who governs from the centre-right.
In the UK, the collapse has taken a different form — happening inside the Labour Party while the hard left takes its brand and voters — but is part of the same rapid disintegration of social democracy. Moderate Labour MPs are still privately full of bravado that they will take back their party, but to do so they would have to swim against a continent-wide tide of change as well as defeat a national party machinery now totally in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn’s extremists. They cannot just organise their way back, because the problem is so fundamental.
In his famous work The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935, George Dangerfield set out to explain the apparent paradox in the British liberals being triumphant in 1906 and presiding over a peak of prosperity and Empire, and yet being shattered as a party by the Twenties. The death of the moderate left in Europe needs no such sense of mystery. Its leaders, whether Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroder, Francois Hollande or Renzi, have accelerated a steady separation from their original core support. Their support for immigration has become deeply unpopular across the continent. Millions of their voters also reject the promotion of a political union of Europe rather than an economic one. In the face of a global financial crisis, the leaders of the moderate left had no reaction or policy that differed from the right. To these mistakes can be added several even more deep-seated factors: the decline of unions in the economy, the demise of class-based loyalty and the rise of welfare states to expensive limits. Finally, the end of the Cold War has broken the link between the hard-left and clear threats to national security. Voters feel free to turn to new parties or more radical leaders. The collapse of such parties — or moderate leaders within them, in the case of our Labour Party — is bad news and should be no cause for celebration among Conservatives. It removes an important option for many voters, and will lead either to centre-right parties stagnating in power or extreme parties of left or right coming to power with abrupt and unsuccessful changes to national policies. In both scenarios, public discontent with the entire system of government is likely to rise. The absence of alternating government between moderate parties is therefore one of several warning lights starting to flash on the dashboard of democracy itself. We all need someone to resuscitate the moderate left. How can that be done?
Open to new ideas
The reason a party like the British Conservatives has been so dominant over such a long period is that it has sometimes been quite brutal with itself about coming into line with the society it represents and also been open to new ideas. The brutal bit for the moderate left is it needs to join the voters in rejecting uncontrolled immigration and the further loss of national sovereignty.
Once it does that, it can get a hearing and start on new ideas. Is it so difficult to come up with a social democratic vision of how to cope with the wave of change in technology, work and education so that inequality isn’t widened and European countries don’t fall behind the US and China? Perhaps it is, but shouldn’t someone among Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, Chukka Umunna — or just someone in the UK or the rest of Europe — actually try?
If they don’t do it quickly, the centre-right parties and Emmanuel Macron lookalikes will get there first. If they don’t do it at all, populism and nationalism will keep marching on all over them. Then we will not just be reading two more chapters in the death of the moderate left, as we are this week. We will be closing the book. And the only mystery will be why they carried on letting it happen.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
William Hague is a former British foreign secretary.