Why Europe’s Left Can Rise Again

Europe's left is in trouble. In the 1990s the third way—the center-left of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Lionel Jospin—governed almost everywhere. Now, it is out of office or struggling almost everywhere. Britain's Gordon Brown has a mountain to climb in the polls. The German Social Democrats hang on as junior coalition partners. Only the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, re-elected in Spain, bucks the trend in Western Europe. Indeed, for a generation of social democrats heavily influenced by Bill Clinton's New Democrats in the United States, an era has drawn to a close.

If the many policy lessons they promoted about governance and how to prosper in an era of globalization remain relevant, they are now failing as politics. "We know what we must do to govern, but we do not know how to be elected, having done it," one senior European ex-minister says of the fragmenting electoral base for social democracy.

Now, across Europe, the populists on the right and the left are challenging the shrinking center. Those who need to construct broad governing coalitions struggle to match the emotional appeal to grievances, particularly among white working-class voters. In Germany, Die Linke (The Left) combines the charismatic oppositionist appeal of ex-minister Oskar Lafontaine with remnants of the former East German Communists—and polls at 15 percent by voicing the fears and anger of the working class. Other voters stay at home, especially in Britain. The growing salience of issues of identity and immigration divide the liberal-intellectual and working-class base.

Yet Europe's left has important reasons to be confident too. First, Europe's center-right has prospered by aping the center-left. European conservatism often now means adapting to a broadly social democratic status quo, and seeking modest reforms within it. With the exception of Silvio Berlusconi, most party leaders of Europe's center-right show no interest in fighting culture wars against liberalism, and most have political beliefs closer to the U.S. Democrats than Republicans. Angela Merkel leads a grand coalition alongside Social Democratic ministers. Sweden's Fredrik Reinfeldt defeated Sweden's dominant Social Democrats with his "New Moderate" strategy, and he has been an important model for David Cameron, whose strategy has been to "decontaminate" the brand of the British Conservatives by distancing himself from its Thatcherite legacy.

Though Cameron is not typical of Europe's right—he has fallen out with Merkel by pledging to remove his Euro-skeptic party from the international alliance of the mainstream center-right—he has gone the furthest, rhetorically, in stealing the center-left's Social Democratic clothes. His claim that his party should be seen as the "true progressives" on the issues of social inequality, the environment and global poverty is based on the knowledge that "the state has failed" to tackle these urgent issues. What, if anything, exhorting greater social responsibility would mean in government is far from clear, but the political positioning exercise has been effective.

Second, the agenda of European politics is primarily a social democratic one. There is a broad consensus on the importance of a coordinated response to climate change, on renewing transatlantic cooperation through multilateralism, and on the need to rebuild support for global openness by ensuring that the gains are spread more evenly, paying more attention to losers as well as winners. Attacks on the state have less resonance in an economic downturn; public pressure is on governments to act.

Third, within the left, the centrists are winning the battle of ideas. The 1968ers have provided neither new ideas nor new leaders. But the next generation of moderates must prove they are not clones who will become a conservative force by simply rerunning the politics of the last decade. Their slogan "Proud, But Not Satisfied" seeks to combine governing credibility and idealism—that they knew why their parties needed to modernize but can remember, too, what they are for. If the Third Way seemed deliberately opaque, this generation is more confident in articulating the ends of reform: a "fairness" mission to extend life chances and equal opportunities.

And there is much interest in doing politics differently, adapting the lessons of the Barack Obama campaign in the United States and grass-roots movements like MoveOn.org to European conditions. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks of fusing social-democratic, liberal and environmental traditions to create new progressive movements. Three million voters took part in an open primary in Italy—a major innovation in center-left politics—to elect Walter Veltroni as leader of the new Italian Democratic Party. Sweden's Mona Sahlin has returned the center-left to a sustained poll lead, while the Reinfeldt government has shifted rightward in office and lost popularity.

When they listen to their opponents' ideas, or lack of them, the next generation of social democrats are confident they are winning the battle of ideas. They must now figure out how to win the battle of elections, too.