All across Europe, the social democratic Left is dying

The post-mortem results are in. The campaign was badly managed. The candidate was awkward in front of the media. The party lacked innovative ideas, new faces and credibility. Which is why Magdalena Ogorek, pictured, candidate of the once-mighty Democratic Left Alliance, received just 2.38% of the votes in May in the Polish presidential election

Ogorek's wipe-out was far worse than Labour's defeat under Ed Miliband, but both share common roots. The social democratic left is in decline across the continent, its support draining in the face of rising support for populists of the Left and Right. Social democratic parties face a common crisis of purpose and identity, says Ignacy Niemczycki, senior analyst at Polityka Insight, a Warsaw think tank. "The main ideas of the old Left in Europe have been put into practice, such as the limit on working hours. The traditional electorate of the old Left, factory workers, does not exist to the extent it did even 10 years ago. The new parties appeal to people in the service sector, which is dominant in Europe, and which suffered from the crisis."

The Left's mistake was to believe that the financial crisis would hand them victory on a plate, says John O'Sullivan, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, now president of the Danube Institute, a Budapest think-tank: "Their policy was that only the rich would be hit and the bankers punished. But that wasn't true and was not plausible."

The collapse of Communism in 1989 sounded the death knell for the old class-based politics, says O'Sullivan, and also wrecked the idea of vast, multi-national empires. National identities had not vanished but merely been deep frozen under Communism. Once revitalised, they proved potent as ever. "People saw the wasteland of the Soviet bloc, that Communism does not work. That also liberated the politics of national identity," O'Sullivan says.

The old Left has failed to channel the new politics of either nationalism or angry populism. In Britain, France, Hungary and Poland, populists have boosted the Right. The UK Independence Party won 3.8m votes in the UK general election. The party may yet implode; the anger of its voters will not. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, is one of the front-runners for the 2017 French presidential election. In Poland, Pawel Kukiz, a rock star, singer and activist, finished third with 20.8%, without a party behind him. Patriotic, socially conservative, but favouring a strong state, Kukiz's populism to some extent mirrors that of Jobbik in Hungary, whose support is steadily rising. A poll by Ipsos in April gave Jobbik 17%, compared to 21% for the ruling Fidesz party. The Socialists trailed at 11%.

In Greece and Spain the populists have lurched sharp Left. Pasok, the once mighty Greek Socialist party, was routed in the January 2015 election by Syriza, a radical Left-wing coalition. Syriza's leader, Alexis Tsipras, is now prime minister.

In Spain, Podemos, a new Left-wing coalition, has triggered a political earthquake. Podemos, like Syriza, has shaken up the old cosy two-party arrangement between Right and Left that had dominated politics for decades – a trail blazed by Jorg Haider, the late leader of Austria's radical Right-wing Freedom Party.

"The rise of Podemos is an extraordinary event in the traditionally stable Spanish political system," says Ignacio Molina, of the Elcano Institute, a Madrid think tank. Clean, uncompromised, the new populists – apart from Syriza – have never governed, and so tend to be freer of corruption. Never governing also means never disappointing voters. "The populist parties can offer unrealistic and irresponsible promises, but attractive ones for their voters, without a real accountability," Molina says.

What then should Europe's social democratic left do? Molina says it should focus on three areas: progressive and sustainable social and economic policies; constitutional and political reforms to empower citizens, and a pro-Europeanism that advances integration but with more political legitimacy. But it will be a tough call, he says, when voters want black and white answers to complex questions.

Editor's Pick