Behind the disenchantment with Europe’s centre-left

(Letter published in the Financial Times on 22 September 2015)

Sir, Wolfgang Münchau suggests that the failure of European centre-left parties to win and retain power is caused by their espousal of orthodox macroeconomic policies also embraced by the centre-right (“Perplexing failure of Europe’s centre-left”, September 21). This view is not supported by the evidence.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica, via Wikimedia Commons)

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica, via Wikimedia Commons)

Under Ed Miliband’s leadership the British Labour party tacked left, but post-election polling revealed that many voters had turned to the Conservatives precisely because they no longer trusted Labour on the economy. According to a poll released last week, 37 per cent of Labour voters say they are less likely to vote for the party following leftwinger Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader. In France, President François Hollande’s pursuit of a traditional leftwing agenda in his first two years in office made him the most unpopular French president since polling began (he has now changed course).

If social democratic parties are indeed too centrist, then why aren’t leftwing anti-austerity parties doing even better across Europe? They often poll well, but come election day many voters still opt for the less radical centre-left alternative — or for the right. In Greece Syriza was re-elected, but only after ditching its leftwing policies and accepting the terms of the latest bailout, thus reassuring Greek voters that the country would stay in the euro.

I believe the public’s disenchantment with the centre-left, which Mr Münchau rightly identifies, has other causes.

First, many centre-left politicians still do not fully accept or understand the free market as the basis of our socio-economic model. This makes them less credible and less competent when it comes to fixing its many failings, including those exposed by the financial crisis.

Second, social democrats often still regard the middle class with a degree of suspicion, even though its phenomenal growth in the second half of the last century can be attributed largely to the success of centre-left policies. As a result, they are failing to cater for its needs and aspirations.

Third, for too long the centre-left has ignored some of society’s major challenges, including climate change, the impact of non-western immigration on European societies, and the rising cost of the welfare state, effectively outsourcing their solution to other parties. In many cases this is now being remedied, but for large groups of voters it has come too late.

Finally, mainstream centre-left parties have become the preserve of career politicians (mea culpa, I used to be one of them), ruling elites and societal vested interests. To regain the trust of voters they must embrace a more open and democratic political culture.

Mr Münchau dismisses the success of Italy’s Matteo Renzi as being due to the fragmentation of the rightwing opposition, but in fact Mr Renzi has been successful precisely where other centre-left parties have failed. Social democrats must change to win back power — but exchanging one set of orthodoxies for another is not the way to do it.

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