The new phase in the crisis of Western European social democracy

Recent German polling from PolitPro. AfD (light blue) overtaken SPD (red).

By Mark Buckley

In a number of countries the traditional parties of European social democracy are either flailing in government or struggling to make any headway as opposition parties. Having overwhelmingly embraced austerity from 2010 onwards, as well as the racism and anti-migrant campaigns to distract from it, they have now largely embraced the aims of the US/NATO war machine in Ukraine too. They have left the field open to the parties of the right and increasingly even the far right.

They are in crisis because they are subordinating themselves to US imperialism.

In Germany, the ruling class has prioritised a reckless military aggression in support of the US, over even the economic interests of the German bourgeoisie. The latest development is that 4,000 German troops are to be deployed in Lithuania ‘as a defensive measure.’ At the same time, they have allowed the vital link of German industry and Russian energy production to literally be blown up by forces acting in the interests of the US. As a result, Germany is increasing its military while cutting back on public spending as the economy enters recession.

Their chosen political instrument for this is the ‘traffic light coalition’, of SPD, Greens and FDP. The political effects have been devastating, with the coalition members’ combined support of 52% of the vote in the 2021 federal elections falling now 40% (in all cases the average of the last ten polls is used). A surge in support for the far-right AfD to 20% means that it is vying with the SDP to become the main rival to the leading CDU/CSU partnership. The AfD has also since won the leadership of its first town council.

Die Linke continues to struggle in the polls, as no current has emerged from within with clear working-class political responses to the issues of austerity, racism and the war.

In Spain, the crisis of social democracy and its offshoots means that the socialist Prime Minister has called early elections for July 23 that they are almost certain to lose badly.  The leftist PSOE/Podemos coalition had been able to govern from January 2020 onwards with 41% of the vote. But its recent poor showing in regional elections has led to the collapse of the coalition and an early election.

It should be noted that the combined polling for PSOE and Sumar (the inheritor of Podemos) is barely changed from the last general election in 2019. It seems as if the coalition leadership ran out of nerve more than it ran out of votes. This is a product of intense internal pressures, where the Podemos faction was happy to fight ‘culture wars’ on territory staked out by the right and the far right. The Spanish economy is lagging even the general crawling pace in Europe and has only just returned to pre-lockdown levels. Neither ruling party had any policy to change that and instead cut pensions and introduced stricter labour laws.

The fiercest internal debates were over the war, where the Blairite PSOE leadership broke with the Spanish left’s post-Franco tradition and argued successfully for participation in arming Ukraine for the US’s proxy war. Podemos had initially opposed sending Leopard tanks and its capitulation was a factor in the ousting of its leadership and its replacement by Sumar. Meanwhile the parties of the right and far right, the PP and Vox have taken advantage of the turmoil, consolidating their combined vote at around 12% above their 2019 total of 36%.

Following the Finnish general election held in April this year, a Social Democrat-led coalition was replaced by a right-wing coalition which includes members of the far-right Finns party. The outgoing SDP prime minister had already applied for NATO membership, which conceded the entire argument to the right that the overriding issue was military defence. As a result, the campaign debate on the economy and living standards was dominated by a consensus that military spending must come first. The result is a Finnish government regarded as the most right wing in decades, with a stringent new anti-migrant policy and a finance minister from the far right.

There was an important variant in this general pattern in the recent Greek general election, despite the result being hailed in mainstream media as a landslide for the right. In fact, the substantial vote for New Democracy in the June elections of 40.5% were a fraction below its vote in the inconclusive May elections. The gain of 12 extra seats and an overall majority is accounted for by the reintroduction of the undemocratic system of allocating extra seats to the largest party.

The combined vote share of the left parties, Syriza, PASOK and KKE of 37.4% was only 1.4% lower than in the earlier election. Both the Communist KKE and Syriza oppose the war in Ukraine, while PASOK supports it. At the same time, none has offered a convincing solution to the long agony of the Greek economy since the debt crisis, when the population bailed out the creditors. The result is not only the right in command of the legislature, but there is also the electoral emergence of the extreme far right in the form of the Spartans, who gained 12 seats with just under 5% of the vote.

France is years away from significant national elections. But there is now effectively a 3-way polling tie between Le Pen’s RN, Macron’s coalition and the left forces in NUPES. This is despite Macron having seen off the protests around the pension age, at least for now. This showing is a fraction closer than the first round of the Presidential election voting in 2022, when Macron registered 27.9% of the vote, Le Pen 23.2% and Mélenchon got 22%, even though a series of leftist candidates stood, reaching a combined 5.4%.

NUPES is dominated by Mélenchon and France Insoumise (and includes a rump of the former governing Socialists, as well as the Communist Party and Greens). They oppose the war and austerity and have taken a stronger line over time on fighting racism and Islamophobia. They have made no significant concessions to bourgeois forces on these three key political issues. As a result, NUPES has retained its support and has a least the potential to register further gains.

In contrast, Britain remains well behind in the electoral cycle and is set to record 14 years of uninterrupted Tory-led governments next year. The Labour Party has made every conceivable concession to ruling class politics in order to receive ruling class backing, or at least its acceptance. It is well ahead in the opinion polls because of the widespread unpopularity of the government and the simultaneous crisis in the SNP.

But precisely because of that period of Tory rule, the broad mass of the population has yet to see how much this Labour leadership will serve bourgeois interests on war, austerity, racism and all other types of reaction. Therefore, socialists call for a vote for Labour. This is in order to dispel illusions, not to sow them. Unfortunately, only when that broad mass of the population sees Starmer in Number 10 will some of those illusions fall away and the class character of his leadership become clear to them.

Labour has already declared that in government it will continue Tory attacks, on everything from public sector pay, to climate change policy, to authoritarian laws, even to free school meals. Labour also attacks the Tories from the right on their treatment of migrants and refugees and is leading the new Cold War charge both against China and in calling for Ukraine membership of NATO. It is so subservient to the US the shadow Chancellor went to Washington to announce its new economic policy, (the utterly failed) “Bidenomics on steroids”.

Currently a section of the working- class vanguard correctly grasps the nature of the Starmer leadership. But it will not be possible to build an alternative until sections of the masses have their illusions dispelled.