Route to Nowhere

Peter Mair

European social democrats have never had it so good. By the end of the 20th century, they were in government, either alone or in coalition, in 14 of the 19 Western European democracies, ruling over some 88 per cent of Western Europe’s citizenry. Only on the periphery – in Iceland, Ireland, Malta, Norway and Spain – did they remain in opposition. In 11 of these 14 countries, including France, Germany, Italy and the UK, the heads of government came from social democratic parties. The sheer scale of this success was unprecedented: never before had Europe’s four leading democracies been governed at one and the same time by social democrats. Many of these parties had begun to organise for the first time almost a century earlier; as the millennium dawned, they found themselves close to enjoying a real monopoly of government.

A bare dozen years ago, it seemed easy to write off the traditional Left, and many commentators did so. Take 1987. This was the year in which Old Labour went down to its third successive defeat in Britain. It was also the year in which Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic coalition was celebrating its second consecutive victory. In France, an alliance of Gaullists and the Centre Right had just come to office. In Italy, the Christian Democrats were celebrating more than forty years of unbroken rule. In Europe in the late 1980s, the Right was in control and its triumph was later confirmed by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and then of Communism. If the events in Berlin were seen to spell the end of history, it seemed that they were also likely to spell the end of the Left. Yet a mere ten years later it was the Right that was on the ropes and, against all expectations, the Left that was in office.

In their efforts to understand how parties’ strategies unfold, political scientists usually ascribe three key motives to them: vote-seeking, office-seeking and policy-seeking. It is also usually assumed that a trade-off will be involved. Office-seeking parties will tend to downplay their policy priorities, adjusting whatever principles they have in order to secure a place in government. Policies are also traded off for votes, with electoral success increasingly seeming to require the fudging of core principles. It is only in very rare instances, and then usually only on the fringes of the political spectrum, that either the massing of electoral support or the chance of gaining office becomes subordinated to the need to maintain a distinctive programme.

As vote-seekers, parties of the Left in Europe have not done at all badly. During the 1950s, when support was divided between social democrats and Communists, the left-wing parties polled an average of 42 per cent of the popular vote across Western Europe. In the 1990s, when their ranks had been joined by the newly successful Green parties, and when traditional Communist support had effectively withered away, they polled an average of 41 per cent. Life for the Left as office-seekers has become even better. During the early postwar years, when Communist parties were actively distrusted, it was sometimes too divided to have a chance of winning office. Nowadays, by contrast, the parties find it relatively easy to forge alliances, with the Greens proving to be much more willing and accommodating partners for the social democrats than their Communist predecessors ever were. The Greens are also proving much more acceptable, and it has been largely thanks to their support that the Left has now managed to win control of government, or at least a significant voice there, in countries as diverse as Belgium, Finland, France, Germany and Italy. As policy-seekers, however, the parties of the Left still leave much to be desired – not least by the former German Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, who now documents his many criticisms in a revealing account of his experiences in the lead-up to and the aftermath of the Red-Green coalition of 1998.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Germany had a three-party or – as it was sometimes called – a triangular party system. The main rivals were the social democratic SPD and the Christian democratic CDU. Coming between them, at least in a strategic sense, was the small, liberal FDP, whose partnership was required if either of the two bigger parties was to win office. From 1969 to 1982, the liberals looked to the left, and the SPD, first under Willy Brandt, and later under Helmut Schmidt, dominated government. From 1982 onwards, the liberals looked to the right, installing Kohl as Chancellor, a position he was to retain until 1998. By then, however, a new element had been introduced into German politics, with the Greens beginning to make their presence felt in Parliament, and offering the prospect of a new coalition partner to the increasingly desperate SPD. For Lafontaine, at least, such a coalition meant more than simply making a virtue of necessity.

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