In covering international affairs over the past year the Irish mainstream media has almost exclusively focused on the fallout from the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s three ring circus in Washington. You could be forgiven for thinking there was little else happening in global politics. In fact, the opposite is true and we are in the middle of the most seismic shift in European politics since the fall of the “Iron Curtain.”
Over the past few months, elections in several European countries have seen the centre-left taking a pounding from the electorate. This follows on from the collapse of France’s Socialist Party earlier in the year and last year’s annihilation of the Irish Labour Party.
In September, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) barely achieved 20% of the vote, their worst ever result and less than half the share that the party regularly received fewer than twenty years ago. However, it wasn’t their traditional rivals led by Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), who benefited from this decline, but rather a group of minor parties ranging from traditional Liberals, such as the Greens, the far left, and the anti-immigration far right. Over two months later, Merkel is still trying to cobble a coalition government together. Merkel’s days are numbered as successors prepare to show her the door after the rather poor election result.
In the following weeks, Germany’s neighbours gave a similar trouncing to the centre left with the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) being beaten, the Greens being wiped out in that same country, and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) losing a staggering 70% of their seats as the populist Andrej Babiš followed Donald Trump’s playbook.
Earlier in the year, a slightly different form of personality populism had swept Emmanuel Macron and his new party to power with the French Socialists suffering the double humiliation of being a lowly fifth in the Presidential election and going from 280 to 30 seats in the National Assembly. This is an all-time low for one of France’s major parties and throws their future into question.
In March the Dutch Labour Party lost three quarters of their seats and six months later Norway’s Labour Party lost an election they were widely expected to win, as the Conservative & Conservative-Liberal coalition held power. This is just the latest setback for the centre left, which has traditionally held control in the Nordic countries.
The only chink of light for the centre left in Europe in the last year came last June in the U.K., where Labour recovered from an abysmal election in 2016. They were still a long way short of deposing Theresa May, something that her own party will undoubtedly do before the next election, scheduled for 2022. Labour’s minor consolation was achieved by the party’s most left-wing leader for over 30 years, as the socially liberal Blairite “New Labour” faction was laid to rest.
Taking the results at face value, social conservatives should be celebrating, as the centre left has traditionally been one of the major drivers in undermining conservative values, but this is neither a time for joy nor complacency.
You could argue that the centre-left’s decision to largely abandon the voices and needs of working class people, its traditional base, in favour of social liberalism and bandwagon-jumping on every liberal cause has been a major contributor to its decline, especially here in Ireland. However, the centre left’s lack of purpose in opposing the trauma that austerity brought to working class communities throughout Europe and here in Ireland is unquestionably the larger issue. By deserting the centre left, today’s voters are simply following the same path that previous generations trod in the 1930s and during the recession of the late 1970s and early 80s.
The void that the centre-left is leaving is not just being filled by centre-right and conservative parties but more commonly by the more extreme elements on the left and right and by personality based populism, largely devoid of either a moral compass or a respect for social conservatism.
The lack of accountability in Brussels (and in Washington) is leading more and more people to appreciate the importance of national sovereignty and national politicians that they can remove every few years. This is opening the door to more extreme nationalism on the left, as can be seen with Sinn Fein in Ireland and Syriza in Greece, and a plethora of national flag waving parties of the “right” throughout Europe.
Social conservatives need to offer a welcoming environment to the mass of floating voters who have deserted the centre-left. It’s time to dust off Progressive Conservatism, or “One Nation Toryism” as it is commonly referred to in the UK. From Disraeli to Macmillan through Baldwin and Churchill in the UK, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower in the U.S., Charles De Gaulle in France and Canada’s Brian Mulroney, progressive conservatives have worked tirelessly to defend national sovereignty, support a social safety net and unashamedly promote the traditional family. Who can carry this torch today in Ireland and beyond?