Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Australian Labor is not alone. Left parties are making a comeback

Strangely, one aspect of the May federal election has been overlooked: Labour’s victory follows a pattern among the main centre-left parties in Europe and comparable countries. Traditional social democratic and worker-based parties are making a comeback and are now holding office (alone or in coalition) across Scandinavia and in Germany, Spain, Portugal and New Zealand.

Where the last decade has been dominated by talk of a crisis on the left, the debate is increasingly shifting to a crisis on the right.

The image is not uniform, of course. Some countries have experienced the de facto disappearance of their main center-left party. We could call this the “PASOKification” syndrome, after the sharp loss of support for Greece’s PASOK party, but it is spreading to other parts of Europe.

The once-dominant Netherlands Labor Party came in sixth place in last year’s election, with just 5.7% of the vote. France’s main left-wing party, the Socialist Party, fell to just 6.4% in the first round of the 2017 presidential election and just 1.7% this year.

Meanwhile, British Labor lost elections in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019. Despite the toxicity surrounding the Conservative government, Labor leader Keir Starmer remains unpopular and unlikely to win the next election.

In Belgium and Italy, the situation on the left is less bleak, although its main parties are far from hegemonic. In the highly fragmented Belgian system, the Flemish and Walloon socialist parties are part of the “Vivaldi coalition” of seven parties (yes, seven!). The Democratic Party of Italy is part of the current national unity government led by Draghi, and has more recently served as prime minister.

Outside of Europe, the new “pink tide” in South America has seen, for example, 35-year-old Gabriel Boric win Chile’s presidential election.

Why the bounce?

Some common factors help us understand the partial return of the left.

First, the share of votes for the two main center-right and center-left parties has declined in most of these countries, but the center-left can still muster a majority where the electoral system allows.

Australia’s Labor primary vote record low of 32.6% is part of that trend, with centre-left parties in Norway, Sweden and Spain now capturing between 25% and 30% of the vote. And even when parties win a larger share of the vote (as in Portugal), they have generally needed coalition partners. However, center-left parties remain a fixture in many party systems and have found ways to get back into office.

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Orderly campaign: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Philip Singer/EPA

Second, revitalized centre-left parties, including Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party, share common political positions. We could summarize them as a “back to basics” strategy, with a clear focus on better wages and conditions, job security, and revitalized public institutions.

Albanese’s victory has parallels to the victory of Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrat-led “rainbow coalition” in Germany. As one commenter described it:

Scholz ran an orderly campaign based on simple promises: a higher minimum wage, stable pensions, more affordable housing, and a carbon-neutral economy.

Social democrats have tried to (gently) rebuild public institutions. The Danish Social Democrats have pledged to increase public and social spending by 0.8% per year for five years. Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand Labor government has raised the minimum wage. The recent majority government of Antonio Costa in Portugal was based on a united coalition seeking to reverse the austerity measures that followed the eurozone crisis.

Common features…

This “new” minimalist social democracy has several interlocking elements. First, incoming governments have caught on to a mood, amplified by the pandemic, that center-right governments have neglected key public goods.

Second, these center-left governments have moved away from the “third way” policies associated with leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. As cataloged here, center-left parties have swung to the left since the 1990s and 2000s. Many of their party manifestos have a renewed focus on tackling inequality and increasing social spending.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin
Modern Social Democracy: Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin at an EU summit in Brussels last month.
Olivier Matthys/ Associated Press

Thirdly, the centre-left parties have been gradually “greening”. Many are trying to make renewables part of their revitalized manufacturing and industrial agendas.

As Albanese and his colleagues know, this is a delicate balancing act, aimed at protecting employees in fossil fuel-intensive industries while setting modest climate goals. This “balance” appears to be hitting the electoral sweet spot by capturing public demand for action and allaying fears about the speed of the transition, even if the goals don’t keep up with the science.

The final element is the long “feminization” of the parts. Many are reaping the fruits of the struggles of women MPs, allies and feminist members to improve representation. It is no accident that four of the current five centre-left Prime Ministers of Scandinavia are women. Center-left parties look modern and representative, and most have strong gender policies, especially on issues like the gender pay gap.

… And a significant difference

It is worth noting a key difference between Australian Labor and its resurgent counterparts. Many center-left parties in Europe have made strong commitments to invest in their welfare states, in part to stamp out the welfare chauvinism of radical right-wing opponents. In New Zealand, the Ardern government has announced a new unemployment insurance scheme.

The dynamic seems different in Australia, with Labor apparently seeing little electoral value in changing its “modest” welfare agenda.

An important lesson for Labor is that, in almost every case internationally, the centre-left has had to learn to govern in partnership with other key players. This will be a pressing issue for Albanese as he deals with a record cross bench in both chambers. It could even determine how long Australia’s centre-left party rules.

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