Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

How Corbyn turned the tide for social democracy

Despite the near-irrelevancy of social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe
June 19, 2017

To grasp quite how remarkable a feat the UK Labour Party pulled off by adding 10 points to its vote share, and bursting through 40 per cent of the ballot, it is necessary to place its performance in context. Across Europe social democracy—and for all the charges of Marxist extremism thrown at Jeremy Corbyn, his “spend more money on the welfare state” manifesto was resoundingly social democratic—has long been on the slide.

At the start of May, the average share of the vote won by social democratic parties in the most recent parliamentary elections in western European countries was 23 per cent. Despite the stunning advance by Labour, the simultaneous collapse of the French Socialists in the June Parliamentary elections was so dramatic that this average is now set to fall further, to around 22 per cent. This European average is the lowest it has been in the post-war period, and is down from a high of 34 per cent, back in 1999. The serious rot has set in only very recently: until 2010, the average had never dipped below 30 per cent.

Social democratic parties once governed—and now they risk irrelevancy. Less than two decades ago, in October 1998, the EU15 (as it was then) met in the Austrian resort of Pörtschach am Wörthersee, and social democratic parties supplied 11 of the 15 heads of government in attendance. They came from Greece’s Pasok; from France’s PS, from the Dutch PvdA—but none of these parties now commands more than 10 per cent of the vote. At the last European Council meeting, just seven of the 28 countries were represented by social democrats—and of those, only Portugal’s António Costa (pictured right) had actually won an election within the past two years.

Given the adverse tide that social democracy faces, many observers on the continent would have been unsurprised if Labour, which had been stuck at a losing 29-30 per cent in the last two general elections, had continued to slide in the same way as so many of its European sisters. All the more so, because it had been so hopelessly divided. And all the more so, again, because—as the referendum showed—its traditional electoral coalition appeared to be beset by exactly the same sort of damaging schisms that blight social democrats everywhere.

So how on Earth did the Labour Party of all parties—a party which took self-harming behaviour to such extreme heights when 80 per cent of MPs unsuccessfully voted no confidence in their leader—manage to buck the trend?

The roots of social democratic discomfort trace back to the 1970s, when a new type of politics emerged, one not concerned with the role of the state in the economy, but with the relationship between the individual and society. This reframed politics as a contest between traditional notions of conformity, and the ascendent value of autonomy. Because support for the new progressive politics—in relation, for example to gender and sexuality—was concentrated among those who had benefited from expanded higher education after the 1960s, university-educated professionals, especially in the public sector, became more and more influential in the social democratic parties at the same time as their industrial base withered. In the post-crisis years, the cross-class alliance between the two has come unstuck—the so-called politically correct stance of progressive graduates on immigration, for instance, came to be seen by many white working- class voters as inimical to their interests. These changes have allowed conservative politicians to win votes by adopting new economic policies which on occasion ape those of the left, while talking a socially conservative language which appeals to voters who traditionally voted for the left.

That was the standard story—up until 8th June. But the Corbyn surge points to a different interpretation. Perhaps because the dismantlement of traditional post-war social democracy has advanced further in Britain than much of the continent, a bold statement in favour of it can now be put forward as an anti-establishment position. And that, it seems, has a good deal of appeal to many of the disgruntled voters who might have parted company with the progressives over Brexit.