Europe — Where is the left?

A coalition government is in power at a time of economic uncertainty. It is not popular, and the voters’ ire and anger are directed towards the junior partner of that coalition. In recent regional and local elections, the smaller party in the coalition was severely punished by the voters.

Sounds familiar? It would be for British and German readers. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats have lost a huge amount of support since joining the government last year. The party lost on the referendum to change the voting system which it championed, and lost heavily in the Scottish Parliament and English local elections. In Germany, the recent state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz (or Rhineland-Palatinate, if you like) were disastrous for the Free Democrats (FDP). The FDP barely survived in Baden-Württemberg, and failed to clear the 5% hurdle therefore has no representation in Rheinland-Pfalz.

The Liberal Democrats and the FDP may share the same name, but they are different: the Liberal Democrats in Britain can be broadly described as centre-left, whereas the Free Democrats in Germany can be broadly described as centre-right. Another difference is that Mr Westerwelle has stood down as the party chairperson after the bad results in the elections, but Mr Clegg is battling on. Both, however, are in a coalition government with the main centre-right party: the Conservatives in the UK, and the Christian Union parties in Germany.

The interesting thing is not so much that the Liberal Democrats in the UK, or the Free Democrats in Germany have lost support, but that the main beneficiary was not the main centre-left party, Labour in the UK and the SPD in Germany. Given the economic circumstances, one would expect the main centre-left party, which is in opposition, to do well, however, as the Scottish Parliament election showed, it was not Labour but the SNP, and in the two German states, it was not the SPD but the Greens who picked up the support. Indeed, in Scotland, Baden-Württemberg and in Rheinland-Pfalz, the centre-left party actually lost votes. Labour did win seats in England, but given how badly Labour did in 2003 and 2007, they should have performed better, and there was no credible fourth party that could absorb the protest vote.

Both Labour and the SPD have problems. Their leaderships seem lacklustre, and unable to formulate a sustained counter-narrative, an alternative vision to the government, that is attractive and convincing to the voters. Perhaps a party that had been rooted in mass labour and trade unionist movement, forged in the industrial age, has not been able to adapt to the 21st century. Both these parties have tried to depart from the default position, and change the party on a number of social and economic directions, as evidenced by New Labour, and Agenda 2010 by the SPD-Green coalition under the chancellorship of Mr Schröder. These projects are now seen as something of an embarrassment by many in the respective parties.

The (centre) left has problems, and it is not restricted to the UK or Germany. The arrest of DSK – Mr Strauss-Kahn – puts the French Socialists in an awkward position. He had been considered as the likely candidate for the presidency on the Socialist ticket, but now that would seem unlikely. If the French left cannot unite, there may be a repeat of 2002: Ms Le Pen of the FN may clinch the second place. In Italy, despite all sorts of allegations and scandals, Mr Berlusconi has survived so far.

So where is the (centre) left? It seems that the progressive (and protest) votes are going to parties such as the Greens. I doubt that somehow the left-leaning voters have disappeared or vanished into thin air, but that the large traditional parties no longer represent the kind of progressive policies that they want to see.