2017 and the curious demise of Europe's centre-left

Across Europe this year, traditional centre-left parties lost out to new forces, of the left, the right and sometimes the centre. What’s behind this historic shift, and is Britain’s really immune? Jon Henley explains

So what happened to Europe’s centre-left?

The spectre that haunts Europe’s centre left has a name: Pasokification. In 2009, Greece’s once-great social democratic party won 43.9% of the national vote. Barely six years later, it could manage just 6.3%.

Atomised in France, all but wiped out in the Netherlands, humiliated in Germany, Europe’s mainstream centre left is in full retreat. Even in its one-time stronghold of Scandinavia, social democracy is now struggling.

There are many reasons. The embrace-the-market “Third Way” policies of leaders such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder worked fine in the turn-of-the-century boom years but seem to offer little to today’s vulnerable centre-left voters.

The fallout from the 2008 financial crash – high unemployment, lower living standards, ongoing public spending cuts – has combined with long-term trends (globalisation, automation, immigration, changing class identities, declining union membership) to eat into the centre left’s core electorates.

Openly addressing those fears, populist far-right parties have attracted the votes of many who traditionally supported the centre left. The rise of a new anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, anti-establishment far left has proved equally damaging.

The moderate European left that played such a fundamental part in rebuilding western Europe’s post-war democracy is not yet dead. But unless it can once more offer voters credible solutions to their present-day problems, it could be in terminal decline.
Where did all those votes go?

Although the centre-left’s decline was common, its beneficiaries differed from country to country; in France votes went to centrists and the harder left, in Germany to the extremes of left and right, and in the Netherlands to all points of the spectrum. The ramifications for each country’s government were varied too, with arguably the most serious consequences in the one country where the centre-left fared relatively well.
Centre-left party: Parti Socialiste (Socialist party)
Election: Presidential, first round, 23 April
Change in vote share from previous: down 22.2 percentage points

In 2012, François Hollande swept into the Elysée palace at the head of an all-conquering Socialist party that also controlled parliament, the senate and a majority of France’s regions.

Five years later, he became the Fifth Republic’s first head of state not to seek re-election; the party’s official presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished fifth; and after parliamentary elections the Socialists slumped from 280 MPs to just 30.

Outflanked to the right by the reforming centrist Emmanuel Macron and to the left by the radical firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the party of François Mitterrand managed just 7.4% of the national vote in the parliamentary elections. It is now firing 60 of its 100 staff and selling its illustrious party HQ on the rue Solférino to raise money.

The Netherlands
Centre-left party: Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party)

Election: Lower house, 15 March
Change in vote share from previous: down 19.1 percentage points

The headline story of this year’s Dutch legislative elections was the worse-than-expected result of the populist anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders and his PVV Freedom party. But the poll also marked a crushing defeat for the Dutch Labour party.

Punished for backing the liberal policies pursued by the outgoing centre-right led coalition of which it was a part, the PvdA saw its parliamentary party collapse from 38 MPs to nine after falling to just 5.7% of the vote.

It lost votes to several smaller parties in a now heavily fragmented Dutch political landscape but above all to the Green party of charismatic young Jesse Klaver (“the Jessiah”), which overtook it to become the largest party of the left.


Centre-left party: Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (German Social-Democrat Party)

Election: Bundestag, 24 September
Change in vote share from previous: down 5.2 percentage points

Germany’s SPD also paid the price for four years as minority partner in a coalition led by a centre-right behemoth, namely Angela Merkel’s CDU. It slumped in September’s poll to a score of 20.5%, the party’s worst since the second world war.

The SPD enjoyed an early boost when it chose former European parliament president Martin Schulz as its candidate for chancellor, but that soon faded. It swore after the election to spend the next four years in opposition to win back lost core support.

After the collapse of three-way coalition talks between the CDU, pro-business FDP and Greens, however, the SPD – a buttress of the European left for 150 years – came under intense pressure to reconsider and is now in cooperation talks with Merkel’s party.

Centre-left party: Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (Austrian Social-Democrat Party)

Election: Parliament, 15 October
Change in vote share from previous: up 0.1 percentage points

Austria’s SPÖ is an exception. Despite being in government since 2007, its share of the vote actually increased, by 0.1% to just under 27%, and it lost no MPs. Its respectable second place, however, had perhaps the biggest consequences.

Sharp swings from minor parties to the SPÖ’s main rivals – the centre-right ÖVP led by another charismatic young leader, Sebastian Kurz, and the far-right FPÖ – have left Austria the only country in western Europe with a far-right presence in government.

Labour sprung a big surprise in 2017, storming to a near 10% vote swing and increasing the size of its parliamentary party from 232 MPs to 262 – an achievement most experts considered impossible when the June election was called.

The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called the result “a victory for hope”. But is it a mainstream centre-left party? Moderates might argue that in its present incarnation, the party – in power from 1997 to 2010 – is closer to the radical, militant idealism of Greece’s Syriza or Spain’s Podemos than to France’s PS or Germany’s SPD.