THE BLOG
05/10/2015 06:23 BST | Updated 04/10/2016 06:12 BST

Where Next for European Social Democracy?

Across Europe ever since the financial crash we have seen electorates turn to the extremes, with the rise of both the far right and far left. As populism gains acceptance it often comes at the expense of the old Social Democratic and centre left parties, who are having to struggle to maintain the support of their traditional working and lower-middle class support bases.

In Britain, Labour was crushed in Scotland by a nationalist party draped in left-wing rhetoric, whilst in the North and Midlands the rise of UKIP saw them come second in many seats assumed to be Labour safe havens. This was coupled with a failure to advance in the historically unfavourable South of England has left us many in Labour mourning the decline and fall of the British left.

This is not an isolated incident. Across Europe only 10 of the 28 EU governments are from the left. Even in historical bastions such as Denmark and Finland, the left is in retreat. Indeed in the traditional stronghold of Scandinavia only Sweden has a left-wing government, and that in a minority government hamstrung by the December Agreement imposed on them by the centre and far right parties last year. What has been the trigger for this decline?

First society has, in general, become more individualistic, people have personalised their lives in a way never before seen. This individualism, partly birthed by the Thatcherite and Reaganite Neo-Liberal movements of the 1980s, has undermined the sense of a common solidarity amongst the working classes which, coupled with a decline in wages and stagnant economy, has opened up cracks now being leveraged by the extremes and centre-right with rhetoric on immigrants and "benefit scroungers". Without the fertile soil of solidarity and common endeavour Social Democracy withers on the vine.

The centre-left has also failed to address this widening disconnect between its base and their erstwhile political representatives. The left has still not come up with either a narrative or coherent policies that adapt to the realities of the 21st century workplace, which have been changed beyond recognition by the processes of globalization and the free movement of capital, goods and labour. Additionally trade union membership has plummeted, removing a previously vigorous source of support for Social Democracy. The trade unions and centre-left parties have a symbiotic partnership - when one is weakened so is the other.

Further the accusation that left-wing parties have taken their traditional support for granted is not always an unfair one. Focusing scant resources on a minority of middle class swing voters was politically expedient but alienated the core vote, which has started looking for and found somewhere else to go - drifting to the extremes in search of someone they feel represents them. We have reached a tipping point where this drift away from the core has starting having huge electoral consequences - strikingly so in Scotland.

The left has also focused overly on abstract concepts rather than anchoring their rhetoric and actions in the real everyday lives of the people they represent. The result is that the left has been slow to react, and in some cases is still moribund, to the rise in identity politics. This is the second reason why people no longer identify strongly with the centre-left. What does it actually mean to be a centre-left European in the 21st Century?

The right has been able to appeal to a sense of identity by identifying and vilifying "the other" with divisive rhetoric, playing on anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiments. This has led in all too many cases to those on the left assuming that all concerns around immigration are motivated by xenophobia and to express concern is tantamount to dog-whistle politics. Thus genuine concerns of the lower-middle and working class, motivated by concerns of resources rather than racism, are ignored or downright derided by the left, who often respond with a condescending lecture. This does nothing to address voters frustrations and concerns over perceived increased competition for scarce jobs and watering down of pay and conditions and in fact positively repels them.

If we do not come up with some credible and convincing answers to these key questions we will not be able to reconnect with our traditional support base. Having thus identified the problems, the task for the centre-left is to use with the challenges of the new century.

My own view is that elections are won from the centre ground, with a set of policies broad in appeal and designed to benefit the majority of society. In order to build our broad church however we must first shore up the foundations. We must do the spade work in Doncaster before construction can begin in Nuneaton.

This is the first challenge for Jeremy Corbyn's new politics. He must reconnect to a base preoccupied with concerns of nationhood, immigration and the economy, before broadening out to speak to the concerns of the middle classes if his political project is to make a difference. Our sister parties across Europe must do the same, though just because the problems are universal, the solutions may not be.