An alternative to fear
Social democracy is in turmoil in most EU member states, and many of our parties, assaulted by populists from right and left, seem to be too weak to grow and too strong to die.
This is the case in France but also in the Netherlands and Ireland where our parties suffered from being junior coalition partners. The situation in relation to the state of European politics and political parties is depressing, with the exception of Portugal where people have increasing confidence in the government’s ability to deliver on its promises and understand that real improvements in their lives will take time.
A quotation from Kurt Tucholsky cited at the beginning of the discussions at a Policy Network round table in Vienna encapsulated a challenge to which the centre left has no clear response – “The people understand most things wrong but feel most things correctly”. So why hasn’t the European left understood and addressed people’s concerns and fears, and how should we respond in future?
Inequality is increasing and whilst people sometimes blame the wrong causes they are absolutely right that most people have suffered a declining quality of life with wages going down or stagnating. Parents can no longer be confident that, unlike for past generations, their children will be better off than them and have a more secure future. The gap between those who are well educated and those who lack skills is widening, societies have become less inclusive and more unstable. In the UK growth in the economy under Labour hid the slow-down in working-age income growth and we the politicians failed to notice. This lack of empathy was exacerbated throughout the EU when those who caused the financial crisis, the bankers, were not held to account or punished. Understandably people felt that we were colluding with the bankers and we lost their trust. The refugee crisis added to the fears and security of many citizens who became prey to populism.
Social democrats are prone to fatalism about the pace of change, especially technological change, whereas we should be preparing for the future including challenges in the world of work. Work should enable people to live with dignity but throughout the EU there is poverty and high unemployment – even with full employment in the UK many of the jobs are part-time and low paid which leads to frustration and anger. Investment and growth are certainly needed but also improved education and skills for the young, retraining for older workers and better childcare to enable more women to participate in the workforce. Reductions in inequality will be helped by quality jobs but improved fiscal justice is also needed with a reform of tax systems so that they are progressive and fair. The positive role that trade unions can play is too often forgotten, they should be the agents for change, working in partnership with employers to enable workers to adapt to greater flexibility throughout their working lives.
The European Union has fulfilled its promises of peace and prosperity, but the prosperity has not been enjoyed by all. The EU is seen by many not as a protector, but as a source of unfair globalisation. It doesn’t have the instruments to address current economic problems. More flexibility is needed in the stability and growth pact as well as a new mechanism for absorbing short term shocks. As the experience of Ireland demonstrated, the present system is half baked – the ECB wouldn’t allow banks to fail which meant that the government had to bail out the banks at great economic and social cost. Whilst treaty changes will be necessary in due course, technical changes could bring swift improvements.
The EU is suffering because there is no one at the centre defending the interests of all. There is a need to look at all the national approaches to European economic reform and then come out at European level with a comprehensive solution that is acceptable in political and economic terms.
Bold new policies are important but much more is needed if social democracy is to regain its strength and oversee the necessary transformation in our societies that will enable citizens and economies to successfully meet the challenges of the 21st century. Leadership is key and the progressives who have been most successful in the recent past – Macron, Trudeau and Renzi – have confidence, competence and charisma. They are also outsiders who reach beyond the cultural boundaries of mainstream political parties. Do all European social democrats need to move in that direction in order to gain power? The elections in the UK, Germany, Austria and Italy will be of huge importance and interest.
One thing is absolutely clear, unlike the populists who focus on fear, we progressives have to give people hope and provide them with the resilience they need to meet future challenges. In the UK, sadly this will be much more difficult as a consequence of Brexit.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com/Frederic Legrand – COMEO