After the German elections: lessons for the centre left
A disappointing result for the SPD demands a revived debate on the changing politics of class and social democracy
In last Sunday’s German federal election, the SPD scored its lowest share of the popular vote since the Second World War. The outcome in Germany comes in the wake of a succession of dismal election results for the left across Europe. In government, centre-left parties such as Dutch Labour have been hammered at the polls, because as junior coalition partners they took all the blame and none of the credit for being in power in tough times. But even insurgent parties in opposition such as the Norwegian Labour party have failed to win back power from populists with a dubious track-record in government. In the great heartlands of European social democracy, centre-left parties have never looked more structurally vulnerable or politically enfeebled.
The result in Germany is almost certain to revive the debate on the European left about the erosion of the traditional class base of social democracy. Of course, this discussion has been underway since the late 1950s: it was argued even then that the manual working class was in numerical decline and that, in any case, the relationship between occupational position and subjective political affiliation was breaking down, eroding the natural support base of socialist parties. Today, a new electoral divide has been posited between ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘communitarian’ voters, which allegedly cuts across the centre left’s political coalition. Younger, more liberal middle-class voters motivated by libertarian values of openness and self-actualisation are increasingly at odds with traditional working-class voters who value the pillars of ‘flag’, ‘family’ and (less often) ‘faith’ that they want social democratic parties to uphold. Such a dualism is mirrored in the recent claim that western societies are increasingly comprised of ‘somewheres’ versus ‘anywheres’.
Nevertheless, all the sociological evidence indicates that the politics of class are much less clear-cut. One recent study of social class attested that, ‘new social formations appear to be emerging out of the tendrils of the traditional working class’, while according to The Economist, today’s working class is increasingly comprised of a diversity of suburban voters, economically precarious graduates, younger people, post-industrial service workers, and so on. In this context, it is questionable whether such a dichotomy between communitarians and cosmopolitans is particularly helpful in thinking about the electoral dilemmas of centre-left parties in the future.
The political scientist John Callaghan has devised four demographic socio-economic categories to define the electoral coalition that is currently available to social-democratic parties. Firstly, there are ‘traditionalist’ working-class voters who emphasise material solidarity, traditional forms of collectivism, and the defence of political institutions such as the welfare state. For these voters, class-based social movements such as trade unions still matter.
Next in Callaghan’s schema come ‘modernist’ voters: they place a high premium on individual achievement and aspiration made possible by material economic growth and improvements in living standards. They are broadly sympathetic to the ‘consumerist’ agenda of politics emphasising material prosperity: higher government spending and any rise in personal taxation are viewed warily.
The third group are ‘post-materialist’ voters: they prioritise quality of life, and emphasise ecological concerns such as the climate change transition and environmental sustainability as key political imperatives. Many of these voters are ‘cash-rich’ but ‘time-poor’, although increasingly, younger ‘post-materialist’ voters have a more precarious existence because of rising housing costs and debts incurred in higher education. This group certainly appear to favour greater freedom from paid work.
The final group in Callaghan’s framework are ‘hedonistic post-modernist’ voters: they are libertarian ‘pleasure-seekers’ who emphasise the importance of civil liberties and personal freedom. They are often ‘anti-statist’, and particularly drawn to the potential gains of new technology. These voters instinctively dislike paternalism and want greater freedom to govern their own lives.
Given the disparate nature of this electoral coalition potentially spanning ‘modernist’, ‘materialist’, ‘post-materialist’, and ‘post-modernist’ voters, it is hardly surprising that some commentators have alighted on the Universal Basic Income (UBI) as the policy solution to the contemporary social democratic dilemma. To be sure, there are numerous objections that can be raised to the UBI: a basic income does not guarantee income security for the very poorest citizens; the cost of UBI may be prohibitively high; the basic income may distract from the core issue of how to recreate effective social security across the population, and may well reinforce existing gender inequalities. And of course, the political constraints on a UBI remain formidable. It seems highly unlikely that adopting UBI would have had a transformative impact on the fortunes of the SPD in last week’s German elections.
Yet debate about the basic income has not gone away. Unquestionably, the UBI has the potential to unite a disparate coalition of voters: the working class want to be liberated from the arbitrary and inhumane bureaucracy of the modern welfare state. The ‘post-materialist’ middle class, on the other hand, want greater freedom from the treadmill of formal paid work in the conventional labour market. No wonder Hillary Clinton flirted with inserting a basic income proposal into her presidential programme in 2016, and that centre-left parties are experimenting with UBI schemes across a number of European countries.
If basic income is not the answer for the centre left, the task for social democrats is still to narrow the gap between their traditional supporters and the post-materialist middle class; social democracy has to build bridges between those who broadly favour economic dynamism and openness, and those groups most resistant to structural change. As the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik puts it:
A crucial difference between right and left is that the right thrives on deepening divisions in society – ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – while the left, when successful, overcomes these cleavages through reforms that bridge them. Hence the paradox that earlier waves of reforms from the left – Keynesianism, social democracy, the welfare state – both saved capitalism from itself and effectively rendered themselves superfluous.
A key issue is now the spread of insecurity to traditional middle-class professions. As Anne Wren has demonstrated, whereas in the 1970s and 1980s, blue-collar workers in lower-skilled occupations were vulnerable to global competitive pressures, today middle-class professionals are ever more exposed to the forces of globalisation, automation and the ICT revolution. There are few ‘sheltered sectors’ any longer, either in the public or private sectors, as the consequence of austerity and technological change. The middle class needs a strong welfare state as much as it ever did. Collective insurance against risk through the protective state ought to remain an essential theme for social democratic parties across Europe.
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