Issue Briefs

The end of Europe’s traditional left

The end of Europe’s traditional left

Michael Binyon

April 25, 2017

The collapse of the Left in the first round of the French presidential election has been spectacular. Not only did Benoit Hamon, the candidate officially representing the Socialist party of President Hollande, receive a derisory 7 per cent of the votes; the firebrand Marxist Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose lively campaigning saw a late surge of support, was also knocked out of the race.

The decisive second round of voting next month will therefore be a contest between the independent centrist, Emmanuel Macron, and the xenophobic and nationalist candidate of the far right, Marine Le Pen, who is campaigning to take France out of the euro and even out of the European Union.

Established parties are out 

The widespread anger with the French political establishment has led voters to kick out candidates from both the established parties – the conservative Republicans and the center-left Socialists. But the blow has been especially wounding to the left.

The Socialist party may now disintegrate.

The left’s troubles are mirrored across the Channel in Britain, where the Labour party’s disarray is proving disastrous for traditional left-wing voters. Few election campaigns in Britain have begun with such overwhelming support for the government. Theresa May’s Conservative government now enjoys an approval rating of around 50 per cent – higher than the party has seen at any time since the height of Margaret Thatcher’s popularity in the 1980s. It is on course to win a landslide victory, with a majority in the 650-seat Parliament of about 100 seats.

British Labour Party in serious decline 

But the Labour party is suffering a disastrous decline. Latest polls put it at around 25 per cent. And in some parts of the country, especially Scotland and south-east England, it may win no seats at all. Even the party’s MPs are despairing of any election victory. Many are quietly hoping for a crushing defeat in June, seeing this as the only way of getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader who has alienated most of his fellow Labour MPs and is seen as a huge electoral liability. Tony Blair, the former Labour Prime Minister, has even been urging pro-European Labour supporters to vote for Conservative candidates who are willing to push for a more pro-European policy in the Brexit negotiations. Opinion polls show that less than half of Labour’s supporters in the country think Corbyn would make the best prime minister.

From leftist parties to populists

The question is: where does the left now go in Europe? And if voters are deserting traditional socialist parties, who will benefit? The answer is that no single ideology is picking up the support of disillusioned leftists. But the clear trend is for voters to turn to populists, either on the right or the left, who are offering a break from traditional politics, a curb on globalisation, a more nationalist agenda and an end to austerity programmes. Sometimes new parties picking up votes have been on the far left, such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. Sometimes they have been on the right, such as the National Front in France, the Alternatives for Germany in Germany or the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain.

Sometimes voters have coalesced around single issues, such as the protests against austerity programmes in Greece, Spain and much of southern Europe, or hostility to the European Union, which was a powerful factor in Britain’s Brexit vote and gave strong support to UKIP. And in some cases there is no discernible issue or single cause uniting those deserting traditional socialist parties except a general disillusion with all politics and a wish for an anarchist breaking of the mould. This lies behind the populist appeal of Donald Trump in America and the Five Star Movement in Italy, led by Beppe Grillo, a former actor and comedian with no political experience.

Disillusion is no real political formula

But can disillusion be the basis for new parties? And is the traditional programme of left-wing parties now obsolete? For years, analysts in Britain have predicted the decline of the Labour party as more and more people now think of themselves as middle class, rather than identifying with the working class, the traditional basis of Labour support. For almost a century, the left in Britain has had a similar programme: greater state control of private industry (including, in the past, nationalisation), more spending on social welfare, higher taxes on the rich and more interventionist government programmes to boost health and education while cutting defence spending. All this was thought to benefit the working class.

Irrelevant or unpopular left-wing agendas

The priorities have changed in the digital age. Many traditional left-wing policies are either irrelevant or unpopular. Few people in the Labour party, or in any European Socialist party, are now calling for wholesale nationalisation. Massive social security payments are increasingly unpopular, even with poorer people, who resent the higher taxes needed and who see many beneficiaries of state spending as work-shy scroungers who are living on the earnings of others. Trade unions are no longer seen as the defenders of workers’ rights, and in a digital age when more and more jobs are part-time or in service industries, the old trade union confrontations with the bosses of big manufacturing industries now seem outdated.

But other issues have become very much more important: the environment, immigration, the future of manufacturing, racial diversity, women’s rights and ethical issues such as animal welfare, euthanasia, gay rights and religious extremism. None of these issues which dominate today’s headlines fit easily into the category of left or right. Most parties in Western Europe are trying to put forward policies to attract voters preoccupied with all these single-issue campaigns.

The Brexit issue

In Britain, the big dividing issue now is the decision to leave the European Union. More than a year after the vote, it is still a question that splits the country from top to bottom. The referendum created a host of new alliances and loyalties. It has driven an even deeper wedge between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and may lead to a new referendum on Scottish independence. It may help revive the fortunes of the small Liberal Democrat party, the only one that is still strongly pro-European. And it is creating deep new divisions within both the Conservative and Labour parties between pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit supporters.

This has accelerated the erosion of old tribal loyalties and class-based allegiances which has been going on for years. In 1997, only 13 per cent of voters had chosen a different party in the previous election but 38 per cent of people switched sides between 2010 and 2015. The number is almost certain to be greater this time.

Where will former leftist voters go? 

In France, the voting pattern showed an even more striking diversity. The victories of both Le Pen and Macron were based on millions of people voting for parties and policies that did not exist a decade ago. The same is true of Syriza, Podemos and the nationalists who now control the governments in Poland and Hungary. But the one clear trend in all this is the decline of traditional left-wing parties. The fall of the Berlin wall spelled the end of communism in Europe. The laptop and the internet promise to end the dominance that traditional socialist parties have had in European politics until today.  No one can yet be sure where these lost votes will go.


Michael Binyon

Michael Binyon

Michael Binyon is a GPI Senior Adviser. He has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.

He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.  


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy of GPI.