2016 was not a good year for social democrats in the West. They endured electoral humiliation at the hands of either the right or the hard left. In Britain, Labour centrists led a feeble counter-revolution against Jeremy Corbyn that was put down with ease. Across Europe, the share of the vote claimed by established centre-left parties, which for decades had alternated in power with the centre-right, accelerated its precipitous decline. The most crushing of all the centre-left’s defeats in 2016 was American voters’ stunning rejection of Hillary Clinton. Not only did they spurn the liberal social and economic orthodoxies advocated by the Democratic Party ever since the presidency of her husband Bill (orthodoxies that were later also adopted by most European centre-left parties), but they did so in favour of a candidate at the opposite end of those social and economic spectrums. These losses have led many, such as the writers of the above Economist piece, to announce the death of social democracy.
Yet there are consolations for the centre-left. In Justin Trudeau, President Trump seems to have met his match – physically, but also ideologically. The Canadian prime minister is as vocal a champion of refugees, environmental protection and free trade as Trump is a denigrator. When the two men met, however, Trudeau put those differences aside and focused on building a personal relationship with Trump. His implacable charm even earned from his host an acknowledgement of the importance of women entrepreneurs. Trudeau’s commitment to liberal principles and the diplomatic skill he has recently demonstrated mark him out as the centre-left’s standard-bearer for the year ahead.
Even in Europe, where voters have over the last few years been abandoning the centre-left in favour first of the centre-right and then increasingly of the far left and the far right, there are flickers of hope. In France, Emmanuel Macron, a young former investment banker, has rallied thousands of centrists under his new political movement “En Marche!”, and, according to polls, will beat Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in May. Pollsters also have Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by the former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, riding high. He has revived what appeared to be a moribund party: the SPD is neck-and-neck with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, up 10 percentage points since the party nominated Schulz as candidate for chancellor. Even the man on the end of one of 2016’s most ignominious defeats for the centre-left, Italy’s former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, is staging a comeback.
Of course, these flickers of hope could be extinguished just as quickly as they were lit – and violently, too. Schulz remains a narrow outsider in Germany’s race for the chancellery and although most social democrats in Germany would be disappointed to see Merkel’s party form a fourth consecutive government, their frustrations would pale in comparison to those of their cousins in France and Italy if the centre-left were to lose there. A Le Pen victory over Macron in the second round or a government led by the populist Five Star Movement would imperil both the EU and the fundamental rights the bloc represents in the eyes of social democrats. Both prospects are unlikely – but the centre-left knows that stranger, more crushing reversals can happen.
Nonetheless, social democrats’ prospects appear brighter than many predicted mere months ago. So what does this recovery mean for the other channel of the political mainstream, the centre-right? From a narrow, short-term point of view, it is worrying. The centre-left has been the principle electoral foe for conservatives in most Western democracies for the last 70 years. But besieged as we are by populists who threaten to reverse the economic integration that has made us and the world’s poorest much richer, to disrupt the web of alliances that underpins our defence and place in the world and to undermine the bonds of trust between the constituent parts of our society, many conservatives might welcome the fact that card-carrying members of the liberal establishment – the son of a former Canadian president; a former investment banker; a former president of the European Parliament; and a former Italian prime minister – are proving that it is indeed possible to convince voters of their arguments. Better the enemy you know.
by George Mitkov, Caerulean Editor of UCLU Conservative Society 2016-17