What Europe's Left-Wing Moderates Have Forgotten
With the loss of power for the Danish center-left party of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the European moderate left is in crisis. Few left-wing governments remain. Left-wing parties, leftist think tanks, and leading politicians all wonder where it went wrong. They might start by asking themselves why they have remained so silent on the one centerpiece of their ideology that sets them apart from the rest: solidarity.
Politics has always been a game of chicken or egg. Do you stick with your convictions, or do you follow whatever direction a majority of the electorate is taking? In the past 20 years, the left and right across Europe have converged on the political center, leading moderate left-wing parties to adopt policies from the moderate right, and vice versa.
A famous example was Tony Blair and his New Labour. With his stance on crime - "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" - Blair sought to bind the strict-father narrative of the right with the nurturing-parent narrative of the left into a single platform. Blair proved to be the epitome of center-ground politics, uniting large swaths of traditional Labour voters with large numbers of traditional Tories. Judging purely by election results, it worked. Blair won three elections in a row.
Yet by the time Blair left office, more and more voters on the left had started to wonder what their Labour government was doing for them. They felt increasingly left out by the state and by society. Whether Blairites agreed with this perception or not is beside the point. Large numbers of Labour voters felt left to their own devices, even with a Labour government in office. For them it became harder and harder to tell the difference between Labour and the Conservative Party.
And so they left Labour. On the other end of the spectrum, Tories who had voted for Blair's version of Labour walked back to the Conservative Party when Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, signaled that he wanted to walk Labour a little back to its traditional leftist positions. Thus when Blair departed, his coalition of voters quickly fell apart. The ideological blandness of Blair's Labour left people yearning for politicians who speak out more pointedly about issues. Those politicians fill the ranks of parties such as the popular United Kingdom Independence Party, which marries a cocktail of Blairite socioeconomic ideology and Tory conservatism with tough nationalism and an outspoken anti-immigration platform.
Throughout all this, in Britain and everywhere else, one (former?) pillar of European progressive politics seems to have been dropped from political messaging: why progressive politicians do what they do; which is solidarity. Solidarity among generations, throughout income brackets, and across education levels. In many places in Europe, increasing numbers of self-identifying progressive voters wonder why they should pay for the welfare benefits of others. They ask this aloud during election campaigns, clearly seeking a satisfactory answer, but it appears that progressive politicians have either forgotten the answer themselves, or they dare not reply, because they are afraid voters may not like the answer.
Either way, if Europe's moderate left wants to regain its standing, it had better start talking about solidarity again, and about why and how solidarity in the long term benefits all. It is the one thing that sets those parties apart from the rest.