One of the secular trends in European (and global) politics in recent decades has been the gradual erosion in the influence of social democratic parties and a rise in centre right parties promoting market led globalisation and austerity policies. The more recent backlash against globalisation and austerity has not resulted in a swing back to social democratic parties, but rather in a swing even further right as exemplified by Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far right nationalist parties in Europe.

There may be many reasons for this:

  1. The collapse of the Soviet Union and thus of any fear conservative elites might have had of Bolshevik revolutions at home. Social democracy was a price they had been prepared to pay in the wake of the devastation of World War II and in order to stave of unrest at home. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Reagan and Thatcher could lead the way in busting unions and liberalising markets with relative impunity.
  2. The subsequent co-option of many social democratic parties by neo-liberal and neo-conservative market liberalisation, globalisation, austerity, and militaristic ideologies as exemplified by “third way” Blairism, Clintonian triangulation, and the “me too” adoption of hard-line economic and social policies by social democratic parties competing with conservative parties for the “centre ground” in a vain attempt to attain Government majorities. It became harder and harder for progressives to support parties whose policies were becoming indistinguishable from conservative parties.
  3. Meanwhile globalisation dramatically increased inequality in western societies with almost all the incremental wealth created in the last few decades going to the top 1%. Unions in the private sector could be cowed by the threat of their members’ jobs being shipped overseas and workers in increasingly precarious and marginalised zero hours employments came to resent the relatively secure, well paid, and pensioned employments in the Public sector and the Unions and their social democratic masters who were increasingly seen as their representatives.
  4. There may also have been generational factors at play: the idealistic young socialist or progressive generation of leaders fighting conservative elites on issues such as civil rights, the Vietnam war, Apartheid,the welfare state and ecological responsibility gradually became older and more conservative and were co-opted by the elites they had grown up fighting. In the recent US elections, what had been relatively progressive Democrats came to be seen as representing the elite because of their close ties with Wall street, globalisation, and liberalisation of markets.

So what grounds do we have for believing that social democratic style politics may make something of a comeback in the next few years?

Firstly, the sheer incompetence, recklessness and extremism of Trump, May, Le Pen, and other far right leaders may cause even relatively conservative voters to look around for safer and more moderate leaders to provide an alternative. The post war settlement which had given rise to an American dominated world order and the EU in Europe is now seen as being threatened with extremely uncertain consequences.

We seem to be heading back toward a “robber baron” era of capitalism where there are almost no checks on the activities of billionaires and global corporates with nation states competing against each other to do their bidding. The complete fraud that is Trumpism and Brexit may take some time to become clear to many voters, but when it comes, the backlash could be severe. And when it comes, that backlash will be looking to a new set of leaders rather than re-heated social democrats from previous generations. Sanders may well look tame compared to the new generation of younger leaders who might now emerge.

Secondly, even the old social democrats had some real achievements which are now under threat. The New Deal, the Great Society, public education and the welfare states within Europe as well as the EU itself are now threatened by Trump and Brexit. Having been on the defensive for so long as these achievements were gradually whittled away, progressive leaders may find the public mood becoming much more receptive to strong and socially progressive state interventions in the economy.

Fine Gael lost out badly in the Irish general Election last year because they proposed tax cuts rather than the increases in public expenditure the public wanted. It is not lost on people that the much poorer Ireland of the 1960’s was able to provide social housing to those who needed it, whilst today’s much richer market economy apparently is not.

Whilst running as an Independent, Macron could well win the French Presidential election running on a fairly orthodox pro-EU, centrist and moderate political programme. Schultz may well do the same for the SPD in Germany, although I would expect Merkel to hang on to the Chancellorship by remaining leader of the largest party. However all three might well run on a virulently anti-Trump and anti-Brexit platform arguing that the EU must be defended against Trump’s attempts to undermine it and that the UK must be excluded from all the benefits of the EU if it is not prepared to pay for them.

Up to now EU leaders have remained largely quiet on how they see the post Brexit relationship with the UK developing, arguing that Article 50 has not yet been triggered and that they don’t yet know what the UK is going to look for. Accordingly the discourse on Brexit to date has been very one sided with the UK setting out it’s stall and with only cursory responses from the EU. However the Brexit negotiations could become central to the French, Dutch and German elections with very hard line positions being adopted and with Schultz and Macron to the fore in demanding that the EU protect itself from a devaluing, de-regulating and tax competing UK.

The Brexit negotiations could get ugly, but it could also give the EU, and social democrats in particular, some of their old Mojo back. The warmongering, corporatist, nationalist, and fascistic tendencies exhibited by Trump and the Brexiteers makes it easy for social democrats to define themselves as progressives without even having to stray too far from the centre of the political spectrum. Whether it will be a last hurrah or the beginning of a new dawn remains to be seen, but I could see Trump losing the mid-terms badly and the UK being shocked by the hostility they will face in Europe. We haven’t even seen the beginnings of the fight back yet.

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