Early this week the Dutch King effectively declared an end to the post-war welfare state settlement in the Netherlands. In his speech outlining government policy for the year, he said “the classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a ‘participatory society’.” Care services, youth services, home care and job creation are all to be decentralised with individuals and civil society stepping into the breach.
This episode, in a country governed by a coalition of the centre-right Liberal party and the centre-left Labour party, highlights the difficulty many social democrats face in navigating public opinion on welfare and public spending. As the latest Transatlantic Trends survey again shows, there are contradictory impulses at play: in tough times public attitudes have shifted decisively against public sector debt and high state spending but simultaneously many want to protect and even invest more in welfare state services close to them.
The centre-right have appropriated these times with clever triangulation. Angela Merkel, the UK Coalition, and others combine tough rhetoric on fiscal discipline with raids onto centre-left territory, such as pledges for more generous childcare targeting female voters who’ve traditionally voted with the centre-left. As the polls across Europe show, social democrats are increasingly strung-up in this trap as they struggle to define the role of the state after the crisis.
The Left’s response? François Hollande, 17 months into his tenure, is battling with this very dilemma; caught between the demands of his traditional supporters and a new reform agenda alive to the context of public debt and ailing welfare states. In the UK, Ed Miliband also seems to plot this course. Fascinating battles are equally going on along this front in the Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Denmark). Meanwhile, we bring attention to the political situation in Southern Europe (Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece) as austerity continues to do damage.
In the short run, all eyes turn to the German election on Sunday. In a frenetic campaign dash to mobilise traditional voters who’ve previously abstained, the SPD hopes to pull-off a surprise finish. Yet regardless of the outcome, past elections tell us that the problem for the left is not campaigning; but finding the grit to govern and hold many conflicting constituencies together as the legacy of the debt crisis continues to bite. This requires political courage and a new approach to governing from the left.
* The arrows denote opinion poll changes for the main centre-left party in each country since the last State of the Left edition on 27th June 2013. The number indicates the degree of fluctuation in percentage terms.
"The Netherlands reputation as a ‘progressive guide land’ is being turned on its head as the pillars of the post-war order – party democracy, the welfare state and European integration – shake from their foundations...The country now has become one of the populist laboratories of Europe and the world."
"Like querulous children pestering the driver of a slow moving bus ‘are we nearly there yet’ questions are asked again and again. Labour figures ask ‘Are we ahead enough?’ Yet the issues that Labour wrestles with have little or nothing to do with Ed Miliband, but are about the party itself."
"Almost a third of the voters remain undecided.. The SPD is setting hope on its door-to-door-campaign, Obama-style, which is unprecedented in Germany´s campaign history. The official goal set out by the party headquarter is to knock on 5 million doors until September 22nd".
"Is there such a thing as Hollandism and how could this ideology be defined? Four hypotheses can be offered: an optimistic one about a new French 'third way'; a realistic yet more cynical one about 'Sarkozyism with a human face'; a pessimistic one about 'gauche complexée'; and a very pessimistic one about 'good old socialism'."
"Enrico Letta has repeatedly invited all political actors to show responsibility and to not jeopardise government stability....He has plead that he and Napolitano cannot be the only “lightning rods” while everyone around fights each other...It is a tall order given the competing political agendas in play."
"The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into foxes and hedgehogs. A fox, when attacked, can run, hide and play tricks...A hedgehog can only roll into a tight ball... But [in politics] there's a difference between being a hedgehog - and being a one trick pony."
"The Finnish social democrats recently scored a new all-time low of 15 percent in the polls...Currently [the party] is losing support on all four sides: radicals to left, progressives to greens, white collar employees to conservatives – and even traditional devotees, industrial workers to the populist True Finns."
"Citizens of Southern Europe now have substantially less trust in government, trust in political parties, and satisfaction with democracy than those in the North. Allied with shifting political attitudes, this breach is likely to lead to increasingly polarised views, creating a new economic and territorial cleavage in Europe between north and south."
"On all three issues — government surveillance, Syria and Summers — Obama has faced deep opposition from his own Democratic base. Second-term presidents are always “lame ducks,” but this second-term president goes into contentious debt ceiling negotiations with Republicans later this fall with unusually depleted political capital."
"The centre-right bloc was the clear winner in the Norwegian parliamentary elections, but it will be very difficult for them to build a lasting governing coalition...In anticipation, the Labour leader has said that his door is open for cooperation with the two centrist parties who have problems with governing with the right wing Progress Party."
"'I’d give us nine out of ten for governing the country. I’d give us zero out of 10 for governing ourselves'... Despite a highly commendable record in government, the Australian Labor Party’s tendency to rely on ‘professional politics’, while simultaneously destroying itself with ill-discipline, led to its downfall."
"Today, the Greek centre-left is in search of identity, narrative and audience. It also faces strategic dilemmas in its effort to position itself in the political spectrum and to delineate itself both from the Left and from the Right. In terms of its political rhetoric, its principal challenge is to avoid populism without identifying with elitism."
"The Thorning-Schmidt government celebrated its two year anniversary this month. Yet there was no celebration as such with broken electoral promises dominating the headlines...It was marked by blame games and the most visible split yet between the Prime Minister and the strongest coalition partner."
"The Constitutional Court has knocked down draft legislation that was part of the quid pro quo between the right-wing coalition and the troika...The left is right to see in the court an ally.... But if the socialists only rally behind the judges, they will be hindering their ability to shape and lead change in the future."
By Hugo Coelho
Policy Network is a leading thinktank and international political network.