Scotland as a European Social Democracy

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by Stephen Maxwell

Leaders of centre-left parties and Governments from around the world gather in Oslo on Friday for this year’s Progressive Governance conference.  

Speakers include Prime Minsters Stoltenberg of Norway, Zapatero of Spain, Lula of Brazil, Papandreou of Greece, Pascal Lamy director of the World Trade Organisation and Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand now head of the UN’s Development Programme, not to mention US Vice-President Joe Biden, Ed Miliband and scores of pundits including the UK’s Will Hutton and Poul Rasmussen of Social Democracy Europe.

The suspicion that this hotch and rabble of self-professing progressives may be a mite too heterogeneous to generate any coherent response to what is now routinely called the crisis of social democracy will be reinforced by the fact that the presiding genius of the event is none other than Peter Mandelson in his capacity as president of organising body the UK based Policy Network.

While Scotland’s new progressive Government will not be represented – it has the more urgent task of creating Scotland’s first majority Government – the event provides an opportunity to locate where Scotland stands post election on the challenges facing social democracy in Europe.

The Policy Network has produced a report for Oslo based on recent polling in Germany, Sweden, the US and the UK which represents the current conventional wisdom on the prospects for social democracy.  The UK-based authors offer Labour’s crippling defeat in last year’s Westminster elections as confirmation of an “even starker trend as the pendulum has swung aggressively against the left”.  Their polling suggests that this is based on a loss of faith, reinforced by the weak response of Governments to the banking collapse, in the capacity of democratic politics to uphold the public interest against vested interests, along with a belief that centre left governments tax too much for too little public benefit.

But a base for a fightback by social democracy is suggested by a  “palpable fear” of corporate economic power and the persisting popularity of social democratic values on health, pensions and social services and to a lesser extent unemployment, testifying to a strong surviving belief in the “transformative capacity of the state”.

But this conventional pessimism over electoral trends is overly influenced by the record of  Europe’s largest states, notably  Germany, France and Italy where the centre right has been dominant for a decade or more, by humiliation of UK Labour in  2010 and by the prospect of a return of the centre right to power in Spain.

Although the record of the smaller states is mixed it provides some corrective. Norway’s Labour Party increased its share of the popular vote in 2009 to retain power. In Ireland, the Labour Party doubled its vote in this year’s election to claim membership of the Fine Gael coalition, while left wing Sinn Fein more than doubled its representation and the Socialist Party won its first two seats in the Dail. In Iceland’s 2009 election the pro-EU Social Democrats increased their vote against the Eurosceptic Independence Party which was held responsible for Iceland’s financial crisis, while the Independence Party’s decline was matched by a strong advance of the anti-EU Left Green Alliance.

A clear trend is difficult to detect in Belgium’s divided politics.  In Flanders the advance of the New Flemish Alliance to 17% of the vote was balanced ideologically by the combined 21% of  the Flemish Christian Democrats and the Flemish Social Democrats while in Wallonia the Parti Socialiste remained dominant.

Meanwhile, the election in the Netherlands of the tough talking economic liberal Mark Rutte as head of a new rightist government with only a single seat lead over the Labour Party leaves him dependent on Geert Wilder’s unpredictable anti-immigration party, the big winner in the election.

The Nordic countries’ record is even more ambivalent.  While Norway, Iceland, the Faroes  and Greenland have leftist governments, Finland, Sweden and Denmark are under centre right control partly as a result of the erosion of  the left’s traditional support by anti-immigrant or anti- EU parties.  In this year’s Election in Denmark, the Centre Right  ‘Blue Bloc’ held on to power but with a reduced majority forcing it to rely in some critical policy areas on the Social Democrats who lost two seats against a 12 seat advance for the more left wing Socialist People’s Party.  The Social Democrats’ performance under the new leadership of Helle Thorning-Schmidt (a daughter-in-law of Neil and Glenys Kinnock) has persuaded some Danish  commentators to cast them as the next Danish Government.

In Sweden the emergence of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats attracted much of the media attention, but the real story was the continued gradual decline of the Social Democrats allowing for the continuation of a moderate Conservative Government.  However, the Social Democrats continue by a narrow margin to attract the largest share of the popular vote.

Last month’s election in Finland was dominated by the emergence of the True Finns challenging Finland’s status as the most pro-EU of all the Nordic states – and the only one to be a member of the Eurozone – by opposing Finnish support for a EU bailout of Portugal.  The  pro-Euro National Coalition Government has a narrow majority over the Social Democrats with the True Finns the joker in the pack.

By securing the election last week of a combined 106 members out of the Scottish Parliament’s total of 129, Scotland’s two professing social democratic parties SNP and Labour now present the strongest challenge anywhere in Europe to the conventional account of the decline of European social democracy.

But those figures mask the extent of the policy challenge facing Scotland’s social democratic majority – the immediate challenge of funding the budget deficit swollen according to some estimates by an additional £800m of election promises and  the longer term problems of meeting rising social demand for public services, funding the renewables revolution, rebuilding a Scottish banking system to serve the needs of Scottish communities and businesses rather than speculative investment, and reviving a political culture which motivated just half of the electorate to vote, the lowest turnout in any recent national Election in Europe except for Wales, another ostensibly social democratic country, with an inglorious 42%.