We don’t talk about Europe enough in the UK. This might seem like a strange claim in the midst of the current frenzied Brexit debate, which has been intensifying for almost half a decade. But, after focusing relentlessly on questions around EU membership, we’ve forgotten that Europe is rich with lessons we can draw from in the UK. For the British left, this is particularly true when it comes to electoral politics – and, despite a mixed picture across the continent, social democrats here can derive strategies for electoral success through dialogue with our European friends.
Prior to the Brexit fixation, we had a history of looking towards Europe for policy inspiration. Through the second half of the 20th century and into the present day, Labour figures have held the Nordic social democracies in especially high regard. They are often cited as ideals to which we in the UK should aspire. Anthony Crosland described Sweden as coming close to ‘the socialist’s idea of a ‘good’ society’ and the 2017 Labour party manifesto referred explicitly to the Nordic (and German) model for establishing a national investment bank.
But our European partners have more to offer than examples of good policy; we also have much to learn from them in terms of politics. Last week, I participated in the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) first annual autumn academy, a three-day event in Brussels bringing together social-democratic participants from every EU member state to discuss the future of progressive politics in Europe. The event was designed with cross-national learning in mind, with ‘case study’ sessions on the UK, Spain and Romania. Conversations demonstrated that social democrats are winning elsewhere in Europe (contrary to narratives of decline across the board); that the particularities of national contexts matter; and that it’s imperative for us to develop deeper understandings of other countries to ensure we’re drawing the right lessons.
The general elections this year in Spain and Portugal have given hope to social democrats across Europe, suggesting that victory is possible in 2019 and beyond. The Iberian peninsula is a case that warrants more focus than it gets: it’s not typically thought of as a stronghold of social democracy in the same way as the Nordic countries, but its progressive parties have a robust track record from which we can learn. Since the end of Francoist Spain in 1975, social democrats have led the government for 22 of the intervening 44 years. Similarly, Portugal’s Socialist Party (PS) has held the country’s premiership for 21 of the 43 years since the first democratically appointed prime minister took office in 1976. In both countries, since the mid-1970s social democrats have led governments for more years than has been the case in Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium or France – and for more years than Labour has been in power in the UK.
In observing social democratic successes overseas, we must be careful not to ignore the fact that national contexts and circumstances differ hugely between countries. Again, Spain – where the success of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in April’s election should be examined by the British left – is a case in point. As the debate during FEPS’ case study session revealed, PSOE’s electoral strategy was contingent on the country’s proportional electoral system, the competitiveness of three new parties and the intensifying left-right polarisation of Spanish politics. The combination of these factors meant that coming first within the left-of-centre bloc in the Congress of Deputies carried with it the likelihood of being able to lead a government. PSOE’s strategy consequently involved adopting a leftist discourse with the aim of poaching voters from the new left-populist Podemos party. In the UK’s majoritarian electoral system, no party that’s likely to be able to gain many votes or House of Commons seats exists to Labour’s left, meaning it would be folly to simply ‘lift over’ PSOE’s approach. These contextual particularities are precisely why we must develop a much fuller understanding of other European examples.
There are lessons we can observe which are more widely applicable. One example is around the value of a popular party leader. PSOE’s leader and Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez led in ‘preferred prime minister’ polling from September 2018. As we heard at FEPS’ event in Brussels, the April campaign focused heavily on Sánchez’ story as leader. Similarly, Portuguese prime minister and PS leader António Costa led in such polls from January 2016 until the election earlier this month. This is something that should be a cause for worry for social democrats in the UK – since entering No 10, Boris Johnson has consistently led Jeremy Corbyn in preferred prime minister polling, and by around 20 percentage points.
When electoral success occurs – as in Spain and Portugal, but also in Finland, Denmark, Malta and Slovakia in recent years – we must strive to understand how and why in order to draw useful conclusions for Labour in the UK. Conversely, we should also be speaking to our social democratic partners in those countries where electoral success has not been forthcoming. Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and Austria – amongst others – have all demonstrated the dangers of declining vote shares and varying degrees of displacement by liberal, green and radical left parties. Organisations like FEPS and the Party of European Socialists should look to upscale initiatives like the annual autumn academy so that they have an even broader reach, bringing in more partners from across the European labour movement. In the meantime, social democrats in the UK should engage in their own efforts to understand recent developments in the fortunes of our political family across the Channel – with the view to drawing lessons for a Labour victory.