What now for the left?
While Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential race is the starkest example of the failure of the centre-left to confront the rise of right-wing populism, a similar pattern has already been set across Europe.
Parliamentary elections were held in Iceland on 29 October. They had been planned for next spring, but were brought forward after protesters forced the resignation of the prime minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, in April. He and his wife, along with the finance and interior ministers, were implicated in the Panama Papers. Both Gunnlaugsson’s Progressive Party and its coalition partner, the conservative Independence Party, were embroiled in the scandal.
Consequently, much was expected of both the Pirate Party – who were polling 43 per cent in April – and the Left-Green Movement in last month’s election. And both did well, winning 10 seats each, the Pirates tripling their share of the popular vote and the Left-Greens finishing second. But the Independence Party came first, with 21 of the Althing’s 63 seats, in a position to form a government.
Such an outcome should be surprising, given the Independence Party was widely viewed as culpable for the mess the country found itself in only eight years ago. Yet across Europe, parties of the centre-right are proving resilient in an age of increasingly populist sentiment. Spain’s Partido Popular saw its vote share rise in June’s general election, despite 20 per cent unemployment. In Ireland, ordered was restored in February’s elections with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail finishing first and second. Theresa May’s Tories are polling 40 per cent in Britain, where wages have fallen by more than 10 per cent in nine years and nearly 17 million people of working age have savings of less than a hundred pounds. Greece may look like an exception, with a government led by Syriza, but New Democracy, the traditional conservative party, remains second. Pasok, the historic party of Greek social democracy, won only 6 per cent in last September’s election. In 2009 they won 44 per cent.
Pasok’s decline is a case in point. While parties of the centre-right have either survived or thrived in the years since the global financial crisis, parties of the centre-left have in many places collapsed. Iceland’s Social Democratic Alliance, like Pasok, came first in a national election as recently as 2009, claiming just under a third of the vote. On Saturday they received less than 6 per cent, winning just three seats.
In 2014 I met Reykjavik’s new Social Democrat mayor, Dagur Eggertsson. I asked him if he thought that the rise of his predecessor, the comedian Jon Gnarr, masked a broader political shift, not just in Iceland but across Europe. Parties of the centre left, I suggested, were confronted with a simple choice: change or die. Eggertsson – pragmatic, calm, technocratically minded – was inclined to disagree. Now, his party finds itself the seventh in the Althing, with three parties founded since the crisis sitting above it.
That is not to say that parties of the radical left have all the answers. Indeed, just as conservative parties have consolidated since the crisis, and progressive parties have declined, the insurgent parties of the left – Iceland’s Left-Greens, Podemos in Spain, Sinn Féin in Ireland, Corbyn’s Labour – appear unable to mobilise the kinds of social majority that have historically furnished centre-left parties with power. Given the rise of Trump and the ascendancy of authoritarian politics, that is a problem.
Pasokification, the demise of a managerialist left politics in the face of populisms on both the left and the right, has meant that in many countries the dominant elements of the left are, often for the first time, explicitly socialist. The question confronting these newly prominent players is how to win power in a context of permanent austerity, where the centre right does surprisingly well by shifting from the centre; how to persuade a majority, as social democracy once did, that continuity has little to offer and radical change isn’t just preferable but pragmatic. Iceland’s results confirm something we already knew: unveiling corruption and punishing an elite is not enough; to win, you need to offer an alternative – both rationally and emotionally.