Australian labor is not alone. Left-wing parties are making a comeback

One aspect of May’s federal election was oddly overlooked: Labor’s victory follows a pattern among major centre-left parties in Europe and comparable countries. Traditional and worker-based social democratic parties are resurgent and now hold power (alone or in coalition) across Scandinavia and in Germany, Spain, Portugal and New Zealand.

Where the past decade has been dominated by talk of a crisis of the left, the debate is increasingly shifting to the crisis of the right.

The picture is not uniform, of course. Some countries have experienced the de facto disappearance of their main centre-left party. You could call it the “PASOKification” syndrome, after the strong loss of support for the Greek PASOK party, but it is spreading to other parts of Europe.

The once-dominant Dutch Labor Party came sixth in last year’s election with just 5.7% of the vote. France’s main left-wing party, the Socialist Party, was reduced to just 6.4% in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections and just 1.7% this year.

UK Labour, meanwhile, lost elections in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019. Despite the toxicity surrounding the Tory government, Labor leader Keir Starmer remains unpopular and is unlikely to win the next election.

In Belgium and Italy, the situation of the left is less gloomy, even if its main parties are far from being hegemonic. In the highly fragmented Belgian system, the Flemish and Walloon socialist parties are part of the “Vivaldi coalition” of seven (yes, seven!). The Italian Democratic Party is part of the current government of national unity led by Draghi and most recently served as prime minister.

Outside Europe, the new “pink tide” in South America has seen, for example, 35-year-old Gabriel Boric win the Chilean presidential election.

Why bounce back?

Some common factors help us understand the partial return of the left.

First, the vote share of the two main centre-right and centre-left parties has declined in most of these countries, but the centre-left can still muster a majority where the electoral system allows it.

Australia’s record Labor primary vote of 32.6% is part of that trend, with centre-left parties in Norway, Sweden and Spain now getting between 25% and 30% of the vote. And even when parties win larger vote shares (as in Portugal), they usually need coalition partners. Nevertheless, centre-left parties remain present in many party systems and have found ways to return to power.

Clean campaign: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Filip Singer/EPA

Second, reinvigorated centre-left parties – including Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party – share common political positions. We could sum them up as a “back to basics” strategy, with a clear focus on improving wages and conditions, job security and reinvigorating public institutions.

Albanese’s victory has parallels with the victory of the “rainbow coalition” led by Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats in Germany. As one commentator described it:

Scholz ran a stripped-down campaign based on simple promises: a higher minimum wage, stable pensions, more affordable housing and a carbon-neutral economy.

Social democrats sought to (modestly) rebuild public institutions. Danish Social Democrats have pledged to increase public and social spending by 0.8% per year for five years. The New Zealand Labor government of Jacinda Ardern has raised the minimum wage. The recent majority government of Antonio Costa in Portugal built on a united coalition to try to reverse the austerity measures that followed the eurozone crisis.

Common characteristics…

This “new” minimalist social democracy has several intertwined elements. First, incoming governments have captured a mood, amplified by the pandemic, that centre-right governments have neglected essential public goods.

Second, these center-left governments have moved away from the “third way” policies associated with leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. As cataloged here, center-left parties have shifted to the left since the 1990s and 2000s. Many of their party manifestos again focus on tackling inequality and increasing social spending.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin
Modern social democracy: Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin at an EU summit in Brussels last month.
Olivier Matthys/AP

Third, centre-left parties have gradually “greened”. Many are looking to incorporate renewable energy into their reinvigorated industry and manufacturing agendas.

As Albanese and his colleagues know, this is a delicate balancing act, aimed at protecting workers in fossil fuel-intensive industries while setting modest climate goals. This “balance” appears to strike the electoral sweet spot by capturing public demand for action while dispelling fears about the speed of the transition – even if the goals don’t follow the science.

The final element is the longstanding “feminization” of parties. Many are reaping the rewards of the struggles of MPs, allies and feminist members to improve representation. It is no coincidence that four of Scandinavia’s five current centre-left prime ministers are women. Centre-left parties appear modern and representative, and most have strong gender policies, particularly on issues such as the gender pay gap.

…and a significant difference

It is worth noting one key difference between the Australian work and its Renaissance counterparts. Many centre-left parties in Europe have made strong commitments to investing in their welfare states – in part to counter the social jingoism of challengers from the radical right. In New Zealand, the Ardern government has announced a new unemployment insurance scheme.

The dynamic seems different in Australia, and Labor apparently sees little electoral value in abandoning its “modest” welfare package.

An important lesson for Labor is that in almost every case internationally, the centre-left has had to learn to govern in partnership with other key players. This will be a pressing issue for Albanese as he deals with a record cross bench in both chambers. It could even determine how long Australia’s centre-left party will govern.

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