Europe’s Social Democrats Can Learn from Canada

Canada’s Liberals have aligned themselves unambiguously with the socially liberal middle class and won.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada is interviewed in New York, March 17, 2016 (PMO)

The failure of Spain’s Socialist Party to form a government with support from both the far left and social liberals in the political center reflects a broader trend. Across Europe, social democratic parties are struggling.

After the elections in Spain in December left neither the Socialists nor the conservative People’s Party with an absolute majority, the Atlantic Sentinel cautioned the former against entering into a grand coalition. Likeminded parties in Germany and the Netherlands, we pointed out, made just such pacts with the center-right and ended up pleasing no one.

Most disappointed were their voters on the far left, who, polls suggest, have defected to purists, like the Greens in Germany and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands.

But the alternative — social democrat-led alliances with the far left — would have appalled centrists.

Spain’s Socialists wisely decided against a coalition with the anti-establishment movement Podemos. The Social Democrats in Germany have only started cooperating with the formerly-communist Die Linke at the local and state level in the last few years. A federal coalition between the two is still unlikely.

More fundamentally, the center-left’s dilemma stems from the fact that what Andrew Sullivan, a British blogger, has called Europe’s red-blue culture war over modernity is playing out inside these traditional workers’ parties.

Culture war

Blue Europe, as Sullivan sees it, is internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural. Its people tend to be well-educated, worldly professionals with liberal social views.

Red Europe, by contrast, is noninterventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society. It is less mobile and struggling to maintain its high living standards in an era of rapid economic and social change.

Globalization and immigration have widened the divide between the two, “leading to resentment and racism when it has occurred in already beleaguered working-class Europe,” according to Sullivan.

“The emergence of an unassimilated Muslim population didn’t help things either.”

Downward trend

Europe’s social democrats have always been blue-led. For decades, voters tolerated the social liberalism and pro-Europeanism at the top in return for pro-worker policies, like the minimum wage, pensions, unemployment insurance. But now that the welfare state is complete, or even in retreat, party leaders can no longer hold up their end of the bargain.

The crisis of social democracy should not be overstated. Social democrats govern across Europe, from Austria to the Czech Republic, from Germany to Italy and from the Netherlands to Sweden. They are also still the second-largest bloc in the European Parliament and intimately involved in the creation of EU law.

But the electoral trend is clearly going against them.

Germany’s Social Democrats won only a quarter of the votes in the last election, down from a postwar high of 45 percent in the 1970s. Sweden’s have similarly gone down from 45 percent support as recently as 1994 to 31 percent in the last two elections. The Dutch Labor Party is at an historic low in the polls.


Perhaps balancing “blue” and “red” interests on the left is just no longer possible.

Working-class voters are flocking to nationalist parties on the right that promise to keep immigrants out and protect welfare provisions for natives. Middle-class voters with relaxed social views are drawn to moderate right-wing parties instead, like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany and the aptly-named Moderate Party in Sweden.

The right has its own blue-red problem, of course. The Austrian People’s Party and Mark Rutte’s liberals in the Netherlands are competing for “red” votes with nationalist Freedom Parties while still needing to satisfy their “blue” pro-business base. But social democrats cannot wait for their old rivals to fail and become the default choice of either constituency.

If forced to chose, many social democrats could not in good conscious embrace the “red” worldview. They sympathize with workers who have seen their neighborhoods uprooted by immigration or their jobs displaced by globalization, but they will not accept that the solution is closing the borders and withdrawing from the EU. Nor do they share red Europe’s wariness of modern feminism and gay rights.

If forced to chose, many social democrats would rather be “blue”. But they fear they would lose more voters than they could gain if they did.

Canada’s example

Canada shows that need not be the case. Its Liberals — the closest thing the country has to a social democratic party — won the last election with nearly 40 percent support, mostly by taking away votes from the more left-wing New Democratic Party.

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau campaigned on legalizing marijuana, shifting taxes from the middle class to the rich and by describing himself as a feminist; hardly working-class priorities.

But then Canada, like most countries in Europe, is not very working-class anymore. Services make up the bulk of its economy and professionals with college degrees are the biggest voting bloc. A political party that aligns with their interests and values can clearly win election in a first-world country. Europe’s social democrats should take note.

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