The Case for Permanent Coalitions on the Left

By grouping with other left-wing parties, Europe’s social democrats could keep their constituencies united.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and other members of Sweden's cabinet deliver a news conference in Stockholm, May 25
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and other members of Sweden’s cabinet deliver a news conference in Stockholm, May 25 (Socialdemokraterna/Victor Svedberg)

Social democratic parties in Europe should make permanent alliances with smaller parties to their left and right in order to keep their constituency united, argues a Dutch political scientist.

Joop van den Berg, formerly of Leiden University, writes that the traditional social democratic alliance, between workers and the intellectual middle class, is breaking down. The former are defecting to either populists on the far left (Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain) or nationalists on the right (the Danish People’s Party, the Dutch Freedom Party). The latter are switching to Greens or centrist liberals in the middle.

One way to stem this, Van den Berg proposes, would be for social democrats to ally permanently with the other parties of the left. Then they would no longer need to fight on two fronts at once.

Nordic example

The parties in Denmark and Sweden do this. They contest elections as a bloc and group together in parliament.

In their last parliament, the far-left Red-Green Alliance in Denmark supported a Social Democrat-led government.

Sweden’s Social Democrats and Greens won nearly as many seats between them as the center-right bloc in the last election there.

The Dutch Labor Party, by contrast, has only once in its history governed with parties to its left. It prefers coalitions with the center-right Christian Democrats or liberals.


Left to themselves, social democrats either tend to technocracy or radical utopia, writes Van den Berg. The former can be seen in Germany and the Netherlands: social democrats provide competent, pragmatic leadership but fail to inspire voters.

If it weren’t for them, though, the working classes could tend to authoritarianism or populism at best. This is evident across Europe, where nationalists draw mostly on disillusioned former social democratic voters.

“Under such circumstances,” warns Van den Berg, “polarization is stimulated, party formation disintegrates while organized solidarity wanes.”

So it’s not only in the interest of social democrats themselves to breathe new life into their coalitions; they need to succeed for the sake of liberal democracy itself.

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