Once Ed Miliband's celebrations for winning the leadership of Britain's Labour Party have subsided, he will have to reckon with his party's disastrous election earlier this year, in which Labour received its second-lowest share of the vote since World War II. Perhaps he'll take solace that Labour isn't alone in the doldrums of opposition: Everywhere in Europe, it seems, the moderate left is enduring hard times.
Social democracy, once the pride of Europe, a genuinely indigenous political movement that fought for the welfare state and bettered the lives of millions, is today in crisis. Sweden's Social Democrats just saw their conservative rivals gain re-election for the first time in 100 years. Only four governments on the continent are headed by Social Democrats -- in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Norway -- and several of those would likely fall from power if elections were held today. Across 13 European countries, including those with the strongest traditional social democratic parties, their average share of the vote has dropped 7 points since the 1960s.
Social democracy is not a lost cause, though. There's much that can be done to stop the bleeding of Europe's center-left and help moderate European progressives make a comeback in the 21st century.
The first step would be acknowledging just how bad the crisis is. Social democracy simply wasn't built for times like these -- the movement got its start as a way for the working class to earn a political voice after years of being denied one. When social democrats started organizing, workers couldn't vote, couldn't unionize, and endured deplorable working conditions that were unregulated by the state. Social democrats made the working class more than an expendable cog in the capitalist machine, and in return, they received workers' enduring political loyalty.
After World War II, social democrats became the chief advocates and builders of the welfare state, greatly expanding the provision of health care, education, pensions, housing, and income supports for the working class. The 1970s, however, posed new challenges. Economic growth in the advanced countries slowed under the impact of the oil crisis and international competition. Social democrats were caught unprepared. They lacked a program to restore the high levels of economic growth necessary to sustain and expand the welfare state.
The first real attempt to give Europe's center-left a modern update was in the 1990s under the banner of the Third Way. The Third Way was a movement that sought to position social democrats as modern advocates of the market who embraced globalization while retaining a commitment to the basics of the welfare state. Initially there seemed to be some electoral payoff: At the end of the 1990s there were 14 European governments headed by social democrats. But it was only a temporary respite, and the social democratic decline continued apace in the 2000s to its current lows. The Third Way, it turned out, was not quite the modernization elixir its proponents made it out to be.
That's not to say that modernization is a bad idea. But it very much matters what kind of modernization one is talking about. The Third Way was ultimately a rather superficial modernization that replaced socialist dogma with a reliance on technocrats whose faith in market mechanisms failed to produce stable, broadly shared economic growth.
We propose instead that social democrats embrace a new and deeper modernization addressing three aspects of the movement: coalitional, definitional, and organizational.