All unhappy social democratic parties are alike: They’ve lost the white working class.
Britain’s Labour Party was decimated in its working-class home last night, when Boris Johnson’s nativist Tories ousted one Labour MP after another in England’s North, once the U.K.’s industrial heartland, today its rust belt. The migration of Britain’s abandoned workers to the anti-immigrant nationalism at the root of Brexit closely tracks the pattern we’ve seen in France, where the longtime proletarian strongholds of the French Communist Party have turned to the insular nationalism of two generations of Le Pens in recent elections. And in the historic home of European social democracy, Germany, the world’s oldest social democratic party is polling close to single digits.
Last night’s election in the U.K. marks the worst performance by Labour since 1935—just as the most recent elections in Germany and France also marked the low points for the Social Democrats and Socialists, respectively. Socialists do govern in Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Sweden (though the Swedish Social Democrats also experienced their worst election in 2018 and govern now in coalition with that nation’s Greens), but these are exceptions to the painful decline of European social democracy.
Four kinds of fragmentation have vexed the parties of the European left over the past 20 years, as they’ve vexed the Democratic Party in the United States as well. The first stems from the growing presence in those parties of urban upper-middle-class professionals, who are often at odds on cultural questions, broadly defined, with the parties’ more traditional and patriarchal working classes. The second is no stranger to the United States but is only now impacting Europe with the diminution (not sudden, but perceived as such) of many nations’ relative racial and religious homogeneity—defections from the left due to racism and nativism. The shift last night of England’s North from Labour to the Tories summoned memories of George Wallace’s surprising successes in Northern states in the Democratic primaries of 1964, heralding the end of the New Deal coalition and the subsequent electoral victories of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The third fragmentation results from geographic divergence—with minorities and the culturally liberal young and professionals clustering in cities with large service sectors, while formerly industrial and rural areas, increasingly poor and elderly, experience both the reality and the sense of abandonment.
Underlying all three of these fragmentations is the de-linking of class interests: As globalization and financialization (the latter particularly pronounced in the U.K. and U.S.) have undermined the egalitarian achievements of the postwar era, parties of the center-left have been stretched ideologically, often to the breaking point. The ’90s saw Britain’s New Labour under Tony Blair, America’s Democrats under Bill Clinton, and Germany’s Social Democrats under Gerhard Schröder all move to globalize and deregulate their economies, to the benefit of those nations’ banking and corporate sectors and the detriment of their working-class voters. The collapse of 2008 and the hugely unequal recovery that followed has led to battles between the center-left and a more militant left in virtually every industrialized nation.