When millions of workers turn their back on social democracy in the middle of an economic crisis, it shows one thing: they no longer expect any solution to their problems from these parties
The most notable result of the European elections held last weekend is the dramatic decline of social democracy. On average across Europe, social democratic parties received only 22 per cent of the vote, six per cent less than in the previous European election in 2004. With a turnout of just 43 per cent, this means that less than one in ten of the electorate voted for these parties.
Average European figures distort the real extent of the decline. In the major industrial countries of Western Europe, where social democratic parties have led governments for decades or functioned as the main opposition party, their losses were huge—irrespective of whether the parties are currently in government or opposition.
In Great Britain, where the Labour Party has been in power for the past twelve years, Labour’s support plummeted to a record low of 16 per cent—lower than the vote received by the extreme right-wing UK Independence Party.
In Spain, the ruling Socialist Party lost five percentage points and trailed the right-wing Peoples Party.
In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has been in government for eleven years, recorded an historic low of 21 per cent.
In Portugal, support for the ruling Socialist Party fell from 45 to 27 per cent.
In France, where the Socialist Party has been in opposition for the past seven years, the party received just 17 per cent—a decline of 12 percentage points compared to five years ago.
In Italy, support for the Democratic Party, which is a successor organisation to the Italian Communist Party and other “left” parties, plunged from 31 per cent to 26 per cent.
In Denmark, the opposition Social Democrats lost 12 percentage points and finished with a total of 21 per cent.
The vote for the Dutch Labour Party was halved to 12 per cent, and in Austria it sank from 33 per cent to 24 per cent.
This decline is all the more remarkable when one bears in mind that the election took place in the midst of the most severe world economic crisis since the 1930s. Although unemployment is rising rapidly and the living conditions of broad layers of the population have worsened considerably, voters are deserting the social democrats in droves.
The cause for this shift is to be found in the politics and character of the social democratic parties, which have for many years functioned like any other bourgeois party. In the past two decades, they have used their influence, in close alliance with the trade unions, to carry out the sort of social attacks that had provoked massive resistance when attempted by conservative governments.
In Britain, the Labour Party led by Tony Blair adopted the program of the Conservative Party’s “iron lady,” Margaret Thatcher, while the German SPD led by Gerhard Schröder passed the anti-welfare Hartz laws and carried out more attacks on social rights than all previous conservative governments put together.
The 'Financial Times' in an editorial on June 9 pointed to the seeming anomaly of massive electoral losses for parties historically associated with socialism under conditions of growing popular disillusionment with capitalism. It correctly notes that, in fact, there are no serious differences in economic and social policy between the social democratic and conservative parties.
The newspaper wrote: “At a time when ‘the end of capitalism’ is raised as a serious prospect, the parties whose historical mission was to replace capitalism with socialism offer no governing philosophy. Their anti-crisis policies are barely distinguishable from those of their rivals.”
When millions of workers turn their back on social democracy in the middle of an economic crisis, it shows one thing: they no longer expect any solution to their problems from these parties.
The election result also expressed a broad rejection of the European parliament. The job of the parliament is to provide a pseudo-democratic cover for the institutions of the European Union and the army of 40,000 well-paid bureaucrats in Brussels who, in turn, serve at the beck and call of a comparable army of business lobbyists.
Vast numbers of voters, especially from the working class, refrained from casting ballots. The biggest party in the election was the party of non-voters. At 43 per cent, voter participation was 2.5 percentage points lower than the previous record low turnout, in 2004. In Holland, Great Britain and most Eastern European countries, turnout was less than 40 per cent.
The resulting political vacuum was exploited by conservative and right-wing parties. This has led many commentators to speak of a “turn to the right” in Europe. Such a conclusion is unwarranted and superficial. Right-wing parties were able to exploit the collapse in support for social democracy and the low turnout. In most cases, however, they failed to increase their vote and in some cases saw their support decline significantly.
Even extreme right, xenophobic parties that gained significantly—such as Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in Holland (17 per cent), the UK Independence Party (17 per cent), and the British National Party (6 per cent)—have, based on the low voter turnout of 35 per cent in the two countries, less support than their results suggest.
What is evident in the European election is a sharp social polarisation. Until now, the ruling classes have been able to rely on the social democratic parties and the trade unions to suppress social struggles. The decline of these organisations means that future class confrontations will take a more open and explosive form.