Uncertain Futures - Australian Fabians
21 May, 2023

Uncertain Futures: The centre-left’s electoral fortunes continue to wax and wane by Rob Manwaring


Arguably the highpoint for the centre-left, at least across Europe, was the early 1990s. At that point, 12 of the 15 then EC member states were led by the left. However, since the heyday of the third way governments (New Labour in the UK, the Schröder government in Germany), the 2000s were hard times for many of the family of socialist, social democratic and labour parties. 

The nadir for the centre-left was the case of ‘pasokification’ in Greece. Triggered by the EU sovereign debt crisis, it led to the eventual destruction of the centre-left PASOK party in 2015-2016. The electoral fortunes are not much better in other parts of Europe, for example, there are ongoing trials for the mainstream centre left parties in the Netherlands and France. At the 2022 Dutch election, the once mighty PvDA were humbled to just 7.85% of the vote. In France, since the ignominious end of the Hollande Presidency in 2017, the Parti Socialiste (PS) has failed to reach the second round of the Presidential elections for the past two election cycles. At the 2022 election, it was striking how the far right Éric Zemmour scored more in the first round (7.07%) to the PS’s preferred candidate Anne Hidalgo, who managed an excruciatingly low of 1.75%. We might add other lows to this picture, not least the failures of British Labour which has now lost 4 straight elections since 2010. 

However, this gloomy picture is not uniform, and in more recent years, there has been something of a comeback for the centre-left in several countries. First, the remarkable progress of António Costa’s left government in Portugal — a coalition so unwieldy, it was once derisively written off as the ‘contraption’. Yet, Costa has turned into a serial winner and, remarkably, now governs without the need of coalition partners. Likewise, Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE has held office in Spain since 2018, and despite recent turbulence — notably two elections in 2019 — the PSOE governs in coalition with the left populist Podemos. Closer to home, the rise of Jacinda Arden in New Zealand is striking, too. Ardern won with a surprise coalition in 2017, but then, even more unusually, given New Zealand’s proportional electoral system, it has governed in its own right since 2020. In Scandinavia, until the Swedish election this year, the centre-left was in office across the region, with notable victories including the case of Norway, where the Labor party ended the long running centre-right government of ‘Iron’ Erna Solberg. Finally, of course, we observe the Albanese government emerging from the near-decade long electoral wilderness after its narrow victory in 2022; and Olof Scholz’s win over Angela Merkel in Germany.

Electoral Decline and Renewal

There is a vigorous and contested debate about the various factors that are shaping the electoral fortunes of the left. Obviously, in some cases, specific issues play out — for example, the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Some scholars point to structural factors in the economy, and the changing class system as a key culprit. Extensive research by Benedetto, Hix and Mastrorocco argues that the key factor in the rise and fall of the centre-left was the growth, but then ultimate decline in industrial workers, and their shift in support away from the centre-left parties. In effect, the decline of traditional forms of manufacturing has undermined the electoral base for the labour and social democratic parties.

Benedetto and colleagues then argue that the resurgence in the fortunes of the left coincided with two main related factors a shift to the centre ground, and critically, a wooing of the professional middle classes, particularly in the public sector. The logic of these changes is that the left vote is unlikely to recover unless the left can offset the declining support of the industrial classes. Empirically, this might be a generally correct rendering of the left’s electoral history, but it might not actually tell us enough about the factors explaining the decline. 

A second, arguably more critical set of arguments, suggest that the problems are less about demand-side changes in sociology, and more about supply-side issues in how the centre-left present at elections. In this reading, the centre-left are largely architects of their own demise. Here, the culprit is the third way turn of the parties (a good example of this view is Christoph Arndt’s excellent 2013 book ‘The electoral consequences of third way welfare state reforms’). A delayed side effect, not detected as strongly at first, was the chronic desertion of working-class voters. This manifested itself generally in two ways, either a significant increase in abstention from elections (e.g., the UK), and/or dissatisfied left voters flocking to radical right or left competitors (e.g., the rise of the Sweden Democrats). Some research suggests a lagged effect, that for a while the left were winning elections, but off a smaller electoral base. 

What appears to be driving the desertion is, for critics, the centre-left’s embrace of neo-liberal settings, especially around reforms to welfare policy. Controversial issues like raising the retirement age are contentious in that many traditional centre-left supporters see this as a betrayal of the centre-left failing to defend key social protections. 

Can the centre-left recover? Again, there is a rancorous debate about this. The socialist left will argue that the parties need to reclaim their radical roots and re-socialise the social democratic project. Corbyn in the UK, Benoit Hamon in France might be outliers of this tradition. Moderates and social liberals seek to shift the parties back to a third way, centrist agenda, especially to reclaim policy issues and identities like patriotism (Keir Starmer is here perhaps emblematic of this approach). Or adopting hard line positions on issues like immigration, such as the Danish social democrats call to create ‘anti-ghetto’ legislation at 2022 election. Moreover, it can be hard to transfer one winning formula to another country, for example, the rise of António Costa’s PS was fuelled by its response to the austerity agenda imposed by the Troika and was initially a unique 4-way coalition with the left parties, including the Communists. In a recent article, Abou-Chadi and Wagner argue that the left can offset the loss of working-class voters if they adopt more ‘investment-oriented policy positions’, also take up liberal social views (and can neuter opposition from any influential, but oppositional trade unions).

What is clear is that the centre-left is caught up in four quite distinct dilemmas. 

First, in general, mainstream parties are in decline across many advanced industrial societies. Party systems are much more fragmented. A classic example of this is the current ‘Vivaldi’ six-party coalition in Belgium (four seasons to reflect the four main traditions — Christian democrat, green, socialist and liberal). Centre-left parties in general are just a smaller part of the electoral landscape. 

Second, there is a more generalised crisis of liberal democracy, with a corrosive decline in trust and confidence — particularly directed at politicians and political parties. The rise of the radical right and populist parties seen as both symptom and case. 

Third, we might add that there is a case of value-shift occurring, with new cleavages opening up between the material and post-material groups. Thomas Piketty puts this as a divide between the Brahmin Left and the Merchant Right. Writers such as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris see a silent revolution of value-shift occurring, with an attendant counter revolution of cultural backlash taking place. 

We can add a fourth, potentially horrific dilemma — the inevitable crisis brought on by global climate breakdown. At the heart of this is essentially an existential challenge to the economic industrial growth model which lies at the heart of the socialist parties that were created in the late 1800s/early 1900s. 

Each of these dilemmas poses specific difficulties for the centre-left, although none are insurmountable. 

Mapping the Left

If we are to understand how the left might renew and revive, it is critical we better understand where they are now, and what they stand for. In an act of political cartography, I attempted to map out more thoroughly the state of the centre left in my (2021) book, ‘The Politics of Social Democracy’. What was notable is that since the third way era, there was a clear lack of understanding and documenting of how the family of centre-left parties had positioned themselves. Using a range of sources, but heavily drawing upon the Manifesto Research on Political Representation (MP), I sought to map out and understand the changing policy profile of the centre left. So where are the centre-left parties now?

First, the parties are shifting leftwards. One metric — the RILE index — is used to gauge how left or right wing a political party is using a suite of indicators in their policy manifestos. Using the MP database, we can track the changing left/right positions of the centre left (against their main right-wing competitor) — see figure 1. 

As we might expect, the left parties are more left than their right competitors over time. We can also see how they track closely, as the parties shift left or right, then both tend to do so, and they tend to remain at the same ideological distance between each other. 

What’s the broad story here? In sum, in the 1950s and 1960s the parties were strongly left wing, they shifted to the centre in the 1990s and 2000s, and then crucially, have become more left wing over time. 

The parties are not quite as left wing as they were in the 1960s, but they are generally not too far off. It is useful to note how the right has also been tracking left for some time — perhaps reflecting the Inglehart/Norris thesis of value change. In policy terms we can see how, for example, it was centre-right governments in Germany and Australia that introduced legislation for same sex marriage, not the left. So, on this aggregate index, the left parties are qualitatively different from their third way heyday selves. One simplistic, and misleading, assertion is that for them to re-win office they just need to return to this agenda. 

But if the parties are now more ‘left’, what’s clear is that it is not the same kind of left as they were in the 1960s or the era of the golden age of social democracy. In Figure 2, a somewhat busy figure, we can begin to unpick the different policy preferences of the centre-left parties. This figure is based on MP manifesto data and shows the extent to which the parties preference certain economic policies and agendas. The main ones are preferences for economic growth, Keynesian demand management, protectionism, economic planning, market regulation, and ‘anti-growth’/sustainable economic measures. 

What are some of the main trends and observations?  

First, protectionism and Keynesianism are generally not a significant feature of how the parties set out their manifesto agendas, across the four decades. This isn’t to say they have not used them at key points, responding to the GFC for example, but rather that it’s a relatively small part of the economic policies they seek to campaign on. 

Second, as we might expect, there are regional variations. This isn’t surprising, but there are interesting sub-stories here, not least how planning has returned to Nordic social democracy. This also tells us an intuitive but neglected story — there are many ways to work towards a social democratic polity. 

Yet, there is one compelling new story here — the left is increasingly adopting ‘anti-growth’ strategies. In the 1980s, say — the highpoint of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, this was a very small part of their agenda. Climate breakdown and the emergence of green parties has steadily forced the centre-left to reconcile and rebalance its economic mission. Yet, this new focus on ‘anti-growth’ still remains by and large a small part of their overall economic agenda, and the traditional growth strategies still dominate. 

This then lies at the heart of the current struggle for social democracy — and the race against time; how quickly the parties can recalibrate their economic agendas in a way that (1) does not alienate their working class and industrial base and (2) actually meets the targets set out by the scientists if we are to hold global warming to at least 1.5°C. As pointed out by many writers, this is a ‘fiendishly’ difficult process. While the left has seemingly talked up the ‘Green New Deal’ for example, the ongoing concern is that it still locks the parties into an older model of economic growth. Building more EVs won’t get us there, but it might be part of a complex anti-growth model which reduces carbon emissions. Most acutely, it won’t be just the future of the family of centre-left parties which suffers if this economic policy renewal does not take place. 


Rob Manwaring is an Associate Professor at Flinders University, South Australia.

Showing 2 thoughts

Please check your email for a link to activate your account.

We use cookies on our websites. You are free to manage this via your browser setting at any time. OK