The Guardian view on Europeâs centre-left: new grounds for optimism
I n the wake of the financial crash in 2008, hopes were high on the left that a bona fide crisis of capitalism would significantly shift the political dial in its favour. Isolated victories and movements aside, it didnât really happen. Instead, in the early 2010s, the bailout of the bankers was followed by the imposition of austerity across Europe and in America as governments sought to balance the books.
Premature predictions on the nature of post-Covid politics in the west are therefore to be avoided. But certain themes do seem to be emerging. Sketching out broadly communitarian territory, they chime with many peopleâs experience of how the pandemic played out and what it exposed; and there is some evidence that, in northern Europe, they might inform a revival and renewal of centre-left parties and movements.
The true scale of the renaissance of the German Social Democrats will emerge on Sunday evening, in an election that has become a cliffhanger. But whether or not the party maintains its surprise lead and its candidate, Olaf Scholz, becomes chancellor, the campaign has already been notable for his championing of the work of Michael Sandel. Last year, the Harvard philosopher published The Tyranny of Merit, a trenchant critique of the way western societies have distributed both wealth and social prestige in recent decades. Flawed ideas about achievement and worth, believes Mr Sandel, have created a divided and individualistic society: a highly qualified set of âwinnersâ reap excessive rewards in knowledge industries such as tech, while the contribution of those working in, for example, the care industry is grotesquely undervalued.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Mr Scholz echoed this argument almost to the letter, criticising âa meritocratic exuberance that has led people to believe their success is completely self-madeâ. As a result, he continued, âthose who actually keep the show on the road donât get the respect they deserve â¦ Manual labourers donât deserve less respect than academics.â This kind of judgment became commonplace during the pandemic, as key workers on poor pay kept lockdown societies functioning. âRespectâ, concretely demonstrated by better pay and working conditions for unglamorous but vital occupations, has accordingly been a central idea in Mr Scholzâs campaign.
There are similar signals from Norway, where the Labour party has found its way back to power after elections this month. For the first time since 2001, the three Scandinavian countries each have a social democrat prime minister. Here too, social inequalities highlighted by the pandemic played a part in a shifting mood. The Norwegian Labour partyâs successful election slogan was: âItâs the ordinary peopleâs turn nowâ. Its manifesto included pledges to boost employment rights and union membership, and raise taxes on unearned wealth.
Again, caveats are necessary. In a fragmented political landscape, Scandinavian social democratic parties are far from being the hegemonic powerhouses they one were. And in Denmark, the government has adopted draconian immigration policies that would make most on the liberal left blanch. Nevertheless, in the words of one senior Norwegian social democrat after the poll, Covid seems to have led to a greater concern and emphasis on âcommon welfareâ. A new vocabulary of respect and dignity, and a focus on âordinaryâ occupations and lives, points to a post-pandemic politics of the left focused on redistributing status as well as income. At times, Sir Keir Starmerâs essay, published this week, hits some of the same notes.
Populist insurgencies and the pandemic â which showcased the value of the protective state â have dealt a heavy blow to the divisive, individualistic politics of high liberalism. In the US, Joe Bidenâs $1.9tn stimulus package is part of an attempt to place blue-collar workers and âflyoverâ communities at the centre of the economic recovery. The ethos of collective responsibility and mutual respect should be fertile ground for the centre-left in Europe too. As the leaves begin to turn, there are signs that this message is being received and understood.