Unlike the last German election, where the possible coalition outcomes kept the media happily speculating for weeks, this year’s is already fading from the headlines — replaced by tsunamis, Roman Polanski, whatever. The only thing that keeps some focus on politics is the media’s fascination with the dire predicament of the Social Democratic Party.
The SPD has spent the week on recriminations and introspection, and there will be plenty more of that to come – there always is after heavy defeats. But it has also become part of a broader narrative about the plight of the European left. Germany is not alone: assuming Gordon Brown loses next year (which seems a virtual certainty), the left will be simultaneously out of power in the big four economies of western Europe, for the first time in more than a generation.
Regular readers might guess that I don’t see a huge amount of significance in all this. These things move in cycles, and if different countries happen to be at the same point of the cycle at the same time, that’s as likely as not to be coincidence.
Sure, 23% is an appalling result for a major party. But the New Zealand National Party got less than that as recently as 2002 – it’s now in government. Canada’s Conservatives were almost wiped out a decade earlier, but they too came back and (somewhat reshaped) are now in office.
As it happens, I’m on a train crossing central Germany and just passing through Gotha, where a conference in 1875 resolved on a common program to unite Germany’s socialist groups in what became the SPD. Moral: the SPD is old, as are most major parties in the established democracies. They rise and fall, they change, but they rarely disappear. The SPD’s day will come again.
But even if there’s no deep trend behind the current failures of the left, it’s at least clear that there’s no general movement running in its favor. The worldwide swing to the left that many predicted last year as a result of the global financial crisis just hasn’t happened, and with the recovery apparently under way the centre-right is firmly on top.
Born-again Keynesians like our own prime minister may claim that only massive government intervention ensured a speedy end to the crisis. But the general public, with good reason, are unwilling to credit their leaders with quite so much foresight or ability. Much easier to believe that the crisis was over-sold in the first place and that the system basically righted itself.
That’s certainly how it looks in Europe, where centre-right governments have muddled through in much the same fashion as centre-left ones. No particular joy there for the left, but also not the existential crisis that some are heralding.