Across Europe from Greece to Spain to the Nordic countries we have seen not the death of Social Democracy as so many people like to assert; but the passing of the baton from established Social Democratic parties to newer upstarts that have either emerged from the bottom up, or have been parties from a more left background moving rightwards.
In SYRIZA in Greece, and Podemos in Spain are obviously the two most high profile examples, but a brief look at some of the countries not facing such devastating austerity are also experiencing similar changes of the guard.
In the UK it has seemed like a combination of issues, an electoral system that defends the big old established parties, a weak divided, and short sighted far-left, a populist right that is able to take traditional Labour votes, and lastly a clearly dislikable Coalition that Labour is able to position itself against quite clearly without making too many firm promises of much different would mean Social Democracy had nowhere to go other than Labour.
For sure the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland have long presented some Social Democratic policies (however mystically funded), and the Green party have surged before (in the Euro elections for example). But none have looked like seriously challenging Labour for the mantle, indeed the closest any other party has come to it was the brief Libdem golden age in early 2010.
Now I wouldn’t want any of my fellow community organisers to think I’ve gone soft here – I don’t think the reason for the success of the SNP, or Podemos or any other party is necessarily due to policies – the SNP have grown massively because during the indyref they went out and talked to people about something positive, in a generally friendly and engaging way, and just as importantly used online methods to build a massive database of potential supporters – they have gone back and talked to those people about what they now want for Scotland within the UK – and again offered a message of hope.
In my view it’s the relationships they have built, combined with a positive message (not a set of perfect magic bullet policies) that means they could well wipe out Scottish Labour and cement their position as the number one centre left party in Scotland.
If that happens, Labour in England and Wales will have to seriously think about how to prevent a knock on effect down here. Luckily for English Labour – the Greens and the far left are no threat despite the temporary Green tide – the strongest argument against supporting the Greens for disillusioned Social Democrats is Brighton – why vote for a party that will implement slightly nicer cuts and austerity but has little chance of winning when you can vote for Labour, who at least can potentially win power?
No I think the challenge for Labour in England (again Wales is different), is to see how it can connect with the 38Degrees/Change.org/Citizens UK audiences and reconnect with trade union members and community activists who provide it’s traditional support base.
Labour needs to learn the lessons of Scotland, preferably before May and think about how it can connect all those relationships between people who want progressive social change in order to renew the existing movement for Social Democracy, before someone else does.