Is there a crisis of social democracy that has spawned a crisis of relevance for political parties of this ideological orientation? An insightful and thought-provoking commentary a few days ago on the Reuters global news service suggests there is, citing as evidence the increasing difficulty which left of centre parties across Europe, the philosophical cradle of social democracy, are facing in seeking election to government.
“In almost every country in Europe,” observes the author John Lloyd, “parties of the centre-left struggle to remain competitive in the political arena. Yet social democracy – though it can claim success in creating and developing public services which have improved the lives and health of citizens – can now rarely convince its former supporters that it’s still worth their votes.”
Evidence suggests the crisis of social democracy extends beyond Europe. Indeed, there are signs right here in the Caribbean. In seeking to explain what has possibly gone wrong, Lloyd, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, also based at Oxford, posits that this crisis of continuing political relevance facing social democratic parties essentially stems from three factors.
They are: (1) globalization which accelerated in the 1990s following the demise of the Soviet bloc and its political and economic system of communism, (2) the fundamental changes which globalization has subsequently brought to the global economic landscape as a result of the changing nature of capitalism, and (3) the struggle which centre-left parties seem to be having in seeking to adjust effectively to this new reality.
Social democratic parties in Europe dominated during the period from the end of the Second World War in 1945, pretty much until the 1990s. Their success was largely due to a partnership with labour unions. Under this arrangement, social democratic governments offered workers a measure of protection from full exposure to market forces which drive the capitalist system through tight regulation and also through the creation of a generous welfare state that provided either fully public-funded or subsidized education, health care, housing and other social services.
In exchange, unions consistently delivered a large bloc of votes in elections that ensured the political success of the centre-right which included many labour parties. However, since the 1990s, globalization, by placing capitalism in the ascendancy over the state, has limited the ability of governments to intervene in the market. This has undermined the traditional relationship between centre left parties and labour, leading to increasing frustration and disenchantment among workers.
The result has been a steady erosion of political support and, in some cases, a switch to pro-market centre-right parties. As Lloyd explains: “Social democracy’s success in representing the organized working class and attracting a substantial slice of middle class votes depended on the influence it could bring to bear on national corporations, and national governments. Union power was reduced when faced with global corporations; the left lost one of its most powerful cards.”
As we are witnessing similar trends in the Caribbean, Lloyd’s thesis, interestingly enough, may offer a possible explanation of the underlying reasons behind the growing public disenchantment here in Barbados and across the region with the mostly centre-left mainstream parties. Having dominated regional politics with lengthy stints in government during the post colonial period spanning the last half century, these parties, many of which drew inspiration from the British Labour Party, appear today to be no longer as effective in coming up with solutions to the major problems confronting the population.
The region’s mainstream parties are products of the labour struggles of the 1930s when the working classes staged violent protests to draw attention to their impoverished living conditions and to press the British colonial authorities to take action to bring about a general improvement. The trade union movement took up this fight and, out of the trade union movement, came most of the region’s mainstream parties.
The crisis of continuing relevance facing these parties provides further evidence that underscores the need for serious debate, followed by concrete steps, to effect meaningful political and governance reform, beginning internally with the parties themselves. Instead of focusing on useless and trivial issues that bear no relevance to the future, Barbadians should seize the opportunity of the next general election campaign to impress on the political class the need to embrace meaningful change that at least gives hope of a better future.