Across the European continent social democratic parties, dominant in post-war Europe, are slowly declining as populist parties become more dominant.

One of the most striking features of modern politics has been the dramatic decline of social democracy. 

In Europe’s most recent election, in Germany’s southeastern and prosperous state of Bavaria, the Social Democratic Party plunged below 10 percent of the vote. Bavaria has always been a conservative state but even as recently as 1998 the social democrats were able to command three times this level of support.

What happened in Bavaria is mirrored elsewhere, including at Germany’s federal election last year which saw the social democrats nationally fall to just 20 percent of the vote, their lowest since 1933. 

Elsewhere, and over the past decade, numerous other centre-left parties have suffered major losses. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Sweden and elsewhere, parties that are generally unified by their social liberalism and acceptance of the capitalist system have fallen to historic lows. 

In 2000, left-wing parties were in ten of the then-fifteen governments that were part of the European Union. Today, they are only governing four of the much larger twenty-eight member states.

This collapse has coincided with the rise of national populism and the broader fragmentation of Europe’s political systems, which are today seeing a larger number of parties doing better at elections. 

This, in turn, is making it harder for Europe to get the strong, stable and ideologically coherent governments that it desperately needs as it grapples with major crises, from the lingering effects of the financial crisis to the refugee crisis and entrenched divisions between member states. 

The fall of social democracy is also shifting the trajectory of Europe in other profound ways, in a more socially conservative and less liberal direction. 

Even some left-wing parties, like those in like Denmark, Germany and Sweden, are radically overhauling their positions, downplaying their previous positions and adopting a tougher stance on issues like immigration, integration and the refugee crisis.

What's behind the change? 

The collapse of social democracy is rooted in two shifts. 

First, many traditional working-class voters who used to vote for the centre-left, or might otherwise consider doing so, have defected over to national populists, like the Alternative for Germany, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the League in Italy or, in earlier years, the UK Independence Party. 

National populists have effectively eaten into a core group of the social democratic constituency by offering a combination of opposition to mass immigration, refugees and a more protectionist position on the economy, such as by promising to defend welfare and push back against what Marine Le Pen calls ‘savage globalisation’.

Meanwhile, in some countries social democrats have also lost votes from more middle class, university educated and socially liberal professionals to the radical left and Green movements that in some democracies are enjoying a significant bump in support. 

While at the recent election in Bavaria the national populist Alternative for Germany entered the fifteenth of Germany’s sixteen state parliaments, another winner were the Greens who finished in second place, more than doubling their vote and drawing many votes from the centre-left social democrats and traditional non-voters. 

Similarly, at the recent election in Sweden, while the national populist Sweden Democrats enjoyed a record result, a host of smaller parties like the radical Left Party, centrists and Christian Democrats also saw an increase in their support. 

These results point to political systems that are fragmenting and polarising, as Europe’s values find their expression through new and more radical challengers.

The problem for social democrats is that there is no easy way back. 

While few leaders seem to have a coherent strategy, they are also struggling with the fact that the issue agenda has decisively changed. 

In earlier decades, social democrats thrived when people were mainly concerned about the economy and public services. But, today, the priority list for voters looks entirely different. It is dominated by issues like immigration, security, the refugee crisis and, increasingly, the role of Islam in Europe. These more controversial and potent issues have cut across traditional electorates, making it harder for the older parties to keep together their various groups of supporters. 

Whereas social liberals generally feel at ease about these identity-related issues, adopting a more internationalist and open approach and favouring European integration, workers tend to adopt more socially conservative position, backing reductions on immigration and putting far more value on the nation state. 

What is clear is that this battle looks set to continue and it may well be that it is social democracy that finds itself increasingly torn apart as voters search for new political homes.

Matthew Goodwin is also an author of the forthcoming book, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy

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