The Decline of the Left in Europe

As America has been moving left, Europe is taking the opposite course. Social-Democratic parties have lost some of their dominance.

These two maps plot political power. For countries with coalition governments, the holder of the Prime Minister or being the largest party in the coalition is used.

Purple is where the Prime Minister and President are from different blocks (for countries where the President has some actual power).

I follow European tradition by using the color red to signify leftwing control. In November 2000, the center-right controlled only countries representing 16% of the population in west and central Europe (with divided power in France and Poland). 

In November 2010, the right holds power in countries that constitute 83% of the population(!). A different map of Europe, to say the least.

Spain and tiny Iceland are the only country that went from right to left control between these two dates.

Germany, UK, Italy, France, Poland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden switched from full or partial left control to complete right control. Even in Switzerland, a decade ago the largest political party was the Social Democrats. As of the last election, the largest party is the ultra-conservative Swiss People’s party.

So why has this been happening?

Part of it is cyclicality and coincidence. Particularly in Central Europe there is still a lot of chaos in terms of who gets to be in power (voters are constantly dissatisfied and vote out most governments). And because of reversion to the mean in competitive political systems, the more countries your side control compared the historical average; the more likely are you to lose some in the following elections.

Still, a large portion of the decline is systematic, with 3 trends that comes to mind:

  1. Working class voters have less class consciousness, and don’t vote as a block to the same extent.
  2. Voters are punishing the left as a reaction to the failures of mass immigration and multiculturalism.
  3. Middle of the road voters as well as the European elites are ideologically abandoning Social Democratic economic policy.

The last tendency crucially depends on the center-right parties accepting the popular parts of the welfare state (a safety net for the poor, publicly financed health care and higher education) but opposing the less popular ones (long term welfare dependency, high tax level, deficits).

During the last decade, the expansion of size of the government in Europe stopped, and even slowly started to reverse. The main exception is the U.K, where the welfare state expanded rapidly during Blair/Brown. But if we look at the other traditional western European welfare states (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland), the government is in full retreat, decreasing its share of the economy in 10 out of the 14 above mentioned countries.

As a whole, total government expenditure in these countries decreased from 49% of GDP to 47% of GDP during the last decade. In Sweden, total government expenditure declined from 59% of GDP to 52% of GDP.

Needless to say, it is quite ironic for the left in America and in Europe to champion an Europeanization of the American economy during the same period when Europe is abandoning those exact same policies.

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About Tino Sanandaji 39 Articles

Tino Sanandaji is a 29 year old PhD student in Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and the Chief Economist of the free-market think tank Captus.

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