Why Center-Left Parties Choose to Go Radical

Faced with a turning economic and political tide, socialists are making a bet on future cataclysms to make them relevant again.

This way is left.

Photographer: CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images

Center-left parties throughout the Western world have been tempted to pick dogmatic, hard-left leaders. In Europe, one after another party has succumbed to the temptation, though it has hurt their electoral chances. It seems illogical, but it may eventually pay off.

The Spanish Socialists, the party that has been in government most since the country democratized, has just returned Pedro Sanchez to the helm. Sanchez, who has ended rallies singing the socialist anthem, the Internationale, is no Blairite centrist. The pattern of his election is familiar enough: The party establishment was lined up behind a different candidate, Susana Diaz, who was considered to be the favorite but wasn't radical enough for the rank-and-file.

That's also the story of U.K. Labour Party's Jeremy Corbyn and the French Socialist Party's presidential candidate Benoit Hamon. It could have happened in the U.S. too, when Bernie Sanders mounted a stronger-than-expected primary challenge to the Democratic establishment; but the establishment managed to put down the rebellion in the name of holding off Donald Trump's populist threat (we all know how that went).

Corbyn stands to lose next month's general election by a scandalously wide margin. Hamon won 6.5 percent of the vote in the French presidential election last month as most Socialist voters backed another radical, Jean-Luc Melenchon, a defector from the party -- but Melenchon, too, lost. Sanchez had led the Socialist party's leadership before, and with him at the top, it lost by a 10-point margin to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's People's Party a year ago, then suffered some painful regional defeats.

So why do the Socialists consistently pick these losers? Don't they care about governing at all? It feels at times like they don't -- like when Corbyn includes a pledge to protect bees in his party's manifesto or Hamon runs on an uncompromisingly far-left platform including everything from a universal basic income to the legalization of euthanasia. But the radicalization of the traditional center-left is, more likely, born of a combination of necessity and a tendency to look further into the future than center-right parties do. 

European economies are on an upswing. It's no longer 2014, when a left-wing party could make gains with anti-austerity slogans. Voters are better-disposed toward growth-oriented programs, and they're concerned about law and order in the wake of a string of terror attacks and a barely controlled wave of refugees from the Middle East. Leftist parties are ill-suited to these requirements, nor can they borrow parts of the agenda pushed by far-right populists, as center-right parties have been doing in the U.K., the Netherlands, France and Germany. The options have narrowed for the center left.

One of these options is a political union with far-left forces, including even the Communists, something Portuguese Socialist leader Antonio Costa, now the country's prime minister, has tried with some success. But it's a tough proposition in most countries. In France, Melenchon theoretically could have gotten into the run-off round had he made a deal with Hamon, but the Socialist Party hierarchy wouldn't allow that and Melenchon thought he could win on his own. In Spain, Sanchez faces similar problems (and, reportedly, bad personal chemistry) if he tries to strike a deal with Pablo Iglesias, leader of the far-left Podemos party. In Germany, as Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz has discovered, even a hint of a bloc with Die Linke, heirs to the East German Communists, can mean setbacks in Germany's western states where the far left has made little headway since the country's unification. In the U.K., there is no electorally useful far left with which Labour could unite.

Another option for the traditional socialists is to keep pushing their milquetoast, palliative agendas and hope to form anti-populist coalitions with the center-right. That's more or less what Schulz is doing in Germany ahead of the September election, and what Dutch center-left parties attempted in March. It's a dangerous path because, when voters lose sight of what a party really stands for, it may not win enough support to be valuable even as a junior coalition partner. That's what happened to the Labor Party in the Netherlands in the March election, and it may even happen to the German Social Democrats if Chancellor Angela Merkel finds more convenient partners among the smaller political forces -- such as Christian Lindner of the resurgent Free Democratic Party. Again, this is not an option in the U.K. since coalitions are rare in that country's political system.

So what remains is the nuclear option -- radicalization. Picking leaders who spout tax-and-spend, anti-elite, anti-American rhetoric is a bold bet on an existential failure of center-right forces -- perhaps a new economic crisis, the collapse of U.S. power or America's retreat into itself, a new industrial revolution resulting in a catastrophic loss of jobs. It's a matter of faith in a highly unstable future and the probability of global cataclysms. After such events, voters tend to be open to trying something completely different, open to big new, untested ideas such as a universal basic income or a robot tax.

The radical leaders picked by the socialists are receptive to these ideas, too -- and that helps them with young voters in search of big ideas. Jesse Klaver's GreenLeft in the Netherlands hasn't won a national election yet, but the party's rallies are full of enthusiastic young people. Indeed, Bernie Sanders' success with young Americans is a more inspiring beacon for the future than the compromise of Costa's government in Portugal.

The big problem with the radicalization of socialists is that most voters would hate to see an event that might give such transformed parties an opening. But that's the center's problem, not theirs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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