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It is as if the spirits of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, the former British and German leaders, are beckoning to their successors from some Valhalla of social democracy. With the appointment of Manuel Valls as France’s prime minister, the tide of European centre-left politics is turning once more in favour of a young, self-consciously dynamic generation of leaders, scornful of socialist shibboleths and, in some cases, trusted more by the general public than by their party stalwarts.
Next to Mr Valls, 51, the shining example is Italy’s Matteo Renzi, 39, a former mayor of Florence. Like some baby-faced Renaissance assassin, he engineered the fall in February of Enrico Letta, a party comrade, as prime minister. Then he took the job himself, promising to do battle with the vested interests that for 20 years have blocked political and economic change in Italy.
In northern Europe the flag of modern social democracy is held aloft by Helle Thorning-Schmidt, 47, Denmark’s prime minister since 2011. She has cut welfare entitlements, shrunk the state sector, pursued fiscal rigour and encouraged private sector growth – all in the name of strengthening the Danish model of welfare capitalism – with a ruthlessness that has redefined the Scandinavian left.
As her experience suggests, breaking the mould in this unapologetic manner comes at a price. Ms Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats have steadily lost support in opinion polls and look set for a poor result in the May 22-25 elections to the European Parliament.
Then again, failing to break the mould evidently comes at a price, too. Mr Valls would not be prime minister today, were it not for the crushing losses suffered by France’s ruling Socialists in Sunday’s local elections. The party’s worst since 1983, they were largely the result of public discontent with the failure of President François Hollande and his government to solve, or even look like solving, France’s comfortless mixture of high unemployment, high taxes, high debt, high deficits and low growth.
Neither Mr Valls nor Mr Renzi will stride the political stage for long if they prove no more capable than Jean-Marc Ayrault, Mr Hollande’s hapless former premier, or Mr Letta in reviving economic conditions. This hints at why the ascent to stardom of Mr Valls and Mr Renzi is only superficially reminiscent of the glory days of Mr Blair and Mr Schröder in the 1990s and early 2000s.
All four men are or were unafraid of stepping on toes in their own parties, and each would embrace the Blairite notion, aired in 1997, that “what matters is what works”, not what is ideologically pure. But these similarities disguise the fact that the economic, social and electoral challenges that confront today’s centre-left leaders in western Europe are, if anything, even more acute than those faced 15 years ago by Mr Blair and Mr Schröder.
From 2008 to 2012 financial upheaval and economic recession struck the continent on a scale that represented European capitalism’s greatest disaster since the Great Depression. But this experience did remarkably little to rejuvenate the left’s electoral fortunes. European voters judged politicians of the left to be no more convincing than politicians of the right in getting to grips with the crisis.
Seen in a longer perspective, the left’s difficulty is that it can no longer count on a mass working class and organised trade unions to deliver solid majorities at election time. To judge from Germany’s 2009 and 2013 elections, when support for the Social Democrats slumped to historic lows of 23 and 25.7 per cent respectively, victories of the magnitude achieved by Mr Schröder may be forever beyond reach.
In the less class-ridden but more economically hard-pressed societies of modern western Europe, the left is seen by its lost supporters as the political force which promises but fails to protect the welfare state; which mismanages immigration; and which has little idea of how to control budget deficits and repay public debt. If Mr Valls and Mr Renzi can change these perceptions, they will deserve their thrones in Valhalla.
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