September was the cruellest month for Europe’s centre-left. The greatest bloodbath came a week ago, when the Social Democratic party– Germany’s oldest, the foundation stone of social democracy across the continent – garnered less than a quarter of votes cast. Britain’s Labour party, whose polls are little better than the SPD’s result, put on a creditable show at its annual conference. But Gordon Brown’s generally well-received speech was instantly undercut by The Sun newspaper, which ended a 12-year policy of New Labour support with a front page proclaiming: “Labour’s lost it.”

In Italy, the continuing weakness of the left was exacerbated by a book published this past week – La Svolta (the turning point) – in which Francesco Rutelli, a former leader of the left in the 2001 parliamentary elections and co-founder of the Democratic party, the main left group, flatly states that “if the party turns to the left, it’s finished”. In a talk in Rome last week, Mr Rutelli told me he thought such a turn was overwhelmingly likely.

In France, the Socialist party remains transfixed by the feud between its former leader, Ségolène Royal, and the woman who narrowly secured a fiercely disputed succession, Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille. The latter has sought a working truce with her rival; but, as the commentator Michel Noblecourt wrote in Le Monde, this “will be tainted with distrust, each doubting the legitimacy of the other and staying on guard”.

The irony – that the left fails together with the banks – has been much noted, but may be less of a contradiction than is apparent. In different ways, European social democracy was pro-market and pro-globalisation – especially New Labour, which in Tony Blair’s early years in power was both leader and exemplar. Liberal social reforms, a lesser role for trade unions and, above all, mass immigration were all part of centre-left politics and were broadly acceptable to the mass of the people so long as living standards rose and public services improved. Now, that implicit deal is threatened.

In this situation, it is not only the right that exults. The left, within these mainstream parties and outside, now sees a chance. The times are propitious: those charged with writing a manifesto for a party such as Die Linke (The Left, founded by Oskar Lafontaine, the renegade former SPD finance minister whose vote increased last week) would have a pleasant task. The widely mooted collapse of capitalism; rapidly rising unemployment; the determined resumption of the habits of greed by bankers and others able to skim off fresh supplies of cream; the present or coming cuts in public services and pay; the continuing human cost and fiscal drain of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – these are a rich menu on which to make a meal of a centre-left that did well out of a successful capitalism’s surplus and now struggles in its decline. John Harris, the left-Labour commentator, encapsulated his position’s scorn for New Labour in the current issue of Prospect magazine, describing its policies as “a mishmash of beliefs that only entrenched the changes wrought by Margaret Thatcher”.

It will be no balm to centre-left leaders to observe that they are victims of the success of many of their central projects – in particular, the maintenance of generous welfare states. No governing party of the right in Europe, from Sweden to Italy, has sought radically to reduce taxes or make cuts to big social programmes; and though the latter may increasingly be the order of the day as the cost of anti-recessionary measures must be paid, the centre-left governments of Britain and Spain are as much implicated in this as the right.

Further, the right steals leftist clothes: an anti-elitist populism in Italy; a co-option of admired figures of the left into government in France; and in Britain, a resurgent Conservative party rails against Labour’s “top down” and “bureaucratic” reforms and talks of helping communities to help themselves. In ground long scorched for Conservatives – the constituency of Glasgow Central – the Tory candidate John Bradley brought in young Conservative students to work with local residents to clean up the Strathbungo area of the constituency. Mr Bradley claimed, on the website Conservative Home, that “bringing in local communities, and seeing their delight at what all of us have achieved at the end of a day’s work, is simply magnificent.”

The great causes – race, women’s and homosexual equality, community involvement, the spread of democratic practice – which had been significantly dominated by the left, are now largely uncontroversial on the western European right, except on its fringes and in parts of Italy’s governing coalition. The very success of decades of struggle render archaic the feminist rhetoric of Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, and has caused a debilitating split in Britain’s Equality Commission between those who, like Ms Harman, believe the struggle must continue and those who seek a targeted, post-equality agenda.

Neither success nor failure are permanent in politics; and in the gross inequalities of contemporary market societies, the centre-left may – as Mr Brown sought to do with his appeal to the “squeezed middle” of British society – recover a cause. But a remedy will be harder. For now, their party is over.

The writer is an FT columnist

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