In politics one should never count chickens, yet the American Press, in the shape of the Washington Post and Time magazine is arguing that a powerful pattern seems to be emerging across European politics. They detect nothing less than the eclipse of Socialism as a political force.
In Germany, the re-election of Angela Merkel as Bundeskanzelerin seems a foregone conclusion but the Socialist SPD is set to fall to its lowest result in over a generation. The left in Germany, France, Italy are facing eclipse. Even in Sweden, home of the "Social Democratic model", the Social Democrats have after nearly three generations been removed from office. At least the German SPD remains in office, albeit as a junior coalition partner, but they are part of an increasingly rare breed. At the moment Socialists or Social Democrats have a leading or significant place in the Governments of Austria, Hungary, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the UK: Nine states out of the 27 members of the European Union. Even then, the grip of the socialists in Germany, Hungary, and the UK is likely to be loosened within a few months. Even the possible advent of a hard left government in Greece- albeit led by the Socialist PASOK- is small comfort for left wingers. The European Parliamentary elections showed a dramatic fall in support for the Socialists, and now this seems to be confirmed at every level across the EU.
Are the Americans right: Is Socialism dying out?
Yet the change in European politics is not by any means a straight swing of the pendulum to the right.
We have seen fragmentation of both left and right wing parties, and the emergence of new forces. In Germany the hard left "Left" Party has undermined Social Democrat support, while new regional groups and a resurgent FDP have challenged the CDU from the right. In Austria the emergence of radical right parties has challenged the centre-right Peoples Party so severely that the Austrian Social Democrats cling on to power effectively by default.
In Britain the Conservatives have had to face the challenge of UKIP- a fringe anti-European party- while Labour has had to face the challenge of nationalists and regionalists in its previous heartlands of Scotland and Wales. Both have had to struggle against the growth of the Liberal Democrats across the country, with Labour facing severe defeat in the local government of much of its northern metropolitan heartlands. Despite all this, for many, however bleak the current environment may seem, it will seem inconceivable that Labour will not recover. Surely, they argue, the likely election of the Conservatives at the next election will be a relief, since it will refocus the party activists and leadership to rebuilding the party unfettered by the distractions of power.
Yet the fact is that there is not much of any political party to lead in the UK. Despite the prospect of entering government, even the membership of the Conservatives continues to fall, and the membership figures of Labour are bleaker still. The political parties of the UK are no longer massed groups of citizens, but simply power vehicles, where the free labour of party members is anyway no longer required, since advertising data will do better canvasses and paid deliverers and websites a better job of getting the message of the narrow party leadership to the voters. This is the pattern we see across Europe: an increasingly cynical electorate is declining to engage with any of the existing political forces.
The death of the parties of mass society- of socialism- may have been predictable, even necessary. However as voter turnout falls and party membership crash dives, I wonder if we are not seeing the end of Socialism as we have known it- no bad thing in my view- but instead the end of the political systems that we have known based on party politics.
What that means for our democratic system remains difficult to foresee, but if our society has become more politically diverse, we should not pretend that it has not happened, we will, however, need to overhaul our democracy to cope with the desire for greater and more nuanced political choice. The era of large massed parties may indeed be drawing to a close, and if it is we will need to consider how to reconnect citizen and state, to create explicit alliances across our democracy not only within a reconstructed party system but also beyond it.
Continuing with political systems based on 19th century structures and ideologies will create an ever more disconnected, cynical and atomised politics, and the apathetic indifference this fosters is fertile ground for the corrupt and the tyrannical.
It is not just the party of the massed society that is severely weakened, but the politics of the massed society. As Conservatives (and indeed Liberals) rejoice in the fall of Socialism, they must also accept the implications that their own desire for more choice and open markets has upon politics as a whole. Unless they do, then it will only be a matter of time for the massed parties of the right face their own decline and fall.
Liberals believe in a more open market of politics- it is time to remind the electorate of why we do that and why it is now necessary to make greater progress to that goal.