Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, left-wing parties in Europe typically had left-wing policies, such as being in favour of universal benefits, free education (incl. university tuition), generous unemployment benefits and free healthcare.
However, the collapse of communism seems to have made many formerly left-wing politicians believe that neoliberalism was the only game in town, and they gradually started enacting almost exactly the same policies as their right-wing opponents, just presented in a slightly left-wing fashion.
Most of the politicians from both formerly left-wing and right-wing political parties have studied politics, economics and/or law at university and have learnt to treat neoliberal textbooks as gospel.
To a large extent, one cannot tell these former opponents apart. I’ve suggested in the past that the Tories, Labour and the LibDems should merge into one Better Together party in Scotland, but in an international context, I’d suggest the merger should be called the Party of Necessity, because its politicians always claim their unpopular policies are “necessary” according to their textbooks.
So when the banks started collapsing in 2008, the reaction of the Party of Necessity governments was the same in all countries, namely to bail out the banks and introduce a version of austerity protecting the ultra-rich and sending the bill to the poorest citizens.
However, the beautiful thing about democracy is that if all the existing parties get something completely and utterly wrong, new parties will emerge from nowhere and replace them, or existing small parties will suddenly become huge. This is what we saw in Greece yesterday, and very similar things are happening all over Europe and beyond. (The Scottish Yes campaign, which nearly achieved Scottish independence last year, was of course also part of this international trend.)
Here are a few examples of the decline of the Party of Necessity:
Greece (PASOK + New Democracy): 2007: 79.9%, 2009: 77.4%, 2012: 32.1%, 2012 (again): 42%, 2015: 32.5%.
Spain (PP + PSOE): 2008: 83.8%, 2012: 73.4%, latest opinion polls: ~45%.
Italy (Democratic Party + People of Freedom): 2006: 99.5%, 2008: 84.3%, 2013: 58.6%, latest opinion polls: ~50%.
Scotland (Tory + Lab + LibDem), Westminster elections: 2005: 77.9%, 2010: 77.6%, latest opinion polls: ~45%.
UK (Tory + Lab + LibDem): 2005: 89.6%, 2010: 88.1%, latest opinion polls: ~68%.
Denmark (SocDem + SocLib + Cons + Lib): 2007: 67.2%, 2011: 65.9%, latest opinion polls: ~55%.
Germany (CDU/CSU + SPD + FDP): 2005: 79.2%, 2009: 71.4%, 2013: 72.0%, latest opinion polls: ~67%.
It’s clear that different countries aren’t at the same stage — as a rule of thumb it seems to be linked to how well they have coped with the recession. However, it seems likely that many European countries soon won’t be governed by the Party of Necessity. It’s already the case in Scotland and Greece, but the figures above makes me think it’s simply a question of time before a majority of European governments are anti-Necessity.
I’ve said it before, but we truly do live in interesting times.
Addendum (27/01/14): Aditya Chakrabortty has written a very interesting article about how Labour risks ending up like PASOK. His name for what I have called the Party of Necessity above is TINA (“there is no alternative”), which is a very accurate description, too.