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Governing in a progressive mannerDistinctive, decisive, defining

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The last two decades have been turbulent for social democracy. Towards the end of the previous century, it was a powerful force that led or co-created the majority of the EU and the applicant countries governments. It grew used to being an apparent part of the system, within which it would either hold power or control as a constructive, vigilant opposition. Within the time span of just one generation, its standing seems to have crumbled. Center-left parties are only in about 1/3 of European governments, struggle to convince the electorate and win the new voters, and there are cases in which they fail to reach the threshold and remain out of the parliaments. They experience gravely the impact of the phenomenon that has been labeled as the crisis of traditional politics, of which other aspects are growing fragmentation and polarisation. Persevering isn’t impossible, however, will require a different way of thinking about political spaces, processes, and alliances. This is what makes a reflection about governing in a progressive manner pivotal today.

The starting point is, as usual, about coming back to the roots and asking what is behind the claim to legitimacy of the social democratic belief that their mission remains valid for the new times. The experience of the era of the ›catch-all parties‹ and the ›cartel parties‹ (see: A. Krouwel 2012) may have led to an impression that the answer presupposes a long list of priorities that offer detailed answers to all the complex questions of contemporary challenges. But while a decade ago this may have nailed the brief in competing for »appearing professional, in control and having a strategy to deliver that wouldn’t scare the markets«, today it would rather seem that something much simpler and hence much harder is required. As Donald Sassoon wrote in his monumental volume »One hundred years of socialism. The West European Left in the Twentieth Century« – social democracy has always been at its best when it remembered to have this unique triple-folded idea »The world is unfair – it can be changed to be a better place for all – and centre-left parties are the ones who know how to do it«. The simplicity of this synthesis works every time. When PS in Portugal was returning to power, their promise was that they would put an end to austerity, rule of Troika, and rebuild the country. When Olaf Scholz started his campaign and no polls had been giving him a chance, so he coined the narrative of »respect«. It was developed into a narrative, which put a straightforward claim about injustices and inhumane times, about a need for change, and about solidarity that SPD was ready to make a guiding principle when in government. It worked and kept inspiring other sister parties (and the PES), because it was based on a moral imperative, a sense of responsibility, and the idea that a party can serve as an agent of change.

Evidently, the critical analysts point here that integrity may be convincing when campaigning, but then comes what may be described as a reality check of the narrative’s idealism. First, because the concept of an electoral victory changed. The radicalization and the protest votes go to the new actors. Within the new composition even if the centre-left comes out with the largest number of votes, this hardly ever means a landslide. In such a case, the party must move to the opposition – which example was the case of SAP after the Swedish and SDP after the Finish general elections. Secondly, there is more and more a need for building coalitions. These are usually fragile. And while in the past social democrats were complaining that they pay the price for being junior partners or for grand coalitions, today it seems that the main impediment is that the partners with whom they join forces collapse within the mandate. This happened in Spain. Thirdly, as the recent Eurobarometer (2023) showed – on average only 1 in 3 citizens trust governments or the parliaments. This is not a new thing; Pippa Norris described that back in her book on »Democratic Deficit« (Norris 2012). But what seems to be a changing variable is that citizens are more inclined to trust specific politicians or parties. At the start point, it isn’t said that their confidence should go to the extreme, radical, or populist groups. To the contrary, there is all still to fight for.

Those unconvinced could try to bring here an argument of a broader picture. Within the framework of the ongoing debates among social democrats, it is twofold. On one hand, there is an argument that the relative power of social democrats is fading altogether – which argument is backed by the examples of the ›oldest parties‹ experiencing electoral demise (such as PS in France), having to merge for electoral alliances (like PvdA in the Netherlands) or being by-passed (which is the case of SPD, which in the current polls is third with 16 % - behind CDU-CSU with 29% and AFD with 22%) respectively). On the other hand, there is a growing conviction that regardless of what social democrats did in the past 2-3 years, none of their sister parties has won the elections since the pandemic erupted. Both standpoints should be strongly argued against. Firstly, because there is no benefit in the defeatist approach, which zooms into selectively chosen interpretations of the country case studies. Indeed, there are some common tendencies, such as the rise of extremism, and some of the parties belonging to that stream even entered the governments. But that should be seen as yet another motivation to push back, rather than explaining own shortcomings with the more comforting blame of externalities. And secondly, one should not overlook the fact that the governments with the centre-left had learned the lesson and performed very differently to what their predecessors had been doing in the aftermath of the financial crises. Despite grave, unpredictable circumstances they did not move to crisis management – but responded to the subsequent predicaments head-on being clearly driven by a set of progressive values. Saana Marin’s dual transformative agenda (for digital and environmental progress) continued being pursued, as also the country not only did not decrease – but even increased its contribution to international cooperation and aid to help people across the globe in the face of COVID. Pedro Sanchez pledge to improve transparency and democracy, as also to fight for women rights – only was boosted with his government investing many efforts to implement the agenda of fighting against violence against women. An atrocity of which numbers only grew during lockdowns. Both are important examples that point to integrity, a sense of responsibility, and perseverance – and honestly, they also resonated positively in the electoral numbers. 

Equipped with these reflections, one should come back to the original question about what the most conducive way is to think about the prospects of governing in a progressive manner – a challenge that despite the loud fatalistic voices, several social democratic parties face or will be facing soon. The answer here is triple-folded. First, it is necessary to restore the idea of governing in the brackets of »taking power to share and responsibility to lead«. Secondly, it is essential to see it through a changing concept of state. And thirdly, there is a need to formulate new assessment benchmarks – which should focus on the ability to be distinctive, decisive, and defining.

To begin with, both getting into the government and the capacity to sustain its political course depends on the constellation of the relationships that define who has what kind of power. This is material for a grand ideological debate, which hasn’t yet been embraced and it should be. The 1990s left the progressive movement with the conviction that through globalization it is the capital and the markets that have an upper hand, whilst social democrats can try to define the conditions in which these operate and ensure that they contribute their fair share to provide for the mechanisms equalizing opportunities. Ever since many insiders of the movement defied this understanding pointing out that it is neither just not enough to enable social progress for all. But in the doctrinal sense, the vision of how to share power, how to balance the relationship, and how to empower those feeling left behind hasn’t been framed. It is needed, as this should be the guideline cross-cutting all the areas – starting from international politics and the social democratic strategy for forging the multipolar peaceful world. Also, the old trilemma posed by Dani Rodrik could absolutely be instructive in search for an answer. Moreover, the new concept of power relations is essential to clarify from the governmental position the rules for the triple transformation (digital, environmental, and social) – preventing the capital from taking advantage, especially in moments of vulnerability (such as when the problems with supply chains occurred) and jeopardizing the progress because of their greed (see the speculations on the energy markets). Finally, the answer to how to empower the disempowered is a condition sine qua non if social democrats want to re-unite contemporary divided societies and want to see their governments outlast one mandate.

Furthermore, as indicated above – there is a need to reflect on the concept of state. Social democrats had been very hopeful when during the pandemics there was a sense of »return to state«, believing that it could create momentum for them as the traditional proponents of public goods and services. But as each of the aspects of the current poly-crisis has proven, nothing happens by default. Slowly the national state rhetoric overshadows the one of welfare, repurposing some of the elements (which can lead to promotion of welfare chauvinism). It isn’t too late to reconquer the ground, however, this would require coining a new definition of an active state (which could be able to fight the cost-of-living crisis, to begin with) and revisiting some of the governance aspects. When it comes to the latter, social democrats have to champion administrative reforms and reflect, on which issue which level is the most adequate and effective. The PS Portugal reform offers some important insights (especially when deliberating the future power of regions), and there is much to learn from the Labour Party experience with devolution. That said, any thinking here has to be coupled with perspectives for the national, European, and international level. Unlike in the past, citizens have a clear view of sovereignty and the future of the European Union, and so many of them like the EU to continue pioneering the grounds as it did during pandemics and help them stand together in the face of dangers. This logic was decisive in swinging the recent elections in Poland towards the opposition. Many social democrats have been smartly anticipating this process (examples here are Olaf Scholz’s speech and diverse statements by Saana Marin, Antonio Costa, Pedro Sanchez, and Paul Magnette), but the subsequent Congresses of the PES in 2023 and 2024 can of course potentially bring even more. 

And finally, as elaborated earlier, there is a need for a new benchmark of successful governance from the centre-left. The poly-crisis makes it extensively difficult to predict the conditions in which a mandate of government will be executed and if anything, the recent years have taught all the lessons that this is an age of unpredictability, insecurity, and instability. Yes, there are now more efforts invested in foresight. With that, from an era of short-termism, there is a move towards an approach similar to an application of game theories – where there are several plausible scenarios and depending on variables, diverse moves are chosen respectively. In such a context, social democrats being a historical political force have a chance to turn their characteristic of ›traditional‹ into ›consistent, predictable‹. In the current times, this can be of an incomparable advantage and inspire trust. But for that, they must be ready to be distinctive (by following their ideological compass), decisive (in what they are consequently in favour of and what they are against) and defining (by making sure that the changes they aspire to lead are transformative and last beyond one mandate as beneficial for all). To gain such a profile they also need to revive their organisations (from local to international levels), which have to be spaces for vivid discussions, bold decisions, and arenas for leaders of a new generation to emerge.

To that end, governing is a mission to bring change and a great responsibility for being the custodian of people’s hopes. In the times when there is so much anxiety and so many unpredictable developments, citizens are aware that it is hard to deliver on the electoral promises and that it is not easy to make decisions. But they want to be able to trust that no matter what, they will be put first. And social democrats can be that force, acting in accordance with their set of values and having an ambition to drive social progress for all regardless of how hard the context.  That will make them stand out, regain citizens‹ trust, and succeed. 

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