The Left Unraveled: Social Democracy & the New Left Challenge in Britain & West Germany

The Left Unraveled: Social Democracy & the New Left Challenge in Britain & West Germany

by Thomas A. Koelble

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In the early 1980s both the British Labour Party and the West German Social Democrats (SPD), confronted with serious internal challenges from the political left, experienced an erosion of support that resulted in the emergence of new political parties—the British Social Democratic Party and the West German Green Party. Explicitly comparative, this study presents a theoretically innovative analysis while offering a sophisticated understanding of the political confrontations between social democrats, the new left, traditional socialists, and trade unionists in both Britain and West Germany.
By focusing on the established parties rather than on external developments, Koelble departs from conventional methodology regarding the fortunes of political parties. In examining the fundamental processes of decision making and coalition building within the SPD and the Labour Party, he argues that it is the organizational structures within parties that shape political results by setting limits, creating opportunities, and determining strategies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379270
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 493 KB

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The Left Unraveled

Social Democracy and the New Left Challenge in Britain and West Germany

By Thomas A. Koelble

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7927-0


The Crisis of Social Democracy: Socioeconomic Change and Its Impact on Party Performance

By the end of the 1970s, most observers agreed that socialist and social democratic parties in Western Europe faced a crisis. A multitude of problems added up to, at worst, organizational disintegration and a decline in their share of votes. At the very least, serious internal disputes erupted over policy and electoral strategy. Particularly social democrats in government faced hard times. The oil shock of 1973/74, economic stagnation, and inflation undermined their ability to extend social welfare programs and increase government spending. Instead, social democrats curtailed government expenditures, thereby breaking electoral promises to a variety of constituencies which had come to expect increased benefits. Even die-hard social democratic academics looked to the future with trepidation.

A broad consensus among observers developed. Marxists, liberals, and conservatives agreed that social democracy was at an impasse. All of these schools of thought concurred that social democracy had run up against fiscal limits. Marxists claimed that social democracy depended on the success of capitalism for its very survival. They suggested that capitalism no longer needed social democracy as it had done in the early postwar period to incorporate the working class. Working-class organizations had been sufficiently weakened by unemployment and economic slowdown. In economic hard times the capitalists were striking back, reducing working-class benefits and ruining the "social democratic compromise" with capitalism. In contrast, conservatives and liberals argued that social democrats had promised increased government spending to too many social groups in order to build a winning electoral coalition. Paying off various electoral constituencies had to end in financial disaster; increased social spending inevitably culminated in fiscal crisis and economic inefficiency; and stagnation and inflation were a direct result of excessive government spending. In this interpretation, social democracy was ruining capitalism.

It should not come as a surprise that the lessons each group of analysts drew from social democracy's misfortunes diverged widely. Marxists complained about an alleged social democratic return to market-oriented strategies to solve economic stagnation. This was deplorable, suggested Christine Buci-Gluckman and Goran Therborn, since it meant that social democracy had abandoned all hope of a socialist transformation. Conservatives and liberals did not find a return to free-market principles deplorable but charged that it had not happened quickly enough. If only social democrats had adopted free-market mechanisms earlier, the problems of the 1970s and 1980s could have been avoided.

Other observers predicted the decline of social democracy as a result of industrial change, de-industrialization, and concomitant social change. Adam Przeworski and John Sprague argued that the decline of the traditional blue-collar work force due to de-industrialization made it increasingly difficult for working-class-based parties to obtain an electoral majority. This decline places socialists in an electoral dilemma—the class is not large enough to provide an electoral majority by itself. To concentrate purely on mobilizing the class vote is therefore a fruitless strategy if socialists want to win elections. However, extending their electoral appeal to nonworking-class social groups leads to a decline in working-class support. A cross-class strategy involves an electoral trade-off most socialists find difficult to accept. It means significant working-class defections. The more a socialist party develops policies for nonworking-class voters, the less attractive it becomes to its original supporters. Electoral losses among its traditional base also make obtaining an electoral majority difficult. Przeworski and Sprague, therefore, suggested that electoral socialism may be at an end.

A related argument focusing on the social and electoral bases of social democracy suggested that changing value systems have undermined the consensus on desirable policy ends. The work by Ronald Inglehart or Russell Dalton implied that materialist interests had dominated working-class-based parties. Materialists worried about tangible goods such as increased wages and benefits. "Bread-and-butter" trade union interests are currently being challenged by "postmaterialists," which are mostly people from a nonworking-class background. Many voters and party activists no longer care primarily about increasing benefits to the working class but worry about issues such as the environment, democratization, nuclear war, and racial or sexual equality. Such voters prefer democratization over huge bureaucracies. They want decentralization of political decisionmaking rather than a large welfare state. Paul Whiteley, in his study of the British Labour Party's membership and activist base, found that many of the party's activists were indeed of middle-class origins. Moreover, his findings suggested that nonmaterialist ideals motivated middle-class activists. The conflicting priorities of these value systems are referred to as the clash between "old" and "new" politics.

All of these arguments illuminate problems faced by social democratic parties. The described processes adversely affected some of these parties. Yet, it proved premature to write off social democracy on the basis of these observations. In the 1980s a number of parties recovered from electoral losses and even increased their support. The Swedish social democrats made an impressive comeback in 1982. In France, Spain, and Greece the socialists have become the largest parties in their respective party systems. Newer studies of aggregate data on the performance of West European parties suggest that there is no electoral decline of social democracy. Even in those cases experiencing marked decline, such as the British Labour Party and the West German Social Democratic Party (SPD), it is doubtful whether this erosion of support is irreversible. This study examines the two cases that have suffered from electoral and organizational erosion—an erosion that was a result of the emergence of new political parties. In both cases the electoral challenge from the new parties arose from intraparty struggles over policy in the established working-class-based parties.

The reasons for the electoral losses of Labour and SPD, this study suggests, are not solely due to factors beyond the party. Electoral and policy strategy influence how attractive a party is to the electorate. Changes in the international economy, domestic economic adjustments, and social change as a result of de-industrialization are environmental factors which undoubtedly affect the performance of political parties. But parties are capable of adjusting to changes in the socioeconomic environment. Policy and strategic adjustments are matters of intraparty decisionmaking. The electoral and organizational problems of the two examined cases were as much a result of internal strategic decisions as they were caused by external pressures. A serious shortcoming of the above predictions about social democracy's demise is the focus on factors other than the parties themselves. Parties are viewed as completely dependent actors, when in fact they do have some choices about how to respond to social changes in the electorate, how to respond to economic difficulties, and how to react to new social demands. The crucial questions are: how well did the parties adjust? What were the conditions for successful adjustment? Under what conditions were attempts to adjust unsuccessful?

The Electoral and Organizational Erosion of the British Labour Party and the West German Social Democrats

The two most important examples of social democratic decline at the end of the 1970s were the British Labour Party and the West German SPD. Labour, being in power from 1974 to 1979, encountered severe economic difficulties. A drawn-out debate over how the Labour government ought to respond to Britain's economic crisis deeply split the party. Especially after its devastating electoral defeat in 1979, Labour underwent a process of policy reversals, elite renewal, and organizational rules changes. Economic policy, continued membership in the European Community, nuclear disarmament, local housing policy, and rules governing relations between party activists and representatives were central to Labour's internal strife.

The outcome of this internal confrontation was a temporary victory for the leftist forces on questions of policy and organizational reform. As a result of the leftist victory, social democratic party leaders, activists, and members defected to form the British Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. The social democrats feared that they had irrevocably lost control over the party. The SDP took those policy positions which had been defeated in Labour, and the emergence of the SDP cost Labour a significant slice of its electorate. While Labour's share of the vote has steadily declined since 1951, its rate of losses to other parties has become spectacular only since 1979 (see table 1). In 1983 and 1987 the loss of votes to the Liberal/Social Democratic Alliance ensured that Labour experienced its worst electoral performances since 1918.

The SPD's electoral and organizational erosion is somewhat less devastating than Labour's. As table 1 demonstrates, the SPD's share of the vote declined steadily since 1972. Claus Offe wrote the following about the SPD in 1981:

For years now ... on all politically contentious issues (peace, building policies, environmental protection, nuclear energy, steel crisis, unemployment) there are social democrats on both sides of the frontlines, and in the long run not even the strongest organization can take this strain.

Offe was correct. As a result of these internal struggles, the SPD also experienced electoral and organizational erosion. Much of its electoral decline since 1981 can be credited to the Green Party. The Greens, founded in 1981, captured many former or potential SPD voters, particularly due to the Greens taking a number of policy positions which had been defeated or simply ignored in the SPD's internal policy struggles. The Greens advocated increasing environmental protection, reducing nuclear weapons on West German soil, phasing out nuclear power, and involving citizens in the policymaking process on issues such as street-planning, housing, and urban renewal. Moreover, many former SPD activists formed the nucleus of the Green Party. The Green Party offered them the opportunity to publicize their policy positions unencumbered by the opposition of leading SPD politicians and trade unionists.

The two cases provide evidence for a number of the arguments cited above explaining the demise of social democracy. Both Labour and SPD had difficulties convincing their respective constituencies that economic slowdown necessitated curtailing social expenditures. As the following chapters suggest, economic difficulties certainly affected their ability to hold together their electoral constituencies. Further, both parties sought to encompass two quite distinct groups: a mainly blue-collar union base mostly concerned with the extension of social services and a reform-minded, mainly white-collar and student cohort demanding social and political reform in the state bureaucracy, the universities, and the workplace. On some issues, such as industrial democracy, these groups may agree. On other issues, such as environmental protection, they share few common goals. Tensions between them finally boiled over into internal warfare after economic slowdown necessitated the abandoning of reform and social spending programs. Eventually these rifts split both parties. Splitting the SPD's and Labour's vote between the old and new parties is an important ingredient in the conservatives' electoral victories of 1983 and 1987 in both countries. However, the emergence of these new challenging parties was a result of developments in the established parties and not merely a reaction to economic crisis, social change, or de-industrialization.

The Research Question

In both the SPD and Labour cases, efforts to adjust to socioeconomic changes caused confrontations over policy and organizational power. These are two examples of a failure to adjust successfully, although the severity of the failure in terms of organizational and electoral erosion differs. The above arguments about economic slowdown, changing value systems, divergent interests, and social changes within the electorate, are all reasonable explanations for social democracy's problems. Yet they fail to explain an important divergence in the Labour and SPD cases: the defection of the left in the SPD case and the defection of the right in the Labour case.

Although both parties experienced a challenge to the dominant social democratic leadership group and its policy preferences, the outcomes of the struggle over policy and personnel appointments had very different results. In the Labour case, the hitherto dominant social democrats lost the struggle and defected from the party. In the SPD, the dominant social democrats remained in power. As a result, the SPDexperienced a challenge from an activist movement ostensibly to its left. Labour, on the other hand, suffered from a challenge from a party of notable politicians to its right. The question this presents is: why did the left exit in the SPD's case and the right in the Labour case? Why was the dominant social democratic group able to hold onto power in one case and not the other?

To explain such a divergence—the emergence of radically different challenger parties which developed out of a protest against the policy direction of the established parties—an analysis of intraparty developments is necessary. None of the approaches treating political parties as black boxes can offer an adequate explanation for this divergence. The black box has to be opened, its inner mechanisms examined, to figure out why one group won and another defected from the organization. Further, only an examination of the internal process leading to erosion provides a solid foundation for any speculations about whether these two parties are capable of recovering their electoral losses.

Intraparty Politics, Policy Coalitions, and Organizational Structure

In both parties trade union interests, traditional socialists, social democrats, and new leftists shaped the policy disputes of the 1970s. During the early postwar period, social democrats dominated policy. Labour and the SPD advocated the extension of the welfare state, better social policy, and increased worker benefits in return for the acceptance of the free-market economy and capitalist production. The SPD's Godesberg Programm was the quintessential example of a social democratic policy strategy. But the Labour Party also expressed its social democratic policy preferences consistently between 1947 and 1967. The strategy was successful, particularly in the German case, attracting significant electoral support. By the mid-1960s social democracy was the undisputed ideology of both parties. It was supported by a majority of trade unionists and had replaced socialist theory and praxis.

In the late 1960s new left activists inside and outside of the parties challenged social democracy. The new left, in coalition with traditional socialists, attacked social democracy as an inadequate response to capitalism and demanded fundamental policy changes. In both parties the new left sought democratization of the universities, the state, and the workplace; they demanded increased socialization of the means of production; they advocated an end to NATO and nuclear defense policies; and they also attempted to change intraparty organizational rules to increase party activists' control over the political careers and policy choices of local and national representatives. The challenge extended to vigorous competition for offices in the party and representative positions.

The leftist challenge was defeated by the social democrats in the SPD, while in the Labour Party it was victorious. With the help of a large social democratic membership base, often organized by trade unionists, the social democratic party leaders were able to contain the new left in the local and regional party organizations. They divided and conquered their opponents. Some were integrated into leadership positions after having suitably modified their opinions, others were ignored, and a few recalcitrants expelled for their political opinions. Many activists found the party unresponsive to their demands and exited. In Labour the left dislodged social democrats, changing party policy and organizational rules. This succeeded because new leftists established a coalition with trade unionists and traditional socialists at the national policymaking level against the social democrats. The new left succeeded in splitting the usually dominant union-social democratic coalition. Trade union strategies proved decisive in both Labour and SPD's internal struggles. The unions and the new left came together in a temporary coalition to punish the social democrats in Labour for their inability to implement desired policy while in government. In the SPDthe new left lacked enough union support to seriously challenge the dominant social democrats.


Excerpted from The Left Unraveled by Thomas A. Koelble. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Tables and Figures,
Preface and Acknowledgments,
1 The Crisis of Social Democracy: Socioeconomic Change and Its Impact on Party Performance,
2 Theories of Electoral and Party Behavior,
3 The Study of Intraparty Politics,
4 Institutional Structures and the Distribution of Organizational Power: Principle and Practice in SPD and Labour,
5 Electoral Strategy and Policy Choice,
6 Intraparty Groups and Strategies to Win Power,
7 The Impact of the New Left in Two Constituency Parties,
8 Conclusions,

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