A centre-left revival? Part I: Finland

Earlier this week the Conversation published a piece by Rob Manwaring on the crisis facing centre-left parties in the developed democracies – as he put it, “the structural decline of the vote for the centre left.” It’s well worth a read.

I’ve written similar things myself, so I certainly don’t disagree completely with Manwaring’s position. But I think he leaves out some points that make a difference to the picture, and I plan to illustrate them over the next few days with a look at some recent and forthcoming elections. First up, Finland.

Finland went to the polls on 14 April. In my report on the result I said that “More likely [than continuation of the previous coalition] is a government based on the centre-left, although it will not be easy to construct.” In fact it wasn’t very difficult at all, and it’s interesting to look at why.

After the previous election, in 2015, government was formed by a coalition of three parties: the Centre Party (liberal/agrarian), the National Coalition (centre-right) and the True Finns (far right). The True Finns were later ejected when they chose a more extreme leader, but most of their MPs continued in government under the name of Blue Reform.

Both centre-right and far right held their ground in the election. National Coalition gained a seat, as did True Finns (compared to their result in the previous election – Blue Reform was wiped out). But Centre did badly, losing about a third of their vote and 18 of their 49 seats.

The three parties between them still had a majority, but since the True Finns were unacceptable as a partner that wasn’t a real option.

The fourth major party was the Social Democrats (centre-left), who won 17.7% of the vote and 40 seats (in a parliament of 200). Although they narrowly led the field, that was still the second-worst result in their history, substantiating the story of centre-left decline.

But the left is more than just the Social Democrats. The Green League had 11.5% and 20 seats, while the far-left Left Alliance won 8.2% and 15 seats. So the total left-of-centre vote was actually pretty strong, and with 75 seats the three parties had a solid basis to negotiate to reach a majority.

They did so quite readily. I had suggested that the Social Democrats might link up with National Coalition, as they have on occasion in the past. But instead they were willing to accept a larger number of partners for the sake of ideological coherence, bringing in both the Centre Party and the small Swedish People’s Party (also liberal/centrist) for a five-party coalition with a total of 115 seats.

That meant, ironically enough, that the governing party that performed worst in the election was the only one that remained in office. But it suited the Social Democrats well; it meant they would dominate the new government, and none of their partners had much of an alternative. Social Democrat leader Antti Rinne was sworn in as prime minister on 6 June.

So what lessons from this might have broader application? I’ve picked out four points that I’ll elaborate on in future instalments of this series.

First, social democrats are no longer the whole of the centre-left. The Greens, once a fringe movement, are now in many countries simply a rival centre-left mainstream party. Taking them into account makes the centre-left totals look much better.

Second, the far left is also, in some countries, a respectable coalition partner for the centre-left. Unlike the far right, far-left parties have mostly been tamed; no-one thinks they represent a real threat to democracy.

Third, a key element for centre-left success is its ability to work with liberal and centrist parties. To some extent that has always been the case, but many social democrats around the world have harbored ambitions to be the sole governing party. That is no longer realistic.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, a party system is a dynamic beast. The left can’t be studied in isolation, since its fortunes are so often hostage to what’s happening at the other end of the spectrum. Division on the right can create opportunity on the left, sometimes out of proportion to its underlying strength.

None of this means that the centre-left is looking at a rosy future, and in many places it’s much worse off than in Finland. But the narrative of doom and gloom is missing a few things.

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