The Declining Left: Mainstream Left Parties across the Industrialized World Are Seeing Declining Vote Shares

The results of Dutch elections this year have brought liberals and progressives a great deal of relief. Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom was defeated by the centre-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy) led by Mark Rutte. Lost in the discussion of this election has been the poor performance of the Dutch Labour party. Once a significant competitor for government, the party won less than 10 of the 150 seats available in the Dutch parliament and just over 5% of the vote. The Labour party is not likely to be the only mainstream left party that will see its vote decline this year. In France, the Socialist Party looks unlikely to make it through the second round of Presidential elections, despite the fact that current President Francois Hollande is a member of the party. Mainstream left party vote share has been declining across industrialized countries from 1980 through to today.

To understand trends in mainstream party vote share I looked at left and right party support in elections across a number of industrialized countries. Included were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I chose these countries because they have had reasonably stable party systems, at least compared to countries such as Belgium and Italy. In addition, unlike France, Japan, and New Zealand, they did not experience major electoral reform (a change from majoritarian to a proportional system or vice versa). I compared the share of mainstream parties’ vote, the vote for all left parties (social democratic or communist), and the vote for all left parties and green parties. I did this for elections from 1945 to 2016.

A look at the vote share of mainstream left parties shows a steady decline in vote share that runs from 1980 to 2016. The graph below shows the average vote share of the largest left party. Mainstream left parties start with an average vote share around 35% in 1980. By 2016, they were averaging just over 25% of the vote. Mainstream right parties have seen a similar decline, going from an average of just over 33% of the vote in 1980 to around 24% in 2016. Their support is, however, is much less stable over the full 1945-2016 period. Mainstream right support was well below 30% through a good portion of the 1950s and again around 1970. There is no evidence that mainstream centrist parties are taking advantage of this decline in mainstream left and right support. Support for the largest centrist or liberal party has been relatively stable, at 12% to 14%, over time.

Left, Right, and Centre Party Vote Share

There is also little evidence that the decline in the mainstream left support has benefited other left parties. The graph below shows that average vote share of all left parties put together declines at a similar rate to mainstream left parties. In 1980, the average country saw left parties combine to take 40% of the popular vote. By 2016 left parties as a whole were only averaging 30%. There is evidence that some of the decline in left support has gone the green parties. Combining left support with green party support makes the decline less steep. At the same time, the fact that there still is a decline shows that the weaker showings by left parties are simply a product of the rise of green parties.

Left and Green Parties

The decline of the left has been consistent across different countries. The graphs below show the trends in mainstream left support in Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom), Nordic countries, and in the rest of Europe. Of the three Anglo countries I looked at, two have seen significant left party declines. In Australia, Labour party support has fallen from the 40%-50% range in the 1970s to around 35% in the 2010s. In the UK, Labour support fell below 30% in 1980, rebounded over the 1990s, and then collapsed again in the 2000s. Of the Anglo countries, only Canada has seen growth in mainstream left support. Depending on what happens to the NDP in the next decade, that growth could be short lived.

Mainstream Left Parties in Anglo Countries

Nordic countries, which tend to see higher support for left parties, have not been immune from the decline. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have all seen their largest left parties lose support over the past three decades. The two countries that entered the 1980s with the strongest left parties, Norway and Sweden, have also seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Having a strong left in past, and in the case of Sweden, one that has consistently formed governments, has not protected the mainstream left from the drop in support that taken place over recent decades.

Mainstream Left Parties in Nordic Countries

Finally, the four continental European countries that I looked at mirror the trends in Nordic countries. Austria and Germany, which had the strongest mainstream left parties of the four, have seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Both parties have seen their largest left parties go from over 40% of the vote in 1980 to under 30% by 2016. The decline in the Netherlands and Switzerland is less pronounced, but mainstream left was weaker in those two countries to begin with. This graph also does not include the most recent Dutch election, in which Labour party vote share fell to just over 5%.

Mainstream Left Parties in Europe

The decline of the mainstream left has important implications for progressive politics in Canada and across the industrialized world. The NDP used to be able to look at other mainstream left parties as a potential model of how they might be successful well. The weaker the mainstream left becomes, the less viable an option this seems to be. The NDP can no longer look to the British Labour party, the German SDP, or the Swedish Social Democrats as examples that they can follow.

Across the industrialized word, the mainstream left parties need to start re-evaluating their positions and their approaches to electoral politics. That the decline in mainstream left support is affecting a variety of parties across different countries suggests that this is not a problem that can be solved by a party trying to renew itself or try to reconnect with voters. Rather, it suggests that are broader changes occurring across countries that are weakening the appeal of mainstream left parties. Progressives need to try to determine what these changes are and how they might respond to them. In doing so, they should look for trends that cross national borders. The weak performances of mainstream left parties are not isolated events. They are challenges that progressives must try to grapple with if they hope to be successful in future elections.

*Election data comes from ParlGov.

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