SDP: between claws and teeth

There was a time when the Social Democratic Party of Finland seemed all conquering. In between 1982 and 2012 the party provided every president of Finland.

But to some it might seem that the SDP’s glory days are firmly in the past. Its vote has been steadily declining, In 2015, the party’s worst election result so far, they ended up with 16.5 percent of the vote and only 34 seats.

So what went wrong?

It’s important to acknowledge that this is not just an isolated incident. Social democratic parties have been on the back foot across Europe, from the Dutch Labour party to Pasok. Their conservative opponents have remained more stable and, far worse, the far right has gained in support. This is not merely a crisis of the SDP, it’s a crisis for social democracy in general.

Those with a healthy caution around authority are the natural audience for social democratic solutions.

So what can reverse this trend?

Difficult though it is, it’s important to recognise that the working class has changed beyond recognition since the heyday of the SDP. Too often social democrats still hark back to an industrial base that no longer exists in many places. It is vital that they learn to speak the language of the new working class, increasing casualized and in precarious industries.

A big idea is needed. It is not enough to be reactive, simply buffeted side to side by the winds of political change. New and bold visions are needed, something for people to vote for rather than just hoping they’ll vote against your ideological enemies.

It is time to re-evaluate the relationship of the citizen to the state. Social democratic parties have been wrong footed by the rise of populism, in part because they don’t instinctively grasp the increasing mistrust of the “establishment”. There is no reason this should be the case. Those with a healthy caution around authority are the natural audience for social democratic solutions. They’re the people with the least to lose.

The decline is real and needs to be taken seriously. But it can be reversed. And it must be, for the sake of democracy.


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