For several decades, center-left parties across Europe have undergone major soul-searching about whether a more centrist position helps them win elections. In Britain, for instance, in an interview with the Economist Tony Blair criticized current Labour leader Ed Miliband for being too far to the left and encouraged him to bring Labour back to the center. Is Tony Blair right? In recent research, we subject this argument to the test of individual survey data, suspecting that over time, the Blair strategy might cost more voters than it gains. Voter surveys from Germany, Sweden, and Britain show us that although uncommitted centrists initially respond favorably to Social Democratic moderation, these voters don’t stay with centrist Social Democratic parties for long and the moves to the middle also increase abstentions and defections from formerly core Social Democratic voters. Although Social Democrats are only one of several parties in European democracies, the trend we observe has important implications for other parties and satisfaction with democracy in general.
The idea that moving to the political center is a successful strategy for Social Democratic parties is of course not new and was part of a surge of Social Democratic parties in the 1990s in a number of European countries, even extending to Bill Clinton’s moderation in the United States. Prominent Social Democrats touted moving to the middle of the political spectrum as a successful strategy for larger, non-fringe political parties because most voters are concentrated in this space. At first sight, it therefore seems prudent to moderate a party platform, and politicians have taken this proposition quite seriously. Especially for Social Democrats, who were struggling in the 1990s with adapting to a changing political context, “modernizing” the party platform and adopting more centrist economic positions seemed like a recipe for success.
Some recent research from political scientists appears to support this conclusion. These studies show that on the aggregate level, parties gain voters when they reposition themselves closer toward the political center. However, in our research we find that there were hidden costs to these strategies and that the electoral successes for social democrats in the 1990s and early 2000s were to some extent Pyrrhic victories.
We investigated why the median voter theorem and aggregate analyses of election outcomes after centrist strategies might not tell us the full story of whether moving to the center has a lasting impact on the success of Social Democratic parties. We compiled a number of post-election surveys from the early 1980s to 2010 in Germany, Sweden, and Britain. With these surveys, we were able to show two major patterns casting doubt on the promise of centrist strategies:
(1) For each of the three Social Democratic parties, the share of centrist voters increased directly after the parties moved to the center, but centrists made up fewer of the parties’ voters in subsequent elections. Similarly, voters with weak attachment to these parties were attracted after the parties moved to the political center, but dropped again one or two elections after this moderation. The figure below shows this trend for Germany’s Social Democrats, who won the 1998 elections but lost substantially two elections later, in 2005.
(2) The percentage of core supporters among Social Democratic voters increases again one or two elections after moderation. But core supporters are also increasingly more likely to abstain or cast their vote for another party one or two elections after the parties moved to the center. In other words, the data indicate that disheartened core voters abandoned these parties later on. This movement away from the parties likely contributed to the drop of each party’s electoral results in the mid-2000s, when the German SPD, Swedish SAP, and British Labour party all lost their previous majorities. Below, the figure shows this increase in abstentions and votes for other parties for the German SPD after the 1998 victory.
These trends indicate that although a move to the middle brought temporary electoral success for social democratic parties in the 1990s and early 2000s, these victories were built on unstable foundations in the political center and also demobilized core constituencies. This in turn explains, at least in part, the relatively weak electoral performances from this group of parties in the early 21st century.
Now, 18 years after New Labour’s landslide victory, the party is in its 5th year of soul-searching over how to position itself for tomorrow’s elections. Similar stories come from Germany, where the political economist Mark Blyth recently told 600 members of the SPD: “Your vote share isn’t going down because you are not shadowing the CDU enough. It is going down because if all you do is that, why should anyone vote for you at all?” In Sweden, the Social Democratic party also performed worse than expected in the 2014 general election.
More recent investigations support this interpretation. An analysis of swing Labour voters by Stephan Shakespeare, the founder of the polling firm Yougov, suggests that following conventional wisdom by aiming for the center may not be a winning strategy for Labour in May 2015, and that the party would be better served by pursuing a more distinctively left profile. A report by the German SPD’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that the SPD carries a weak image among voters and that the party does not offer any major distinctive features that would help attract voters either from the left or the center.
This issue is not only a concern for Social Democratic parties or their strategists. Recent research has found that policy convergence among the two major parties in Britain has diminished the representation of ideological diversity and decrease satisfaction with democracy among some British voters. This pattern might reproduce in voters in other European countries. The rise of more populist alternatives to traditional Social Democratic and center-left parties in the form of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain is but one indication of this trend.
Additional Monkey Cage coverage of 2015 British elections includes: