Debate: Europe’s new soft right is winning
21 May 2012
Triumphant a decade ago, today social democrats have been voted out office in most European countries — a change that is due to a lack of new proposals, but also and more importantly to the right’s appropriation of the language and ideas of social democracy.
Once upon a time there was a drinking yoghurt manufacturer. Like most prosperous companies, it was hoping to do even better, so it asked customers how it could improve its products. The customers gave this question their sincere consideration, and the company changed its recipes to take into account their answers. However, there was no improvement in sales. Why? One day, the company’s managers decided to conduct an unprecedented experiment.
They asked their customers what was their objective in buying their product. In other words, what did they think was the advantage of drinking yoghurt? It rapidly emerged that most people who bought drinking yoghurt did so when they were preparing a long car journey. They were looking for a food product that was long-lasting and did not leave crumbs. Thereafter the company understood what should be improved. It was not a matter of producing a better taste, but of developing practical product features which contributed to the convenience of consuming drinking yoghurt in a car. The main priority for consumers was not a product, but a solution to a problem.
The New Yorker recently published an interview with Clayton Christensen, one of the world’s best known corporate gurus who studied the reasons why thriving major companies, which are dominant in their industry sectors, sometimes lose entire markets to new competitors. What Christensen demonstrated was that the new products which replaced those produced by the industry leaders were not better, but, on the contrary, almost always of lesser quality. How could this be?
Although it may be a different world, this phenomenon also applies in politics. Ten years ago, Europe was almost entirely dominated by social-democratic governments: with Tony, Gerhard and Göran [Blair in the UK, Schröder in Germany and Persson in Sweden] leading the way. Then something happened: a new player entered the market.
Last week, the Norwegian conservative party, Høyre, launched a new web domain [arbeidspartiet.no] "working party", which is confusingly similar to the name of the Norwegian Labour Party [Arbeiderpartiet]. Over the last few months, Høyre’s leader Erna Solberg has taken to banging on about "human beings before billions", while the party’s rising star Torbjørn Røe Isaksen has declared that Høyre no longer wants to deregulate the labour market and that it has nothing against trade unions.
All of this is designed to combat a perception of Høyre as a heartless club for rich people. The strategy is obviously outright copied from Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. So you want to copy the Swedes? say the Norwegian social democrats, who are quick to point out that in the wake of six years under the Reinfeldt’s conservative government, unemployment in Sweden now stands at 8%.
In spite of this performance, Fredrik Reinfeldt and his centre-right Alliance for Sweden has proved to be a remarkably successful export. From David Cameron’s Great Britain to Angela Merkel’s Germany, Europe’s destiny is now in the hands of a soft modernised right. David Cameron speaks of “progressive conservatism”: a term that is every bit as contradictory as "peacekeeping missile" or "environmentally friendly dry cleaning", but he is the one who is prime minister. And you would be forgiven for thinking that he is Fredrik Reinfeldt’s public-school educated twin brother.
At the same time, Europe’s most powerful woman, Angela Merkel, has staked her claim on a platform of pragmatism and watery centrism. Needless to say, the German social democrats are none too pleased. If Angela Merkel agrees to a compromise with socialist François Hollande, how can they vote against such a proposal? And let’s not forget that that the growth pact was their idea.
So there is no easy response to a new soft right, which apes social-democratic politics, steals its slogans and does an even worse job of government than the social democrats themselves, but nonetheless wins elections. Why vote for a copy when you can have the original? Social democrats all across Europe are asking this question in the hope that they can convince voters of the absurdity of this situation. But what they have not realised is the fact that copies have an effective advantage. When dominant companies are driven out of markets by the competition, the spoils go to producers of products that are almost always of lesser quality, but nonetheless more innovative.
In the 2006 campaign, the Swedish social democrats were offering better reimbursement for dental care. In 2010, they proposed to reduce the tax burden on pensioners. But they lost. Instead of focusing on improving a system that they themselves established, European social democrats would do well to ask themselves what is the problem that people are seeking to solve. Somewhere along the way, this is the question that disappeared from view, sometime back in the heyday of Tony, Gerhard et Göran.