Social democratic parties nationally distinct

To what extent are the socialist/ social democratic parties nationally distinct? "Social Democracy is characterised by mass parties with a large extra-parliamentary base of activists and in principle at least, a democratic structure giving the members control over the party and party control over its representatives in national and local governments. Its electoral base is in the industrial working class through the extent of this varies according to the size of that class and the presence of a communist party competing for the same votes" [Keating, 1993, 41].

This is one author's perspective on social democracy and the factors which determine it's presence in government. Social democracy is a hybrid of socialism and liberalism; hence it encompasses a number of ideas and objectives. The working class movement developed from having its industrial wing, usually based in the trade unions, into forming a political wing – the party. Originally, the party derived its ideology either from the writings of scientific socialists such as Marx and Engels or utopian socialists such as Fourier or Saint-Simon.

Commonly, they believed in social harmony, co-operation, collective society and above all egalitarianism. Following the history of social democracy in Western Europe gives an account of a journey of transformation, compromise and controversy. Each country has had to adapt the ideology of social democracy to a model suitable for the political culture of their governing institutions. Also each social democrat party has had to reform its policies and objectives to achieve electoral success, in other words appeal to the majority of the electorate in the country.

Therefore the parties in each country will be unquestionably unique in its practice. In this discussion, I will be focussing on the social democrat parties in Sweden, Germany and France because they are so nationally distinct in several ways. There are particular issues I will be comparing and contrasting these three parties on: their origins, their membership and electoral success, their links to the trade unions, their links to the communist party and their ideology and the steps they have taken to modernise.

Firstly, I would like to discuss the origins of the party in each country and give a brief outline of its progresses and electoral successes. The establishment of the party in each country was a response to the needs of the workers during industrialisation. Mass organization was formed to represent and protect the social order of the labour force in the face of industrial capitalism, hierarchy and exploitation. The ideals promoted by these parties were generally based upon the writing of Marx. The German Socialist Party (SPD), in particular was influenced by the works of Marx and Engels.

It was formed in 1875, attracting up to 1. 4 million voters in its first quarter. In spite of this, the SPD was severely hampered by the events of WW1, the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich. After WW2, the social democrats were under the leadership of Kurt Schumacher, an anti-communist and strict socialist. Electorally, this was not a good spell for the party. Schumacher misjudged the post-war situation in Germany; his domestic policies were not accepted by the electorate. "The SPD was selling an unwanted product with a bad brand image" [Padgett & Burkett, 1986, 46/7].

The turning point for the SPD resulted from the Bad Godesberg Programme and then the leadership of Willy Brandt. SPD had a long stint in government from 1966 – 1982. And of course, the current government in Germany is a SPD coalition. In Sweden a party was established in the 1880s. The SAP "derived inspiration from Marxism" [Padgett & Paterson, 1991, 4], more specifically they took key mission statements from the writings of Marx and focussed on achieving these objectives. But, very early on, the SAP realised that the way to attain these goals would be through representation in government rather than mass mobilisation.

So, as time went on, the party organized itself into a real political machine and gradually shed most of the Marxist rhetoric to widen its appeal amongst the electorate. They have consistently had a large membership, on average every 1 out of four adult is a member of the SAP. In France, there was no single movement or party, but rather a number of factions that only joined together in 1905 to form the Section Frani?? aise de l' Internationale Ouvriere (SFIO). The party was bred out of confusion and as a result it had no substantial ideological convictions to promote.

In comparison to the SPD in Germany and SAP in Sweden, the SFIO only attracted 90,000 or so members in the early 1990s. The SFIO had a volatile time as a political player, partly this was due to the competition they had from the communists. During the third republic, they were mostly in opposition. Under the fourth republic, they enjoyed some time active in opposition. During this time, a new leader called Guy Mollet came to the forefront, the form of social democracy he preached was branded 'Molletisme. ' Mollet used radical rhetoric to combat the communists, but many recognised that there no ideological substance behind the words.

Eventually members left to from their own clubs or groups and officials deserted and votes fell. Under the fifth republic, the SFIO were no longer a viable political force, their vote fell to 12% the lowest they had experienced and their membership fell even further. The socialists were facing being plunged into obscurity. They had two options to mount a noteworthy opposition to the De Gaulle government; either a centre-left option or a left-unity option (alliance with the communists). The united left was eventually headed by Mitterand, a charismatic and popular leader.

The SFIO gave way to the new Parti Socialiste (PS). Finally, in 1981, the new party beat the centre-right party to govern with a all time high 35% of the vote share and they sustained power for 14 years. However, votes have fallen to around 24% the PS has now again come into a period of disillusionment. A principal part of any social democratic party's success is determined by its relationship with the trade unions in the country. The labour movement in Germany rose from the same roots as the party; membership and participation was approximately 3 million as early as the 1900s.

The confederation of the DGB has retained its autonomous nature and avoided campaigning for the SPD or expressing support for SPD policies in fear of disgruntling any group of its members. However there has always been an 'informal alignment' with the party because many of the top union members have been and continue to be active members of the party. In other words, when the party is in government, the trade unions are also being represented in government so they have some influence over policy-making.

In comparison the LO in Sweden have a relationship of "unparalleled intimacy, with party and unions inseparably entwined" [Padgett & Paterson, 1991, 195]. The union supports the party very publicly by providing a large part of the funding for the SAP. In addition, there is over a 50% overlap between SAP and LO members. In total it is constituted of 23 industrial unions so the LO believes itself to be representative of the country's workforce overall- over 90% of workers are members. LO acts as a very well organised and stream-lined executive to take account of all the member unions and take their issues to government.

And the LO does have a great deal of influence in policy-making; principally over the labour market and wage-bargaining. In fact the LO implemented a pay policy which has assured them a stronghold over the government's economic legislation, some even believe that this has made the SAP subordinate to the unions. The relationship between trade unions and the SAP is inevitable because Sweden like all other Scandinavian countries has strong corporatist patterns of policy-making. It has been very successful in achieving economic growth (through low wage increases and low inflation) and government stability.

[Keating, 1993, 105]. In stark contrast to both of the above mentioned countries, France has very weak trade unions. The CGT did not form until 1906 and support for it was very low in the early years and it has remained so ever since. There were several reasons for this. In large part this could be due to state repression. In addition, the working class who had strong convictions formed small militant groups at this time. They believed in revolutionary change because they had no faith in party politics and hierarchical order, also the lack of ideological principle within the SFIO was disconcerting.

Also, the 'Amiens Charter' officially ruled out links between the CGT and the SFIO [Meny & Knapp, 1998, 75]. Therefore, during these times the party was reliant on support from the peasantry rather than the working class. In time the CGT actually aligned itself with communist party because they agreed on the means to the end of the problem. The trade unions were never really able to penetrate the workforce, they were structurally weak, they lacked ideological backbone and they were hugely disorganised.

Even in the 1970s when another trade union confederation (CFDT emerged with a socialist leader, Edmund Maire, they had the same attributes and no neo-corporatist relations could be formed. The relationship between party and trade union is a difficult one to maintain. However, this is surely inevitable as the conventional labour force associated with trade unions has marginalized significantly in the past few decades. As heavy industries receded, a new group of workers has emerged and whether or not TUs can adapt themselves to represent this new workforce is questionable.

Even in Sweden, there has been a small degree of weakening in the link. So to summarise, we have seen that strong ties with trade unions is desirable because it can guarantee electoral support from an entire group of the population. A good relationship should equal to solidarity and consistency as in Sweden where the LO is the 'backbone' of the SAP. The SAP, and to a certain extent the SPD have used their ties with unions to consolidate contractual agreements and bargain with the labour force. In contrast, France historically has weak and fragmented trade unions so mutual relationships could never be secured.

And this is often cited as the reason for inconsistent voting levels for the SFIO/PS. Another factor which would dictate the distinctness of the Social Democratic Party is the Communist Party and the degree of support it enjoys in each of these countries. Sweden has a communist party which on average received a 4-5% of the vote share; therefore it was enough to pass the threshold of their PR system yet not significant enough to pose a threat in its own right. In the last decade, the communists have seen their vote share rise to 7. 6% so this might be a mounting threat.

The SAP though, has an interesting relationship with the Communist Party: " In Sweden, the small but remarkably persistent Communist Party, now renamed the Left Party, has regularly provided the parliamentary support necessary to maintain the Social Democrats in power" [Gallagher et. al. , 2001, 208]. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was outlawed in the 1950s so it has not posed a threat to the SPD. Conversely, this should have helped the SDP to attain a whole new group of supporters if they had manipulated the situation correctly.

The SPD rather, has had to contend with the rise the Green Party and other New Social Movements. During the 1970s and 80s they faced huge problems with losing a large number of voters to these parties. In contrast France, by far has suffered the most from the communist threat. After WW2, "the resistance made it possible for the Italian and French communist parties to become integrated into new institutions by taking an active part in their creation and establishment" [Meny & Knapp, 1998, 77].

They were allowed different degrees of activity in mainstream politics after the Cold War, yet they were still gaining votes of up to 25% until 1958. Also they had the support of the CGT and other smaller militant groups. The Communists were by far the most dominant party of the left. In the time of the fifth republic, the whole of the left found themselves to be the underdogs. This is when the role reversal came for the communists and social democrats. Both knew that the only way to pose effective opposition to the centre right party was through uniting themselves.

Mitterand manipulated the alliance to work out much better for the SFIO/PS. The communists found themselves in a subordinating position on most policy-making decisions and in correlation their votes fell and their position weakened severely. Eventually the communists left the coalition of the united left. In brief, in France, where the support and stronghold of the communist was strongest, it was detrimental to the progress of the social democrats. Whereas in Germany, where the KPD was outlawed, the SPD were the leading party of the left and this gave them more scope to change ideologically.

And Sweden, which shows a totally different kind of relationship, shows how the social democracy and the communists work in tandem to keep the family of the left strong. The last point I will look at is ideology and the way each country has reformed its beliefs to be successful in election. Events of the century meant that the Social Democrats faced a dilemma with its ideology in the post war world: "caught between the fidelity to ideological roots and the pull of political power … the entry of the party into the electoral arena and the pull of the reformist trade unions" [Padgett & Paterson, 1991, 7].

In general terms, the benchmarks of a social democracy were; egalitarianism, state nationalisation of the means of production, a belief in Keynesian economic methods, collective society and after WW2, there was greater call for welfare from the state. They had to be careful in an era of Cold War against communism, not be too associated with the Marxist writings and not swing to the left. Germany, in particular has since a great number of changes to its social democratic party The SDP faced turbulent times in the first half of the century.

Firstly, the First World War alongside the rumblings of revolution in Russia created a split within the left wing. A split meant that the social democrats had to align themselves somewhat to the bourgeoisie parties, in other words, sacrificing its moral stance to the old enemy in view of suppressing the new one. Then came a major turning point; in 1959 at the Bad Godesberg conference a new programme was drawn out for the future of the SPD. There would be an abandonment of Marxist thinking, a move to the centre in terms of economic policy and favouring of integration into NATO and EU.

Specifically the move to favour market economy over state control, planning and nationalisation was a real effort on behalf of the party to become a catch-all party to rival the CDU and its monopolisation of power. The third wave of reformation for the SDP came in the 1980s when the Green Party and other NSMs were rising, the SDP finally decided to change its stance on many ecological and economic policies. The transition for the SPD has still been a hard battle within the party itself in the last decade.

Whilst Lafontaine advocated some of the traditional notions like state intervention and regulation, taxes and European integration, the new figure, Schri?? der advocated flexibility and de-regulation, trimming social costs and a more cautious approach to Europe. With such sentiments, naturally Schri?? der is cast in the role of a Blair-type 'moderniser', whose job was to drag the SPD into the 21st Century. Similar to Blair, he has a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the traditions and values of his own party and an ability to tap into the concerns of the general public and articulating them in a populist manner.

The SAP has also undergone some changes particularly in its economic policy because it has had to contend with certain setbacks. The model of the welfare state has been a key issue in domestic politics and points to help them through economic recovery. After their stint out of government, Olof Palme the leader of the SAP reiterated the importance of solidarity within the country. Sweden, mainly due to its small size and cultural homogeneity has a strong belief in solidaristic values. This has made it easier for the SAP and the trade unions to secure support and thus they have not had to reform as much as the Germans.

The ideology behind social democracy in France has often been viewed as confused or contrived. Their lack of ideological backbone was probably the main factor for their lack of electoral success. The recognition that they had to do something only dawned on them in the late seventies, early eighties when the SFIO transforming itself into the PS. Unlike the SPD's reforms, France was seen as going through an ideological concentration rather than fragmentation. And unlike the SDP and SAP, it seemed as though the PS was moving further to the left than centre ground because of its unison with the communists.

During their early period in government, the United Left underwent a programme of nationalisation. This was not successful and within a few years there was a gradual decentralisation programme and at the Toulouse Conference, Mitterand conceded that the PS would have to support a movement towards a mixed economy in order to survive. Therefore, we have seen that all three of the countries have had to undergo some ideological reform due to the growth of the world economy and globalisation. Their goal has been the same, of being a catch-all party and surviving in the electoral race.

"Organised social democracy is one of the oldest surviving political forces in Western Europe. Even in the 1990s, the Social Democrats remain the single most important group in contemporary politics" [Gallagher et. al. , 2001, 203]. This reiterates the importance of social democracy as a whole and as we have seen it has played a huge part in the history of these three countries in particular. Collectively, the parties in all three countries have had to adapt certain aspects of the original social democratic doctrines in order to gain or sustain the interest of the electorate.

Also the parties have had to modernize their outlook on many issues to respond adequately to the world situation. However each party took a different route to achieve this. Whereas the SPD acknowledged a need to reform specifically its economic policies to deal with the effects of globalisation as early as Bad Godesberg, the French socialists were much slower to act. Each country was hugely distinct in its practices of social democracy but the effects of globalisation has possibly drawn them closer together in the centre ground.