In our research, we find that Social Democrats win more votes when they prioritize investment in children and education and cultural liberalism.
Over the past 15 years, Social Democratic parties have been in severe electoral decline. While they were a major force in West European politics for much of the post-war period, it now seems that each election brings further setbacks to the party family. Scores under 10 per cent such as in France and the Netherlands in 2017, some of the worst results for Western European mainstream left parties in the post-war era, are losing the capacity to shock. Social Democratic parties are facing a fundamental crisis, an existential threat to their electoral and political relevance.
In public debates, two narratives for the electoral decline of Social Democratic parties dominate. One argument points to the parties’ supposed neo-liberal turn in the 1990s, often associated with New Labour in the UK and the Neue Mitte in Germany, later extended with support for austerity programs during the financial crisis. Voters’ backlash against these policies, the account goes, is the key reason why Social Democratic parties are losing votes. The other explanation focuses on cultural and post-material issues such as gender equality, immigration, the environment and LGBT rights. Here, the argument is that Social Democratic parties’ focus on these topics is too strong and their positions too liberal and cosmopolitan.
Parties all over Europe are discussing if the “Danish model” could be the solution for the current crisis of Social Democracy.
At the core of these narratives lies the idea that Social Democratic parties, due to their policy positions, have alienated the working class, the electoral group that has historically been the main basis of their support. And it is true that the numerical decline of the traditional working class in the population has intensified a long-standing strategic dilemma for Social Democratic parties: how to appeal to its working-class base and its growing group of middle-class supporters.
For some, the recent history of the Social Democrats shows that middle-class voters have been privileged over the working class, and this is blamed for the parties’ electoral decline. In the words of the former leader of the German Social Democratic Party Sigmar Gabriel: “Winning over the hipsters in California cannot make up for losing the workers of the Rust Belt.”
With this diagnosis often comes implicit or explicit advice for Social Democratic parties: they should adjust their policy positions and change their ideological stance in order to win back the working class. The most recent parliamentary election in Denmark has strongly revived these narratives. Parties all over Europe are discussing if the “Danish model”, which mainly includes a shift toward tougher positions on immigration, could be the solution for the current crisis of Social Democracy.
It is by no means necessary that stronger appeals to the working class will boost the electoral results of Social Democratic parties.
As intuitively appealing as these explanations for the decline of Social Democratic parties might be, their core assumptions are largely at odds with much social science research on the changing dynamics of party competition in our current post-industrial societies. For the past decades, it is the middle class that has been the core electoral support group of Social Democratic parties. Any plea to shift away from cultural liberalism or economic pragmatism must start from that sociodemographic fact. Hence, there is some reason to doubt the empirical validity of predominant policy advice. It is by no means necessary that stronger appeals to the working class will boost the electoral results of Social Democratic parties.
In our research, we have thus investigated how the policy strategies of Social Democratic parties have affected their electoral support in 22 advanced industrial democracies since 1975. The Social Democratic coalition has always also depended on the support of the middle class, but especially educated and female middle class voters have electorally become increasingly important. Hence, in contrast to the two aforementioned narratives, we make the argument that appealing to educated, middle class voters is crucial for the electoral success of Social Democratic parties.
We find that a combination of two policy strategies leads to higher vote shares for Social Democratic parties. First, on economic policies, Social Democratic parties generally fare better when they emphasize investment over consumption policies. These two terms, investment and consumption, deserve further explanation. Investment-oriented policies aim at improving social conditions such as poverty or social inclusion through investment in individual skill development instead of direct transfers. Consumption policies such as unemployment insurance or public pensions are targeted at maintaining standards of living, social investment policies such as public education or childcare aim at human capital development and more successful participation in the labor market.
The reason why investment-oriented policies do well is that middle-class, educated voters, often with professional jobs, respond positively to these ideas. We find that these groups are more likely to vote for the Social Democrats when they emphasize investment over consumption.
Policy advisers of Social Democratic parties should look more toward Spain than Denmark when they want to devise successful future policy strategies for their parties.
However, this is only the case when Social Democratic parties couple investment-oriented economic positions with open and progressive positions on cultural issues such as gender equality, European integration and immigration. Educated voters often strongly prefer more progressive and liberal positions on these issues. It is only when Social Democratic parties take such stances that they can increase their support among middle class voters – which is a necessary component for electoral success.
In addition, the role of trade unions is also key. These groups traditionally favor tight labor laws, generous unemployment insurance, and pension provision. When trade unions are strong, the shift away from such consumption-oriented policies may face stiff opposition. If trade unions can mobilize against these policy changes, Social Democratic parties will benefit less from a move towards investment-oriented policies.
In sum, our research shows that Social Democratic parties are more electorally successful when they couple investment-oriented economic positions with progressive positions on cultural issues. This applies particularly in contexts where trade unions have less power. Our findings thus strongly speak against the two dominant narratives for Social Democratic decline. They most directly contradict the idea that a shift toward less progressive positions such as tougher immigration policy provides a successful strategy for Social Democratic parties. Generally, it suggests that policy advisers of Social Democratic parties should look more toward Spain than Denmark when they want to devise successful future policy strategies for their parties.
 Der Spiegel. 18.12.2017. (Own translation)