Pasokification: Fact or Fiction?
Updated: Jan 17, 2022
For this 'Voices' piece, our three student contributors have explored the realities of Pasokification in Europe, as well as given their view on whether we as observers and parties as political participants should regard it as more or less relevant today.
Pasokification is a term used by political scientists to describe the trend of declining social democratic parties across Europe. These parties are often seen as the traditional left, their policies focusing on trade unionism, workers’ rights, house building and the nationalisation of public services. They vary strongly in how they emphasise each element of policy (based on national needs of course), but broadly share aims to create a more-or-less interventionist government.
The term is based on the Greek party PASOK’s experience of decline, since 2010 much of their vote has gone towards Syriza who attempted to reform the Greece-EU relationship. After failing in this task, SYRIZA was itself replaced by the centre-right New Democracy party. PASOK has not returned since and has now splintered into a number of different factions, many of which are now parties in their own right. Such a dramatic decline has not been observed elsewhere in Europe, but social democratic parties are now consistently underperforming in a similar way to PASOK, even in countries such as the UK where the two-party system was thought to be relatively stabilising for parties.
In this piece we asked students to consider the realities of Pasokification in their view. Kieran sought to diagnose why Pasokification is occurring in Europe, attributing it primarily to postindustrialism. Meanwhile, Carla gives us a practical account of how Pasokification has taken place in France. She explores how centrists and far-right populists are now engaged in a struggle to win over traditional centre-left voters. Finally, Reem puts forward her view that centre-left parties have been caught in a trap between cultural liberalism and economic leftism which far-right interventionist parties have (in some cases successfully) sought to exploit for their own gain.
Kieran Hurwood, 2nd year, BSc Politics and International Relations.
Among Western political scientists and non-academic electoral observers/participants , there are currently three main ways of thinking about Pasokification. Firstly, there is a cultural argument, namely that the working-class has become more concerned with appeals to nationalism and ‘anti-wokery’ [i]. Secondly, there is a frequent attribution of Pasokification to the social democrats in question ‘not being left (and/or centrist) enough’ to appeal to voters [ii]. Thirdly, there is a more traditionalist argument that suggests hard economic times produce higher support for far-right parties (for example, after the 2008 financial crisis) [iii]. In all three cases I feel they have missed a key point. Sometimes political shifts are not about the parties and their actions themselves, but about fundamental demographic and social changes within a given electoral playing field.
Take for example the 2019 General Election in the UK. Although many commentators have sought to attribute the loss either purely to Brexit or to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn [iv], I would suggest there were clear long-term cracks in Labour’s coalition that broke in 2019. Though the former two factors may have acted as accelerants to Labour’s decline, the cracks in their ‘Red Wall’ constituencies were increasingly becoming apparent even since . the late 80s. Trends like higher home ownership, a higher average age and deindustrialisation have all contributed to Labour’s decline both in these areas and nationally [v]. The types of voters who would favour redistributive policies were not as decisive as they had been previously, no doubt at least partially because many of them are now much older, a factor polls indicate is associated with higher levels of political conservatism [vi].
This is not just an issue in Britain. I would go as far to suggest that European Pasokification can be largely explained by the problems of Western postindustrialisation. That is to say, a smaller manufacturing sector, the decline of mass unionisation and the production of a much older ‘middle-class’ have all slowly but surely eroded the previously seismic workers’ parties. However, social democratic parties may in the coming years be able to successfully shift towards an anti-globalisation model which focuses on relocalising national economies, pivoting away from the dominance of transnational industry and stepping towards more manageable, environmentally friendly and regulatable economies. To do so, parties should clear their minds and look towards how they can make themselves relevant again in today’s economies rather than the economies of past decades.
Carla Smith, 2nd year, BSc International Relations and History.
The election of centrist-groundbreaker Macron in 2017 was the first evidence of Pasokification taking its roots in French politics. Its emergence around the time of the 2017 presidential elections was observed by many - including myself - as the breakdown of the traditional centrist consensus embodied by the Socialist Party and the Republicans. On the far-right, Le Pen and her National Rally had ousted the Republicans, and on the far-left, Mélenchon and his France Insoumise had supplanted the social-democratic Socialist Party. Though Hollande’s vast unpopularity as President certainly accounts for the decline of the socialist party, which won only 6.4% of votes in 2017, it does not explain the massive loss of seats during the 2019 European Parliament elections when they received just 10.7% of the vote.
Some argue that Macron’s election marked the start of Pasokification’s irrelevance to European politics and a rebirth of political centrism in France. Those who favour this view see Macron’s campaign as anchored in the rejection of the right/left dichotomy and a renewed embrace of ‘Third Way’ politics. However, I prefer to see his 2017 election as a vote by many to avoid the risk of fascism under Le Pen, rather than as a collective movement towards a rebirth of centrism. As Macron has veered more towards the right, many of his anti-worker reforms have caused national strikes (the Gilets Jaunes, the SNCF railway strikes). He has thus unleashed a new wave of populism that has united both ends of the political spectrum in their hatred of him. Macron’s declining popularity comes not least from his arrogant personality and elitist policy, which has earned him the nickname of the “President of the Rich”.
The rise of populism in France signals a change in what matters most to voters: questions of immigration and nationalism have overtaken economic issues. One example is the effect of the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK, an event which initially prompted a renewed interest in the question of Frexit when 40% of voters said they didn’t oppose such a transition in 2019. Therefore, I would argue that Pasokification is here to stay - I believe it is likely that Macron and his centrism will collapse during the 2022 presidential elections this spring, to be replaced by a candidate that can respond to growing populist demands from both the left and the right.
Reem Ibrahim, 2nd year, BSc Politics and History.
The idea that harsh living conditions lead to an increase in support for radical left or right politics is a tale as old as time, but the implications of Pasokification in the 21st century are less clear. Due to the impact of deindustrialisation, the social democratic ‘working class’ voter base as an economic group have become a less pertinent and much more diverse political cleavage, or at least less so than it once was. As a result of the increase in living standards and a subsequent rise in post-materialism, cultural issues have become more salient to voters than economic. The adoption of post-materialist values has left the centre-left between a rock and a hard place: they must either return to their traditional social conservatism but risk losing support from left-progressives, or espouse socially liberal policies and risk further potential loss of their working-class voter base.
That said, it would be naïve to suggest that economic hardship is no longer an important political factor for European voters, and so the centre-left’s traditional economic activism will probably always resonate with some working-class voters. However, in my view the European electorate is now more concerned with national identity, culture and immigration, as opposed to purely economic interests. The left alliance between economically interventionist policies and socially ‘liberal’ policies is now more difficult to sustain. The break-down in this political fusion is partly responsible for the decline of the British Labour Party. Given both Labour and the Conservatives’ present affinity for ‘tax-and-spend’ policies, criticism has emerged that Labour now represents only liberal ‘champagne socialists’ rather than the allegedly socially conservative working-class.
One question emerging from this, however, is where these voters are turning to if not the centre-left? The answer seems to lie with parties which adopt a right-wing populist platform. In countries like Sweden, Hungary, Italy, and Germany, modern far-right parties seem to have captured a significant portion of the traditional centre-left voter base. The divisions along socio-economic issues have been challenged by cultural issues related to national identity. Anti-immigrant and anti-establishment rhetoric have particularly resonated with voters, which - in the case of Sweden - has come from the far right. The Sweden Democrats, the country’s more radical right-wing party, has seen its vote share grow and grow since 2010. Although Sweden itself is still led by the centre-left, interventionist right-wingers continue to grow at their expense across Europe.
Kieran's Sources [i] Take for example: Goodwin and Eatwell’s ‘National Populism’ (2018) or Norris and Inglehart’s ‘Cultural Backlash’ (2019).
[ii] A recent explanation of this dilemma from the British press by Andy Beckett, a Guardian columnist: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/sep/24/keir-starmer-centrists-leader-essay-party-modernise
[iii] This article explores the extent to which the different types of far-right are influenced by either economic or cultural causes: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/10/16/is-the-resurgence-of-europes-far-right-a-cultural-or-an-economic-phenomenon/
[iv] A classic example of such media coverage: https://news.sky.com/story/damning-new-poll-of-real-voters-suggest-reasons-corbyn-lost-the-election-11931076
[v] See Rayson’s ‘The Fall of the Red Wall’, Part 1.
[vi] For voting trends by age, see here: https://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-findings/age-and-voting-behaviour-at-the-2019-general-election/#.YVWC1ZrMKUk
Carla’s Sources Cox, Jacob S. (2019) "PASOKification: Fall of the European Center Left or a Transformation of the System," Governance: The Political Science Journal at UNLV: Vol. 6, Article 5. “The Centre cannot hold”, James Whittaker, Medium, Link: https://medium.com/filibuster/the-centre-cannot-hold-f5fdf3c046d9, July 28th 2017. Exeposé, “Racism, Revolution and Resistance: France’s current political turmoil", Oliver Haynes, January 9th 2017.
Reem’s Sources Cox, Jacob S. (2019) "PASOKification: Fall of the European Center Left or a Transformation of the System," Governance: The Political Science Journal at UNLV: Vol. 6, Article 5. ‘5 Things You Need to Know About ‘Pasokification’, James Doran, Link: https://novaramedia.com/2015/01/28/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-pasokification, published 28th January 2015. ‘Germany’s federal election: Is there any way back for the SPD?’, Uğur Tekiner, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2021/01/28/germanys-federal-election-is-there-any-way-back-for-the-spd/, published 28th January 2021.