If politics, like the economy, moves in slow but inexorable cycles, then the center-left that has for so long defined European politics seems to be in a deep and protracted recession. No matter what they call themselves—Social Democrats, Socialists or Labour—rarely have they simultaneously appeared so troubled. In Britain, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown's popularity has hit rock bottom. Germany's Social Democrats are a dwindling party, squeezed between conservatives in the center and populist extremists on the left. In France and Italy, telegenic new-style rightists have managed to reduce the left-wing opposition to tatters. Even Spain's José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the last unchallenged mainstream-left ruler of a major European power, looks increasingly besieged as the Spanish economic miracle crashes all around him.
Why is Europe's left struggling so? Last week Germany's Social Democrats dumped their fourth chairman in as many years and nominated a charisma-free career bureaucrat, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to face off against the popular Chancellor Angela Merkel in the September 2009 national election. Only days earlier the annual late-summer confab of the French Socialists in La Rochelle erupted in discord and intrigue over the party's direction. To be sure, each party's troubles are shaped by personnel and circumstance—from British voters' ennui with Brown after 11 years of Labour rule to Italy's venerated tradition of a fractious, self-destructive left. Yet they are also struggling with a common clutch of problems. Among them, they are facing a center-right that is increasingly adept at cherry-picking policies that used to be considered "left"—like education, environmentalism and social justice. The current economic downturn also tends to favor conservatives, whom voters generally see as more prudent on issues affecting the economy.