Social democratic parties across Europe have adopted different strategies in order to maximise their electoral appeal. We differentiate between the strategies based on the position a social democratic party adopts vis-à-vis both actual voters as well as their wider potential sympathisers.
One distinctive strategy is adopted by the Labour Party in the UK, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, which consists of making economic issues more salient than cultural ones by moving to the left of both voters and sympathisers.
A second strategy can be found in Austria and Sweden. Here, social democrats adopted a traditional “catch-all“ strategy of appealing to a broad section of the electorate with moderate, centrist positions on both the economic and cultural dimension. By doing this, they place themselves in between their actual voters and their wider potential voter base.
In France and the Netherlands, social democratic parties have substantially distanced themselves from both their core voter base as well as their potential voter base (the sympathisers) by moving towards the progressive pole of the political spectrum.
A former social democratic minister of the French Socialist party - Emmanuel Macron - has adopted a successful social-liberal strategy that has turned his newly established political party - “République En Marche“ into a dominant actor in French politics, being able to attract voters across the political spectrum. By positioning himself/his party to the right of both voters and sympathisers, Macron was able to also appeal to voters far beyond the traditional centre-left electoral base.
The first strategy we see in the visualisation of social democratic parties vis-à-vis their core voters and potential voters (sympathisers) is a left-wing positioning of both voter groups. Being close to the left end of the economic scale, Labour positioned itself to the left of both their voters as well as their sympathisers on the economic dimension, while being very close to them on the cultural dimension. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party has successfully polarized public opinion on economic matters, pulling numerous voters into their electoral bracket. With on-going austerity and deregulation, numerous British citizens became worse-off or felt economically less secure and protected during the Conservative governments, which contributed to Labour’s gains in the 2017 election. Corbyn successfully polarised economic issues and moved the Labour Party to the left of both their voters and sympathisers. This is clearly visible in our data and many pundits and observers have criticized Corbyn for it, arguing that this strategy poses a risk of losing centrist voters now and in the future. Nevertheless, in terms of cultural issues, Labour, its voters and sympathisers are all on the same page, evidenced by their relatively similar positions on the authoritarian-libertarian dimension.
In Austria and Sweden, social democratic parties have largely maintained their catch-all strategy of moderation and centrism on both the economic and cultural issue-dimension. The voters of SPÖ (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs) and SAP (Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti) are more culturally conservative than their sympathisers. On the economic dimension, both voters and sympathisers are slightly on the right of the respective social democratic parties. Austrian and Swedish social democrats adopted moderate – instead of radical policy proposals – to appeal to both the (authoritarian/conservative) working class and lower middle class voters. By adopting a position in between their core voters and the base of more progressive sympathisers, they appeal to a broad section of the population. In the case of Sweden and Austria, social democratic parties also adopted mild anti-immigrant stances in light of the rise of anti-immigrant parties.
In these countries, social democratic sympathisers are more culturally progressive and slightly to the right of the parties. This indicates that by adopting a traditional catch-all strategy, social democratic parties are able to appeal to both the more conservative sectors of the working class, as well as progressive intellectuals, professionals and the middle class.
While many observers argued that movement of the economic dimension matters most for social democrats, our graphs clearly show that too much distancing from core voters on the cultural dimension entails much more risk of alienating voters. In the Netherlands the PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid) and in France the PS (Parti Socialiste) positioned themselves north of both their voters and sympathisers on the progressive-libertarian pole on the cultural dimension, with this distancing being much more pronounced in the Netherlands. This has cost both parties dearly in the elections.
Moderation on economics does not seem to work if you polarise on the cultural dimension: PS-voters and sympathisers are slightly on the left of the party’s economic position, whereas PvdA’s voters and especially their sympathisers are on the right of the party’s position on the economic dimension. The decline of PvdA and PS in national elections could either be caused by the lack of leftward movement or the too extreme movement to the progressive-libertarian pole. In contrast to the Labour Party in the UK, the French and Dutch social democrats adopted a strategy of economic moderation, while polarising on cultural issues instead. In light of increased competition from anti-immigrant parties, and rising anti-immigrant attitudes, this strategy did not prove successful for social democracy. Both the Dutch PvdA and the French PS were substantially more progressive than their voters on the cultural dimension, which may have caused many to abandon those parties. It appears that these parties moved too far from their core electorate and were thus not only unable to ‘home in the base’, but also could not appeal successfully to potential new voters. This proved futile, as sympathisers were positioned even further away from the parties.
A new political force - “République En Marche” has crushed the two traditionally dominant parties in the French party system, winning both the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2017. Macron did so by adopting a position much to the right of the epicentre of both his core supporters (voters) and sympathisers on the economic dimension. On the cultural dimension, the party is more progressive than their voters and sympathisers.
Moving to the right, the young and charismatic former social democrat adopted a social-liberal strategy combining pro-market economic stances with cultural progressivism and pro-European Union attitudes. In light of France’s stagnant economy, Macron promotes labour market flexibilisation and less social protection – moving away from universal rights to earned rights. Although he is on the right of both his voters and sympathisers, he managed to attract voters from across the ideological spectrum through a successful progressive catch-all strategy.
Tentatively – as these findings need more substantiation – we can conclude that two strategies seem to work positively: a traditional social-democratic catch-all strategy of moderation on both the economic and cultural dimension (as SPÖ and SAP did) as well as a strategy of polarisation of economic issues by adopting radical left-wing stances (as the UK Labour Party did). What seems to be a toxic mix for social democrats is economic moderation combined with a polarisation on the cultural dimension. This creates a very vague profile in the eyes of voters on economic issues and too little distance from right-wing competitors, while on the cultural dimension the social democrats look too much like green parties or other progressive competitors. This basically means the social democrats cannot distinguish themselves from left and right competitors, resulting in a failure to mobilise the base and an inability to appeal to new voters.
The first two graphs display the positions of selected social democratic parties in Europe on a two-dimensional spatial map, constructed on the basis of 30 salient issue statements related to strongly relevant policy issues in the current political debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and political (media) discourse. Each of the statements pertains to a policy proposal that can be framed as either “left-“ or “right-wing”, “libertarian” or “authoritarian”. The statement answers are 5-point scales with answer categories ranging from “completely disagree”, to “disagree” to “neutral” to “agree” to “completely agree”. The positions of parties on these statements are coded in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed by their published policies, campaign documents and media appearances. All major parties were also asked to position themselves and provide excerpts from their party manifesto or other formal documentation. These self-placements of parties were subsequently compared with the expert coding. Discrepancies were communicated to parties over several rounds until there was full clarity and authorisation of their final issue positions.
The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the libertarian-authoritarian dimension). The precise party position is located in the centres of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the party answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, parties in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; parties in favour of both libertarian and authoritarian policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the libertarian-libertarian axis.
All voter and party positions are based on the Election Compass party position and user data respectively. Social democratic voters were selected on the basis of their vote intention and past voting choice. They reported that they voted for a social democratic party in the most recent election and indicated that they will vote for a social democratic party in the upcoming election in each country.
Identifying social democratic sympathisers was done by assessing the vote propensity of respondents for the social democratic party. Sympathisers are respondents that give a score of 8, 9 or 10 on a 0 to 10-point scale question “How likely is it that you will ever vote for this party (where 0 is "very unlikely" and 10 is "very likely"), but reported an actual vote intention for another party. To avoid overlap, respondents who gave the social democratic party a vote propensity of 8 or higher but also said they voted for social democrats were logically excluded from the pool of sympathisers (as they were already counted as core voters).
 For Austria, we have based the voter map on panel survey data, where we asked the 26 issue-statements included in the VAA "Wahlkabine". The "Wahlkabine" party positioning data was used to generate the spatial map for the Austrian strategy debates. The same issue-statements were used to position SPÖ voters and contemplators.
 An important note is that for France, we use voter positional data from the first round of the Presidential elections, as we did not field a VAA for the French legislative election. Thus, these voters were segmented on the basis of the vote intention and vote propensity for Benoit Hamon (presidential candidate for the French Socialist party) and Emmanuel Macron (presidential candidate for En Marche). Nevertheless, given the proximity of the two elections, and the fairly similar results (En Marche winning both first rounds with about 8 million votes and PS obtaining about 2 million votes), the French maps portray a rather accurate position of PS and En Marche voters.
Text and Mappings:
André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV
Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV
Ognjan Denkovski – Analyst - Kieskompas BV
Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV
Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung