The Left-Right cleavage is dead… long live the Left-Right cleavage?

By Isabel Winnwa | 26 May 2014

To quote this document: Isabel Winnwa, “The Left-Right cleavage is dead… long live the Left-Right cleavage?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 26 May 2014,, displayed on 06 June 2023

In many European nation-states, traditional left and right-wing parties are increasingly challenged, by voters who express their dissatisfaction with the political performance of left-wing and right-wing party governments by not going to the polls or voting for newly emerged and/or extremist parties, and by these parties, which present themselves as an alternative. But neither of these challenges has fundamentally threatened neither the left-right cleavage nor the existence of traditional left and right wing parties in any member state.

Traditional parties have failed, the cleavage has collapsed – a statement to be nuanced

In an interview with LSE, the British scholar Philipp Blond made a strong affirmation, which is emblematic for the many critics of the left-right-cleavage model and the legitimacy of left and right wing parties. He stated that the financial crisis illustrates the bankruptcy and break down of left and right wing political ideologies. The left has failed in delivering on its main policy promises, equity and welfare and its main resource, the state, has been considerably weakened in its legitimacy, the welfare state has failed. The right has failed because neo-liberalism never created mass-prosperity, but an enormous concentration of wealth, and the markets have never become free, but rather taken over by oligopolies, cartels and monopolies.

People tend to disengage with traditional parties and move towards new parties, which do not fit into the classical conservative-progressive spectrum. Unless new parties come up with a truly alternative policy offer, they are either drifting towards anti-democratic fascism or reproduce the same patterns than the traditional parties.  

The purpose of the article is to nuance the statement made about the failure of the left and right and a potential collapse of the left-right cleavage.

Everyone following the statistics about voter participation in recent elections has to concede that the statement about people’s disengagement in politics bears some truth. However, recent national elections do not show that voters massively disengage with traditional parties, be it in France where the left-wing party “Parti socialiste (PS)” succeeded, Greece where the current government is a coalition between the right wing “Neo Democratia” and the socialist “PASOK” or Germany which now has a coalition government composed of the right wing “CDU” (Christian Democratic Union) and the left-wing “SPD” (Social-democratic Party of Germany).

Do non-traditional parties really provide an alternative? A substantive challenge

Certainly, left and right wing parties face unprecedented challenges as to the validity of their policy programmes and their legitimacy in government in many European nation-states, nevertheless traditional parties have been approved by voters in recent national elections, no state has been taken over by new extremist or populist parties. Of course, one could object that some extremist parties have acquired political responsibility in the last years, like the “Front national” in local elections in France. But I would be tempted to respond that firstly, the score has been lower than expected and reveals a protest pattern rather than an adhesion to the party, and secondly, this will contribute to “de-demonize” such extremist parties and actually pressure them into providing real policy alternatives instead of rhetoric. The game is still on about whether or not this endeavour will be successful…

Thus I can easily agree with the statement about the substantive challenge newly emerged and also extremist parties face. So far, the scores of extremist parties have been not outmatched those of traditional parties, even in countries with very strong right or left extremist parties, such as France where the far-right nationalist “Front National” scored 17,8% in the first round of 2012 presidential elections against 28% for the socialist “PS” and 25% for the conservative “UMP” (Union pour un Mouvement populaire) party, or Greece, where despite the heavy pressure of failure, “Neo Democratia” won the national elections with 29% against 26% for the extreme-left “Syriza”. Rather than taking the rising percentages of vote shares for extremist parties as a sign for an extremist turn in European voter behaviour, I would agree with those who interpret it as a protest vote rather than a vote of adhesion. In many European states, voters are dissatisfied with the political performance of traditional parties, but except for outliers like Austria where the far-right nationalist party FPÖ (Freie Partei Österreichs) has repeatedly participated in coalition governments, European voters do not massively adhere to extremist parties and vote them into government.

The cleavage is stickier and traditional parties more successful than assumed

Regarding the future of the left-right cleavage, I argue that just as left and right wing parties, it is sticky. This crisis does not sign the end of the cleavage or even the left and right wing parties, it merely broadens the party structure. The main effect of the crisis was to add some sui generis parties to national party systems, some Eurosceptic like the British “UKIP” (United Kingdom Independence Party), some anarchist like the Italian “Movimento Cinque Stelle” (Five Star Movement) led by Beppe Grillo. But just as the Greek extreme right neo-nazi party “Chrysi Avgi” (Golden Dawn) and the populist extreme-left party “Syriza” led by Alexis Tsipras, these new parties fit the established spatial left-right model. Fascist, socialist or anarchist parties are not a new phenomenon; the crisis has just amplified their presence in European nation-states. The challenge they pose to the left and right wing parties is real, but far from heralding the collapse of the left-right political spectrum, as some would put it.

Both the left-right cleavage and the traditional left and right wing parties will persevere and to what extent this crisis of established parties and the threat posed by new extremist parties can contribute to a reorientation of left and right wing ideology and party programs.

The claim that traditional left or right wing parties have failed cannot be made as such for all European states. Some states, like Germany, have fared remarkably well in terms of state legitimacy and welfare provision even when affected by the crisis. In Germany, for example, the right wing “CDU”, in a coalition government with SPD from 2005 to 2009 and with the liberal “FDP” (Freie Demokratische Partei) from 2009 to 2013, has been re-voted into office with a near absolute majority in 2013. This election result clearly shows the adhesion of German voters to chancellor Merkel’s government and the policy proposed by her party.

The socialists and social-democrats under particular pressure – waiting for the leftist alternative

Both left- and right-wing parties have been questioned by their voters and forced into reconsidering their position in terms of national but also European policy, but the pressure on the left, traditionally being the party spectrum in charge of providing alternatives to the existing political organization, is heavier than on the right-wing conservative parties. Pressure seems to be high on left wing parties to reinvent the social-democratic and socialist paradigm, especially since the outbreak of the crisis and the de-legitimization of the neo-liberal paradigm. Traditional left-wing voters, like workers and lower middle class, seem to expect a true alternative to the logic of market and capital. Especially the workers and middle-class feel increasingly disappointed by the centre-left and centre-right parties and orient themselves towards the extreme, either left or right. Similar events of voter protest occurred in many European countries, in Greece with 26% for the far-left “Syriza” or 18% for the French “Front national”. Elections were often accompanied with social contestation, protest and mobilization of workers and unions. 

The left-right cleavage model still prevails as the model, which successfully captures the party spectrum in European countries. Rather than predicting a decline of the left-right cleavage, I would agree with those who observe a complexification of party systems, where issues are increasingly crosscutting and parties sometimes form around a single issue instead of proposing a large range of policies. Indeed, most of the newly emerged parties can even be classified, upon closer inspection of their program and policy propositions, as belonging either to the left or the right part of the party spectrum.

Issue-specific parties like UKIP – an outlier or a extreme-right party in disguise?

Issue-specific parties can for example coincide with Euroscepticism or anti-European ideology. A fitting example would be a newly emerged Eurosceptic party, the British UKIP. Founded as a party with one agenda, the rejection of European integration and the British exit, UKIP has not striven to fit into the left-right party system, on the contrary, it has attempted to present itself as an alternative to the conservatives, liberals and the Labour party. Yet, party politics follow their own dynamic and while campaigning for elections, UKIP has been prompted to express its views on many more policy areas than just European integration. Thus, UKIP drafted policy proposals, among which we can find a proposition to dramatically restrict immigration, a significant cut on taxes, increase in defence spending, a no-tolerance interior security policy, rejection of gay marriage. Without much effort, these proposals can be attributed to the right-wing spectrum of the party system, some even to the extreme right.

Are left and right wing parties challenged? No doubt. Does this threaten the left-right cleavage? Not necessarily. New parties, extremist, anarchist or issue-specific, can potentially pose a threat to the legitimacy of established parties, but only if they are perceived by the voters as a credible and legitimate governance alternative. Until voters in European nation-states massively disengage with their traditional parties and vote extremists, anti-system or issue-specific parties into government, I would rather consider defiant voting behaviour as an appeal to left and right wing parties to rethink their policy program.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe's website 


  • Baier, Walter and Elisabeth Gauthier (2012), 'Crise, l’Europe et success de la Droite populiste et extrême'. In: Temps modernes, 2012
  • Abedi, A. and Lundberg, T.C. (2009) 'Doomed to failure? UKIP and the organisational challenges facing right-wing populist anti-political establishment parties', Parliamentary Affairs, 62 (1). pp. 72-87
  • Oesch, Daniel (2008), 'Explaining Worker’s Support for Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe: Evidence From Austria, Belgium, France, Norway and Switzerland', International Political Science Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp.349- 373

On the internet 

Photo credits : Political spectrum (2013) on Wikipedia; Political spectrum, by JCRules on wikimedia commons