It was a bad year to be any kind of socialist in Europe. The decline has been long and agonizing for a once-dominant force, but in 2019 falling popularity reached new depths and raised questions over whether reinvention can lead to a revival.  

A decade ago, the prime ministers of Britain, Spain, Greece and even Hungary were from the center-left. Many went on to swiftly lose power, but then socialist governments emerged in France and Italy. Now the political brand looks like an anachronism.

Populism has tested the ability of mainstream parties to adapt and some on the center-right are regaining their footing. That cannot be said of the traditional left. It gravitated toward the middle ground in the 1990s, and then paid a price for selling out. But a pendulum swing to 1970s-style radical ideology has been shown to be just as out of sync with the times.

This year ends with the humiliation of the Labour Party in the U.K.’s Dec. 12 election and Germany’s Social Democrats more unpopular than at any time in living memory. In Italy and Spain, the center-left are in government only thanks to precarious alliances with the anti-establishment groups that grew from the 2008 financial crisis.

For Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, the malaise runs deep, indeed as far back as the Cold War era of the early 1970s. “There has not been a charismatic and genuine left-wing leader who made a true difference in Europe since Willy Brandt,” who won a Nobel prize for building bridges between east and west and paving the way for German reunification.

This is what the parties are facing as we enter 2020:

Brexit-battered voters were turned off by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s promises of a socialist revolution, which was to include everything from nationalizing industry to free broadband.

The party lost Scotland years ago, but this month areas of England’s post-industrial north abandoned Labour, some for the first time in their history. Harking back to the wilderness years in the 1980s, Corbyn is the most unpopular opposition leader in British history.

Tony Blair returned Labour to power by dragging the party to the center, winning three back-to-back elections. But his catastrophic decision to follow the U.S. into war in Iraq wrecked his legacy and made him toxic at home. His warning this week was existential.

“The choice for Labour is to renew itself as the serious, progressive, non-Conservative competitor for power in British politics, or retreat from such an ambition, in which case over time it will be replaced,” Blair told an audience.

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