Across Europe left-wing parties may be losing, but left-wing ideas are proving surprisingly popularby Steve Bloomfield / March 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
The obituaries have already been written. “Why the Italian left looks doomed,” reads a Guardian headline; “Italy’s rising jobless rate piles pressure on Democratic party,” points out the Financial Times. They’re probably right. Opinion polls suggest that the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), which has been in office since 2013, will lose this Sunday’s general election. The PD is set to win no more than a quarter of the vote, finishing below the populist Five Star Movement (5SM). More importantly, the PD and its fellow centre-left parties are likely to be even further behind the combined tally of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the far-right Lega Nord and two other fringe right-wing parties. There is a slim chance of a coalition between the PD and Forza, but there is little appetite for it, either within the two parties or in the country as a whole.
The demise of the centre-left is a story that has played out across Europe over the past 12 months: in the Netherlands, the Dutch Labour Party went from coalition partner to seventh place, in France, the Socialists lost the presidency and ended up in fifth, while in Germany, the SPD may cling on to power, but its vote has crumbled and in the most recent opinion polls it was not only behind the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland but also facing a battle with the Greens to be the leading party of the left. Of the European Union’s 28 nations just four—Malta, Sweden, Belgium and Portugal—have centre-left governments.
But we tend to tell these stories in broad sweeps—a shift to the right, a rise in populism—while the reality is a little more nuanced. For while, yes, there really has been a shift to the right and there really has been a rise in populism, there are elements of western Europe’s current political tale that should give the left some hope.
Left-wing parties may be struggling, but left-wing ideas are proving surprisingly popular. All three main parties in Italy’s election—the PD, Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia and Beppe Grillo’s populist 5SM—are proposing left-wing economic policies in their manifestos. Forza and the 5SM want to establish a minimum income, while the PD wants to increase the minimum wage.
In Germany too, look beyond the SPD polling numbers and you’ll see a grand coalition agreement that delivers higher spending on both public services and pensions. Even here in the UK there has been a shift in emphasis since the EU referendum as the Conservative Party attempts to move away from austerity and talk up its spending on public services (even if this is, on the whole, little more than talk). The political conversation has shifted from cuts to investment.
So far, this isn’t necessarily translating into support for left-wing parties. That may be partly down to leadership—political scientists closely analysing trends tend to forget the power of an inspirational (or merely competent) leader to change the dynamic of an election. It’s also likely to have something to do with the left’s failure to convince voters of its capacity to deal with other important issues, particularly migration.
There is no point in sugar-coating it: Sunday’s election will be disastrous for the European centre-left. But at least once the recriminations begin, the left can console itself that while voters may not like it, they do like some of its ideas. And that’s something, possibly, to build on.