Offer a vision for the future. And don’t ape populists—defeat themby Charlotte McDonald-Gibson / January 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
Europe loves a sweeping political narrative, and two which have dominated the debate in the last decade are the concurrent rise of the populists and the death of the left. With each election, analysts scramble to fit the result into one of these grand themes—Labour’s collapse in December’s general election was a convenient piece in this narrative puzzle.
But reports of a death can be greatly exaggerated, and as Labour elects a new leader and tries to plot a new course, it can seek inspiration from other European countries where left-leaning parties have seized back votes.
Perhaps the swiftest resurrection can be found in the Netherlands, where the Dutch Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, or PvdA) was declared moribund after plunging from 38 seats in the 150-member lower house to just nine in the 2017 election. It went from being the second-largest party to a party of little relevance at all. Then just over two years later, the PvDA made a remarkable turnaround by winning the most votes in the 2019 European Parliament elections, beating a new populist party, Forum for Democracy, which was expected to win.
The Netherlands has a different political system to Britain, with proportional representation meaning there are 13 parties sitting in parliament representing a range of diverse views. With so much choice, allegiances switch more readily, but there are still useful lessons.
The PvdA’s success has largely been attributed to the vision and approach of Frans Timmermans, an unashamed Europhile who was the party’s lead candidate. He constantly championed the European values which nationalists attack, with an unerring ability to articulate the case for the European Union with passion and clarity. He also proved he had listened to the electorate’s concerns and put an emphasis on tackling climate change.
In many ways it was a similar approach to President Emmanuel Macron in France—using the emotion and passion of the populists but channelling it into a positive vision for the future. Some on the left are reluctant to look to Macron for inspiration, given his policies upon taking office. But his rise to power is instructive. He was faced with a foe—Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally—who demonised migrants and the EU. Instead of trying to pick off her supporters by aping some…