Portugal offers hope for centre-left revival

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Portugal might just help the British left plot a path to recovery – or at least help block Brexit

As across much of Europe, Portugal's centre left had seemed to be facing decline.

For four years, the country had been run by a centre right coalition led by the rather counter intuitively-named Partido Social Democrata (PSD), or Social Democratic Party.

At last year's election to Portugal's Assembleia da República (Assembly of the Republic), though, the coalition fell just short of a majority and, after a month, it succumbed to a vote of no confidence.

This created an opportunity for the centre-left Partido Socialista (PS) (Socialist Party), to form their own government, with the support of smaller left-wing parties. At that point, its prospects were uncertain. The PSD was still Portugal's most popular party, having won 36.9% of votes at the election, compared with the PS's (32.3%).

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Now a year into the new government, however, and there has been a large shift in public opinion.

Support for the PS has increased by around 5% in all polls over the past two months. At the same time, the PSD has decreased by the same amount. Voting intentions for most other parties have remained fairly static.

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This swing in public mood has been largely attributed to the perception that leading a successful minority government demonstrates the PS's competence. In contrast, their conservative rivals, having won more seats and failed to govern, are seen as incompetent.

But none of this would have been possible had the Socialist Party not found a way to work with its rivals in the Coligação Democrática Unitária (Unitary Democratic Coalition): a coalition between the Communist Party and The Greens, as well as the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc).

As centre-left political parties all over the continent fear decline, Portugal's has risen. There are lessons here for social democratic parties across Europe, but particularly for the UK Labour Party.

For Labour, polls haven't been good since 2014, and they haven't been great since 2013. In the run up to the last general election, it appeared that some kind of coalition or informal agreement would have been necessary in order for Labour to form a government. After all, the Conservatives focused their attack campaign in England on the SNP's potential in a pact with Labour, much to Ed Miliband's cost.

That hasn't changed. Although perhaps if the Liberal Democrats do begin to recover, Labour may have a choice of future partners, or, more likely, will have to rely on at least two other parties to form any kind of government, as the Portuguese Socialist Party did.

Working with any other political party is a divisive topic within Labour. The Lib Dems are seen as both rivals for centrist voters and enablers of the Tories. Opinions towards the SNP are often similar, but fiercer.

For Labour, the idea of a coalition of the Left is frustrating, in part, because the Labour Party is already a coalition of left-wing and the centre-left voters.

Labour politicians and supporters may not be thrilled by the idea of electoral pacts, coalitions, and sharing power, but Portugal demonstrates how, if done well, minority governments can win over public opinion, and set up the centre-left for a future majority government.

It's worth remembering that Labour already honours one electoral pact: in Northern Ireland, Labour doesn't field candidates against its sister party, the SDLP.

However, the paradigm through which we understand politics in this country is changing. We saw this in Scotland, where left-wing versus right-wing was replaced by nationalist versus unionist. The new division in this country is about support for EU membership versus support for withdrawal.

What Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, The Greens, and most Northern Irish parties have in common is that the vast majority of their members and elected representatives opposed Brexit. They also all had official party lines in favour of voting Remain.

This is important. At some point we are going to have a fresh general election, with support for, or opposition to, Brexit as its central theme.

With that dividing line, there is ample opportunity for pacts among those in opposition to the government's hard Brexit ambition.

Of course, the success of such a strategy will depend on the British public actually wanting to reject Theresa May's final deal. But, as negotiations continue, support for Brexit has begun to wane.

If, for whatever reason, British opposition parties do find themselves in an electoral alliance, they should look to Portugal. Labour could prove its competence through leading a government during turbulent times. And the Lib Dems might find renewed support if, this time, they work with a party that doesn't force them to break all their pre-election pledges.

At the very least, they just might prevent a catastrophic Brexit deal.

David Barker is a writer and freelance journalist based in Birmingham, England.

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