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The ray of hope for progressives coming from Europe

After a dismal decade for centre left parties on the continent, there are now some positive signs tempered by a widespread failure to connect with voters. 

Elly Schlein. Photograph: Sinigagl/Wikipedia.

When 34-year-old socialist Elly Schlein helped defeat a far-right attempt to control Italy’s northern region of Emilia Romagna last year, an ecstatic progressive media hailed her as the country’s answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

She might hardly have changed the political weather, but it’s not surprising the emergence of the photogenic, social media-savvy millennial had sympathetic commentators hyperventilating. After all, it has been a bad decade for Europe’s left, decimated since the financial crash and migrant crisis as a lurch to the right made household names of Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen and others.

But this month provided some succour, as Norway’s Labour Party ousted the conservatives, joining the quartet of leftists running the Nordic nations. Even more pivotal would be a win for Social Democrat Olaf Scholz in Germany this weekend.

In many countries across Europe, including Britain, the left is still adrift. There is, however, one enduring role model – Portugal. Since bucking prevailing trends by ousting a conservative government in 2015, Antonio Costa has managed to run a left-wing administration with staying power.

Having cobbled together a precarious-looking government with left wing and communist support – called the geringonça, or ‘contraption’ – Costa chose counterintuitive economic policies in an era of belt-tightening.

“Turning their backs on austerity and going the opposite way… This wasn’t obvious at the time. It was a courageous move and he calculated the risk very well,” Ricardo Evangelista, director of financial brokers ActivTrades Europe SA, told me.

Portugal’s previous conservative government had accepted an IMF-EU bailout package. Costa refused a second, instead reinstating social benefits and instigating a fiscal stimulus programme. A minimum wage, tax incentives for families, rebates for high employing businesses and reversing pension cuts helped boost consumer confidence. A golden visa attracted wealthy Chinese and Arab investors. Growth increased, unemployment plummeted.

But even the pragmatic Costa’s greatest fans acknowledge the role of luck and history. Portugal is still scarred by a right wing dictatorship dominated by Alberto Salazar. It is wary of the far right and the left is cut more slack. Costa’s election also coincided with the start of a European cycle of economic growth.

So when Spain’s coalition of Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Party and the left-wing alliance led by Podemos took office in 2020, the results were less certain. In May, they suffered a drubbing by the hardline right in Madrid’s regional elections. But the left remains in overall charge.

Before Keir Starmer rushes off to read the Iberian rule book, the landscape isn’t all rosy. Post-Covid, cracks are emerging in Portugal. In December, Costa’s left wing allies voted with the centre right opposition to defeat the government on spending. A far right party, Chega, is gaining support under its charismatic leader, André Ventura. Key to electability when policy counts for little, charisma still tacks right in much of Europe.

For many southern European countries, political and economic circumstances precluded a renewed leftist surge. Greece was near-bankrupt at the time that Portugal turned the tables on austerity. Two parties of the left – Syriza and the long-serving Pasok – have embraced oblivion, allowing the centre right to clean up and impress.

Italy’s huge public debt leaves little room for socialist economic solutions. But the left is good at creating problems of its own. Infighting led to Democratic Party (PD) leader Nicola Zingaretti to resign in shame. While the public loses faith in politicians, turnout is low and the left-behind blame immigration for their troubles, the navel-gazing left is seen as offering nothing to the disadvantaged – a scenario not unique to Italy.

As in France, Italy’s left has descended down a rabbit hole of migrant and gender issues, Giovanni Orsina, director of the School of Government at Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome, told me. “If you go with these flagship policies into the suburb of a big Italian city, people will look at you as if you were a Martian. These voters want to be understood.”

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