Policy Network – News

Policy Network – News.

State of the Left

30 May 2014
State of the Left

The dust is still settling after the European elections of last weekend with the horse-trading over the Commission presidency and the populist challengers in France and Britain still dominating much of the news agenda.

The elections delivered stark warning signals of old nationalisms stirring across the continent; but, overall, the picture is not irreversibly bleak for the European project.  In countries like Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, reluctant but relatively solid pro-European majorities have come through. Indeed, arch-populist Geert Wilders’ party finished in third place, losing almost 30 per cent of the support his party had five years ago. The same holds for countries hit particularly hard by the crisis like Italy,Ireland, Spain and Portugal.



Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the status quo won’t do: urgent reforms and political leadership are required as the EU remains a “wounded giant with feet of clay”. National political leaders are going to have to take the lead in mending the union – in this regard, the situation in France is deeply worrying. 

What about the State of the Left after the elections? Despite the fact that EU contests suffer from low turn-out and second order syndrome, the opportunity to cast a ‘protest’ vote offers some interesting insights on societal trends – and the implications they have for electoral coalition-building.

Political fragmentation appears to be growing. For example, in Sweden, where European politics is a comparatively rational affair, the stand-out result ahead of the September General Election was that back-to-back election winner Fredrik Reinfeldt saw his Moderate party score a lowly 13.5%. Yet the Swedish Social Democrats did not return a big score; they won 24.5%, with the Greens, the Left party and a new Feminist Initiative siphoning a combined 27% of the vote. 

As Katrine Kielos observes, you can see a more pronounced split in the electorate: “on one hand, a wave of young progressive voters attracted to lifestyle parties like the Greens or the Feminists. On the other hand, a group outside of the bigger cities that feels increasingly left behind (tending to vote for the xenophobic Swedish Democrats).” Broadly similar trends are at play in the Netherlands, where the winners were the social-liberal D66 party, with the Dutch Labour party falling to 6th place in the polls. Internal splits in the French Socialist party are also a real threat to their governing agenda. 

What’s more, in the UK, the success of UKIP has opened a debate on the centre-left about whether to adopt a harder line on immigration and Europe to win back ‘left behind’ voters, who mainly tend to be old, white and male; or to stop over-obsessing with UKIP and focus on urban, young, female and immigrant votes.

Despite these coalition dilemmas in some European countries, the outstanding success of Matteo Renzi in Italy shows what bold, energetic leadership can achieve. His historic result puts him alongside Angela Merkel and few others in the annals of leaders who have scored over 40% in the crisis years. He is the first ever Italian centre-left leader to do this – and no Italian party has hit these heights since 1958. 

Alongside his breathless reform agenda and campaign style, his simple message was “hope against fear”.

It will be a fascinating political achievement if he can beat the anti-incumbency trend and hold his popularity over the coming year.

For analysis of individual countries, click here.

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