Since the global financial crisis of 2008, right-wing populism has dominated the political landscape across the western world. However, with electoral victories throughout Europe, moderately left of centre political parties have found recent success and challenged this trend, begging the question of whether the centre-left is experiencing a revival?
Portugal is the latest country to experience this phenomenon. Antonio Costa’s Socialist Party has just won an unexpected outright majority, defying expectations and numerous polls in the process. Their victory, giving them 117 seats in a 230 seat parliament, ensures that Portugal will have a stable government to administer the €16.6bn package of EU pandemic recovery aid that the country has received.
In the last six months, Germany and Norway have both seen centre-left candidates defeat their conservative opponents. Olaf Scholz and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) ended Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats’ sixteen-year stint in power in Germany, whilst Jonas Gahr Støre heads a centre-left minority government in Norway. He now joins the social democratic prime ministers of Sweden, Finland and Denmark, a clean swoop for the centre-left across Scandinavia.
Meanwhile in the UK, the latest YouGov polls reveal that Labour boast a ten point lead over the
Conservatives, as scandal after scandal plagues Boris Johnson’s government, threatening to topple it entirely. Further east in Hungary and Poland, right-wing populist governments face sliding poll numbers and rising opposition movements led by the centre-left.
The growing influence of centre-left parties across Europe defies the narrative of the last decade, in which the centre-left appeared dead as a political force, writing its own obituary amidst the rise of right-wing populism. After the fallout of the economic crisis of 2008, voter’s concern for issues such as high unemployment, austerity and low living standards, combined with longer-term trends of globalisation, immigration and automation dominated the political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic. The centre-left was nowhere to be seen, seemingly obliterated and confined to the past. Criticised for being complicit in the post-Cold War consensus that had contributed to the crisis of 2008, voters punished the centre-left and predominately opted for parties firmly on either side of it.
In such a vacuum far-right populism found resonance, none more so than with the victory for Vote Leave in the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Both campaigns ran on anti-establishment, isolationist platforms, using simple yet effective messaging to capitalise on the anxiety many felt about an increasingly changing world. Across Europe this sentiment has also been expressed by far-right parties such as the National Rally (previously the National Front) in France, the AFD in Germany and VOX in Spain.
The irony is that many of the issues these parties have spoken about are historically centre-left issues, such as a concern for the working class and criticism of austerity.
So what has changed and why have centre-left political parties had more success recently than at any time since 2008? The impact of COVID-19 undoubtedly played a big role. The need for social unity and strong government institutions alongside a greater awareness of the socio-economic impact of the pandemic favour the social justice concerns that the centre-left traditionally embodies. Meanwhile, right-wing parties have struggled to adapt their anti-institutional messaging to the realities of the pandemic, as cultural issues still remain at the forefront of their policies.
Only time will tell if this is a brief comeback or part of a popular re-discovery of centre-left politics. Perhaps, as recovery from COVID-19 lifts the veil on the hollow promises of right-wing populism, a genuine revival will take place, but that moment still appears distant. The centre-left, especially in Europe, still remains submissive to the appeal of right-wing populism.
Image courtesy of Manuelvbotelho via Wikimedia Commons