Breaking the chain of despair: Lessons from Portugal

Picture this: a left-of-centre party wins a majority to renew the country and bring back the hope that things can actually get better. To do so it appeases the forces on the right by promising fiscal rectitude. It offers little to avoid any glimpse of a tax and spend target to aim at. For the first two years in government, its plan is to mimic the austerity measures that its opponents would have put in place and then earn the right to open up the purse strings. But events and crises drag them down within 18 months. An election is called but they don’t just lose to the standard right-wing alternative: they open the door to the populist right who surge to over 18%. The gates of hell have been opened.


A prophecy for Labour here in the UK? Very possibly. But of course, it actually happened at the weekend in Portugal. It leaves the left in Europe reeling and should be a warning for Labour. There is no centre-left party in government across the whole continent that is intellectually and programmatically on the front foot. There is no transformative potential anywhere near government. Will Labour on its current course be any different?


The Spanish socialists cling on to office via an incredibly unstable alliance with Catalan separatists. In Germany, the Social Democrats who lead the tripartite government are floundering in third place in the polls, not just behind the traditional centre right but behind the far right AfD. In Italy, Meloni rules, and in France, Le Pen knocks on the door. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders bides his time after his shock victory.


But these victories should no longer feel like shocks. Of course, support for the populist right does wax and wane. People turn to them in desperation and are often let down. They are more parties of protest than power. But their goal is influence as much as power. They drag the debate to the right and pull the centre right with them, who then in turn tug the centre left towards them. It is a chain of despair. Weak democracies beget strong leaders. The trend line rises remorselessly for the populist right.


it’s ironic that the Portuguese populist right party is called Chega, or ‘enough’, because enough is never enough for the populist right. They keep demanding and they keep blaming. Progressives will never do enough to appease them and in trying will only weaken their own foundations. 


Chega, like other populist right parties, thrive in conditions of insecurity and fear. They tell the worried, the frightened and the struggling who to hate (the elite and the immigrants) and who to follow (them). They work their dark magic on social media in ways that easily and quickly share the cynicism. Reports for Portugal suggest huge amounts spent on Tik Tok and Instagram. Coming up we have European elections in June in which the polls suggest the populist right will make big inroads into the European Parliament and bolster all of them on their domestic political scene.  And then, of course, the even darker cloud of the USA presidential race in November. 


Most worrying is the fact that support for the populist right is not to be found solely amongst the conservative elderly or in left behind deindustrialised communities. In Portugal and elsewhere it is increasingly the young that back the populist right. Denied any kind of secure economic future, the young can, and will, switch allegiance from left to right populism. If only the votes of the under 35s had been counted in the Netherlands, Wilders would have won by a landslide.


So how do progressives react to counter what is now not the mere threat of the populist right, but the reality of their potential dominance?


First, the rediscovery of a sense of purpose and vision – what Compass, the organisation I’m the director of, calls a ‘Good Society’, one that is much more equal, democratic and sustainable. In this Good Society, the way we do politics is at least as important as its outcomes. Are we certain about our values but humble, empathetic and open about how they are achieved?


Second, a programme that will deliver material and emotional advances to the vast majority. The redistribution of wealth and power must be at the heart of any new left renewal. That means taxes on wealth, controls on rents and the roll out of universal basic services, and in terms of a UBI, a focus on the precarious youth cohort as a starting point to offer any sense of long-term security. Issues like mental health and loneliness must be mainstreamed and addressed. But power must also be equalised and new forms of democracy embraced, not just citizens’ assemblies, but the push to deeper forms of everyday liquid democracy in which we pool and weight our votes as we see fit – and not just as citizens, but in our communities and workplaces.


Finally, progressives have to forge cross party and cross-class alliances for such change. This is deeply uncomfortable but entirely necessary. A rootless globalised liberalism that benefits only the fleet of foot is partly the cause of the populist right’s success. Instead of a discredited ‘third way’ that blew up in 2008, we need a politics that combines our instincts for freedom and security, the need to modernise and conserve. It is a tricky but necessary path to navigate. 


Here in the UK, the path the Portuguese social democrats walked is the one Labour is now looking to follow. No one can say we weren’t warned.

Neal Lawson is the Director of Compass.

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