Post-COVID political fallout

It is highly obvious that the COVID pandemic has utterly changed the way people interact in our global community. The pandemic has proved itself resilient and did not disappear overnight. It is still with us and all factors point to the virus not leaving us alone for quite a considerable period, irrespective of vaccinations and boosters.

Subsidising the community during the two-year COVID period has been a daunting task for countries all over the globe. Post-COVID recovery plans are, as we speak, being universally planned and implemented. Needless to say, strategic political decisions related to these recovery plans will feature heavily in the coming years and will determine the political leaning and orientation of each country in the coming decade.

Let us take Europe, for example. I have already written about the state of left-wing parties in Europe. From Italy to Ireland, the past 20 years are littered with examples of European social democratic parties that have adopted right-wing policies and/or governed with the right. Almost all of them have experienced devastating defeats, most of them have not recovered. Meanwhile, the few that have recovered have only done so by partnering with people that, in most countries, have now been marginalised: namely, the left.

Overall, the past two decades have been dispiriting for European social democrats. At the beginning of 2001, centre-left parties led the government in 11 of the current 28 EU member states. This included some of the largest nations in the EU, namely Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy. By 2021, that figure had fallen to just six.

There are more statistics to back this up. At the start of the new century, a total of 21 major EU social democratic parties (out of 28) had the backing of 30%+ of voters. By 2021, that figure has fallen to just three: Malta’s Labour party (55%), the Portuguese Socialist party (36%) and the UK Labour party (32%). And even in the latter two, support has fallen by a significant amount.

In 2001, centre-left parties led the government in 11 EU member states. By 2021, that figure had fallen to just six.

Why did this happen? As one might expect, each country was different, and the 2007 financial crisis is much to blame. But analysing the results shows some clear patterns, and offers clear lessons for everyone. Perhaps the most famous example of centre-left failure in Europe was in Greece, where the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) won a big majority in 2007. Following the financial crisis, Pasok implemented austerity measures and went on to lose 119 of its 160 MPs in the 2012 general election. The party never recovered.

But it wasn’t just Greece. Implementing austerity resulted in a massive, shattering electoral defeat for the Irish Labour party too. In the 2011 election, the incumbent Fianna Fail government was swept from power after a backlash to their austerity measures. Labour achieved its best-ever result, coming second for the first time ever, and formed a coalition with the centre-right Fine Gael party. After implementing austerity, Labour went on to lose 30 of its 37 seats, their worst ever result. They still have not recovered.

Austerity also resulted in huge defeats for centre-left parties in Italy (2018), where an alliance led by the Democratic party collapsed from first place to third; Spain (2011), where the Socialist Workers’ party slumped to its worst-ever result; and Portugal (2011), where the Socialists fell to their lowest level of support in 20 years.

At the same time, simply forming coalitions with the centre-right has been disastrous for social democrats too. In Germany (2013), Slovakia (2016) and the Netherlands (2012), centre-left parties formed coalitions with right-wing or centre-right parties and went on to lose massively in the following election. Overall, the message is clear: veering to the right hasn’t helped social democrats return to power. Instead, it’s pushed them further away. Again and again, social democrats across Europe have shifted to the right – and invariably, the outcome has been a devastating defeat, not a huge victory.

Yet there are exceptions to this European-wide tale of decline. In Spain, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) returned to power in 2018 as a minority government and cemented its rule after two 2019 elections. It was only able to do so by co-operating with the left-wing Podemos (‘We Can’) party, first informally and finally through a coalition government – Spain’s first since the 1930s. Not only that, but the PSOE did not win by shifting to the right: rather, PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez ascended to power on a platform of increasing unemployment benefits, reversing austerity and ending “neoliberal capitalism”. Sanchez went on to lead his party to its highest share of the vote since 2009. Sanchez was not the only centre-left politician to shift his party to the left and win. In neighbouring Portugal, Socialist party leader António Costa ran on a platform of easing austerity and boosting disposable income for ordinary people. In the 2015 election, he took his party back to power after co-operating with left-wing parties. After governing from the left, Costa was re-elected in 2019 with 108 of 230 seats – his party’s best result since 2005.

Having reviewed these examples, the lessons we can learn from Europe seem clear. Firstly, shifting to the right and adopting pro-austerity policies does not result in electoral success – rather, the opposite is true. In Ireland, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain the centre-left was virtually wiped out after shifting to the right. Secondly, backing popular left-wing policies has revitalised parties that were on the verge of irrelevance. And finally, working with leftists is far more productive than side-lining and marginalising the left, as seen in Spain, Portugal and the Nordic nations – and results in electoral success far more often than co-operating with the centre-right.

This lesson is also essential thinking for Malta’s labour party. These last two legislatures saw a labour government keeping its popularity specifically because it reversed austerity and created the economic environment which boosted the disposable income of the Maltese. For all its faults and mistakes, which were many, the above were essential for Labour to remain popular and for Labour to remain Labour.

There are a number of warts and faults from Labour’s past performance in government which need to be taken care of and dismantled/re-invented/re-polished/serviced once the next general election produces a new labour legislature. But going down the path of moving to the right is definitely not one of them. Some would say, mhux ovvja? Not really. Nothing is obvious in politics. And those that are experienced roughnecks in the game of politics know precisely why this argument has to be done and properly underlined. Steady as she goes…

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