In 2016 it the far right made significant advances. Their arguments on nationalism and immigration became part of mainstream political discourse as far right backed campaigns such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s Presidential bid achieved electoral success.
In 2017 it looked like normality had reasserted itself as Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen to become President of France, Angela Merkel held off the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and UKIP’s support collapsed in the British General Election. People all over the world worried about creeping nationalism and xenophobia breathed a sigh of relief.
We can't be complacent. A few setbacks have not defeated the emboldened far right. Social democracy as a political force is in a bad shape across Europe. Immigration and entrenched economic problems remain potent issues that the far right is using to rally support.
The far right did well in the recent Italian Elections. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party didn’t do as well as many predicted. The Eurosceptic, populist Five Star Movement won the largest share of the vote and far right party The League (formally Lega Nord) performed much better than expected. The League, an aggressively anti-immigration party, are likely to be the main authority in a new far right/centre right government.
The success of The League is due to economic problems such as high unemployment (and especially high youth unemployment) and regional inequality (the North of Italy is much more prosperous than the South), but mainly hostility to immigration. This election campaign has been characterised by aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric; The League’s leader Matteo Salvini says he wants to deport all undocumented migrants and in Macerata a right wing extremist shot and wounded six migrants.
The centre-left’s performance was disappointing and the leader of the main centre-left party, Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party, has resigned. Renzi was once hailed as the saviour of the European left and was thought of as the Tony Blair of Italy. He moved his party to the right to embrace the "mainstream" of economic and political thought. In 2013 The Independent wrote: “Mr Renzi has staked his claim on the centre-ground and made little secret of his opposition to the unreconstructed leftist policies held dear by large swathes of his own party.”
Now Renzi is out after failing to achieve domination of politics through occupying the centre ground that Blair did. Politics has changed since 1997 and the centre ground is a shifting mass of uncertainty, pushed and pulled by populist tremours. Renzi and his party have no counter argument to the far right’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Now the far right is closer to power in Italy than it has been for generations.
The centre left is failing across Europe. The Germany SPD is currently trailing the AfD in the polls and is about to yoked (again) to a Merkel-led centre right government. The main centre left party suffered a huge defeat in Dutcth elections last year, getting only 9% of the vote. In France the centre left candidate, Benoît Hamon, got only 6% in the first round of Presiental elections.
Interestingly, the Italian, French and Dutch centre left parties’ names all translate into English as the ‘Socialist Party’, but their policies are (to a greater or lesser extent) neoliberal. What has happened to all three parties is a common enough phenomenon that it has a name: Pasokifcation. This name comes from the Greek centre left party, Panhellenic Socialist Movement or PASOK, which was the first party to experience this. Again, note the transformation from socialist, to neoliberal, to collapse, that the party’s namesakes have followed in.
“The old project of European social democracy is over, and that what comes next will have to be radically different,” Paul Mason said in a recent post for Novara Media. It is clear that social democracy as a political movement is in crisis across Europe. Ed Miliband's 30% of the vote in 2015 appears to be a high water mark.
Immigration (of both refugees and economic migrants) is a key issue across Europe. It is fuelling the rise of the far right who are rocketing into power in a populist blast of dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians. Anti-Immigration parties are in power in Austria, Hungary, Poland and now it looks like Italy as well. The centre left has no response to this.
If the centre left cannot offer a response to the far right on the subject of immigration then it is up to the radical left to do so. We need to demand investment in communities hit hard by deindustrialisation to revitalise not only their economies, but also civic and community institutions. It is these areas of high unemployment, underfunded public services, housing shortages and high inequality where the far right are recruiting support. The left can do something about this.
The radical left also needs to vocally stand up for the rights of migrants and not be tempted to demonise them for short term political gain. The left should stand up for the most vulnerable in society, whether they are fleeing war in Syria, the collapse of Libya, poverty in Ethiopia or problems closer to home such as a lack of jobs and decent houses. By helping the poor and the vulnerable the radical left can turn the tide against the emboldened far right.
The problems of Europe are not being addresses by the centre left. This is fuelling support for the far right. We have seen too many right, anti-immigration populist parties seize power across Europe, Italy being the latest tragedy. We should be frightened for the future if the tide cannot be turned back against the far right. Only the radical left is in a position to do this.