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How to beat national populism

Giorgia Meloni
FILE – Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni attends the center-right coalition closing rally in Rome, Sept. 22, 2022. Italian voters cast ballots on Sunday, Sept. 25 in an election that has been billed as crucial as Europe reels from the repercussions of war in Ukraine. Opinion polls indicate Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party could be the biggest vote-getter, just ahead of the center-left Democratic Party of former Premier Enrico Letta. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

LIVERPOOL, England — Brexit is done, and Donald Trump, given the boot by U.S. voters, is angrily pacing the political sidelines. But the upsurge of rightwing populism that produced them both continues to roil transatlantic politics.

Last Sunday, the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which has a fascist lineage, finished first in national elections. Its leader, Giorgia Meloni, will become Italy’s first female prime minister. She’s a socially conservative Christian who opposes immigration, abortion and LGBTQ rights. Although she’s toned down her Euroskepticism, Meloni also is an “Italy First” nationalist likely to align with illiberal regimes in Poland and Hungary.

A virulent strain of national populism also is advancing in Europe’s social democratic heartland. The Sweden Democrats (SD), formerly a fringe party with neo-Nazi roots, finished a strong second in national elections earlier this month and will join a right-leaning government.  

The SD channeled a public backlash against Sweden’s historic receptivity to political refugees and asylum seekers. It blamed a large influx of migrants from Muslim countries for a spate of gang violence and shootings in a country where gun violence has been rare.  

In both cases, mainstream conservative parties overcame their previous scruples against “normalizing” xenophobic parties by joining them in governing coalitions. Elsewhere, conservatives have survived the nationalist whirlwind by coopting its key themes.

Britain’s Conservatives stole the nativist United Kingdom Independence Party’s thunder by promising to “get Brexit done,” restrict migrants from Europe and spend more to “level up” living standards in old industrial centers. That enabled the Tories to breach Labour’s “Red Wall” — its working class strongholds in the north of England.

How to win those voters back was the question hovering over Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool this week, which I attended. Labour is not alone; throughout Europe, center-left parties have borne the brunt of the working-class revolt that fuels national populism. In France and the Netherlands, for example, the mainstream center-left parties have nearly disappeared.

Where the center-left is in power – the United States, Germany, Spain – its grip is precarious. Democrats are hanging onto Congress by their fingernails ahead of difficult midterm elections. Olaf Scholz last year became Germany’s first Social Democratic chancellor since 2005. But owing to the country’s fragmented party politics, he must share power with two parties of very different outlook: the Greens and pro-market Free Democrats.

Labour’s prospects, however, are looking up after a 12-year exile from government. Over the past two years, party leader Keir Starmer has methodically exorcised the dogmatic socialism that took possession of Labour under its previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn. That’s entailed shifting power from leftwing unions and young activists to pragmatic Labour MPs more interested in winning elections than enforcing ideological conformity.

The Tories last week gave Labour an unexpected gift by unveiling a plan to slash taxes on companies and individuals, including the wealthy. Sounding like U.S. “supply side” conservatives of the 1980s, Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng claimed the cuts would unleash business investment and growth.

But markets have reacted badly to the package, which would swell the public debt and, with inflation already running at around 10 percent, likely trigger higher interest rates. The pound’s sinking value to near-parity with the dollar dominated the news across the UK this week.

Tonally, the Liverpool Conference couldn’t have been more different than Labour’s 2018 Merseyside gathering, which I also attended. It opened with the singing of the UK’s national anthem, “God Save the King,” whereas the “Internationale” rang out four years ago as Corbyn trumpeted Labour’s return to doctrinaire socialism.  

Labour paid dearly for that ideological binge in 2019, suffering its worst electoral defeat since 1935. Led by Boris Johnson, the Conservatives amassed a 365-seat majority, including flipping 60 seats in Labour’s working-class bastions in the Midlands and north.

The Corbynistas blamed Brexit, and it was certainly a factor. But post-election polls showed that Corbyn’s unpopular hard left views were the biggest cause of Labour’s wipe-out. Now Johnson has been deposed and Labour is running about nine points ahead in polls.

Although short on charisma, Starmer, a London lawyer, has been competently steering his party back toward electability. “A fairer, greener future,” was the conference’s anodyne theme. In his speech Tuesday, Starmer laid heavy stress on the economic benefits to Britain of moving briskly to a “net zero carbon” economy by 2030. He and his team went out of their way to describe Labour as “pro-business and pro-worker” and committed to fiscally responsible growth.

But Labour strategists privately acknowledged that Starmer will need to do more to reassure middle class voters that Labour can deliver more economic dynamism, not just more welfare spending and higher taxes, while also addressing cultural anxieties around immigration, trade and national identity that are driving working class voters rightwards.

The same could be said of Democrats. Across Europe, as in the Republican Party, rightwing nationalists are converging with mainstream conservative parties. The progressive response can’t be a leftwing populism that is hostile to free markets and private enterprise and dismissive of working class voters’ sense of economic and social displacement.   

Labour tried that under Corbyn, with calamitous results. Democrats dodged that bullet by choosing Joe Biden over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or some other unabashed progressive in 2020. Instead, the key to success for both parties is to make inroads among alienated working class voters, who form a majority of the electorate in both countries.

That will require reorienting economic policies now tailored mainly to college-educated professionals around the struggles and aspirations of non-college workers for better skills, jobs and career prospects. It will also mean embracing cultural moderation and common sense on issues of crime and public safety, immigration and race and gender.

Only with a new politics of persuasion and addition can the center-left stem today’s tide of national populism.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags Conservative Giorgia Meloni Great Britain Italy Jeremy Corbyn Nationalism Populism Tories United Kingdom white nationalism

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