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Analysis / John Grove

Is the Left right about the economy?

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As Europeans navigate a crippling debt crisis, the Left is resurgent. But do left-of-centre leaders have more credible plans for easing austerity and spurring growth than the Right?

France has its second Socialist president in only half a century; the Dutch Labour party came a close second in September’s general election; Britain’s Labour party is at least 10 percent ahead of the governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the opinion polls.

In austerity-hit Greece, where the pain of Europe’s debt crisis is arguably at its most acute, the radical leftwing Syriza party did spectacularly well in a parliamentary poll in June, coming a close second. Though it did not ultimately form a government, its strong showing reshaped Greece’s political landscape and it appears to have won many of its votes at the expense of the more moderate Socialist Pasok party.

With a parliamentary election due in EU paymaster Germany next autumn, there are also signs that the Left could do well there. Though support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives appears firm for now, other factors affecting putative coalition partners mean she may be forced to form a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats like the one she led from 2005 to 2009.

There can be no doubt that a difficult economic backdrop to what some—but not all—are hailing as a resurgence of the Left is shaping changes in public opinion. The single currency’s sovereign debt crisis, the imposition of harsh austerity measures in many countries, and falling living standards in some—particularly in nations such as Greece, Portugal and Spain—are dominating political debate. The crisis and how it is tackled has been at the heart of every election this year and with no immediate end in sight is likely to dominate the ballot box for years to come.

Although the terrain is constantly shifting, the battleground between Left and Right has been broadly mapped out. The Right is preaching austerity and maximum fiscal discipline, while the Left is holding out the prospect of a softer, more gradual form of austerity coupled with a pro-active growth agenda. That, at least, is the rhetoric, though harsh economic reality on the ground is forcing policymakers to constantly adjust their prescriptions and reducing their room for maneuver.

Though it’s still early days, it is clear that French President Francois Hollande sees himself as the de facto leader of Europe’s pro-growth Left. France is a core EU member state and Hollande has tried, with mixed success so far, to take the lead when it comes to promoting a specifically leftwing approach to tackling the crisis. Soon after taking office, he pointedly invited Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, to visit the Elysee Palace, affording him a reception close to that of a premier. “Hollande undoubtedly sees himself as a future leader of a left which is coming back to life,” Denis MacShane, a former Europe minister under Tony Blair, told The New York Times at the time.

Hollande’s claim to that mantle is boosted by two factors. He is the only leader of a large European nation to come from the centre-left, and France, because of its historically close relationship with Germany in recent decades, enjoys a degree of influence over Berlin that is particularly relevant at such a time of economic crisis. But while Hollande’s success at the ballot box is indisputable—along with the rise of leftwing sentiment in parts of the 27-nation EU—it is likely to take several more strong leftwing showings at the ballot box in other countries to cement what remains for now a nascent trend.

For left-wingers are not the only ones to have seen their popularity surge on the back of economic pain. Far right populist parties in Greece (Golden Dawn) and France (National Front) also polled well this year, and there are signs that Italian voters, among others, may also be warming to populism. In fact, polls show there is growing disenchantment with mainstream political parties across the EU and that voters are increasingly eyeing both far left and far right parties.

The last time Europe lived through an economic crisis of comparable gravity, the 1930s, the far right came to power in Germany and Italy. If the Left today is to build on the beginnings of its own resurgence, it will need to make sure it confronts the growth of extremism head-on and provides the EU’s citizens with a tangible roadmap for a recovery in which they can believe, a challenge that centre-right parties also face.

John Grove
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