The writer is a political strategist and former adviser to Tony Blair and Julia Gillard
Gradually and with little fanfare, progressive governments have been taking power all over Europe. But here in Britain, the centre left remains fractured and rather reticent about what it would do in power.
Keir Starmer has made it absolutely clear that the UK would not rejoin the EU if the Labour party form a government after the next general election. But it is time that he and his Shadow Cabinet get over to the EU and speak to the growing number of governments led by fellow-travellers.
When Tony Blair was at his peak of popularity in Britain, France had a socialist prime minister in Lionel Jospin, Germany had a Social Democrat chancellor in Gerhard Schröder and the centre-left “Third Way”, bolstered by Bill Clinton’s tenure of the White House, briefly looked like a dominant political pattern.
All this was swept aside by populist parties after the 2008 financial crisis and the worldwide recession and austerity that followed. The 2015 wipeout of the Greek socialists led to the coining of a new term, “Pasokification”, to describe the electoral destruction of once powerful mainstream left and centre-left parties.
Yet last year’s victory for Germany’s Social Democrats means that more than half the population of the EU currently live under a centrist or centre-left government. How these parties have won and retained power has big lessons for Starmer if he’s willing to listen.
Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, should be top of the list. His election campaign was a masterclass. First, he turned his stolid character into a strength — a man with a plan and the capabilities to deliver it. A similar pitch would provide Labour with a distinctive offering to British voters, and a contrast to Boris Johnson and his record.
Then, Scholz managed to find a new language for decarbonising the German economy. It was, he said, a great re-industrialisation. This sidestepped the polarising language of the Green New Deal, which makes blue-collar voters fear middle-class politicians are coming for their wallets. And he offered “respect” — one of Keir Starmer’s key words — “for those who work”: a nice bridge to the working-class voters who abandoned Labour in droves at the 2019 general election.
And Scholz’s rapid response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by increasing defence spending shows how to make security core to the centre-left offer.
Meanwhile, the Scandinavians also have lessons for Starmer. The Norwegian Labour party has won after two demoralising defeats in a row. The Danes have managed a balanced position on immigration — a sweet spot that UK Labour still needs to find.
It is not enough for Starmer’s team to say that home secretary Priti Patel is incompetent and unable to stem the flow of boats and refugees across the Channel. Labour needs its own “firm but fair” policies. And in Sweden, the second term Social Democrat government, under new prime minister Magdalena Andersson, is toughening up its language and its actions on law and order. This weakness in her government’s current record has its parallel here, with a crisis of public confidence in policing.
Tough on crime, strong on defence, firm on immigration, focused on workers. This “muscular social democracy” could be a programme specifically designed to win back the “Red Wall” seats that Boris Johnson decisively won on Labour territory last time.
Yet the scale of that defeat makes a Labour majority at the next election a highly unlikely prospect — far more likely is a minority government having to marshall its forces in the House of Commons for every vote.
Here, again, there’s something to learn from a sister party in Europe — this time it’s Spain’s Socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez, who leads a coalition government, dubbed a Frankenstein coalition by the conservative opposition party, and has the slimmest of majorities. But due to a good whipping system they win every vote. There is much in the unflashy competence of Sanchez that Starmer could take as a model.
It has often seemed that if Johnson wants to emulate Winston Churchill then Starmer should model himself on Clement Attlee. With so much to learn from European sister parties, and with a war in Europe, perhaps he also needs to find his inner Ernie Bevin, the Labour architect of Nato.