Portugal's power-sharing success story has vital lessons for Labour

Portugal shows that both pluralism and proportional representation don’t have to hold socialists back – indeed quite the reverse.

Neal Lawson
7 October 2019, 3.46pm
Portugal's Socialist Prime Minster, Antonio Costa, after being re-elected on Sunday
Pedro Fiuza/NurPhoto/PA Images

The re-election of the Portuguese socialist party with an increased share of the vote offers a stark lesson for the Labour Party. Their Portuguese sister party’s success was based on an overt strategy of alliance building and cooperation with other progressive parties and it has worked economically, socially and now electorally. But will Labour learn the lesson?

Back in 2015 António Costa’s Socialist Party was handed the chance to govern as a minority administration after a deep and prolonged period of austerity overseen by the centre-right. As ever in these circumstances there are two options. Either you play hard ball, and in effect blackmail other parties to support you (under the threat of being accused of otherwise bringing the government down and another election). Or, you build a positive and constructive accord for a lasting agreement. It is politics as imposition or negotiation.

Costa and his party chose the latter. It wasn’t a coalition deal they struck with the radical left Bloc and the Communist Party, with places in Government, but a deal over policies and priorities. All parties kept their own identities, worked together where they could on policy agreements, and still disagreed in public when necessary.

Against all the odds the government survived and has an admirable record of ending austerity and bringing down the national debt. It’s far from a ‘coalition of chaos’, the phrase that is tossed about in the UK when the left can’t form a single party majority.

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Now, although only a handful of seats short of an outright majority, the Socialists will again have to negotiate to form a stable government – with Costa saying that is what voters want, and many in Portugal having hoped for exactly this outcome rather than majority control.

Will Labour look and learn? The omens are not good. It isn’t just Corbynism but Labour in general that finds it hard, if not impossible, to share power. The mantra ‘only Labour’ trips off the tongue of Labour politicians because there is a long held and deep cultural belief in the party’s unique ability to deliver socialism and, as they see it, the determination of every other progressive party to block them. Labour, it seems, would rather have all the power or none.

Corbynism struggles even more with pluralism. Jeremy Corbyn’s whole political persona is built on always having been right and therefore never having to change his mind. His first and second leadership victories were taken proof of this. Against all the odds and despite all that time in the wilderness, he was proved astonishingly right twice. The surprisingly good showing at the last election confirmed the intuition of correctness.

Politics for Corbynism is thus about the right people being in control and stopping the wrong people. There is no grey or compromise in this – just good and bad, right and wrong. Again, the Labour Right are really no different – but Corbynism, having been a minority sport for years, has still not worked out how to open up its incredibly tight circle.

But how does such a culture work in a now four-way fight with the Liberal Democrats taking Labour Remain votes and the Brexit Party taking Leavers? Given the polls, the best Labour can hope for is a hung parliament in which it is the biggest party or can command a majority working with others. Then the party will have to decide – to impose or negotiate?

Much of Labour’s problems stem from its reaction to the surprisingly narrow defeat in 2017. It claimed that the 41% was a total vindication of Corbynism, when the reality was that hundreds of thousands of voters had backed Labour tactically. Many won’t do so again. Party loyalties have been eroded even faster since – not least by the Brexit divide. ‘One more heave’ is not going to be enough to repeat the trick of the last election. Back then, from that position of new-found strength, the Labour leadership could and should have started to open out internally and externally to form alliances for big transformative change. Instead, as witnessed by the attempt to rid themselves of Tom Watson, the focus has been on internal control.

Huge and complex problem such as climate change, the march of the machines, an aging population and endemic loneliness require complex answers that no single party or clique within one can hope to answer. Our politics is going to have to become so much bigger, more adapt and agile to meet these challenges. And thankfully, everywhere in the gaps and cracks between the state and the free market, people and organisations are practicing the participative and negotiated spirit of the age. And the networked citizen is replacing the industrial worker as the agent of change.

Labour could attempt to forge a radical post-Brexit agenda on austerity, sustainability and democracy with the best of the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid and the Greens. Or, of course, they can try and go it alone – but what prospect is for a left-wing version of a Thatcherite transformation, or indeed the recreation of the radical success of Labour in 1945, on just 25% of the vote?

Labour should stop obsessing over vote share and focus entirely on seat share. It should extend cross-party talks on Brexit to the economy, democracy and sustainability. Then it might find that its role as lead party in a Progressive Alliance against the Regressive Alliance of Johnson and Farage, creates the conditions not just to win, but govern successfully.

Portugal shows that both pluralism and proportional representation don’t have to hold socialists back – indeed quite the reverse.

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