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Europe Is Warning Us

The fascist surge across the European Union is directly down to the bankruptcy of centrist politicians — whose failure in addressing soaring inequalities and deep social problems should haunt Starmer's Labour.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally won 32% of the vote. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)

Far-right parties just posted their best-ever performance in the European elections. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) won 32 percent of the vote, leaving the party with 30 seats in the European Parliament. Macron responded by calling a snap election, which will take place within the next 30 days.

In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy won 29 percent of the vote, gaining 24 seats, up from 6 in the 2019 elections. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) won 16 percent of the vote, gaining 15 seats. Geert Wilders’ People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) increased its vote share in the Netherlands, and Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) won 26 percent of the vote.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen immediately sought to limit the damage by spinning the results as a victory for the ‘centre’. Her European People’s Party (EPP) did perform well, increasing its share of the vote. But other liberal parties, such as the Renew group, saw their vote share decline.

The Greens were down to 52 seats from 71 in 2019, losing significant support in Germany, where they are part of a coalition government with Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party. Climate sceptics saw this as a reaction against unpopular green energy policies.

But there is a far more obvious explanation for this electoral upset. Governments across Europe have utterly failed to shield citizens from the impact of the cost of living crisis. Between 2021 and 2022, household living standards fell in half of EU countries, and real median disposable incomes fell by 2 percentage points.

Growth and productivity have been stagnant in many major European economies for years, and some tipped into recession in 2023. Last year, the German economy shrank by 0.5 percent, while Italy’s grew by just 0.7 percent and France’s by 1 percent.

But things don’t look so bad for everyone. According to Oxfam, between 2020 and 2023, Europe’s billionaires have increased their wealth by one-third. The wealthiest five billionaires saw their wealth increase by 76 percent over the same period.

Oxfam points out that a wealth tax of between 2 and 5 percent could pay for 40 percent of the bloc’s post-pandemic recovery fund. And yet the EU — like most major economies — seems allergic to the idea of introducing a wealth tax.

Without action to address the gaping inequalities that exist within and between European countries, these challenges will not abate. Absent investment to boost productivity, create well-paid, secure jobs and deal with the impact of climate breakdown, economies will continue to stagnate. Absent redistributive policies to support those on low incomes, resentment will continue to grow.

With left parties mainly defeated thanks to years of centrist onslaught, the only parties able to profit from rage against the status quo are those of the far right. These parties will blame migrants and ‘woke’ green politics for falling living standards rather than decades of failed neoliberal economic policies.

Some British centrists might be looking at events in Europe with a certain amount of schadenfreude. The UK’s majoritarian electoral system has, so far, meant that far-right parties have not been as electorally successful as they have in Europe.

But this exceptionalism is misplaced. Firstly, the UK’s own far right surge has taken place within one of the two major parties. In the wake of the vote to leave the European Union, the Conservative Party began to engulf the far right.

Under Rishi Sunak, this trend has continued, with government ministers repeating anti-green conspiracy theories and the government itself attempting to send migrants to Rwanda.

Secondly, the Labour Party is falling into exactly the same trap as Olaf Scholz and Emmanual Macron.

Starmer will come to power in the context of a slow-burning economic crisis, in the wake of the first parliament in modern history in which living standards have declined. Public services are on the brink of collapse and trust in democracy is at all-time lows.

His response is to offer voters more of the same. The party’s fiscal rule commits Labour to balancing the books over the course of its first five-year term, and Reeves has also pledged not to raise taxes on big businesses or the wealthy.

If these policies are retained in office — and we have no reason to believe they will be abandoned — then the Labour Party will be unable to increase spending on public services or reducing poverty. In fact, the IFS has pointed out that sticking to these pledges will require a staggering £20 billion worth of cuts every year.

If a Labour government comes to power promising change and fails to deliver it, trust in democracy will collapse even further. People will rightly conclude that it doesn’t matter how they vote, politicians are all the same, and they aren’t interested in solving the problems faced by the average person.

In other words, people will come to feel even more powerless than they already do. And they will respond to that sense of powerlessness with either apathy or rage. Apathy benefits the centre, but rage benefits the far right.

Voters will lend their support to nihilistic politicians pledging to burn the whole corrupt economic and political system to the ground. They will not promise to make people’s lives better, but they will promise to take revenge on those they claim have made people’s lives worse — whether migrants or the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’.

This is the future that awaits a post-Starmer Britain if Labour fails to change its approach to economic policy.

As I explain in a new video with Momentum, the Labour Party needs to ditch its absurdly rigid fiscal rules and commit to raising taxes on the wealthy and big corporations. Doing so would permit the party to fix public services and reduce child poverty over the short-term, and to invest in decarbonisation, research and infrastructure to boost productivity over the long-term.

The alternative is for Starmer to become the next Olaf Scholz.