Labour can learn from the success of European modernisers

  • It’s great to learn from the politics of other nations, but only when you concentrate on those parties making a difference to the lives of those they represent.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

One of the Labour Party’s great strengths is its internationalism; its willingness to look overseas for ideas. Syriza’s growing following on the Left in the UK is just the latest manifestation of this instinct. Indeed, some have cited Alexis Tsipras and his government in Greece as providing lessons on how we should reconnect with the country.

Yet Britain is not Greece. The Greek unemployment rate is around 25 per cent compared with our 5.5 per cent. Half of their under-25s are out of work compared to 15.9 per cent of ours. We have our own currency, they do not. The British state, though badly in need of modernisation, is not dysfunctional. Greece’s social problems are of a different order to those of Britain. So to compare our country’s situation to that of Greece’s belittles the extraordinary hardships facing the Greek people.

Moreover, Syriza has — by any objective standard — failed in its mission. It offered Greece a fantasy of economic weightlessness: issuing promises it could not keep and mishandling its negotiations with the European institutions. Mr Tsipras told voters they could stay in the eurozone without far-reaching reforms. He fell short of his rhetoric, fruitlessly prolonging the suffering of ordinary people in what had been the fastest-growing economy in the euro-zone before he came to office.

Today I am in Rome visiting a better international example of how to govern from the Left. In February 2014, Matteo Renzi became Prime Minister of Italy at the head of a coalition led by Labour’s sister party — the Partito Democratico — and committed to combining economic competence with social justice. His government has since cut taxes for 10 million low earners and made it easier for firms to take on staff. It’s made the Italian state leaner and more effective by, for example, modernising the electoral and legislative systems to produce more stable governments. It is boosting access to credit for small firms and tackling educational under-performance by hiring 100,000 new teachers.

Doing this has not been easy. Renzi came to power at a time of immense political stress. But his government’s dynamism is bearing fruit. In the month in which his labour reforms started operating, 92,000 additional jobs were created and new long-term contracts increased by 49 per cent year-on-year. Italy’s exports are expected to grow by almost six per cent this year and next.

Britain’s economy and politics are markedly different to those of Italy. But Renzi, like other modernisers in European politics, such as France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron, offer lessons from which we in Labour can learn: legitimising the state means constantly improving its performance; to be truly radical is to effect substantial change, improving the lives of ordinary people; there is nothing Right-wing about the careful use of public money, nor anything inherently Left-wing about the politics of grievance.

That’s the thing with an international outlook: it’s great to learn from the politics of other nations, but only when you concentrate on those parties making a difference to the lives of those they represent. The only lesson of Syriza is that fantasy politics does nothing to help people get on in their lives. The can-do, radical approach of leaders such as Renzi, by contrast, is an altogether better model to emulate.