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How the Left Lost the Italian Election

Enrico Letta fought on Giorgia Meloni’s terms.

Enrico Letta
Italian Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta meets with other European socialists in Brussels, June 23 (PES)

The votes have been counted in 61,400 polling stations and they confirm what the exit poll told us on Sunday night: Italy has lurched to the right.

But not by much.

The four right-parties have 44 percent of the votes. That’s up from 37 percent in 2018, but closer to their historical average.

The right has become more right-wing. The Brothers of Italy, whose support went up from 4 to 26 percent, didn’t win many new voters; they cannibalized Matteo Salvini’s (formerly Northern) League, which has been reduced to a party of Po Valley homeowners and businessmen who despise the Italy south of the Arno River. Giorgia Meloni would lead Italy’s first right-wing government since Silvio Berlusconi stepped down in 2011, and the most right-wing government since the end of World War II.

The south, including Sardinia and Sicily, has about a third of the Italian population but not even one-fifth of its industrial base. It stuck with the Five Star Movement, the party of the left-behind Italy.

Ideologically and geographically, the social democrats are fighting a war on two fronts from their strongholds in Emilia-Romagna (the region around Bologna) and Tuscany (Florence). They did reasonably well in neighboring Liguria, Marche and Umbria, but there was a time when the left could count on working-class support from the south of the peninsula.

The defection of former party leader Matteo Renzi, and his union with the once-marginal liberals, which got 8 percent, also weakened the Democrats from within.

At least the left didn’t shrink

The combined left-wing vote — 25 percent — was the same as in 2018, but that was a setback from 2013, when the left tied with the right at 30 percent; 2008, when it placed behind Berlusconi with an even stronger 38 percent; and 2006, when Romano Prodi got almost 50 percent of the votes.

Back then, the left was united. One of the reasons for the 2018 setback was that the self-proclaimed Blairite Renzi alienated working-class and old-fashioned left-wing voters, who split between the populist Five Star Movement and the purist Free and Equal, now the Greens and Left Alliance. That division hasn’t healed.

The explosive issue was labor reform. Renzi made it easier for firms to fire workers and cheaper to hire workers on a permanent contract. I thought he was right to, but I’m a liberal (and now so is Renzi). The liberalizations offended the unions, which meant they offended the left, and Renzi failed to persuade low-income voters the new rules would help them find jobs, and better-paying jobs

Democrats have been self-absorbed

Renzi’s personality didn’t help. He was so convinced of his own popularity that he threatened to resign if Italian voters didn’t back him in a referendum on Senate reform. They didn’t. A student of British politics, Renzi should have known better. When Ted Heath called an election in 1974 in a bid to break the coalminers’ strike, he asked voters, “Who governs Britain?” It only reminded them that he didn’t.

Renzi, like Heath, resigned. But, not unlike Heath, he maneuvered himself back into the party leadership only to lose a second election and step down again. (Heath lost the leadership to Margaret Thatcher before he could contest another election.)

It all made the Democrats look self-absorbed instead of focused on the everyday concerns of their voters.

So when Enrico Letta, who briefly served as prime minister a year before Renzi, took over as party leader, he didn’t have a lot to work with.

Woke doesn’t work

I like Letta’s mildly technocratic, middle-of-the-road social democracy, but — again — I’m a liberal, not a left-wing voter. If he appeals to me, he appeals to the wrong people.

Case in point: The Guardian reports that Letta’s “passionate defense of civil rights in relation to abortion, immigration and same-sex unions” didn’t impress voters.

It seldom does.

Especially when Meloni, despite her personal opposition to abortion and gay rights, has vowed to weakened neither, and reining in immigration is popular across Italy.

The politics of social justice might appeal to the twenty-something-year-olds who staff Democratic Party campaigns, but how does it help the unemployed single mother in Campania? At least the Five Stars gave her a “citizens’ income” (really a jobseekers’ allowance) of €740 per month. Which Renzi said would “reward the lazy.”

Desperate times call for big ideas

Conservatives win culture wars; the left is better at fighting elections on bread-and-butter issues, like living costs and health care.

It had every opportunity to. Inflation is at a forty-year high. Gas prices are higher than ever. Italy suffered the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe.

Yet neither the left nor the right had groundbreaking solutions to these crises.

The Democrats campaigned on tax cuts for the lowest incomes, higher salaries in the public sector, a minimum wage of €9 per hour and free or low-cost renewable energy. The right ran on cutting sales tax, cutting income tax for the self-employed, raising child benefits, expanding opportunities for early retirement and abolishing the “citizens’ income”.

Meloni and Salvini wisely walked back their earlier flirtations with Vladimir Putin and giving up the euro, making their parties palatable to conservatives, while keeping up their “Italy first” and “let’s take our country back” rhetoric.

The left, nor the liberals, had a convincing alternative. “The other side is worse” may get out the vote in America, but not in Italy. Turnout fell to 65 percent, the lowest in 98 years.