São Bento Palace, Lisbon, Portugal. CREDIT: WIKIPEDIA/ CREATIVE COMMONS
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Europe’s socialist success story: the strange rebirth of the Portuguese left

How a left-wing coalition government has functioned better than even its creators could have hoped.

António Costa, Portugal’s prime minister, is unique among Europe’s socialist leaders: he is popular, in power and pursuing a successful alternative to austerity. While populism, nationalism and the financial crisis have eviscerated southern Europe’s other centre-left parties, Costa’s Partido Socialista (PS) enjoys a 13-point opinion poll advantage and his minority government is feted by EU leaders.

The year before the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, Portugal became one of the first Western democracies to enter unknown political territory – albeit, for once, in an encouraging direction for Europe’s enfeebled left.

An unexpected detente between rival left-wing parties followed the inconclusive outcome of the October 2015 general election. The centre-right coalition that had imposed a punitive austerity programme, overseen by the EU and the International Monetary Fund, won the most seats but lost its working majority in parliament. Costa, whose PS finished second, defied constitutional precedent by negotiating an anti-austerity pact with the radical Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP).

The new prime minister described the alliance as “tearing down the last remains of a Berlin Wall”. Costa’s pact was dubbed the geringonça: an odd contraption.

Few predicted this realignment. Nor was it expected to last. Yet more than two years later, Portugal’s “left-wing exceptionalism”, as political analyst Federico Santi describes it, is in robust health.

European parliamentarians applauded Costa on 14 March when he spoke of how an anti-austerity alliance between the mainstream and radical left had shielded Portugal from right-wing populism. “What sets democratic politics apart from populism is that it does not tap into people’s fears… but instead gives them back hope in the future,” Costa told MEPs at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The coalition government has functioned better than even its creators could have hoped. Since the PS administration entered office in November 2015, Portugal has, for the first time this century, caught up with the rest of Europe: economic growth last year reached a 17-year high of 2.7 per cent, above the eurozone average of 2.5 per cent. More than 270,000 jobs have been created over the last two years, while unemployment, which peaked at 17 per cent in 2013, fell below 8 per cent in December 2017 for the first time in more than 13 years.

The government has increased state pensions, the minimum wage and public sector pay while cutting taxes and improving welfare benefits for the lowest-paid. Costa has achieved this at the same time as complying with the EU’s strict fiscal rules, which prohibit budget deficits of more than 3 per cent of GDP. Government borrowing has been reduced to 1 per cent; the lowest figure since the restoration of Portuguese democracy in 1974.

The analyst Santi, of Eurasia Group, is one of many sceptics who predicted an early collapse of the pact or an intractable feud with Brussels. “We underestimated the extent to which the parties on the left were invested in making the alliance work,” he says now.

The geringonça operates on the simple principle that the three parties agree only on the fundamentals of their programme, such as the rejection of austerity. In all other policy areas, they are free to oppose and criticise each other. The deal ensures a working parliamentary majority for the PS (which has 86 seats); the BE (19 seats) and the PCP (15 seats) hold no government positions. This liberates them to condemn Costa’s administration when necessary and maintain credibility with their voter bases. As Antonio Barroso, an analyst for Teneo Intelligence, puts it: “There’s no better way to assert yourself as anti-establishment than not joining the establishment.”

The international context has also helped. Francisco Louçã, who co-founded the Left Bloc in 1999, describes Costa as “the luckiest man in the world” because he took power as the global economic recovery accelerated, boosting Portuguese exports and reducing oil prices. But Louçã also lauds Costa’s fiscal stimulus measures and his decision to challenge austerity with “a policy consistency that voters recognise”.

The popularity of the government, Louçã says, “springs from relief” after the painful 2011 bailout (which led to the biggest public spending cuts in 50 years) and a deep recession. However, he also cautions that “relief is not a policy”. Though returning public sector wages and pensions to pre-bailout levels has helped promote economic growth, meeting EU fiscal targets has led to “a drastic reduction in public investment”.

Louçã, an economics professor who left the BE leadership in 2012 (terms are limited to ensure constant renewal), believes the survival of the left pact depends on developing a long-term strategy that goes beyond providing immediate relief from austerity. This, he says, would include reforming labour contracts, increasing industrial capacity and creating high-skilled jobs that pay young engineers more than €700 a month.

The Portuguese exception has its vulnerabilities. In contrast to Britain as well as the rest of southern Europe, there has been no repoliticisation of the young; just over half the electorate turns out to vote. “Portugal is always the outlier in southern Europe in terms of political participation and there is no sign this is going to change,” says Barroso.

Reproducing Portugal’s successful formula elsewhere is not easy. “The absence of a far-right party, the fact that the PS were in opposition during the bailout and the willingness of the radical parties to work with the moderates is not the case in most other countries,” says Santi. “Rather than a template for other parties to follow, I see Portugal as the exception that proves the rule, what some people see as an irreversible crisis of the moderate left.” 

Peter Wise is the FT’s Portugal correspondent

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.