Cut taxes and trust people to choose

Daniel Hannan

Keir Starmer is swimming against the European current. Across the continent, traditional parties of the Left have been wiped out. The Dutch Labour Party won 5.7 per cent at the last election, the French Socialist Party 1.8 per cent in the presidential election. Only in Scandinavia and Iberia have parties of the mainstream Left clung on. And even that is about to change, with Spain set to give its socialists a brutal clubbing.
Before we get to Spain, though, it is worth delving into why the old Left has seen its support collapse. It has to do mainly with changing work patterns. I don’t expect my children to have “a job” as we understood that word in the 20th century. Rather, they will go through life constantly reskilling, freelancing and adapting as technology accelerates.
Artificial intelligence won’t make us redundant; that claim has been made of every advance in mechanisation since the industrial revolution, yet the number of people in work keeps rising. What it will do is diversify the employment market even more. When machines take on our old tasks, they free us up to find niches that no one had previously imagined. In such a world, parties linked to mass industrialised workforces look not so much old-fashioned as cultish. The structures, slogans and symbols of syndicalist struggle seem to belong, quite literally, to another century.
Each country has its own story, of course. But it is hard to ignore the aggregate shift. Until 1999, the Party of European Socialists, the bloc in the European Parliament that brings together social democratic and labour parties from EU states, had a permanent majority. That year, the year I became an MEP, it lost, sliding from 34.2 per cent of the seats to 29.4. At all but one subsequent election – where it flatlined – the group has slipped further, falling to 20.5 per cent in 2019. Tellingly, Tony Blair could never bring himself to pronounce its name. Knowing how electorally toxic the word “socialist” was, he referred to it incorrectly as “the European Labour group”. Perhaps that is why, of the eight leaders Labour has gone through over the past 45 years, Blair is the only one to have won a general election.
Spain looked like a place where the old enchantments still held a little of their magic. Its prime minister, the handsome and well-spoken Pedro Sánchez was one of the last socialists to be found at EU summits. His party, PSOE, was properly old-guard, with May Day rallies, strong trade union links and a history of class struggle. But PSOE has just lost Spain’s regional elections so badly that Sánchez felt impelled to dissolve the Cortes. His cheerleaders hail it as an audacious move by a clever strategist, but I’m not buying. The reason Sánchez became PM was that he was willing to do something that no previous PSOE leader had considered acceptable, working with the heirs of the Basque terrorist movement to bring down a conservative leader.
He then presided over a coalition of separatists and Left-wing extremists; precisely the kind of wacky alliance, in fact, that Starmer might end up leading here. Almost immediately, he started losing elections – in Galicia, Madrid, Old Castile, Andalusia and, now, the whole country. Sánchez has not brought forward the general election as a clever tactic, but because he would otherwise be slung out by a party that has lost control of parts of the country that it had held continuously since Franco’s death – which, Spain being Spain, means that an awful lot of socialists are about to lose their sinecures and subsidies.
No, our Labour Party will find scant comfort in what is happening across the Pyrenees. But our Conservative Party might learn a thing or two. I spent most of this week in Madrid, where I carried out some unscientific polling. Spanish people are easier to engage in conversation than Brits, because they don’t avoid eye contact. So, in shops, in cafés and in queues (which Spaniards are much better at than they used to be) I would ask about the coming election.
Some things are immediately striking to the British observer. First, young people are not monolithically Left-wing. Indeed, many of them support Vox, the party that overseas commentators almost always describe as far-Right. Second (and this has a lot to do with the first), Spain is not nearly as woke as the Anglosphere. Yes, it has its lapses – one of the things that the opposition held against Sánchez was his support for a gender self-identification law like the one Nicola Sturgeon backed – but not speaking English turns out to be a welcome barrier against the worst forms of American identity politics.
Third, the Right is winning cities. Our last election saw Labour secure its worst result since 1935, yet the party still held Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle, all of Liverpool’s 14 constituencies and two thirds of London’s 73. Spain’s local elections, by contrast, saw advances for Vox in every city except Madrid, where the traditional conservative party, the Partido Popular (PP), extended its already impressive majority. It is here, I think, that our Tories have the most to learn. The head of Madrid’s regional government is the unapologetically Thatcherite Isabel Díaz Ayuso. If the PP had had the sense to make her its national leader last year, it would now be sweeping the board.
Spain had a bad pandemic, combining a strict lockdown with a high death rate. But Ayuso kept Madrid open, campaigning under the one-word slogan Libertad. She went on to cut taxes and give people more choice over which schools and hospitals to use. Her most recent campaign was launched in the bullring. Madrileños repaid her with an absolute majority. All that the Left can do in response – beyond unleashing the personal abuse that female conservatives always seem to attract – is to accuse her of being too close to Vox and, by implication, an extremist.
That incantation, too, is losing its power. Unlike some populist parties in Europe, Vox has always been economically liberal, championing free enterprise and free competition as well as free speech and free association. Yes, its hostility to separatism is very strong, but it weaves that policy into its wider dislike of wokery, arguing that it wants to restore equal citizenship as the primary basis of identity. In any case, unionism is a popular cause in Spain. PSOE accuses Rightists of being nostalgic for the Franco years. But, in a country where you need to be well into your 50s to remember the old brute, that accusation no longer holds force. Rather as the only Brits who bang on about imperial nostalgia are Remainers, so the only Spaniards who keep referring to the dictatorship are Leftists.
If calling your enemies fachas doesn’t work any more, what does? The old infrastructure of organised labour has gone. Wokery in its various forms – racial, gender-based or sexuality-based – is unpopular. Greenery has a certain appeal but, as the sheer expense of net zero becomes clear, voters want it toned down. The strongest argument for the Left is the unpopularity of the other side. Since 2004, when José María Aznar stood down, the PP has been seen by many of its supporters as a milk-and-water alternative to the socialists, who made all the running. That is why Vox came into existence in the first place.
If there is a lesson from Spain’s local elections, it is that voters don’t much care about accusations of extremism. But they do care about rising taxes and rising prices. When Rightist parties are trusted on those issues, the Left has nothing left.
The Telegraph