A future for the Left

Norway and Italy's governments have shown that there is a place for a left alliance in European governments. Ireland's left could learn from them.
By Eoin Ó Broin

In the run up to this year's general election many on the left argued that Labour, Sinn Féin, the Greens and progressive independents should form an alliance offering the electorate a real alternative to coalitions led by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

In Norway and Italy, such coalitions have been in existence since 2005 and 2006 respectively. While each country has its own specific political and electoral histories, both examples provide important food for thought for those on the Irish left who believe that there is life beyond the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael divide.


A country of 4.6 million, Norway has in recent years experienced a healthy level of economic growth, relatively low unemployment and rising oil revenues. From 2001 to 2006 the UN Development Programme ranked Norway first out of 177 nations in their Human Development Index while the International Monetary Fund ranked Norway second out of 232 nations in per capita GDP. A range of other internationally recognised bodies have ranked the country in their top ten on indices such as quality of life, environmental sustainability, competitiveness, and wellbeing of women and children.

Much of the credit for these enviable scores can be laid at the hands of the country's Labour Party who governed Norway until 1981, when the Christian Democratic Party gave Norway its first right wing government.

Since then, however, macro economic policy, whether from the left or right, has moved towards the European mainstream, focusing on reducing tax and public spending levels, privitising public utilities and moving towards EU membership.

However this consensus was broken in 2001 when the Labour Party experienced their worst electoral defeat in 90 years, forcing party strategists to question their adherence to the dominant neo-liberal economic model. The country's powerful trade union movement and a growing section of the electorate were clearly worried at the erosion of the country's progressive economic, social and environmental model of development.

Following a return to the party's core social democratic values, in the 1990s and the construction of an electoral alliance with the Socialist Left Party and the rural based Centre Party, the Red-Green-Alliance ousted the Christian Democratic Party in 2005 election.

Although the incoming government was dominated by the Labour Party, with 61 of the coalition's 87 parliamentary seats, the smaller government partners received 9 of the 19 ministries including key portfolios. Interestingly the Socialist Left Party took Finance, Education, Environment, Development Aid and the intriguingly titled Ministry for the Renewal of Public Services.

The 74 page Soria-Moria programme for government, significantly to the left of the Labour Party's election manifesto, indicated the strength of the left, both inside and outside of the parliament. Key elements of the programme included; no application to join the EU; a change in Norway's approach to the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; no support for military interventions without a UN mandate; the defense of public services and state resources; and strong commitments on workers rights and social and tax justice issues.

However it has not all been good for the left.  Dag Seierstad of the Socialist Left Party's national council argues that the strength of the left in government, disproportionate to its electoral mandate, is a consequence of strong labour and environmental mobilisation, particularly in the two years preceding the 2005 elections. He believes that as a consequence of this external pressure the Labour Party has been loyal to the letter of the programme of government. He cites the “ending of privitisation in the state sector, the reversal of  the previous governments proposed privitisation of secondary education and the restoration of labour laws repealed by the Christian Democrats as the governments major achievements”, all policies which his party put in the programme. However, on “day to day issues of government, not in the programme we have not been able to achieve what we had wanted” he admits.


With a population of 57 million, Italy is contradictory in being host to one of continental Europe's most vibrant and radical left wing political and labour movements, yet dominated by right wing governments for much of the 20th century. However, partly in deference to the strength of the post-war communist movement, Italian Christian Democracy was also more welfarist and social than its liberal northern European counterparts, giving it some of the characteristics of its social democratic counterparts, Germany and France.

Italy is Europe's fourth largest economy, and much of its recent history has been dominated by similar debates to its EU neighbors; how to respond to globalisation. First elected in 1994 Silvio Berlusconi set out to follow the dominant EU trend, promising to “liberalise” the labour market, reduce public spending and introduce tax cuts. But despite serving two terms in office his record was one of rising public debt, lower than EU average growth, and failure to “reform” the systems pension system. Coupled with allegations of corruption and increasing concern with his personal concentration of media and financial power, Italy was ripe for a change of government in April 2006.
 The left of centre coalition that replaced him, in the country's most bitterly fought electoral contest in decades, has also been wrought with problems and divisions from the outset.

Led by former prime minister and president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi the eight party Unity coalition, is made up of four principle parties and four smaller members. While primarily a coalition of the left  – social democratic and former communist – the coalition also contains Christian democratic and liberal parties, all united in their desire to bring about an end to the Berlusconi's era. However, the radical left are in a far weaker position than their counterparts in Norway, both inside and outside of government.

Their first budget, submitted in October 2006, was an indication of the difficulty in straddling the diverse ideological requirements of their coalition partners. Proposing tax increases on high earners alongside €30 billion euros of welfare cuts almost brought the government down. But in the end, despite objections from the left and right, the budget was passed.

Only five months later, and following a massive mobilisation of anti-war and trade union activists against the expansion of the US military base in Vicenza, two senators, from the Green and Refounded Communist parties, voted against a senate resolution supporting the governments foreign policy – including the base expansion. Prodi responded immediately, resigning and calling an emergency meeting of his coalition partners. The outcome was a new 12-point programme for government through which Prodi hoped to assert discipline on any wayward coalition members. Accepted by all of the government partners the programme included commitments on foreign, environmental, family and infrastructure policy none of which are favorable to the left.

After the Vincenza controversy, the Refounded Communist Party publically criticised its senator Franco Turigliatto for voting down the Prodi motion. Turigliatto resigned in protest.

The most recent crisis, further undermining the lefts' credibility in government was caused by Prodi's proposed pension reform, increasing the pension age from 57 to 60. Following protracted and difficult negotiations the government secured the support of the countries largest trade unions, CGIL, CISL and UIL. Secretary General of the Italian Communist Party Oliviero Diliberto lamented that he, “did not expect such a contract”, and was “very disappointed” but was unwilling to vote against the government's finance plan in its entirety.
While the Unity coalition remains in power, the ability and willingness of its left partners continued support for a social and foreign policy programme clearly skewed to the right, is increasingly in doubt.

A future
Italy is often cited by those who argue against the credibility of centre-left coalitions. A right wing coalition given the veneer of credibility by left participation argue some critics on the left. A reforming liberal coalition held back by unreconstructed communists argue critics from the right. However in the end, the size and diversity of the coalition is clearly its biggest weakness. In the absence of clear public support for a left wing government, it is essentially a coalition against something – the inefficiency, excesses and corruption of the Berlusconi era, capable of ousting the former prime minister, but less stable when it comes to government.

For those who believe an alternative form of government is possible Norway provides us with real hope. Supported externally by strong trade union and environmental movements, with a clear and coherent programme for government, and undisputed achievements at a national and international level, it is running against the grain of the current European neo-liberal consensus. That compromise is required to sustain the coalitions without doubt, none-the-less Norway stands apart. Dag Seierstad is correct when he says: “No other government in Europe has stopped privitisation in the state sector. Norway is the only signal in Europe today that another policy course is available.”

Eoin O'Broin is a political activist and writer based in Dublin