The Progressive Post

Young and progressive: How the Portuguese left can maintain the support of millennial voters

23/02/2017

In the days after Donald Trump’s shocking victory in late 2016, one image was widely shared on social media: a mostly blue map of what the result would have been if only 18 to 34 year-old voters had participated in the Presidential election. Although visually compelling, this isn’t surprising: millennials tend to be significantly more progressive than the average voter.

The current Portuguese government – led by the Socialist Party since November 2015 with the support of the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda), the Portuguese Communist Party and the Greens – is often mentioned as a rare success story of progressivism in the European Union. Its survival in the medium-term requires recognising that Portuguese millennial voters are an important category whose support is crucial.

Polls repeatedly show that the Socialists would win comfortably if there were a new election. The Portuguese “geringonça” (the word used by right-wing commentators to dismiss the left alliance – roughly translatable as “contraption”) offers the left a recipe for survival in a changing political landscape: collaborating with minority parties and offering a clear alternative to pro-austerity, pro-trickle-down economics. Since it came into power, the government has fulfilled most of the measures included in the agreement that it signed with the left-wing parties: the minimum wage has been increased, the cuts in pensions by the previous government have been reverted and the tax system has been made more progressive, among other policies. In this context, how can the Portuguese left renew its mutual agreement and strengthen the support that it receives by millennial voters?

A rare yet thorough study of millennials has recently been undertaken by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies with its Millennial Dialogue, which defines the category as encompassing 15 to 35 year-olds. Although it hasn’t been replicated in Portugal, its results in several other countries are clear: “they are consistent in seeing health and happiness as a priority’ and in expecting that ‘public spending […] be directed to the health policy agenda, jobs creation, education, fighting poverty and establishing [a] green economy”.

Although more detailed research is needed, these findings suggest nonetheless that further action within a key set of policy areas at domestic level would be crucial to maintain or even strengthen the support of millennial voters, namely regarding the changing nature of work, sustainable development, and economic thinking.

First, it is well known that the increase in freelance, portfolio and non-linear careers disproportionally affects millennials. In this context, the left should endeavour to build legal frameworks opposing the equation of flexibility with precarity. Additionally, Portugal could join Finland and other countries in experimenting with schemes such as a universal basic income and it could encourage research on alternative tax policies that could fund this or other new social security schemes in the future.

Second, millennials are not only aware of the urgency of sustainability but repeatedly express their desire to develop more sustainable consumption patterns (as FEPS’ report makes clear). In this context, Costa’s decision to continue the investment in renewable energy that characterised the government of former prime minister José Sócrates is good news. The Portuguese left must not waste the opportunity to make up for lost time – it should use all the tools that it has at its disposal, including the power to shape the markets with ambitious legislation that speeds up the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

Third, the Portuguese left can contribute to replacing the oft-repeated idea that the private and the public sectors compete against each other with an understanding of the economy as a complex ecology in light of the work of Mariana Mazzucato and others. Specifically, although Costa’s recent investment in tech and in start-ups is welcome, the government must be careful not to reproduce the economic narrative that sees growth and innovation as mostly the result of private efforts. This change of paradigm can have far-reaching cross-sectoral effects, namely regarding the renewal of education policy to foster creativity – a key concern for millennials.

Finally, these changes must be accompanied by strategic action at European level. The scope for domestic progressive reforms is increasingly dependent on how progressive the EU is (or isn’t – as Portugal recently witnessed when it came close to being sanctioned). However, progressives have reasons to remain hopeful. Yes, support for the far-right is rising. However, one must not forget that the SPD may win in Germany in September 2017 and that Benoît Hamon’s leadership of the Socialist Party will lead either to his victory in 2017 or, as is more likely to happen, to an intensification of the renewal of progressive thinking around the continent, including regarding EU reform.

Although the available data is limited, it is safe to induce that Portuguese millennials, who either grew up or were born in the EU, think that the latter must be transformed. Crucially, however, they are likely to support changing it from within – not abandoning it. The Portuguese left can play an important role in this process. It has already shown that it can do so when it welcomed Hamon in Portugal and, with the Bloco de Esquerda, sought to pressure the Front de Gauche to collaborate with the Parti socialiste. This effort to encourage progressive government solutions around the EU that can subsequently reform its institutions must continue, notably in Spain.

The Portuguese left can be a catalyst for long-lasting change both domestically and in Europe. It is up to its leaders to recognise their potential historical role – and to fulfil it. Millennials will be watching.

© Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com
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