The Guardian view on Italy’s cities: leading a centre-left renaissance?

The surprisingly upbeat autumn for Europe’s centre-left continues. Election wins in Germany and Norway have this week been followed up in the south, where mayoral polls in Italy delivered a string of convincing performances by the Democratic party. Milan, Bologna and Naples all gave strong mandates to progressive candidates; Rome and Turin are likely to follow suit in second round runoffs, which will take place later this month. If all goes well, a nap hand of major cities will be run by centre-left mayors.

The results have been greeted with understandable enthusiasm by Enrico Letta, a former Italian prime minister who returned to lead the Democratic party last March. They prove, he said, that “the right is beatable”, after a period in which the far-right Brothers of Italy party and the nationalist League have consistently topped polls. The particularly poor showing by the League, led by Matteo Salvini, and the brutal ejection of the Five Star Movement mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, has led some commentators to assert that Italian populist movements are finally in decline. But suggestions of a political sea change may be a little premature.

As with French local elections in June, the big story of the polls was arguably the record low turnout. The high level of abstention could perhaps be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the popular but unelected prime minister, Mario Draghi. A former head of the European Central Bank, Mr Draghi was appointed to his role amid political chaos last February, since when he has run a national unity government with a minimum of fuss. Mr Salvini’s bad night means he is unlikely to exit the coalition to try to force an early election. This may be good for efficient administration, leaving Mr Draghi free in theory to govern until 2023. But the combination of voter apathy and sustained technocratic government is not one that speaks of a democracy in rude health.

The results also reflect a broader European pattern, where centre-left parties score victories in large urban areas but struggle to gain similar traction in towns and the countryside. As cities have become hubs for the knowledge economy and high-end services, they have become younger with a more highly educated, liberal population. From London to Lyon, and Milan to Manchester, this is giving a platform for progressive city mayors to showcase centre-left and green values. But winning national elections requires a broader geographic and demographic spread of support. A recent report by the Fabian Society noted that the Labour party has been stacking up support in already safe city constituencies, but failing to make sufficient progress in the towns and villages that comprise the vast majority of its target seats. “The party needs to reconnect outside big cities in towns and villages of every shape and size,” its author concluded.

In Italy, it is support in places such as these that has regularly delivered first and second place in national polls to the Brothers of Italy and the League. In France, they constitute the strongholds of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. To truly shift the zeitgeist, Europe’s centre-left parties must find a way to win outside their metropolitan comfort zones.

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