Europe hasn't swung to the left - or the right

Voters have punished incumbents of every stripe for hard times.

It has become fashionable recently to associate electoral losses of the centre-left, particularly in Europe, with the charge that they are hamemorrhaging votes because they have lost the battle of ideas to the right. Former foreign secretary, David Miliband, articulated this position in a major speech to the LSE last year:

… the European Left is losing elections on an unprecedented scale because it has lost control of the political agenda to a newly flexible right … it has not responded to changes in economy and society; and that to turn things round it needs to address both its deficit in ideas and organisation.

This analysis begs the obvious question about how we should understand the victory yesterday in the French Presidential election for François Hollande. Have voters in France conspicuously rejected the ideology of the right in favour of a more avowedly socialist programme?

Tempting as it is to interpret swings in the electoral fortunes of the left or the right as being powered by voters’ judgments on the policies and ideas of the different parties, the reality may be somewhat more prosaic.  Rather than witnessing any shift in the underlying preferences of voters, today’s electorates might be better understood as being disgruntled with governments’ – of all political persuasion – failure to protect and improve their living standards, or respond to their anxieties and concerns. 

This at least is the view of leading US political scientist, Larry Bartels. In his forthcoming essay for IPPR’s new politics journal – Juncture – Bartels analyses the outcome of 31 elections that have taken place during and after the Great Recession, and suggests that contrary to some pessimistic voices on the left - there is "remarkably little evidence of any systematic electoral shift among voters to right-wing parties."

Instead he offers the following explanation for understanding recent voting behaviour:

[Great Recession] election outcomes have provided little evidence of meaningful judgments on ideologies or policies, and a good deal of evidence suggesting that voters have simply, and even simple-mindedly, punished incumbents of every stripe for hard times.

His proposition is that if you want to understand who will win an election you can do worse than look at levels of economic growth in the two year period – and particularly the final year – before the election.  Of course there are a myriad of other factors at play – voters’ views on the charisma and competence of different leaders for instance – but nevertheless he finds a strong positive relationship between economic growth and incumbent vote shares, as set out in the figure below. 

So what lessons should we draw from Hollande’s victory? 

First, that while the right initially convinced voters that they had better answers to the economic crisis, their failure to deliver has led to them being punished by voters.  Although France returned to growth in 2010 it has been a sluggish recovery at best (1.38 per cent in 2010 and 1.71 per cent in 2011) and predictions for 2012 are even lower. Indeed, Bartels, in his essay accurately predicted that Hollande would win with 52 per cent of the vote in the second round. The French, in other words, have simply kicked out a government which was not delivering growing living standards. 

This implies that David Cameron should beware.  He may have successfully framed the economic crisis as one of debt in home-spun language which voters understood – but he and George Osborne should be careful not to over interpret the 2010 election result (only a partial victory of course) as an ideological triumph. 

With lower growth in 2011 than in France, the recent return to a technical recession, a Eurozone crisis which shows no signs of abating and stagnating living standards for middle and lower income households – the omens for the Tories are not good.

Framing the debate so comprehensively as one about debt and then setting their economic policy – with radical austerity as the raison d’etre of the government – may, ironically, be the reason that David Cameron ends up being just a one term prime minister.  If austerity chokes off growth, it will cut his premiership short as well.

But there is a second lesson. Bartels also argues that the French socialist’s electoral victory should not necessarily be interpreted as an automatic victory for progressive ideas. Just as some over-interpreted the centre-left electoral reverses as ideological reverses and signs of an underlying rightward drift amongst voters, we must not see a Hollande victory as some kind of watershed change in the political weather.  Cold economic winds may have blown them into power, but forging a viable long-term coalition of voters will require the Parti Socialiste to win battle of ideas – it will require policies that work and respond to voters concerns in time for the next presidential election. 

For Labour, Bartels’s analysis offers some hope.  Yes, they need the public to trust them again with the public finances – a not inconsiderable challenge.  But if the UK economy continues to splutter along as many expect then last week’s local election results may not come to be seen as simply a case of mid-term blues for the government.  However, none of this means that radical rethinking and new ideas do not matter for British progressives. Where David Miliband is surely right is in his analysis that the centre-left must profoundly rethink and reshape its ideas on how to create an inclusive and prosperous economy.  It still lacks an understanding of forces shaping the modern British economy, let alone a clear set of ideas to inform a viable response.  Were Labour to win in 2015 they must still have a plan to reform the British economy so it delivers not just growth, but rising real living standards for the majority. Otherwise they too would be as vulnerable to defeat as the other governments that have recently bitten the dust. 

Guy Lodge and Will Paxton are the joint editors of Juncture, IPPR's new journal of centre-left thinking. The first edition will be published later this month.

Supporters of the Greek far-right Golden Dawn party raise flares as they celebrate election results in Thessaloniki. Photograph: Getty Images.

Guy Lodge and Will Paxton are the joint editors of Juncture, IPPR's new journal of centre-left thinking.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.