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.

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.