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

Voters have punished incumbents of every stripe for hard times.

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

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.