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.

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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