Tag Archives: elections

The next UK election: a contest in unpopularity

24 Jan

Continuing in our series of posts on the European Left, Andrew Gamble takes up the case of the United Kingdom and the prospects of the British Labour party in next year’s general election. Though opinion polls have consistently put Labour ahead of the governing Conservative party, Gamble suggests that behind this stability lies a more uncertain and volatile political landscape.  

Andrew Gamble is a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. He is one of Britain’s leading political economists, and author of many critically acclaimed books, including The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism, Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty, Politics and Fate, and The Spectre at the Feast: Capitalist Crisis and the Politics of Recession. Professor Gamble is joint editor of New Political Economy and The Political Quarterly, and a Fellow of the British Academy and the Academy of Social Sciences.

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British politics exhibits a puzzling stability. In the eleven YouGov polls so far in January Labour has had an average lead of 6 per cent over the Conservatives. Its share has fluctuated between 37 and 40 per cent, the Conservatives between 31 and 34 per cent. The other two parties also have been stable; UKIP’s share fluctuating between 12 and 14 per cent and the Liberal Democrats between 8 and 11 per cent.  It has been a similar pattern for a long time now. Labour’s lead has come down but only gradually and there is no sign yet of it disappearing. If this pattern persists, Labour will win the election in 2015 and Ed Miliband will be in Downing Street. Most commentators are perplexed. The recovery from the crash is now finally under way, four years later than expected, and there is good news almost every week; inflation is falling, unemployment is down, and growth forecasts are being revised upwards. The Government is loudly proclaiming vindication for its strategy of austerity and retrenchment. An improving economy is normally associated with increasing optimism among voters about their own financial situation and that of the economy, and greater willingness to vote for the Government. But the polls are not moving.

The Conservatives have also been busy creating clear dividing lines between themselves and Labour, setting traps for their opponents on the deficit, on welfare, on immigration, and on Europe. On all of these issues the Conservatives are more aligned with public opinion than is Labour, which has been forced on to the defensive and has failed to develop policies which are either clear or popular. When to this is added the greater resources of the Conservative party, the strident partisanship of a tabloid press which is strongly pro-Conservative and anti-Labour, and the consistently negative poll ratings of Ed Miliband as Labour leader, it is easy to see why many think Labour is a lost cause. The Conservatives have a winning hand and will surge past Labour in the run-up to the election and win a decisive majority. On this reading of British politics Labour has lost the political argument, and lost the political initiative. It is going down to a second defeat.

Except that is not what the polls are saying. Labour remains for the moment comfortably ahead, and nothing seems to dent its lead. There are several possible explanations for this. One is that Miliband’s personal ratings do not matter as much as many think. All the leaders have negative ratings. Nick Clegg is at – 50, Miliband – 30, and Cameron – 20. That still means that in the comparison between Miliband and Cameron as preferred Prime Minister, Cameron wins, and there is still a barrage of negative campaigning to come. But the Tories do not have an overwhelming advantage. The contest between the party leaders is a contest in unpopularity. Trust in politicians and their ability to deliver what they promise remains low in Britain. Negative ratings are clearly a handicap in an election in which there will be so much focus on the personalities of the leaders, but they will only be one of many reasons why votes are cast.

A second explanation is that Labour has begun to perform better and is making more impact on voters. Since Miliband’s Autumn conference speech in which he announced his plan to freeze domestic energy prices for fifteen months if Labour won the election, Labour has managed to dominate the agenda with its message that despite economic recovery there is a cost of living crisis, and most workers are suffering real wage cuts every year, because wages are rising more slowly than inflation. Asset prices have been protected by quantitative easing, and the average share portfolio has increased by 25 per cent in the last four years. But real wages have fallen, so few people are feeling better off. Miliband’s proposals on energy, and his more recent proposals on splitting up the retail banks, have attracted a lot of scepticism from commentators, experts, and interest groups, but the polls show that they are popular with voters. Some of the pledges may well be hard to implement in government, but Labour has begun to stake out new ground and prevent the Conservatives from dominating the agenda as they have been doing during the last three and a half years. Labour still does not excite much popular enthusiasm, and it is still struggling to regain its reputation for economic competence. But it has begun to do better.

Yet it is hardly doing well enough to explain its poll lead. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may be seriously unpopular, but Labour is not far behind them. There has been no great surge of hope and confidence on the Left. One explanation therefore of Labour’s continuing poll lead is that it is due to the failings and divisions among their opponents rather than because of Labour’s positive appeal. Support for the Conservatives is fragile. They have not won a general election outright or polled over 40 per cent of the vote since 1992. They have tried since 2005 to broaden their appeal but have only partially succeeded. There are still parts of the country where voters who have deserted the Conservatives show no sign of returning. The modernisers in the party complain that the modernisation project has stalled and that in some policies the party has started going backwards, alienating the voters it needs to secure a majority. But the Right complains that the reason the modernisation project has stalled is because it has lost the party many of its core voters to UKIP. At the 2010 election UKIP had only 3 per cent of the vote. Its share of the vote over the last two years has been above 10 per cent, and in some by-elections and local elections much higher. It is expected to do well in the European Parliament elections in May. UKIP is increasingly taking voters from Labour, but the polling evidence shows that the majority of its support comes from the Conservatives. It is the loss of Conservative defectors to UKIP which, as Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows, is the biggest single obstacle to an outright Conservative victory at the next election. The party is now doing everything it can to win these Conservatives back, by banging on about Europe, immigration, and crime in the way modernisers deplore. But it is seen as the only way to put UKIP back in its bottle. If it fails it is hard to see how the Conservatives can win a majority at the next election.

All of this makes the next election extremely open and difficult to call. It may well turn into a four party contest as far as England is concerned, and given the vagaries of the first past the post electoral system, the outcome in many seats will be very uncertain, since it will increase the number won by very small majorities and minority votes. If both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats maintain their present level of support, no party is likely to win an overall majority, certainly not the Conservatives, who have the added disadvantage of the bias in the electoral system. Measures to reduce it were blocked by the Liberal Democrats when the Conservatives failed to deliver on Lords reform.

The Conservatives are waiting for politics to return to normal, with the support for third and fourth parties shrinking as the election approaches, and the improving economy brings their defectors back to the fold. They are confident that in a straight fight with Labour they will win. But just as the economy did not behave as expected after the financial crash, neither is the political system behaving as expected now. The kippers are on the march, and there is a sizeable body of Conservative MPs who sympathise with them, particularly on their call to withdraw from the European Union, and to impose much more stringent immigration controls. The disaffection of Conservative voters is proving hard to reverse, because the Conservatives cannot outbid UKIP in its populist stances on either the EU or immigration. Short of backing withdrawal from the European Union, and freezing all immigration, the Government can never satisfy UKIP demands. But unless they can find a way to reduce UKIP’s appeal in the next sixteen months, they will struggle at the next election.

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François Hollande, a year on

7 May

hollande

A year into his Presidency, François Hollande is struggling. Of all the analyses made of his first year in office, very few have been positive. At The Current Moment, we commented extensively on the elections a year ago and on Hollande as a leader (see here, here and here). A few points are worth reiterating to make sense of today’s widespread disappointment.

It is important to remember that what secured Hollande’s victory a year ago was the prevailing anti-Sarkozy sentiment. Some of that feeling came from a rejection of the substance of Sarkozy’s presidency and so signalled a real endorsement of Hollande’s agenda. But much of the anti-Sarkozy feeling came from a reaction against his style: showy, celebrity-focused, hyperactive, lacking the gravitas expected of the President of the Republic. This list could go on.

Far from challenging this superficial rendering of politics as a matter of competing styles and personalities, the Socialists launched their own brand: normality, embodied in the rotund (but much-slimmed) cheeriness of François Hollande. He enjoys football, he makes jokes, he will govern through the country’s institutions and not above or alongside them. The notion of the ‘normal presidency’ never really stuck, not least because it lacks any capacity to inspire. But it did just enough to give Hollande the election victory on May 6th. Other factors counted too of course: his promise of a 75 per cent tax on incomes above 1 million Euros was timed perfectly to play on the anger felt towards high earners living in luxury at a time of social crisis. Even then, Hollande’s victory was wafer thin. He edged in front of Sarkozy by very little in the first round (28.63% to Sarkozy’s 27.08%) in comparison to Sarkozy’s thumping victory against Ségolène Royal back in 2008. In the second round, Hollande secured 51.64% of the vote, to Sarkozy’s 48.36%.

Throughout the campaign, the gap narrowed between the two leading contenders, transforming what many thought would be a sure victory for the Socialists into a very narrow one indeed. Hollande, an unremarkable figure until then, tipped by few as a likely winner for the presidency, certainly held his nerve. More than anything else, though, he was in the right place at the right time. This explains why his popularity has plummeted. Constructed on the back of the antipathy towards Sarkozy, the fading memory of the latter brings with it a steady erosion in Hollande’s popularity. This is not a problem of voters forgetting the past too easily. It is a product of the negative and opportunistic campaign of the Socialists in 2012.

Hollande’s difficulties today are also to do with what has happened since May 2012. The gay marriage bill has been pushed through but at the expense of a widespread societal mobilization against it, one that brought many people out of their provinces and onto the esplanades of the country’s capital. This author remembers seeing dozens of coaches, all full to the brim, tearing through the Bois de Boulogne on a Sunday morning on their way to an anti-gay marriage demonstration and all coming in from well outside of the capital and its surrounding suburbs.

One event that hit the government particularly hard was the Cahuzac affair: the admission by a government minister, the minister for the budget no less, after many months of denial, that he had a bank account in Switzerland which he kept hidden from the French taxman. The reason the Cahuzac affair has been so damaging for the government is that Hollande’s critique of capitalism, and in particular those private companies and private individuals that escape paying taxes, was always a moralistic one. Hollande presented his case against finance as a moral crusade: it was a war against the vulgar anti-egalitarian materialism of the financial class, fought in the name of the republican values of common good and a sense of patriotic duty attached to contributing to the public coffers.

Cahuzac’s secret Swiss bank account struck at the heart of this moral crusade by bringing those corrupt values into the heart of Hollande’s cabinet. In some ways, Hollande can’t be blamed for having trusted someone who then betrayed him. To misjudge someone’s character is something we have all done at some point. For Hollande, the difficulty was that there was nothing other than this moral crusade underpinning his critique of capitalism. What could have been dismissed as a mere personal failing on the part of an individual, had Hollande’s critique been more substantial, has had the effect of a devastating blow.

This crusade against finance has also been exposed to the harsh winds of the continuing national and European crisis. On this, the French government has managed to achieve very little. A central plank of Hollande’s campaign was his promise to rewrite the European Fiscal Compact, notably by injecting into it a strong growth component. Even at the time, it seemed improbable that Hollande – after the election – would travel to Berlin and tell Angela Merkel what to do. Unsurprisingly, very little in the Compact was changed and Hollande has so far struggled to dent Merkel’s determination to stick to her austerity agenda in the run up to elections in Germany in the Autumn. Promising a radical shake up of France’s sclerotic economy, Hollande commissioned a report from prominent industrialist, Louis Gallois. Focused on competitiveness, Gallois suggested a number of ‘shock’ measures which the government chose to ignore. Hollande may still pursue a reform agenda, by bringing Gallois or someone like Pascal Lamy into a more technocratic cabinet after a summer reshuffle. But there is little momentum in either the reforming or the staunchly anti-austerity direction, leaving all sides unhappy at the government’s immobilism.

Hollande has tended to make his case by courting fellow travellers, latching onto Southern European leaders like Rajoy, or more recently Enrico Letta, whose national difficulties expose the limits of the German austerity agenda. Alliance-building, however, is no substitute for a programme. As remarked upon by Current Moment co-founder Alex Gourevitch, the fact that the case for austerity is currently unravelling has more to do with the pain it is inflicting on European societies and rather less to do with any political alternative being proposed by its growing army of critics.

A note on the first round of the French elections

23 Apr

With one of The Current Moment editors based in Paris, it is difficult not to post on last night’s first round of the French presidential elections. And after the unedifying spectacle of different politicians talking over each other for hours on end on French TV, a few ordered thoughts will not go amiss.

François Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate, has come out on top, as most people expected. With 28.63% of the vote, he was a little ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing president, who secured 27.08% of the vote. What is surprising is how close these two scores were. There is some variation in the scores, depending on how you round them off, but there is little evidence of Hollande having pulled away dramatically from Sarkozy. Hollande’s victory in this round is far less decisive than Sarkozy’s was in 2007. Back then, Sarkozy won the first round with more than 31% of the vote, the socialist Ségolène Royal winning just under 26%. Watching the speeches each candidate gave after the announcement of the results, there was no obvious sense of victory either way. Sarkozy even appeared to upstage Hollande by challenging the socialist to three presidential debates over the next two weeks. A typically pugnacious gesture on Sarkozy’s part, Hollande seems to have refused which puts him in a defensive position vis-à-vis the ever combative Sarkozy.

At this stage, it is difficult to tell whether the anti-Sarkozy sentiment in France will be strong enough to sweep him out of power. The results suggest that contrary to many other elections that have taken place in Europe in the course of the crisis (e.g. here on the Spanish elections), the incumbent has managed to hold on to a good deal of support. Given the apparently ubiquitous dislike of Sarkozy, his score appears rather high. We are also seeing at this stage the limits of the Socialist strategy. Their slogan – Le Changement, C’est Maintenant (Change is Now) – highlights how much they have relied upon anti-Sarkozy feeling. Their claim to incarnate change is a weak one. Figures such as Laurent Fabius – a young prime minister under François Mitterand in the 1980s – hardly incarnate change. Rather, there is in the Socialist Party a sense that it is their turn to rule: out of power since the mid-1990s, their rightful place was usurped by a victorious Sarkozy in 2007. Now, their turn – long overdue – has come. It is this kind of sentiment – less evident in Hollande than it is in his entourage – that helps fuel support for the more marginal parties.

The first round result was noteworthy perhaps above all for the high scores of the far-right Front National and the left-of-the-left party, the Front de Gauche.  Much of the campaign had been taken up by this struggle between Marine le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the populists of the right and of the left. Polls had credited the Front de Gauche with up to 15% of the vote but Mélenchon obtained on the night 11.13%. Marine le Pen, who had often been pushed back to fourth place in the polls, came a powerful third with 18.01%. It is difficult to assess what this means for the next round. Le Pen is expected not to give any clear sign that her supporters should vote for Sarkozy and many may not vote in the second round. Mélenchon called on his supporters to vote against Sarkozy, but held back on the night from openly calling on them to support Hollande – a tortuous position to hold if ever there was one. If we judge from the feeling that prevailed on the Sarkozyste right that “all is to play for”, there is no doubt some of that bullish sentiment comes from the hope that they can win over most of Le Pen’s supporters in the second round. Sarkozy’s speech last night – making much of patriotism, strong borders and economic protectionism – was an obvious pitch to Front National supporters. And the Socialists may find themselves in an uncomfortable position of trying to secure the votes of the virulently anti-FN Mélenchon supporters whilst at the same time sending conciliatory messages to the FN vote about understanding those who are suffering in the economic downturn. Here we see the problems of the Socialist Party: both a centrist and pragmatic (and largely middle class) electoral machine, and a party with a few remaining roots in the French working class.

It is unlikely that either Hollande or Sarkozy will upset the European crisis boat after one of them has been elected on May 6th. Hollande’s main policy on the Eurozone crisis is to reorient macro-economic governance in a pro-growth direction. This is a very general claim, easily satisfied by cosmetic measures such as affixing the term growth to new European agreements much as was done with the Stability and Growth Pact. It is unlikely that the Socialists would rock the Eurogroup boat by denouncing all existing measures and demanding a return to the drawing board. It is likely that the curious way in which Brussels-based policymaking is able to insulate itself from domestic political currents will continue. What will happen within France, however, is far from clear. The success of the FN might also spell the end of its marginal existence and its transformation into a more mainstream party. There is talk of changing the party’s name, for instance, part of a wider and longer-term exercise in rebranding. But for the moment, the focus will be on what will happen on May 6th.

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