The great disillusioned are turning right, not leftby Kumail Jaffer / May 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
The left on the March at the poorly attended 2017 May Day protests © Sameer Rahim The French Election had all the ingredients to create a political shock. An underdog running on a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-austerity ticket, against a pro-European, centrist, ex-investment banker. In the end Emmanuel Macron, the centrist, won the vote comfortably. Some have seen this as a vindication of centrist liberalism, which over the last two years has taken such a battering with the rise of nationalism, exhibited by the election of Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK. But triumphant liberals should be wary of reading too much into the result. The French electorate, like many others, is still disgruntled. Macron succeeded—where Hillary Clinton failed—because he was regarded as the “lesser evil.” Even then, 12 million people abstained, in addition to four million who spoiled their ballots. These voters had little motivation to take part in a broken political system. And let’s not forget the seven million voters who wanted Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the hard left candidate, to win. We shouldn’t discount the left quite yet. That the Front National candidate getting “only” 10.5m votes in a French election could count as a victory for the centre shows how far politics has come in just a few years. Before the 2008 financial crash, it had seemed absurd that fringe parties would see the political light of day: centrist liberalism appeared dominant. In 2009 Barack Obama had just been inaugurated, Gordon Brown oversaw New Labour’s third successive term in power, and Angela Merkel remained as German Chancellor (the great centrist survivor.) But outside the political bubble, anger was brewing. In 2010 came austerity and the start of a popular backlash. Services were cut, public projects underfunded, and the overall quality of life fell. An Oxfam study showed that, as a result of austerity policies implemented in the UK, “the poorest two-tenths of the population will have seen greater cuts to their net income” and that “in 2012, unemployment reached 7.9 per cent, a level last seen in 1996.” However, the centre still managed to hold on. Obama was comfortably re-elected in 2012, along with Conservative “moderate” David Cameron in 2015. But the rise of fringe parties, on both right and left, had started. In 2015, Syriza defeated the centrist incumbents in Greece and Podemos were said to have “ended the two-party system” with their surge in the Spanish elections. The same year, Ukip, the SNP and the Green Party together received almost 22 per cent of the vote in the UK general election. The international hard left and right promised change, albeit in contrasting fashion. While the right promoted nationalism, sovereignty and took a hard stance on immigration, the left ran on a ticket of environmentalism and democratic socialism. Both, however, shared one key aspect—an end to austerity. The growing reactionary and revolutionary movements were able to pull off perhaps two of the largest surprises in the last half century of politics: the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, represented a resounding rejection of centrist liberalism. It’s wrong to say these voters were merely xenophobes or racists: they were alienated, looking for a clear alternative. How do we know this? In the case of Brexit, there is a clear correlation between economic downturn and the vote to leave. One study carried out by the University of Warwick explained that “‘weak’ socio-economic fundamentals are strong predictors of the Vote Leave share” and “even just a slightly more moderate regime of austerity could have substantially reduced support for the Vote Leave campaign.” Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s promises of investment and growth through stimulus were, according to the Financial Times, “another sign of Mr Trump’s drive to disrupt the status quo.” FiveThirtyEight noted that “Donald Trump performed best… in places where the economy is in worse shape, and especially in places where jobs are most at risk.” Clearly, we cannot pin these two votes wholly on intolerant sentiment, though in both cases, immigrants provided an easy scapegoat. However, all is not polarising in the political world. In the Dutch, Austrian and French elections, voters opted for the status quo, despite their discontent. To vote for structural or monumental change, requires the alternative to be viable, stable and most importantly, an improvement. It raises the question over whether fear of nationalism has been overhyped—and whether the shocks in 2016 were simply outliers, rather than a growing trend towards the far right? Let’s not be fooled. Far-right voters returning to mainstream political parties doesn’t indicate a change in the electorate. It’s more that centrist parties are absorbing and pandering to the nationalist message. The UK local elections on 4th May overwhelmingly showed Ukip voters migrating to the Conservatives. Nigel Farage’s former party held just one of its 146 seats from 2012, while the Tories increased their voting share by 8 per cent. As the Tories pushed for a hard Brexit, the lost sheep had returned. The success of the far right, as reflected by their integration into mainstream politics, is a solemn indication of the struggles of the left. It’s not all bad, of course—the rise of figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders and the past concrete electoral successes of Podemos and Syriza should provide encouragement. But the Democrats rejected Sanders, the electorate look set to reject Corbyn; meanwhile, the current stagnation of the Greek and Spanish left should concern us. The left’s failure to launch a winning political movement can seem baffling—surely promises of universal healthcare, free university education and rail nationalisation are more attractive than more austerity? Poor leadership, media attacks, and a lack of unity within the left have contributed to the narrow losses of the recent past. For example, if Benoit Hamon had withdrawn in favour of Melenchon, the left would have had a representative in the second round of the French elections. Perhaps, most notably, the notion of fear is often a more powerful emotion than hope. Voter turnout has been steadily decreasing in the established democracies, condemning an increasing number of spoilers and abstainers—the great disillusioned—to political irrelevancy. As polarisation continues to widen the political spectrum, traditional liberalism will be forced to choose its path, left or right, or continue to dissipate. The centre will become hollowed ground; and the political battle against the powerful “new elite” on the right will need to be countered by grassroots movements from the left. Macron may have given the centre some respite, but in the future liberals will likely continue to lose to populist right wingers. Either way the centre cannot hold. Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.