World

The Center Can't Hold: Radical Left and Right Parties Pick Up Votes Across Europe

Center ground parties will repeatedly fail unless they can offer new solutions to the economic problems Europe faces.

Candidates for the Board of the German Pirate Party.
Photo Credit: Erik Möller

All over Europe, the post-war ‘catch-all’ political parties of left and right are in decline, losing vote share to new parties and other rising forces across the political spectrum. Centre-Right parties are struggling to contain surges of anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic and sometimes avowedly racist populism.  Centre-Left parties have leeched votes to environmentalists, socialists and radical liberals.  Regional and civic nationalist parties drain support from both.

In a recent blog, Paul Mason argues interestingly that we are witnessing the collapse of the liberal centre ground under the pressure of Eurozone austerity. Stuck in recession, with rising unemployment and falling living standards, and deprived by Bundesbank orthodoxy of the tools necessary to kick-start economic growth, European political leaders are finding their voters splintering off to the radical left and right. Voters are turning elsewhere, as they did in the 1930s.

There is a lot of truth in this diagnosis. Until recently, the conventional wisdom has been that voters turn to conservative parties after recessions because they trust them to restore the public finances and safeguard their living standards. But Sarkozy’s defeat by François Hollande in the French Presidential elections, and the surge in support for the radical Left and far Right in Greece, suggests instead that incumbents are being punished, whatever their hue, for their failure to resolve the crisis in European capitalism. Indeed, in a forthcoming essay in IPPR’s new journal, Juncture, the US political scientist Larry Bartels analyses thirty one elections that have taken place since the beginning of the Great Recession, and finds that “voters have simply, and even simple-mindedly, punished incumbents of every stripe for hard times.”

Does this mean a return of the politics of the 1930s? The analogy breaks down quite quickly. For a start, late capitalist societies are relatively rich, as Mason himself recognises, and so living standards do not fall so far as to cause mass immiserisation. That inhibits radicalisation. Although large minorities of voters can be mobilised behind racist parties, European societies have also built legal and electoral bulwarks against fascism since World War II. Historical memory plays a restraining role too (although European economic policymakers appear to have forgotten elementary economic lessons from the 1930s). We are not arriving at a moment of choice between socialism and barbarism, to coin a phrase.

Nonetheless, Mason is surely right that centre ground parties will repeatedly fail unless they can offer new solutions to the economic problems Europe faces. The immediate question is whether the balance of forces will change in Europe as countries tip into recession and voters reject austerity measures. Hollande’s victory in France has shifted one pole of the Merkozy axis and this will be reflected in a new focus on growth in EU policymaking. A boost to the European Investment Bank’s spending plans is likely, while deficit reduction policies will be slowed down in countries where they are patently not working, as Hollande has promised for France (albeit by a very modest amount). The German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, has also indicated that he would be willing to tolerate higher inflation in Germany in order to boost consumer demand and redress the Eurozone’s underlying imbalances. This is an essential long-term step.

Yet if Greece leaves the Euro - and even if it stays - none of this will be enough. The Germans must give more ground, particularly to allow the European Central Bank to issue Eurobonds. The ECB needs to act like the US Fed or the Bank of England and stand directly behind the sovereign debt of the Eurozone nations, something that the German government has resolutely refused to countenance thus far.

Voter discontent is now moving closer to Angela Merkel herself. The CDU registered its worst result since the Second World War in elections the State Parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia last Sunday, getting thumped by the social democrats in what are usually taken to be bellweather votes. Unfortunately for the European centre-left, however, it is not obvious that this stunning result will translate into success for the SPD at the 2013 general election. Lots of local factors were at work in the North Rhine-Westphalia, while the rise of the Pirate Party (gaining 8% in recent state elections and up to 13% in national polls ) has eaten into the Green and SPD national vote shares, making a Red-Green coalition less plausible. The SPD will resist another Grand Coalition, fearing that it would get sucked up and spat out - which leaves Merkel flirting with the idea of a Black-Green coalition.

The rise of the Pirate Party is the complicating factor. It doesn’t sit easily with the Mason thesis. Pirate Party voters are young, urban professionals. In large part, they are the sons and daughters of Green Party activists and voters: a sort of post-political New Left. They mix libertarian concerns with copyright reform, web freedom and opposition to surveillance technologies, with a stress on direct democracy and participative policymaking (“updates are available for this system” is one of their popular election slogans). Network technologies endow them with identity and organisational modus-operandi. Instead of traditional party organisational structures, they crowd-source activists and policy agendas. They tell the electorate that they are asking questions for which voters have the answers – Wiki politics with a deliberative twist.

This is the politics of prosperity, not austerity, and it is no accident that the Pirate Party movement started in wealthy Sweden before travelling south to Germany.  It represents a different sort of dynamism in the new electoral landscape to that produced by austerity.

The feature common to both is the decline in trust in established mainstream parties. This is the historical bet that in the UK Ed Miliband has made: that there will be no return to pre-crash politics as usual. A new political order will be born even if nobody can yet describe its contours. Those Still Partying like its 1995 (in the title of Graeme Cooke’s 2011 IPPR report on Britain’s emerging political sociology) will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Sarkozy has already passed into posterity; in the weeks and months ahead we’ll find out who else will join him.

 

 

Nick Pearce is Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.