06 June 1997
Swinging to the left?
This morning, British prime minister Tony Blair addressed a meeting of
European socialist heads of government in Malmo, Sweden and claimed his
government would be 'no 100 day wonder'. Alan Hudson reflects on the
widespread belief that the British and French election results represent a
swing to the left
Many have claimed that last Sunday's results were a victory for the French
left in the same way that the May 1 election was a victory for the British
left. Many have said that Europe was a decisive factor in both elections.
This may have been true of sections of certain political organisations in
search of an identity (eg. the Conservatives) but was not the case for
electorates beset by concerns about their own daily existence.
What is certain is that neither election was about programmatic
alternatives for the way society should be organised but more about how a
new agenda could be defined for the reformation of a political elite. In
fact we are witnessing the first attempts to gain a broader allegiance in
society for such a new elite. The overwhelming experience of recent
election results in Europe has been the ease with which different political
blocks have been disposed. It is clear that we are entering a period of
flux where a variety of elites attempt to develop a relationship with
electorates all too aware of their inability to resolve political and
In Britain, on the basis of a minority vote on an historically low turnout,
we saw a major election success for a party 'New Labour' which totally
rejected all its antecedents. In France there was a limited electoral
victory (not even a simple majority) for an organisation which still
depends on the vote of a decaying organisation (the French Communist Party
[PCF]), a collection of miscellaneous Greens, and the old Tammany
politicians of the city halls of provincial cities.
The new alliance in France with the wheelers and dealers of the green
movement points to the emergence of a new political consensus: a
realignment of the French intelligentsia which finds little or no echo with
the concerns of many. Small farmers in Languedoc and unemployed youth in
the Pays de Calais are untouched. It may tickle the fancy of commentators
in a few arrondissements in Paris and some well placed professionals in
Montpellier but that's as far as it goes.
In Britain the Tory party tried to fashion a new fighting programme and a
new sense of national identity around Europe. But Europe as a political
issue as opposed to a venue for holidays - or as a set of prospective
opponents for football teams - either bemuses or bores most British people
- if not both.
In France Chirac's defeat has been identified with hostility to the
Franco-German alliance and a eurocurrency. In truth the French reaction has
much less to do with Europe than a concern with the
fears and uncertainties that long term recession and intense austerity
measures have brought to French society. The very same insecurities are
also an issue in German politics for all the vaunted strength of the German
A new political elite
The New Labour victory is the envy of European politicians because for the
first time since the end of the Cold War a new set of political
institutions can be seen to be emerging. And with a new set of personnel
ready to take their places in the seats of power.
The fashionable argument is that this is all to do with the insight and
charisma of the people in question! Nothing could be further from the
truth. The New Labour victory and the relative security of the new
administration is predicated on the destruction of the post war consensus
undertaken by the Conservative administration of the eighties. The
alignment between New Labour and the previous administration is epitomised
by the Thatcher-Blair get-together in Downing Street.
This is the element missing from the French election and why the new
cohabitation between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin is most likely to end
in tears. It is not that they disagree in principle but that the old ways
of operating have not been jettisoned with the same ruthless efficiency as
in the Anglo-Saxon model.
The French electorate is as disenchanted as the British. But for the moment
its electoral distaste is still fed into old vessels. We have yet to see a
model for the 1990s in French politics but this should not blind us to the
clapped out nature of old vehicles for sale at knock down prices.
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