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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 economic problems.

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 economy.

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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