A Tale of Two Elections

Two extraordinarily different elections occurred last week in Europe. The first, of course, was the 2017 UK general election, which was nothing short of historic. The second, was the French parliamentary elections in the wake of what appeared to be an equally historic presidential election earlier in May. Despite what appears to be a similar dislodging of the political establishment in both countries, these two elections represent divergent outcomes. Let’s take a look at the details.

In the UK, the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn performed beyond the expectations of most commentators. After enduring a year and of half of attacks on his leadership from the right-wing of the party, and after being excoriated for his half-hearted defense of the Remain camp during the Brexit referendum in the summer of 2016, Corbyn surprised everyone by obtaining 40% of the popular vote:  10 points higher than what most establishment polling agencies were predicting, increasing Labour’s seat count to 262 up from 232 in 2015.  Going into the election campaign, Labour was polling a low of 25%. In light of this, numerous grandees from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – many of them from the Blairite faction – publicly hedged their bets against Corbyn’s ability to win the election in the national media, almost on a daily basis. Imagine this if you will:  remember the backlash from Bernie Sanders supporters when Wikileaks leaked the DNC’s hacked emails exposing the Clintonite efforts to marginalize Sanders and prevent him from winning the party nomination. Now imagine that effort, on the part of Labour party elites, but flagrantly out in the open on a continuing basis. Leave it to the PLP to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Now, everyone agrees that Theresa May ran an incompetent campaign:  she was evasive with reporters, she refused to participate in debates with opposition candidates, and her campaign tour was rigidly staged in ways that would make the old Potemkin villages of the Soviet Union seem authentic. But this election was not just about May’s failure. In a sense, there were two elections being fought:  the second Brexit election, which was the focus of May’s campaign strategy, and the anti-austerity campaign, which was Corbyn’s campaign strategy.  Let’s take a look at some of the developments.

First, the UKIP vote collapsed, from 12.7% of the vote in 2015 to 1.8%.  On the one hand, Paul Nuttall’s leadership of UKIP in the wake of Nigel Farage’s departure has been absolutely incompetent. His strategy of ramping up the Islamophobia clearly did not pay off, and the party was wiped out, losing all of its seats in the House of Commons. The Tories expected to mop up the UKIP vote, but this is not what happened. A majority of UKIP voters switched to Labour rather than migrate to the Tories. Suddenly, Corbyn’s half-hearted defense of the Remain campaign doesn’t appear to be as inept as many of his critics claimed back in 2016. Particularly in the Northeast, UKIP voters voted for Labour candidates. Why? Because of the deprivation caused by austerity. Having lived in the Northeast for three years, I can attest to the tribal, yet conservative disposition of Labour supporters. They vote Labour, but they vote for them on class lines that are very specific to the working class culture of the UK. It is easy to see how they could switch to UKIP if they believe that latter are going to protect jobs and social services.  During this election, Labour’s vigorous defense of public sector institutions like the NHS, its promise to nationalize the railways, and its intention to reinvigorate social protection programs are very popular in the midlands and the Northeast, where working class Brits have not benefited from the post-industrial transition of the UK.

Second, Labour benefited from a massive surge in the youth vote. While the media was busy denouncing the weak leadership of Corbyn, he and his allies – and the Momentum movement that supports him – were busy mobilizing young prospective voters and encouraging them to register. Some commentators have labelled this the ‘revenge of the Remainers’, implying that young, aspiring middle class voters – like university students – voted for Corbyn because they realize their mistake in abstaining from the Brexit vote back in 2016. However, it was the Liberal Democrats who fought the election on the terrain of Brexit, promising another referendum in the attempt to undo the damage caused by, and rectify the mistake that is, Brexit. Yet most of the youth vote went to Labour, not the LibDems. While some of this may be explained by tactical voting, there are other factors involved. Rather than campaign on a promise to re-fight the Brexit issue, Labour put forward a platform promising to abolish tuition fees, eliminate student debt, invest in social housing and implement labour market reforms that would end zero-hour contracts. For a new generation of highly educated Brits, the prospect of graduating with university degrees, only to end up with massive debts and precarious jobs signifies a failure of the neoliberal labour market that has been touted by both parties as Britain’s comparative advantage.

Third, the UK election resulted in what may appear to be the beginnings of an electoral realignment. When all the votes were counted, the Tories started off doing better than expected northern ridings, but not enough to win seats. By contrast, Labour did better in southern ridings, enough to win seats from Tories. Labour took back Wales from the Tories and made gains in Scotland at the expense of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Scotland remains the outlier in thiselection. In every other region – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – voter turnout increased.  At the aggregate level, voter turnout – at 68.7% – was the highest it has been in twenty-five years.  In Scotland, however, it declined. In some ridings, it dropped up to eight percent from 2015.  Seemingly suffering from referendum fatigue, the Scottish election seemed to be fought more on class-based lines, with Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all gaining at the expense of the SNP.

At the end of the day, and to the detriment of the Tories, Brexit did not seem to be the decisive factor in the election. Rather, the election seemed to be the first British election in which the social cleavages exposed by seven years of austerity finally became apparent.

On the other side of the channel, we witnessed a significantly different dynamic at play.  Earlier in the spring, the French had their presidential election. As the first round began, we witnessed what appeared to be a significant breakdown of the existing political establishment. On the centre-right, the pro-Putin, pro-Thatcher, Francois Fillion was chosen to lead Les Republicains against the more moderate Alain Juppé. On the centre-left, the relatively unknown Benoit Hamon, coming from the marginalized left of the Socialist Party, was chosen as the presidential candidate. Hamon, like Corbyn, had defied the leadership of his own party – a party that won the 2012 presidential election on an anti-austerity platform that promised to go after the financiers, only to perform an astonishing u-turn and embrace neoliberal austerity. Upon his election, the comparisons with Corbyn were forthcoming; but it is here that the comparisons end. Hamon received only 6.5% of the vote – a catastrophic result for the governing Socialist Party. In contrast, Jean-Luc Mélanchon, the former socialist dissident running under the France Insoumie banner, gained 19%; an impressive showing, but not enough to get to the second round.

The first round of the Presidential election was really between the neoliberal Emmanuel Macron and the neofascist Marine LePen of the National Front. Facing off against each other in the second round, Macron won 66% to Le Pen’s 34%. While the liberal commentariat breathed a sigh of relief and characterized this as a victory for the charismatic and energetic Macron, the numbers tell us something different. Back in 2002, the National Front, under Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, made it into the second round to face off against Gaullist, centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac, who, at the time, was facing serious corruption charges resulting from his tenure as the mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995. Corruption charges notwithstanding, Chirac won the second round with 82% of the popular vote. Clearly, a broad, anti-fascist alliance rallied around the corrupt, establishment politician to keep out the neo-fascist LePen.

Jump forward to 2017 and we seem to be confronted with the same scenario. Only the National Front is now fronted by the more popular Marine LePen and the establishment candidate (more on that in a bit) is Macron, the 39 year old untouched by the corruption that plagues the old guard. Despite the media love affair, however, Macron only secures 66% of the vote. On top of this, voter turnout was at its lowest since 1969. In comparison to the scandal plagued Chirac (who was found guilty of corruption in 2011), this is a disappointing outcome for the French establishment.

In the following legislative elections, it was expected that Macron’s new political organization – En Marche – would secure an easy majority. And so it came to pass:  last Sunday, in the first round of parliamentary elections, En Marche and its electoral allies won up to 32% of the popular vote, well ahead of the 21% gained by the centre-right. The National Front has been reduced to 13% of the vote – well below its showing in the Presidential elections in April and May. The Socialists have been all but wiped out:  the parliamentary left captured less than 10% of the vote, while the extra-parliamentary left – dominated by Melanchon and the PCF – captured less than 14%.

However, while liberals rejoice at Macron’s defeat of the left and the far-right and claim that it heralds the new dawn of a proper, centrist party of France – of the sort that has just been relegated to the dustbin of history in the UK – it is important to point out that the French legislative elections witnessed an unprecedented decline in voter turnout. At barely fifty percent, the 2017 legislative election marks the lowest voter turnout in the fifth republic.  While French legislative elections are normally a more muted affair than their presidential election, this decline is substantive and should – if we are being honest – take some of the sheen off of Macron’s achievements.  While Macron’s victory represents a breakdown of the traditional centre-left and centre-right establishment, it needs to be said that the establishment was in decline before Macron’s victory. Rather than being an outcome of Macron’s victory, the decline of the traditional establishment is the cause of Macron’s victory. What this means is that Macron does not represent an alternative to the French political establishment in the way that Corbyn does; rather, he represents the reinvigoration of the neoliberal establishment in the same way that Corbyn represents the reinvigoration of the anti-establishment British left.  Macron’s En Marche movement is the culmination of the neoliberal drift of the Socialist Party. As Minister of Economy and Finance, Macron was the architect of neoliberal policies designed to liberalize France and make it more friendly towards business. As a product of L’École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) Macron himself comes from deep within the ruling elite. One of his first stated tasks after the election is to further liberalize the French labour market by continuing along the lines of the ‘Loi Khomri’ that provoked grassroots opposition from student groups and trade unions, culminating in the ‘nuit debout’ phenomenon of 2016. In other words, despite all the posturing and PR to the contrary, Macron is the establishment.  He is the savior of a beleaguered and bankrupt ruling class. What Macron has done is poach right-wing social democrats from the Socialist Party and neoliberal centrists from Les Republicains.

But neoliberalism is not a populist phenomenon – rather, it is the target of populist politics. As these French elections have demonstrated, the neoliberal centre only wins by exhausting its opponents.  It does not come to power on a wave of popular mobilization, but rather sneaks in with the aid of widespread voter apathy. It is just a matter of time until Macron’s charismatic veneer begins to fade, exposing the neoliberal status quo that resides within. The French were presented with the alternatives of a neoliberal centrism against a far-right, neofascist populism in the National Front; the British were presented with the alternatives of a more classical social democratic (or even democratic socialist) party and a neoliberal conservative party peddling austerity. In Britain, austerity lost; in France, austerity won.

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