The latest elections in Portugal have produced a further wave of soul searching on the part of some people on the Left who appear to have convinced themselves that they provide further evidence for a supposed pan European drift to the Right. When the Socialists lose the elections in Spain next year, as they are bound to do, this mood is likely to intensify.
What happened in Portugal a few days ago and what will happen in Spain next year and what happened in Britain last year is not some great existential crisis of the European Left. Rather it is a totally normal and utterly predictable reaction to an economic crisis. As is almost invariably the case in times of crisis voters turn against the party in government. In Hungary in 2009, in Britain last year, in Portugal this year and in Spain next year the beneficiaries of this swing have been and will be parties on the Right because in every case these countries have had governments of the Left when the crisis has struck. By contrast when the crisis struck in the US in 2008 and in Greece in 2009 the governments of those countries were governments of the Right so the winners in the elections held in those countries in those years were candidates and parties of the Left. In US terms Obama is so far to the Left that it is difficult to believe that he would have won if economic conditions had been different.
In the elections in Germany the Social Democrats who are on the Left paid the penalty for being the junior party in coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats who are on the Right. As I have repeatedly said in these posts junior partners in coalitions invariably suffer disproportionate damage in electoral terms. The beneficiaries of the decline of the Social Democrats were not however the parties of the Right but other parties to the Left of the Social Democrats especially the Greens. Overall there was no marked swing in Germany either to the Left or to the Right though if anything the aggregate vote of the Left marginally increased. Since the parliamentary elections in Germany the big winners in state elections have been the parties of the Left, whether the Social Democrats in Hamburg, the Greens in some of the western states or the Links party in some of the former East German states.
Elsewhere right wing governments have won electoral victories in Sweden and Canada largely because these countries have avoided the worst of the economic crisis. The result in Canada is however misleading since the most striking feature of that election was the substitution of the Liberals as the main opposition party by the Democrats, who are well to the left of the Liberals. In other words the Canadian elections witnessed if anything a swing to the Left. In Ireland the position is more complicated since the two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are both parties of the Right. Fianna Fail as the governing party when the crisis hit saw its vote collapse. It has been replaced by a coalition of Fine Gael, which is as I said a party of the Right, and Labour, which is notionally a party of the Left. The biggest vote winners in the Irish elections were left wing parties to the left of Labour so the swing again was if anything to the Left. Lastly in Iceland the right wing government there has been voted out and replaced by a government headed by the Social Democrats, who are on the Left.
Further afield both Italy and France have unpopular right wing governments. In my opinion the decline in popularity of Berlusconi and Sarkozy is due more to the difficult economic conditions in both countries caused by the world financial crisis than any personal unpopularity caused by their colourful lifestyles and the sexual and financial scandals in which they are involved. Both Berlusconi and Sarkozy are however fortunate in facing weak and divided oppositions that have struggled to mobilise the very substantial opposition to both in the wider electorate. For this reason I expect Sarkozy for one to win re election next year though the opinion polls at the moment say otherwise and the result is not a foregone conclusion.
To talk of a crisis of the Left in Britain is particularly absurd given that the meltdown in the Labour vote that many expected in 2010 failed to take place and given that the Labour party managed to hold on to a sizeable majority of its seats. The single most important feature of the 2010 election was not the failure of the Left but the failure of the Right. Specifically the Conservatives failed to win a majority in conditions in which they should have secured a landslide. Their vote did increase but only marginally. Overall a clear majority of votes were cast for parties that were or which claimed to be on the Left or on the centre Left, something which has been true in Britain in every election since the 1960s.
What the panicky reaction to routine and utterly predictable electoral setbacks shows is not that there is some great existential crisis of the Left or that voters in Europe have turned their backs on the Left. What it shows is the extent of the Left’s collective loss of nerve. This is a problem that is far more insidious and dangerous than one or two predictable electoral defeats. It is a problem that has afflicted the Left since at least as far back as the 1960s and which is getting worse. It explains why when left wing parties do form governments those governments prove so disappointing and why at a time when the Right’s chosen ideology is in crisis the response of the Left is so ineffective and confused.