The rightward shift of British and European politics

The two biggest issues politicians have to grapple with — the economy and law and order — have dominated the headlines in the past fortnight. First, we saw the collapse of market confidence, triggered by recognition that the US and Eurozone debt crises could cripple economic growth for years to come. Then we saw the collapse of social confidence, as rioters took to the streets for days on end with seeming impunity.

This should be fertile territory for the Labour party. The Coalition Government has looked if not weak, then certainly not in full control. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson were all on holiday when trouble broke out. Cuts to police budgets look distinctly iffy at a time of national tumult. A period of austerity is a tough sell to a country looking for reassurance.

Yet such shift as is detectable in the political narrative in the past few days has not been to the left.

Let’s take the economy. I was struck by the findings of a ComRes poll for ITV News this week. Asked if the UK is on course for another recession, 61% said yes, and just 12% disagreed. However, asked which government they thought would have handled the situation better, it’s clear Labour still has a mountain to climb:

The previous Labour Government would have handled the current financial situation better than the Coalition
Agree: 26%
Disagree: 46%
Don’t know: 28%

By an almost 2:1 majority, it appears the British public prefers the Coalition’s economic medicine — even if it tastes nasty — to Labour’s alternative.

Then let’s look at law and order. It’s no surprise that this week’s mayhem has prompted calls for stronger policing; that’s a natural response to the sudden and disturbing realisation of the frailty of our social fabric. But there has also been a more widespread reaction against those caught looting who benefit from the welfare system. As The Economist speculated:

Could there be a general hardening of public opinion towards not only crime (where public opinion cannot get much harder) but also welfare and other social issues? Already, some are arguing that the Los Angeles riots of 1992 helped to create the climate for welfare reform four years later, and that the riots that broke out in French ghettoes in 2005 worked in favour of the generally conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election in 2007. The government’s proposal to cap how much can be claimed in housing benefit, which critics say will push many poor people out of London, could serve as a test of this. If I am right, then the policy will have an easier time gathering support (though it already enjoys a certain quiet popularity among voters).

If a couple of weeks ago, councils had suggested evicting tenants convicted of a criminal offence, there would have been widespread criticism. Yet it’s happened in Tory-run Wandsworth, and supported in Labour-run Southwark — and is accepted by a number of Lib Dems, too, including those normally identified on the social liberal wing of the party.

That societies tend to move to the right at times of economic and social uncertainty is not new. But the retreat of the left across Europe is significant, as the Guardian noted a couple of weeks ago, and as their maps show. With Portugal having elected a right-wing Social Democrat government in June, and Spain likely to elect the right-wing Partido Popular in November, only four out of Europe’s 27 nations will have left-of-centre governments.

It’s a remarkable shift, and this summer’s turbulence seems unlikely to see the pendulum swing back to the left, here in the UK or in the rest of Europe.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • matthew fox 13th Aug '11 - 6:22pm

    The Government economic medicine is killing the patient, growth at 0.2%, government borrowings more then forecasted, and all we get is lectures.

    I remember Chris Huhne bragging about UK Manufacturing, not any more.

    Osborne is pushing to eliminate the 50p tax rate, like the Lib Dems, he prefer that the tax burden fall on the poor and working poor.

  • mike cobley 13th Aug '11 - 6:25pm

    Public views on a range of issues remain well within the social democratic range – what we are seeing is the end result of 30 years of a determined rightward push by big business and other wealthy sectors, determined to roll back the liberal and social advances of the postwar progressions. They want it all and they want it now.

  • Liberal Eye 13th Aug '11 - 7:36pm

    On the economic front I would expect Labour to lag in opinion polls at this stage. They have a basic credibility problem from the fact that they were in govt when it all went pear-shaped. And, although Brown did okay when Lehman collapsed, after that there was a definite feeling that they were just doing a Wil E Coyote – deficit spending on an unsustainable scale to keep going until the election but with no plan for after May 2010.

    So when not one, but two parties, say that they know what to do a majority are likely to think “thank heavens” and support them. Which is more or less where we are now.

    But the difficulty is that the Coalition’s plan has often been tried before in other countries and it has NEVER worked. It is based on a remarkably shallow analysis of the problem – seen as mainly the size of the deficit and to a lesser extent an over-reliance on the City. And it glosses over the fact that it was the Conservatives under Thatcher who set the country on a neo-liberal path which, continued in many essentials by Labour, led to the crisis.

    In other words the Coalition’s plan is a triumph of hope over experience and as this starts to become apparent in the coming months expect to hear Osborne blaming untoward developments on the “international recession” (just as Brown did). Expect also to see the Coalition’s popularity plummet as it becomes clear that their plan isn’t working too well.

    This creates a huge opportunity for Lib Dems because there will soon be a need for a Plan B which we could provide. I live in hope.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 13th Aug '11 - 8:34pm

    “…asked which government they thought would have handled the situation better, it’s clear Labour still has a mountain to climb:

    “The previous Labour Government would have handled the current financial situation better than the Coalition
    Agree: 26%
    Disagree: 46%
    Don’t know: 28%

    By an almost 2:1 majority, it appears the British public prefers the Coalition’s economic medicine — even if it tastes nasty — to Labour’s alternative. ”


    Actually, less than half agreed with the coalition’s policies, while 54% either disagreed or opined that both sides were as incompetent as each other.

    Lies, damn lies and statistics.
    It depresses me every time LD Voice trots out this sort of spin.

  • The thing is that economic right holds sway because they are noisy and dominate a political systems that still sees the press as a conduit to the people, The liberal left are too scared to speak up and have swallowed too much of the argument to put the case across properly.
    The reality is the more the consensus drifts rightwards, the more populace punishing the economic mess gets, the more realty will set in. It’s absolutely true the kind of naive deficit reduction plans in place at the moment have never worked, It’s like thinking the threat of imminent bankruptcy can be solved by eating one less meatball and forcing the kids to walk to school. Ultimately, I suspect either the banks will crash again when the last bit of public funded liquidity dries up or governments will get tired of trying and the debts will get written off.

  • Sid Cumberland 13th Aug '11 - 9:33pm

    Kirsten – I don’t suppose you could give us your calculations? I can’t make sense of the figures you give.

  • History has shown us time and time again that major economic and social downturns lead to right wing governments with the left often vanquished for a period of time. This has a great deal to do with fear and when people feel vulnerable they respond better to right wing messages. History also tells us that this does not last and people will only swallow the right wing agenda for a period of time, depending on what event unfold, The riots which took place, far from doing harm to the Govt have already hardened opinion as they were seen as criminal. It is a dangerous game to play but the Govt may actually be bolder as a result leading to even more right wing policies. This period of economic time is the worse since the 1930s so let see what happens next. juts look at who won the Iowa republican primary.

  • The poll asked people what they thought about the PREVIOUS Labour Government. People remember it all too well. Gordon Brown and his ministers had lost all credibility with the public – not because of what they had done well or badly, but simply because they had been in charge when the crunch came, and they couldn’t stop it happening. Just like John Major a decade earlier, the Brown government were the walking dead. Just like Blair a decade earlier, all the incoming coalition had to do to look better was to smile, to sound fresh and frank, and to ask the public for the benefit of the doubt, while they tackled the problems the previous administration could not solve.

    The question is what will happen when the coalition in turn lose their lustre. It happens to all governments. Will it be a swing back to the left, or a swing to the far right?

  • Nick (not Clegg) 14th Aug '11 - 10:18am

    @ David Allen: what lustre?

  • Realistically, there will not be an obvious drift to the Left or Right and certainly no drift to the Far Left or Far Right. , The present government will continue to to do what is doing with no particular sign of success, At some point I suspect that there will be a cabinet reshuffle that may lead to a different chancellor.
    In America, It looks like Obama is a one term president. This will cause big problems because a Republican president will try to cut their way out of the deficit crisis and will rule out Tax rises-I think the failure to raise tax was the reason for the stock market dip.
    Europe. Ultimately Greece will default and once that happens others will. The European bailout looks pretty much like some sort of pyramid scheme designed to protect the leading nations banks. The basic fault-line is that the bailouts are asking politicians to ignore and even make enemies of their own populations , which is unsustainable. The result will look pretty much like elected revolutions.. There are also an increasing number of dissenting voices in countries like Finland..
    The long term effect of all this will be a shift in emphasis away from globalization, with individual countries deciding to a much greater extent to pursue the policies that suite those countries. I think Labour might win the next election simply because the coming storm is approaching on this Government’s watch. The Lib Dems’ less confrontational approach might see them take some ground from the Conservatives in the South,

  • Radicalibral 14th Aug '11 - 10:27am

    The Left, and the Trade Union Movement in Britain have only themselves to blame in terms of their opportunity to have any impact on current economic policies. When they so emphatically opposed Electoral Reform they were told by Liberals that they were throwing the baby out with the bath water. Labour is faced with the 1980’s scenario again in terms of electability. Will the result be different this time???

  • Radicalibral

    Ialso think Labour missed a trick with their approach to electoral reform, although I think it was not helped by the linking of the AV referendum with the arbitrary change of electoral boundaries. The influence of the LD at this time with anyone on the left was non-existent

    Labour will, hopefully, return to electoral reform and I think we may see a concerted support within the next couple of Parliaments as the demography of the party leadership changes – hopefully with support for something actually proportional not just the AV compromise.

    I do not understand your linking to the second point though – I think the question is how will the Tories add the votes they need to get 40% for the first time since 92. In some ways the Tories are more vulnerable to FPTP, especially at the next election where the LD may hold up in the South whilst Labour hoovers up a hugh proportion of LD votes in the North and Midlands. I see absolutely no comparison to the 80s.

    Perhaps the LD leadership should try and educate their new friends in the benefits of PR rather than moan at the Labour Party (and a lot of their ex-voters on the centre-left) who are not listening to them at the moment

  • Radicalliberal.
    One of the many problems facing the Conservative half of the coalition is nostalgia for the 70s and 80s. It thought that Labour would collapse into chaos and that there would emerge clear cut hard-left enemies. It ignored the reality that the organisation of that party has shifted and that it’s authoritarian streak ensures cohesion. It stays on message.
    Similarly, the Trade Unions are no longer really trade unions because the trade bit has done a runner. leaving behind an organisation that mostly represents white-collar public sector employees and future white-collar public sector employees. There are no flying pickets, no-miners and no working-class bogeymen to invoke. This fundamentally alters the dynamic because teachers, office workers and nurses do not hurl bricks at police officers and represent essentially middle-class aspirations. They are also not almost universally male professions. This is why, I think, the police are getting so much flak over the riots. It is much easier to turn large working-class blokes into enemies, but it’s also a big mistake to take the police on. They are there to enforce law and order, which everyone supports.
    The main thing you can learn from history is that it doesn’t repeat itself. Things that have echoes of the past only seem similar on a superficial level. This is why we are not still living in small communities run by warrior overlords or walking around in stove-pipe hats discussing the marvels of steam power..

  • PS
    The reason Labour didn’t fully support PR is that they think they can win. It’s the same with the Tories.

  • paul barker 14th Aug '11 - 4:39pm

    Its almost impossible to have rational dialog with supporters of the Authoritarian/Identity-based Left because of the power of their collective worldview. They cant think outside the box because to them the box is the whole of reality. They contine to trot out all the old, failed ideas in the face of reality.

    On the eviction of Rioters, usually Council properties are occupied by some sort of Familt unit, making collective responsibility quite reasonable.
    And, Yes, I am a council tenant.

  • The fate of the parties in this coalition is not going to be decided on what the opposition do. It is going to be decided on what it gets right or wrong. It is a simple fact that all any opposition party has to do is take put shots at the ruling government, whilst making reassuring noises. If the economy continues to stall and there is only promises of harder times ahead the game is up. Left, Right or Centre are side issues, They’re pretty redundant concepts, really.
    I support the Lib Dems because they put policies forward I liked., not because they are my home team and I wanted them to do well. The mistake all the parties are making is that they are caught up in the shenanigans of politics rather than representing their voters.
    What unfolds next throughout Europe will not be clear cut left and right. I suspect that the drive towards federalism and globalization are to a greater and lesser extent on their way out and that the future is guess what? Doing things that voters elect you to do.

  • “By an almost 2:1 majority, it appears the British public prefers the Coalition’s economic medicine — even if it tastes nasty — to Labour’s alternative. ”

    Not strictly true as the question referred to the “previous” last Labour Government. Personally I’ve still seen nothing to convince me that Labour (especially Balls) would handle the economy better. But even if I had, I would have had to answer the question, and that relates to the Brown / Darling plan for the economy (with Brown and Darling at the helm). Not an appealing option, even for many Labour supporters……….

  • Jedi etc
    Get real! Why else do you think the the Tories like FPTP? They may cloak it in terms of “electing strong governments”, but what they mean is that it is quite a bit more difficult to elect a one party Tory government under PR than under FPTP. They seemed to have been slow to cotton on to AV, however, which is not proportional, and actually has a tendency apparently, to exaggerate strong winning landslides (and therefore also, big losses).

    I did not like AV, but voted for it, on the basis that it is a step forward in terms of preferential voting, which might mean the people would be more likely to vote for STV when the time came. I fear this debacle has set the cause of any electoral reform back by years.

  • I expect that Britain will have a progressive government after our next election in 2015. Oddly I think too that the LDs may yet end up particpating in it.

    Anyway, we need to watch events in Spain and hope that the PP fall short of complete control, they are seriously illiberal and unpleasant. It needn’t have been that Zapatero’s government would fall, in terms of social matters he is fully socially liberal and a great success; alas, his economic record seems dire and for that reason alone the PSOE government won’t survive the elections which have been brought forward (by the govt) from next March to this November. The minority parties in Spain which gain election tend to be progressives, and indeed the IU (united left) may well overtake PSOE in the poll, so it is possible that the PP cabal will be locked out of complete control. All liberals must hope that this is the case.

    Interesting to talk about somewhere else’s politics for a while!

  • Most people I spoke to on the doorstep in April about AV – that includes people of various party supports / floaters / supporters of none – were opposed on the basis that they couldn’t see what was “broken” about FPTP, and therefore wouldn’t vote for a change. There was plenty of cross-voting – I found a number of Tory supporters who were planning to vote Yes. On the other hand, I don’t think I found a single person who told me they were voting No because the Lib Dems were supporting Yes (OK they were undoubtedly there, and may have been too polite to tell me that as a Lib Dem candidate!)

    As for “tribalism” JBT, I am not quite sure what that means in this context. Most people in my experience, whether actually elected, or in the wider electorate are quite prepared to give individuals of whatever party allegiance latitude to show they have something to offer, and will credit them for any good (or the reverse, of course) that they see them doing. Having a proper proportional, preferential system of voting strengthens the voter’s ability to choose both a party and individual candidates they think to be good. Surely your comment about favouring “majoritarian adversarial system” conflicts with your implied criticism of “tribalism”?

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