All over Europe, the post-war “catch-all” political parties of left and right are in decline, losing vote share to new parties and other rising forces across the political spectrum. Centre-Right parties are struggling to contain surges of anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic and sometimes avowedly racist populism. Centre-Left parties have leeched votes to environmentalists, socialists and radical liberals. Regional and civic nationalist parties drain support from both.
In an interesting new blog, Paul Mason argues that we are witnessing the collapse of the liberal centre ground under the pressure of Eurozone austerity. Stuck in recession, with rising unemployment and falling living standards, and deprived by Bundesbank orthodoxy of the tools necessary to kick-start economic growth, European political leaders are finding their voters splintering off to the radical left and right.
There is a lot of truth in this diagnosis. Until recently, the conventional wisdom has been that voters turn to conservative parties after recessions because they trust them to restore the public finances and safeguard their living standards. But Sarkozy’s 1st round defeat in the French Presidential elections suggests instead that incumbents are being punished, whether centre-left or right, for their failure to resolve the crisis in European capitalism, and that voters are turning elsewhere, as they did in the 1930s.
The analogy with the 1930s breaks down on further examination, however. For a start, late capitalist societies are relatively rich, as Mason himself recognises, and so living standards do not fall so far as to cause immiserisation. That inhibits radicalisation. Although large minorities of voters can be mobilised behind racist parties, European societies have also built legal and electoral bulwarks against fascism since World War II. Historical memory plays a restraining role too (although European economic policymakers appear to forgotten elementary economic lessons from the 1930s). We are not arriving at a moment of choice between socialism and barbarism, to coin a phrase.
Nonetheless, Mason is surely right that centre ground parties will repeatedly fail unless they can offer new solutions to the economic problems Europe faces. The immediate question is whether the balance of forces will change in Europe as countries tip into recession and voters reject austerity measures. If Hollande wins in France, one pole of the Merkozy axis will shift. If so, the EU’s new fiscal rules could be amended or supplemented by investment measures to boost growth (through the European Investment Bank and other mechanisms). But that won’t be enough to transform the Eurozone’s economic trajectory unless the Germans give ground, particularly on whether the ECB can issue Eurobonds.
Unfortunately for the centre-left, the social democrats’ prospects for the 2013 German general elections don’t look as good now as they did six months ago. The rise of the Pirate Party (gaining up to 13% in recent national polls) has eaten into the Green and SPD vote share, making a Red-Green coalition less plausible. The SPD will resist another Grand Coalition, fearing that it would get sucked up and spat out, which leaves Merkel flirting with the idea of a Black-Green coalition.
The rise of the Pirate Party is the complicating factor. It doesn’t sit easily with the Mason thesis. Pirate Party voters are young, urban professionals. In large part, they are the sons and daughters of Green Party activists and voters: a sort of post-political New Left. They mix libertarian concerns with copyright reform, web freedom and opposition to surveillance technologies, with a stress on direct democracy and participative policymaking. Network technologies endow them with identity and organisational modus-operandi. Instead of traditional party organisational structures, they crowd-source activists and policy agendas. They tell the electorate that they are asking questions for which voters have the answers – Wiki politics with a deliberative twist.
This is the politics of prosperity, not austerity, and it is no accident that the Pirate Party movement started in wealthy Sweden before travelling south to Germany. It represents a different sort of dynamism in the new electoral landscape to that produced by austerity , but the feature common to both is the decline in trust in established mainstream parties.
This is the historical bet Ed Miliband has made: that there will be no return to pre-crash politics as usual. A new political order will be born, even if it nobody can yet describe its contours. Those “Still Partying like its 1995” (in the title of Graeme Cooke’s 2011 IPPR report on Britain’s emerging political sociology) will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Next week, we’ll know the names of a few more of these politicians.