Well, that was a pretty surprising election result. If I’d been offered a bet six months ago as to which of France or the UK would have a stable post-vote government and which would have chaos, I’d have gone for stability in the UK and chaos in France. So much for my understanding of the mood of the electorate. Actually, though, there is a thread of commonality in the results, and it showed itself earlier in the year in The Netherlands as well. In all three elections, the opposition was spearheaded by populist parties (or traditional parties taken over by populists) and in each case they secured a greater share of the vote than expected. So in The Netherlands, although the ruling coalition remained in power, it lost seats; in France, over eleven million people voted for the Front National; and in the UK, Corbyn’s version of the traditional Labour party made substantial gains.
What’s intriguing about this is that this populist wave is not coming from either the left or the right, but seemingly from both at the same time. So in Holland, it was unequivocally from the right and in the UK – even if it’s difficult to believe that many were voting for anything more than promised freebies – it was from the left. In France, it seemed to be left and right simultaneously; Marine le Pen may be socially on the right, but a large part of her economic policy is straight out of the left’s state corporatist handbook.
And these elections followed on from the Brexit vote, which seemed to cut right across recognised left/right differences. OK, that was a one-issue question, so perhaps should be treated as a special case. But we do seem to be coming into a time when the traditional capital versus labour argument may no longer be the over-riding political debate. I suspect that the reason for that is that after a hundred and fifty-odd years, the argument is over; capital has won. Free-market economics have advanced the world in a remarkable way, such that the debate should no longer be about the structure of the economy, but rather about the distribution of the wealth. In other words, not so much about the ownership of production, but more about the fair sharing of the benefits. The growth of populism is a reflection of this, but it’s still in its infancy, and where it goes, I have no idea.
If we just look at the UK, the opposition stirred up a lot of rage, a lot of resentment – which may be perfectly valid, I’m not commenting on that – but offered very little positive to assuage it. The free stuff manifesto looks good on the surface, which is frankly how it was mostly read, and why it secured the vote it did, but any in depth analysis shows how woefully the sums don’t add up (incidentally, it was only saved from being the worst manifesto by the truly dreadful effort of the government party). The tired old nationalisation, state ownership, high tax, corporation-bashing of the twentieth century is not going to provide a solution for a world where everybody wants everything. The unspoken covenant between capital and labour that everyone knew their place and was kept in it has been washed away by technology and innovation. Where it leads, I honestly don’t know, but I have a very strong sense that the demand for change is not going to go away. The direction may not yet be clear, and the dinosaurs of the old political left may have a few twitches left in them, but their philosophy is on the wrong side of history; to me, this is becoming increasingly clear. The basis of the debate has changed.
Just one last comment on UK politics. When I saw the pictures of Corbyn on the stage at Glastonbury, with his dewey-eyed followers in the torchlight, I was reminded that my grandfather took his family – including my mother – out of a Germany in the mid-1930s where another orator preached to his adoring acolytes who chanted his name back and saw him as their saviour. That didn’t end well, did it? From left or right, disturbing pictures………