David Cameron’s victory has inspired David Brooks to write a piece entitled ‘The Center-Right Moment’ for the New York Times. Whether this title was supplied by Mr Brooks or an editor I don’t know, but either way it’s over-optimistic.
This is his underlying argument:
“The most surprising event of this political era is what hasn’t happened. The world has not turned left. Given the financial crisis, widening inequality, the unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration, you would have thought that progressive parties would be cruising from win to win.
“But, instead, right-leaning parties are doing well…”
Britain is one of the three examples he gives, but other two aren’t as convincing, namely: Israel (where Benjamin Netanyahu pulled off a surprise win) and the US (where the “Republicans control of both houses of Congress”). Israel is clearly a special case – a permanently embattled nation with ISIS not far from its northern borders. As for America, the GOP may be strong in Congress, but in the last six Presidential elections it won the popular vote just once – and looks set to lose again in 2016.
To get a broader view, I took a look at the most recent general election results in twenty western democracies (the sixteen nations of western Europe with more than a million people, plus America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand).
By my tally, centre-right governments gained or retained power in eight countries (Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Belgium, Spain and Portugal), while the centre-left or radical left gained or retained power in six (America, France, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and Greece). In the remaining countries, the picture is confused – either because a governing coalition is yet to emerge (Finland), or because the country has a permanent power-sharing arrangement (Switzerland) or because the governing coalitions contain major elements of both the centre-right and the centre-left (Germany, Holland, Austria and Ireland).
Feel free to quibble with my classifications (or my inclusion of Greece in western Europe), but this is a rather mixed set of results for the centre-right.
Brooks has a much stronger point about the failure of the centre-left, which has blown its big opportunity. It’s not that voters are happy with their lot. In the majority of the twenty countries the biggest governing party and/or its coalition partners were punished by the electorate. Populist parties are making a major impact in most of these countries too.
The centre-left has benefited from popular discontent in the past, so why not now? Brooks puts it down to an ideological wrong turn:
“Over the past few years, left-of-center economic policy has moved from opportunity progressivism to redistributionist progressivism. Opportunity progressivism is associated with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago today. This tendency actively uses government power to give people access to markets, through support for community colleges, infrastructure and training programs and the like, but it doesn’t interfere that much in the market and hesitates before raising taxes.”
He notes that Ed Balls was a key figure in the left’s intellectual shift away from the centre; and further notes that the former Shadow Chancellor “could not even retain his own parliamentary seat in the last election.”
Should the centre-left simply return to the days of Blair and Clinton to start winning again?
Brooks argues that where the centre-right has the upper hand, it is because it “has been basically sensible on fiscal policy” and has “championed national identity”. As I recall, Tony Blair championed European integration and uncontrolled immigration not national identity. On the economy, the legacy of the Blair years was one of fiscal expansion enabled by a debt boom. Clearly, this isn’t what the post-Blairites were so keen to reject. Thus they can hardly go back to what they never moved on from.
The problem with the contemporary centre-left is not that it turned its back on the successes of Blairism, but that it had no answer to its failures.