By Paul Goodman
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Tim noted yesterday evening that after the Popular Party's emphatic victory in Spain's election only three of the EU 27 have left-wing governments. The lesson, he wrote, is that People can't afford left-wing policies in tough times. Does the moral apply to Britain? All else being equal, the answer is yes. The legend is that bad balance of payments figures helped to swing the 1970 election for Edward Heath. The spring after the "winter of discontent" saw the electorate put Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street for the first time in 1979. John Major's first and only victory took place during a recession in 1992.
During the growth years of the 1960s, however, voters plumped for Labour, first in 1964 and then more decisively in 1966. Tony Blair's first election victory was won off the back of the Major Government's "golden economic legacy", and the asset bubble, debt-fuelled growth of the following 13 years saw Labour re-elected twice. The Conservatives were probably unelectable for much of this period. This was certainly true of our main competitor during the 1980s. The voters were not impressed by Michael Foot's Labour Party and not persuaded by Neil Kinnock's, which contributed significantly to Margaret Thatcher's two landslide victories in 1983 and 1987.
So I believe that Tim's thesis has by and large been proved right – but the exception to the rule in Britain is worth pondering. Between 1970 and 1980 we changed our Government three times: Wilson left Downing Street in 1970, Heath in 1974 and Callaghan in 1979. This voter see-sawing took place during a decade of economic turbulence – of soaring inflation, union militancy, volatile markets. Today's agitation is in some respects different, being driven the interplay between the Euro project and indebted banks. But there are parallels – weak American leadership being one.
The troubles of the 1970s were summed up by a single word: stagflation. With feeble growth, inflation at over 5% (and quantative easing on top), doesn't the word echo now? The unions are not the force they were in the 1970s. None the less, next week's coming strike is another reminder of the days in which some of us grew up. David Cameron will be tempted to fight the next election as Stanley Baldwin, making "Safety First" his main pitch to an anxious electorate. The gambit did nicely for Baldwin. But the lesson of the 1970s is that voters don't always cling to governments in nail-biting times.
So while we should congratulate Mariano Rajoy this morning – his party won about 44 per cent of the vote, and will have about 186 seats, enough for a clear majority – it's worth remembering that other centre-right European leaders may not be so fortunate at the polls. The financial crisis has boosted Nicolas Sarkozy's poll ratings recently. But the small print shows that he trails Francois Hollande by 37 percent to 60 percent. In Germany, a recent poll showed the CDU up at 34 per cent, and the Social Democrats at 27 per cent, but bad local election results for the former show that Angela Merkel's re-election is scarcely guaranteed.
The Euro crisis has done for the leaders of Greece, Italy and – yesterday at the polls – Spain. Cameron should pause before breaking into a chorus of Y Viva Espagna over his morning ham and eggs.