Putting up a campaign poster for François Hollande in Nantes, France, April 2012.
Stephane Mahe / REUTERS

The recent elections in France and the United Kingdom produced contrasting results on a number of levels. In France, an outsider candidate, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, won a decisive victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen, illustrating the electoral limits of her protectionist, anti-immigrant platform and paving the way for a program of economic reform and deeper European integration. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, a consummate political insider, gambled on early elections in an attempt to boost her meager parliamentary majority and ended up with no majority at all. Macron’s success and May’s failure have major implications for the future of the European Union: the new French president is unambiguously committed to the European project, whereas the majority of the British electorate has turned its back on the Conservative leader’s vision of a so-called hard Brexit. The predictions that the European Union would fall apart under the weight of a populist revolt may have proved premature. Instead, Macron’s victory has given European integration a renewed impetus, while the United Kingdom’s bold decision to leave the EU is already giving way to a more sober realization of the implications of departing the bloc.

The results also provide a stark lesson for the leaders of center-left parties across the democratic world. Macron’s predecessor, the Socialist François Hollande, was so unpopular that he declined to run for a second term, and his party’s choice to replace him, Benoit Hamon, finished in a humiliating fifth place in the election’s first round, with just over six percent of the vote. Despite Hamon’s best efforts, he had little time to revive the Socialist party’s brand, which had been tarnished by Hollande’s presidency. In contrast, the British Labour party, led by the unapologetically left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, stunned pollsters by winning 40 percent of the vote.

In recent years, conventional wisdom has held that socialist and social democratic parties must tack to the center to win power. Yet Corbyn’s Labour, which remains in opposition, won three and half million more votes than the party did under his pragmatic predecessor, Ed Miliband, and  took more votes than any other Labour leader since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide. Corbyn’s electoral success from an unambiguously left-wing position is not only a turning point in the politics of the British left. It also has wider implications for progressive forces across the democratic world. Like the rise of new forces on the left in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and the United States, it indicates that there is a previously untapped demand for a progressive politics that more combatively addresses the inequality and economic stagnation of contemporary capitalism.

Jeremy Corbyn in London, June 2017.
Jeremy Corbyn in London, June 2017. 
Marko Djurica / REUTERS

WHERE HOLLANDE FAILED

The contrasting fortunes of the Socialist and Labour parties illustrate the difficulties that incumbents face when presiding over economic stagnation and fiscal austerity. Labour had the misfortune of governing during the 2008 financial crisis, and the opposition Conservatives were quick to blame Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the resulting recession, reaping the electoral rewards in 2010 and 2015. Now, after seven years of austerity, the British public is blaming the Tories for hard times.

The vote for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum was at least in part a protest against the incumbent prime minister, David Cameron, who resigned soon after. May failed to learn that lesson, inviting similar treatment from an electorate exhausted by the worst wage growth of any European economy except Greece. Corbyn, a backbench rebel during the Blair and Brown years, could scarcely be blamed for the United Kingdom’s economic woes.

In contrast, Hollande, who was elected in 2012 at the height of the eurozone crisis, benefited from his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy’s inability to pull France out of recession. Yet once in office, Hollande made little progress on France’s economic problems. Adopting a pragmatic line on economic policy, Hollande took ownership of the restrictive macroeconomic stance imposed by EU institutions with German backing by, for example, adhering to EU-mandated deficit reduction targets and supporting the adoption of the EU’s so-called six-pack of strict fiscal rules. Having promised change in his election campaign, Hollande failed to deliver it, instead instituting half-hearted reforms in both progressive and neoliberal directions. After raising taxes for very high earners in 2013, for example, he quickly turned to the center, introducing liberalizing measures that weakened labor protections, allowed greater flexibility in employment contracts, and drew protests from French workers. The eurozone’s failure to return to growth and Hollande’s acquiescence to tough European rules on deficit reduction—which act as a brake on growth—turned voters, angered by stagnant living standards, against his administration. After just two years in the Elysée, he became the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic.

In this context, Macron’s victory was far from the unambiguous endorsement of pro-market reform and European unity that some observers rushed to proclaim. In the first round of the election, some 40 percent of voters backed candidates who rejected the austerity policies associated with the eurozone: Le Pen took 21 percent of the vote and the leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon received 19 percent. Because the Republican candidate was the scandal-ridden François Fillon, the field was open for Macron to win the first round and hoover up support from France’s broadly democratic forces to oppose Le Pen in the runoff on May 7. Although Macron won two-thirds of the vote in the second round, the turnout was the lowest for a presidential election in the history of the Fifth Republic, and some nine percent of voters cast blank ballots in protest. In the legislative elections held a month later, voter turnout fell to below 50 percent in the first round of voting and little more than 40 percent in the second—a historic low by a considerable margin.

In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, turnout rose—from 66 percent in 2015 to 69 percent this year. Although May’s attempt to win a clear mandate for a hard Brexit backfired, her party increased its vote share from 37 percent to 42 percent and practically annihilated the populist U.K. Independence Party. Encouraged by opinion polls that predicted a large majority for her party, May had hoped to win some Labour-held regions that had voted strongly for Brexit in 2016. In the end, Labour not only held firm in its traditional strongholds, but also made important gains, especially in pro-Remain areas such as London, Scotland, and some university towns.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Theresa May in Buckinghamshire, August 2016.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Theresa May in Buckinghamshire, August 2016. 
Stefan Rousseau / REUTERS

THE LABOUR REVIVAL

How did Jeremy Corbyn succeed where his French counterpart failed? Labour entered the election campaign on the back foot, having suffered two years of internal torment since Corbyn’s election as leader, including a vote of no confidence in his leadership that was supported by some 80 percent of Labour lawmakers and a second leadership election, again won by Corbyn, in the summer of 2016. But in the run up to the vote, the party put together an ambitious, left-leaning manifesto that promised to abolish university tuition fees, nationalize the railways and water companies, reverse cuts to health care and education, ban so-called zero-hour contracts (under which employers do not have to provide employees with a minimum number of working hours), introduce rent controls, and guarantee pension increases. The estimated $61 billion cost of these measures, Labour argued, would be met by tax increases on Britons earning more than £80,000 (roughly $102,000) per year and a hike in the corporate tax rate. A stark departure from the caution of previous Labour manifestos, the document promised to overturn austerity and redistribute wealth from the rich to the rest. (Some observers pointed out that the middle class would in fact gain more from some of the party’s promises than the genuinely poor.) On the other hand, although the document claimed that its proposals would reduce the public debt over time, it offered little detail on how this would be achieved. The reaction of the Conservatives and the right-wing press was dismissive—but even the nonpartisan Institute for Fiscal Studies complained that the effect of the party’s proposals on the United Kingdom’s budget would be impossible to determine.

That so few expected Labour to win may have helped defuse the Conservatives’ attacks on Corbyn’s economic competence. But many younger voters were also attracted by the party’s optimistic message. In recent years, British electoral politics has become extraordinarily polarized between retirees, who tend to vote Conservative, and those under 40, who lean strongly toward Labour. High turnout among the old and low turnout among the young helped Conservatives win elections in the past. This time, a more ambitious left-wing message from Labour raised turnout among its supporters and helped close the gap. Labour made disproportionate gains in areas with younger populations and cemented its grip on London—even winning the constituency of Kensington, the richest district in the country.

It is fair to point out that Hamon, the Socialist’s candidate for the French presidency, followed a strategy similar to Corbyn’s, shifting to the left and distancing himself from Hollande. Hamon promised to introduce a universal basic income, hold employers liable for employee burnout, and cancel the bailout debts of weaker countries in the eurozone, such as Greece and Italy. But his poor showing may have had less to do with those policies than with the fact that he was outflanked on the left by Mélenchon, whose fiery rhetoric and earlier defection from the Socialists gave him the image of an outsider that Hamon lacked.

The lesson of recent elections in the rich democracies is that, with few exceptions, incumbents are on the defensive because voters are tired of austerity and inequality. These frustrations are particularly dangerous for the pragmatic, liberal-minded politicians who have dominated the mainstream center-left for years. The Brexit vote and Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss to Donald Trump were wake-up calls that some pragmatists on the left were reluctant to heed. Unexpectedly, the Labour Party is now showing how the left can channel the widespread demand for change.

What these results mean for the wider European project is less clear. Macron has argued for deeper European integration to expand supranational economic governance, allowing for greater EU-wide burden-sharing, a longstanding demand of French administrations that Angela Merkel’s Germany has refused to countenance. With the United Kingdom due to leave the European Union in March 2019, one potential obstacle to greater cooperation could be removed. Unless Germany has its own electoral shock in the autumn, it appears unlikely that the EU’s dominant country will readily accede to pooling sovereign risk with the eurozone’s weaker states.

Whether Brexit will actually occur on schedule is another matter. May called the British election to win a mandate for her plans to leave not only the EU’s political institutions, but also its single market and customs union. Her failure to win this mandate throws that project into doubt. There is no longer a parliamentary majority for hard Brexit, and the House of Lords, most of whose members oppose a hard Brexit, will likely obstruct any attempts to ram one through. The key to Brexit is now the position of Labour, which is formally committed to leaving, but whose electorate and parliamentary party mostly voted to remain. Corbyn’s euroskepticism was kept well hidden during the election campaign, but his position on this issue cannot be elided for long. If Labour acquiesces to the Conservatives’ plans to sever ties with the continent, the surge in support Corbyn has received from the United Kingdom’s pro-European educated middle class will wane.

  • JONATHAN HOPKIN is an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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