The rightward shift of British and European politics

by Stephen Tall on August 13, 2011

The two biggest issues politicians have to grapple with — the economy and law and order — have dominated the headlines in the past fortnight. First, we saw the collapse of market confidence, triggered by recognition that the US and Eurozone debt crises could cripple economic growth for years to come. Then we saw the collapse of social confidence, as rioters took to the streets for days on end with seeming impunity.

This should be fertile territory for the Labour party. The Coalition Government has looked if not weak, then certainly not in full control. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson were all on holiday when trouble broke out. Cuts to police budgets look distinctly iffy at a time of national tumult. A period of austerity is a tough sell to a country looking for reassurance.

Yet such shift as is detectable in the political narrative in the past few days has not been to the left.

Let’s take the economy. I was struck by the findings of a ComRes poll for ITV News this week. Asked if the UK is on course for another recession, 61% said yes, and just 12% disagreed. However, asked which government they thought would have handled the situation better, it’s clear Labour still has a mountain to climb:

The previous Labour Government would have handled the current financial situation better than the Coalition
Agree: 26%
Disagree: 46%
Don’t know: 28%

By an almost 2:1 majority, it appears the British public prefers the Coalition’s economic medicine — even if it tastes nasty — to Labour’s alternative.

Then let’s look at law and order. It’s no surprise that this week’s mayhem has prompted calls for stronger policing; that’s a natural response to the sudden and disturbing realisation of the frailty of our social fabric. But there has also been a more widespread reaction against those caught looting who benefit from the welfare system. As The Economist speculated:

Could there be a general hardening of public opinion towards not only crime (where public opinion cannot get much harder) but also welfare and other social issues? Already, some are arguing that the Los Angeles riots of 1992 helped to create the climate for welfare reform four years later, and that the riots that broke out in French ghettoes in 2005 worked in favour of the generally conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election in 2007. The government’s proposal to cap how much can be claimed in housing benefit, which critics say will push many poor people out of London, could serve as a test of this. If I am right, then the policy will have an easier time gathering support (though it already enjoys a certain quiet popularity among voters).

If a couple of weeks ago, councils had suggested evicting tenants convicted of a criminal offence, there would have been widespread criticism. Yet it’s happened in Tory-run Wandsworth, and supported in Labour-run Southwark — and is accepted by a number of Lib Dems, too, including those normally identified on the social liberal wing of the party.

That societies tend to move to the right at times of economic and social uncertainty is not new. But the retreat of the left across Europe is significant, as the Guardian noted a couple of weeks ago, and as their maps show. With Portugal having elected a right-wing Social Democrat government in June, and Spain likely to elect the right-wing Partido Popular in November, only four out of Europe’s 27 nations will have left-of-centre governments.

It’s a remarkable shift, and this summer’s turbulence seems unlikely to see the pendulum swing back to the left, here in the UK or in the rest of Europe.