23 September 2014

GUEST COMMENT: A bad time to be in office and not in power

15:50, Duncan McDonnell

I rarely think about the former Conservative Chancellor Norman Lamont.

No bad thing, probably. However, when I heard Pat Rabbitte’s recent explanation of Labour’s poor opinion poll results, I was reminded of Lamont’s resignation speech barb that the Tories under John Major gave ‘the impression of being in office, but not in power’.

Rabbitte claimed that Labour’s drop was unsurprising for three reasons.

First, smaller parties in government suffer more.

Second, voters have unrealistic expectations of what Labour can do in government.

Third, it’s an unpopular time for politics.

But these are only very partial pieces of a bigger picture that Rabbitte is probably all too aware of: it is a bad time to be in government in most EU member states because, to paraphrase Lamont, parties may be in office, but they are not in power.

It is worth considering Rabbitte’s comments in the light of what is happening elsewhere in the EU.

From this perspective, we see that the issue is not so much one of a centre-left junior coalition partner in Ireland paying a high price for being in a centre-right dominated government as of governing parties of all colours and sizes paying a high price everywhere.

Out of 11 general elections in Western European EU member states over the past two years, only that in Sweden in 2010 saw all incumbent parties returned. (It probably helped that Sweden was what The Washington Post in 2011 termed ‘the rock star of the recovery’.)

Moreover, once unpopular parties are thrown out, the honeymoon period for their replacements is either brief or non-existent.

The Irish Labour party’s slide following a year in government is far less dramatic than that of the British Liberal Democrats after May 2010.

Likewise, Fine Gael and Labour compare well to the Danish Social Democrats who have already slipped four points since their September 2011 election or to the Spanish Popular Party which has dropped over six points since its resounding victory last November.

So why are parties in government doing so badly? The answer lies, to an extent, in Rabbitte’s second explanation: the expectations of voters about what parties can do in government are unrealistic

It would be interesting to know, though, who he thinks fuelled those expectations. Perhaps the same people who came up with slogans such as ‘It’s Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way’? Or those who included the commitment in the Fine Gael manifesto to impose unilateral haircuts on some bondholders?

The Irish political scholar, Peter Mair, warned repeatedly (in the years before his death in 2011) that, once in government, parties in the EU were increasingly favouring ‘responsibility’ over ‘responsiveness’. By this he meant that, rather than responding to public demands and manifesto promises, governments were focusing on respecting international commitments, on being ‘responsible’ and accepting that, in many areas, their hands were tied.

What has happened in Ireland since the 2011 election is a fine example of this. We have a very ‘responsible’ government, probably the best child in the PIIGS class.

However, the parties in it were elected also to be responsive. In particular, they were elected on the twin promise that voters would not feel the pain of austerity as much as was feared and that, once in government, Fine Gael and Labour would take a firmer stance with the EU than the Cowen government had.

Whether or not Fine Gael and Labour ever thought they could deliver on their promises, this gap between what parties in Europe are saying in campaigns and then doing in government is damaging not just their poll ratings, but public confidence in their capacity and willingness to genuinely wield power.

This leads us to Rabbitte’s final point: it is an unpopular time for politics.

That is not strictly true. It is an unpopular time for political parties in government in Europe. But that does not mean citizens have turned their backs on politics per se.

People will continue to vote and, unless there is an improbable economic upturn, it will be interesting to see what happens when voters exhaust all the mainstream possibilities and realise that, no matter which of the leading centre-right and centre-left parties they put into office, they are not really changing what governments do

The signs are that the beneficiaries of this realization will increasingly be those outsider parties which offer European voters the opportunity to reject mainstream politics, the EU, Angela Merkel and the austerity dogma. And not necessarily just in the worst-hit countries like Greece.

Elsewhere, as the Front National in France have shown, traditional far-right parties are doing better then ever. And new anti-EU populist parties such as Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands have come from nowhere to score up to 20% of the vote.

If mainstream parties in Europe continue to take office, but do not give the impression of being in power, the rise of such outsider populist parties, of both Left and Right, will continue.

Rather than playing down public disillusionment as unavoidable, therefore, Minister Rabbitte and his colleagues in mainstream European parties would do well to take opinion polls and election results as reflective of another serious risk currently facing the entire continent: a crisis of confidence in the democratic market.

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*Duncan McDonnell is Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.*

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