Traction: pulling power. Cf: attraction: qualities that seduce, beguile or at least maintain durable allegiances. In electoral democracies generally, the traction and attraction of the main parties of the centre-left and centre-right have diminished so much that they struggle to maintain a grip on power, let alone dominate and swap power between them as they did from the 1950s to the noughties of this century.
They cling on by the fingernails to 35-40 per cent of votes cast in much of Europe (Oops – there goes Greece, for the moment anyway!). The difficulties of old rivals in their attempts to get a grip on power and advantage over each other are evident in the USA and elsewhere as well as Europe.
Polities differ in how this plays out. In Germany, for example, there is sufficient convergence in the fundamental sentiments of voters and political leaderships (faith in the Bundesbank and fiscal rectitude) for the main parties to prop each other up in government with widespread consent, all but annulling effective opposition. By contrast, in Sweden – once dominated by the social democrats who were in opposition for only 17 of the 83 years since 1932 – an administration is now sustained by a fairly bizarre deal in which rival policy agendas take turns. It is just one of the more rickety and precarious of the coalitions that have popped up, complete with pacts with this or that political devil.
Typically the old left-of-centre and right-of-centre parties have undergone successive fits of re-positioning and re-branding that have left swaths of their electorates puzzled and confused about quite what or whom the old main parties now represent and about how much of a palatable alternative to each other they now offer.
Two developments, both in train by the 1980s, give us a key to what has happened. Most importantly and pivotally, there have been profound and widespread social changes fracturing older forms of social cohesion and solidarity in populations as a whole and as regards those baggy old holdalls, the middle and working classes. At the same time, political leaderships have become more and more preoccupied with attracting increasingly footloose forms of capitalism while satisfying capital markets and lenders that they, the wannabe governing elites, can run their societies as viable concerns.
Spot the double whammy. On the one hand, the interests and aspirations of electorates have become more segmented, diverse and often divergent. This has made it harder for political managers to track, attract, juggle and maintain support that would stack up to winning numbers. On the other hand, preoccupations with capturing investment and securing lines of national credit have further decoupled the agendas of political elites from the now more diversified concerns and wavering support of the groundlings. Both developments were well established before the financial crises and recessions following 2007 brought cruel twists to proceedings.
Globalisation and its discontents
The benefits and costs that have come from the pursuit of slippery capital have been unevenly distributed throughout populations: even more so than hitherto. There were, sure enough, increased opportunities and rewards for fortunately placed groups but downward pressures on terms and conditions of work, opportunities and rewards for many and then, after 2007-08, for most. The upshot has been governments and policies that have satisfied few population segments and that have been tolerated or endured faute de mieux by most.
No European society wholly escaped the key effects of the social changes that came with economic reconstruction and the internationalisation of capital flows and selections and allocations of labour (globalisation). Three effects stand out. The first is widely acknowledged; the other two require and will repay greater attention.
First, then, many old community as well as political affinities, allegiances and commitments dissolved into thin air. Some of these old bonds and affinities stretched back generations, to 1945 and earlier still.
Secondly, as old ties weakened or vanished entirely, neighbours, former co-workers, family and fellow commuters drifted or were pushed into a greater diversity of organisations and occupational and social groups defined by differing and mutable terms and conditions as well as opportunities (or lack of them).
Thirdly, when societies segment on these terms the ways in which people see and relate to each other and to institutions also change. Relations with others have tended to become contingent, transactional and provisional rather than grounded in firm commitments either to co-workers or particular organisations, let alone to those elsewhere in the wider social spectrum. These underlying, quiet and insidious social developments have been reinforced by government policies. For example, to varying degrees in different countries, national norms for pay and conditions (collective bargaining) were eroded and the scope of union powers constrained, nay strangled.
A centre-right paradigm?
A social scenario, even a vision of sorts, emerged. It consisted of population segments semi-detached from each other, welcoming to relative advantages great or small, seeking opportunities in an orderly environment with services financed without an overly onerous burden of taxation.
This looks like a scenario ready-made for right-of-centre parties to dominate and govern. Gone were many of the links that mattered in fostering support for social-democratic parties, with their emphasis on public goods and their publicly funded provision. This contrasted with liberal-democratic parties that put the emphasis on private (or segmental) gain along with relief from too costly a burden of public services – especially relief from the drag of benefits for those who might be depictable and despicable as undeserving. In much of Europe in the early years of this century it looked as if right-of-centre parties might indeed dominate. But nothing quite so straightforward ensued.
Instead, the old rivals had to re-position and re-brand themselves to compete on the basis of delicately balanced dual strategies and promissory notes. On the one hand, the trick was to stitch together support from aspirational social segments that had formerly been inclined or wedded to one or other camp. On the other hand, both sides found it necessary to promise to preserve the most widely needed (and voter-attractive) public benefits and services. Perceived needs and demands for preservation of pensions, universal benefits for pensioners and above all access to health services featured across a wide spectrum of social segments. To be aspirational from a, roughly speaking, middle-class segment did not preclude having fond or anxious attachments to some publicly funded subsidies, services, safety nets and benefits.
Across Europe, sometimes right-of-centre and sometimes left-of-centre could gain an edge of advantage by hitting on some well judged, or perhaps lucky, permutation of policies. We should remember that in Britain it was New Labour, not the Conservatives, that first spectacularly hit on the trick of stitching together segments of its own voting pool with segments from the Tory pool, crucially in many south of England marginals, in 1997. They were smart enough at it to be returned to power twice more, albeit on significantly diminishing voter returns. In response, British Conservatives had to devise a smiley face, friendly to all hard-working individuals and families (even if they were gay), disguising the glint of sharp steel and the intended scope of its swipes at public expenditure.
The uneven development of capitalism – again
But already by 2010, and even more so in the years since, three factors have upset these balancing acts, sending the old main rivals into an interlocked decline in support.
One was that pesky unevenness in the distribution of opportunities mentioned earlier. Its effects – leaving many stranded by region as well as social segment – became amplified and glaring under conditions of contraction and recession.
Secondly, there was increased voter uncertainty and confusion. It became harder for socially semi-detached consumers to figure out which of the main political service providers were offering the best package deals or deals worth voting for at all: like shopping around for utilities or preferring Tesco to Asda.
Then, thirdly, insurrectionist movements and parties have gathered strength, albeit highly varied across Europe in their political complexion and in the extent of their traction and attraction.
Those variations again turn on which social segments have been aroused and how many converge in resentment and anger against what or whom: national and EU political elites, fat-cat tax dodgers or immigrants, the simply chafing or truly insupportable burdens of austerity policies.
Syriza’s success in Greece drew nurture from a spread of resentments across social (including generational) segments. Spain’s Podemos tries to maximise convergence behind a simple and blaring demand that the pain of inflexible deficit reduction cease. In Britain, it may well be the SNP rather than the anti-EU and anti-immigrant UKIP that poses the biggest threat to the British political system and, indeed, constitution.
And in this there is a nice irony. Polling indicates that segments of Scottish society, including many that voted no to independence, are converging behind a demand for a citadel of social-democratic priorities and protections north of Hadrian’s wall: dismissing the former standard-bearer, Labour, as altogether too complicit in Great Britain’s transformation into Greater Guernsey.
But here’s the thing. Convergences of our new semi-detached social segments are somewhat fragile, unstable and fickle: something as true for the challengers as for the old parties. The political effects of insurgent convergences are typically to disrupt political patterns and systems and make coherent governance difficult or impossible. What they don’t typically do is deliver a clearly defined, worked out alternative (e.g. social-democratic) project securely based on the sharing of all relevant values and commitments. This is because mere convergence of resentments and demands directed at whatever “establishment” is not proof of those shared values and may mask segmental divergences that, sooner or later, become apparent. Which is what we may expect to see in the case of support for the SNP.
The uncertainty of outcomes of insurgencies would indeed be a problem even if there were a political force capable of loosening, let alone removing, the grip of the obsession of political elites with deficit reduction and concomitant austerity policies. There isn’t one. Scotland hasn’t in fact escaped the characteristics and effects of the latest forms of social segmentation. It’s a myth that Scotland is somehow naturally communitarian and social-democratically inclined as a whole.
I believe the segmental convergences that have stacked up into support for the SNP are due to the following: a compound of considerable cross-segmental reliance here, for services and employment, on an adequately funded public sphere, plus a miscellany of resentments (directed at Westminster/the British political establishment, its priorities, its offhand treatment of us in particular) and disappointments (directed belatedly, but now with a vengeance, mainly at Labour as the failed bulwark).
The next question: Is a social-democratic alternative possible here or elsewhere, given the social and political conditions just described? That is a conundrum for another day.