Celebrate loyalty in politics giving way to honesty

Electoral volatility is chiefly the legacy of the global financial crisis

by: Bill Emmott

So Donald Trump is not the only leader to demand loyalty but receive honesty instead. Theresa May thought a country that had voted for Brexit would loyally support a “strong and stable” leader who pledged to deliver it, but instead the electorate gave her an all-too-honest rude gesture. Too many voters were not at all sure she was going to deliver what they really wanted: rising incomes, public services, security.

Yet, while Mrs May contemplates the glittering career that lies behind her, she can comfort herself that political earthquakes are now the norm all over the west. Until recently, the main explanation was the fading of class divides and the collapse of ideological loyalties with the end of the cold war. Now we must add another explanation: the failure of too many traditional parties to deliver what voters have come to expect.

This has two dimensions: rising expectations and falling governmental performance. Whatever the information revolution may have done to our attention span or our news-consuming habits, it has made citizens both more demanding and less tolerant — even less loyal. Meanwhile the perceived failure of established parties to provide the political goods is the biggest cause of electoral volatility.

This is chiefly a legacy of the 2008 financial crisis, but not only. Well before that, democracies such as France, Italy, the US and elsewhere had neglected to deal with ailments such as the stagnation of real incomes, out-of-control healthcare and pension costs, and the impact of automation on blue-collar jobs. With disillusion caused by the Iraq war added, the result was the first big populist earthquake of the 21st century: the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency in 2008.

Had the autumn of his election not coincided with the worst financial meltdown in 80 years, Mr Obama and President Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in France the previous year, would have been far better placed to revitalise their economies and societies, and restore some sense of fairness to their angry citizens. Instead, these reformists and others were overwhelmed by the need simply to avoid a new Great Depression in America and in Europe.

Something similar happened in Japan. In 2009 its political drama metaphor of choice was the landslide, as the novice centre-left Democratic party of Japan swept the Liberal Democratic party out of power for the first time in the best part of half a century on the back of rising inequality and dissent at the country’s long stagnation. The DPJ struggled to deliver reforms before being overwhelmed in 2011 by real natural disaster: earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. The LDP was returned to power in its own landslide a year later.

Nearly a decade since the 2008 crisis, with unemployment in France and Italy still close to a tenth of the workforce, and with nearly 10m prime-age people still idle outside the US labour force, political volatility and disloyalty ought not to be surprising. When shock is expressed at such volatility, it is a sign that governments and parties have underestimated the true level of discontent and disillusionment that the long recession and slow recovery have left behind.

Admittedly, our reactions to these earthquakes depend critically on our standpoint: when they bring us President Trump, we are liable to despair of democracy’s flaws; when they bring us President Emmanuel Macron, they bring us hope; when referendums reject four decades of British foreign policy or well-meant Italian political reforms, we may resent the apparent ingratitude.

Clearly, there are dangers in this volatility, with electorates and political systems swerving dramatically one way or the other, damaging national institutions or making irrevocable decisions in haste to be regretted at leisure. Mrs May and her close advisers, when they are past the self-flagellation, could well conclude British voters are being ungrateful and reckless, especially in so far as they are flirting with a populist prime minister in Jeremy Corbyn.

They would do better to draw a more positive, optimistic conclusion. This is that while political loyalty was comforting in the past, political honesty is much more refreshing. Volatile swings one way bring hope of a swing back. But most of all they are a welcome sign of political engagement and a demand for accountability. If Britain, America, France or Italy are ever to recover from their post-crisis torpor and solve their deeper-seated ailments, this is how it will happen. Democracy works, Mrs May. Grin and bear it, if you can.

The writer is author of ‘The Fate of the West’

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