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What explains the recent success of conservative mainstream political parties in Western Europe?
Since 2010 there has been a wave of conservative victories in elections, which has left the electoral map of Western Europe blue. In this essay I will argue that this has been due to the ability of conservative parties to gain control of the centre ground and push socially democratic parties to the left. I will split this argument into two distinct categories. The first category is to look directly at why conservative mainstream parties have enjoyed success recently and this can be further broken down into three different factors; first, the two parties have redefined what it means to be conservative and moved away from the ‘nasty party’ image to a ‘progressive conservatism’, secondly conservative parties seem to have won the battle on how to handle the economy and thirdly conservative parties have continued on their reputation on being better at winning elections through ruthless pragmatism. The second broad umbrella behind conservative success in Western Europe is the decline of the left, and in particular socially democratic parties. Whilst clearly intertwined with the rise of the right this has facets which are unique to it. One of the most important of these factors is the changing electorate of Europe and what this means for the base of the parties, further many believe that the left has now achieved many of its goals and have failed to redefine the future of socially democratic parties, thus losing any direction or meaning. With such a broad question it is important to set parameters and in order to do so we must look at what it means to be a ‘conservative mainstream political party’. Though I will later explore how leaders changed what it meant to be a conservative in Europe I will be primarily looking at parties which occupy the right of the political spectrum and are broad churches with a wide range of opinions, rather than the more recent phenomenon of, largely, single-issue populist parties which have lately appeared on the right of the political spectrum in Western Europe as serious political forces. To be clear, the parties I will be considering will have a precedent of either being in government or the official opposition. To this end, I will largely frame my argument around the Conservative Party in Britain and the Christian Democratic Union in Germany. I will also look at the decline of socially democratic parties in these countries as per the above factors, and for these I will also focus on parties which are commonly in government or official opposition. To this end, success can be defined as being in government and having electoral success. Having said this, one would be remiss to focus solely on these two countries and therefore there will be examples throughout the argument from around Western Europe with Britain and Germany acting as the main point. I will also explore an argument which takes a different approach; that the years of Conservative dominance which Western Europe is currently experiencing is little more than the swinging of the political pendulum, which will shortly swing back to a left dominated political sphere. This is an interesting argument and I will use the example of Jeremy Corbyn’s success in Britain’s 2017 election as the cornerstone to this. However, I will explore why I believe that this argument is flawed and thus reinforce my central contentions as they are displayed above. I believe that Western European conservative mainstream political parties have redefined the political landscape so that they have been able to occupy the centre ground and push social democrat parties to the left, which makes them less viable.
Having defined success as being in government and having electoral success let us first establish that conservative mainstream parties have been successful in Europe. In 1997 the Conservatives Party in Britain was in the political wilderness on the right and Tony Blair, having secured the centre-ground, with his New Labour image won a landslide with 419 seats in the House of Commons (BBC 1997). Whilst it is true that there was a slight upturn in Conservative fortunes between 1997 and 2005 with the party winning 198 seats in the ’05 election (BBC 2005) this was largely down to discontent at Labour and it would be unprecedented to see an increase in government seats after eight years in power, rather than anything which the Conservative Party was offering. A spoof Ebay post following the election summarises the public perception of the Tories well when it states that ‘if you are progressive, socially inclusive, fair minded, outward looking, normal sort of person, then do not apply’ for the leadership (Bale 2010; 255). The Tories were seen as out of touch with both the economic and social needs of the country and this had taken the party eight years and three leaders to realise. However, when David Cameron came to lead the Conservative Party he secured a revolution as they went from a party in the political wilderness to a party which has been in power for eight years and counting. Whilst I will go into the reasoning later it is important to display the empirical evidence behind this now; Cameron secured a coalition government with a seat increase of 108 in 2010 and in 2015 the Conservatives shocked the pollsters and secured a majority government in one of the most surprising elections in British history (BBC 2015).
Merkel took over the CDU when it was in a similar position of political wilderness to the party which Cameron took over in 2005. In 1998 the party suffered one of the worst defeats in their history, after more than a decade and a half in government and with the economy suffering with the huge costs associated with unification, many Germans wanted change in both party and chancellor. A financial scandal for the current leader, Kohl, meant that Merkel was the only possible replacement for the tainted grandees of the party, as she was seen to be up and coming rather than part of the establishment. Though Merkel remained in opposition after the 2002 election it was the 2013 election in which Merkel and her CDU party really shone and nearly secured an unprecedented majority government, which the German system is designed to prevent with roughly 39% of the vote (Encyclopaedia Britannica). This story is one which is mirrored across Europe with conservative parties being in power across the continent and the left seemingly in retreat (Jeffe 2017). Even in countries, such as France, where conservatives are rarely in power it seems that centre-right ideas, economically, have won the day as the left wing of the spectrum sits in tatters as Macron promises to help businesses and slim down the state (Atkinson 2017). Further, it seems that the left is in decline across Europe with conservatives claiming ground in the Netherlands, France and Norway (A.C.R.E 2017). This trend is truly European. Fundamentally it seems that centrist ideas are taking over Europe, but that it is conservative parties which are monopolising these ideas and giving them a right-based leaning.
This brings us on to how this trend came into being and for this it seems fitting to use the UK and Germany as prime examples, both of which have the thread of modernising what had been out of touch mainstream conservative parties in common. Another interesting similarity is that it was very much a story of leadership which enabled these parties to come back from the brink and into government. Following the 2005 election there was a post-mortem within the Conservative Party. Some decided that the best response to near oblivion was to appeal to the base. This was Davis’ selling point who put himself across as the Tory unity candidate, someone who could unite the MPs with the base and relaunch from there and at the start this seemed to appeal largely to the membership who voted 58% in favour of Davis at the first poll with Cameron on 30% (Yougov 2005). Davis’ main economic argument was that a smaller state and lower taxes would actually benefit the weakest in society as it would attack the dependency culture that supposedly brought social mobility to a halt. This is emblematic of the quasi-Thatcherite ideas that he wanted to turn into Conservative policy but along with Duncan-Smith, Hague and Howard he failed to realise that this was not in line with what the country wanted and continued to propagate the image of ‘nasty Tories’ with only the base seeming to be allied to Davis’ thinking (White and Perkins 2002). Cameron, however, had new and exciting ideas about what the party could be in the future and a real programme of difference as to how to become electable again and importantly he put this across in language which had not been heard in Conservative corridors for a very long time indeed, if ever. He described ‘Conservative compassion’ and ‘a Government that looks at a society from the bottom up. That recognises… that we are all in it together, with a mutual responsibility to care for those who would otherwise get left behind’ and most notably, ‘We do think there’s such a thing as society, we just don’t think it’s the same thing as the state’ (Cameron 2005) which implied, but only implied, a break with Thatcherism. This was Cameron signalling to the Party, the membership and Britain that he was a different type of Conservative and the party rallied behind this. Eventually, on a turnout of 70%, Cameron beat Davis by more than double the number of votes.
As previously mentioned Merkel also came to lead the CDU after it had experienced years in the political wasteland. The party lost its popularity and credibility because of an economic recession in the former German Democratic Republic and increased taxes in the West, as well as the immense costs associated with reunification. Merkel started her political revolution within the CDU before she became leader in 2000. In April 1999 the CDU conference pledged to give party work ‘new life’, without ‘taboos and limits on thinking’ and Merkel took this to task by pushing for an expansion of the CDU’s definition of the family to include single parents and unmarried couples with offspring, as well as those with adopted or foster children; declare its ‘respect’ for non-conventional lifestyles, including same-sex marriage which was described as a ‘small cultural revolution by CDU standards’. It was on the back of this that she, like Cameron, made her camp as the change candidate and was able to escape the mess of the party funding scandal involving Khol and Schäube and become duly elected to lead the CDU. Whilst not directly linked to the success of conservative parties the above two paragraphs are important to show where the two leaders were starting from, both in terms of polls but moreover the transformative effect they had on the very essences of their parties.
Perhaps one of the most important factors behind the success of mainstream conservative parties in Western Europe was the way in which these parties have managed to capture the centre-ground. Even whilst pursuing a policy of austerity Cameron’s Conservatives managed to not appear to be particularly right-wing but rather sensible, as is demonstrated by their success in 2015 being largely based on their perceived economic competence (Ipsos Mori, 2014). With fiscal austerity gathering pace after 2010, the top and higher middle income groups have contributed most to balancing the budget. Pensioners and earners on the lower part of income have either gained or stagnated. In parallel Osborne increased individual tax allowances (originally championed by the Lib Dems). The Tories embracing this measure is interesting as it demonstrated Cameron’s flexibility to adopt other parties’ central policies when politically advantageous. The Second interesting aspect in the context of re-defining the Conservatives is their fiscal position; the IFS indicates that caused Osborne’s budgets in 2015 closely aligned with the pre-2010 Labour budgets made by Darling which reveals how close both parties’ fiscal positions had become. Finally, Osborne raised the minimum wage to £7.20/hour in April 2016, close to the living wage, whilst reducing tax credits for higher and middle income earners (though this was later defeated in the Lords). The brilliance of this lay in adopting and re-framing a left wing campaign issue, whilst fitting it into a wider narrative of welfare reform and help for low income earners. This signalled to the wider public that the Tories were determined to actively engage with debates on economic inequality and to develop policies to ameliorate in-work poverty and wage stagnation (Kaehne 2016; 24-7). This mixed with the various liberal social reforms pursued by the Tory government post-2010 such as legalising gay marriage and drawing up spending commitments to the NHS now means that the Tories certainly have moved away from their previously toxic branding towards being the party which does take difficult decisions but also is open, inclusive and seen as more of a safe bet than Labour (Archer 2015).
Angela Merkel also used a mixture of rhetoric and policy to drag her CDU party into the modern political age and make it the party of government in Germany. The 2017 election sets a good example of this. The CDU ran on a programme of prosperity both for Germany and Europe. Merkel used her previous establishments to focus in on unemployment which is currently around the 3% mark in Germany and aim for full employment by 2020. She stated that ‘if we had spoken of full employment in 2005, people would have laughed in our face, at the time I had to take on 5 million unemployed. In 2017 we have managed to cut this number by half and now we can say that we want to divide this figure again by two’, stated Merkel. Here we see how Merkel creates a positive image around her party based on prosperity rather than negativity. Her party was planning, and having won can now put into practice, to cut income tax by €15 billion a year for the middle class and to increase the threshold of the highest tax band (42%) from €54,000 annually to €60,000, this mixed with the distribution of fiscal aid to families for their first step on the property ladder, the relinquishment of all reforms to retirement pensions in the next 30 years, the construction of 1.5 million new houses by 2019, the creation of 15,000 jobs in the police force and 12 billion € investment in the digital network – and all of this without interfering in any way with public finance – shows how Merkel is advancing the general policy aims of the centre-right, cutting taxes and public spending, but framing it in a way of helping private investment and letting people keep more of what they make. Angela Merkel has declared that she wants a third of the budgetary surplus to be devoted in investments in infrastructures. She has also promised to review the reunification tax, a contribution of 5.5% on private income and businesses introduced in 1991 to fund work to bring the Länder of the former German Democratic Republic up to speed. This shows that the CDU is committed to the infrastructure and modernisation of Germany. Like the Tories in the UK, Merkel excels also in adopting the arguments put forward by her rivals. The adoption of the law on same-sex marriage is a perfect example. Whilst the SPD and the Greens made the bill’s adoption the condition for their participation in any new government coalition with the CDU, Merkel made the issue her own three months before the election. Despite being against gay marriage in order for the last four years, in order to keep her Christian base happy, she allowed MPs to vote on their conscience. As a result, Merkel’s Germany became the 14th country in Europe to legalise marriage between two people of the same sex which is something which will truly define her legacy. Perhaps the most significant way in which Merkel has demonstrated that her CDU is a caring and compassionate one is how she handled the refugee crisis with Germany’s open door policy. Though she has suffered in the polls because of this it is emblematic of the image which is she is trying to portray and that is one of a CDU which accepts its social responsibility. This change is very similar to the Conservatives in the UK as it has not only managed to achieve electoral success but more importantly has manged to entirely shift the political spectrum to one where the conservative parties in the UK and Germany occupy the centre-ground and the Left have been moved closer to their base and away from the majority (ICWA, 2016).
The second, and equally important factor in the success of mainstream conservative parties in Western Europe is the decline of the left. Though this obviously linked it must be analysed in its own right. In Germany, The SPD received 20.5% of the vote in the German elections last year, their worst performance since WWII. In elections this year in France and the Netherlands, the socialist and labour parties did so poorly that many question their future existence. Even in Scandinavia, considered the world’s social democratic stronghold, long-dominant parties have been reduced to vote shares in the high 20s and low 30s. This is emblematic of a continent-wide decline in centre-left to socialist parties. The UK is less clear cut than the majority of countries. Whilst the left has been in decline since the financial crisis there appears to be a revival with a socialist programme. However, for reasons I will explore later I believe that this is short lived. Indeed, it seems that many left-wing parties in Europe have systematic difficulties rather than short-term troubles. ‘The European Left often looks divided into two camps: One loses elections, the other doesn’t seem interested in winning them. (https://www.politico.eu/article/long-goodbye-of-the-european-left-francois-hollande/) ’ “It’s hard to come up with common ideas on today’s major issues when everyone is retreating back along the lines of national interests, at least as they understand them,” said a Hollande aide commenting on the demise of the left in France. Gattolin, the French senator, suggests that “Throughout Europe, the social democrats have lost their natural engine, which had long been the trade union movement. So they lost a major way to connect with the population at large, and haven’t replaced it with anything’. He continues, “Just playing public opinion and media instead of voters doesn’t cut it.” Spain has shown that even when the conservative parties are booted out, that the left does not win. “The crisis of the European Left is undeniable,” said Marc Lazar, professor and director of the History Center at Sciences Po in Paris. “We’re in a phase of Europe’s history where the economic crisis, the refugee and immigration problem, the European Union challenges, put the traditional parties from the Left in a tough spot” he argues.
I would argue that one of the most important reasons for the decline of the left is changing social demographics. Keating and McCrone argue that ‘Old class divisions no longer make sense and the idea of a ‘working class’ is every more elusive, creating problems for those parties which ‘rested on it’. Trade union membership is widely in decline, especially in the private sector and the manufacturing industry has declined which created a ‘missing middle’ in the class spectrum, the skilled working class that provided much of the leadership for grassroots movements. Further, the growth of the welfare state, has created divisions between those working in the public and private sectors. This is largely because Neo-liberal ideology has been on the spread since the ‘70s to the point where the market has almost become the sole criterion for judging policy. This has been particularly noticeable in England where schools, universities and hospitals etc. are all subjected to the logic of market competition. Neoliberal ideology goes against socially democratic parties which have traditionally represented a compromise with market capitalism but has also insisted on the limits of markets even within the economy, and certainly on the need for other criteria for social policy and public services. Global free trade regimes have also limited the ability of the state to protect vulnerable sectors and jobs. This is important both internally and externally. Internationally, there has been a race to the bottom in terms of regulation in order to attract investment. Domestically, the welfare state has also been unable to keep up with change and relies on the male-breadwinner family model. This changing demographic has been most-emphatically felt in Germany and the UK which have left-wing parties with historical bases amongst the low-income work force which has always voted with the SPD/Labour almost regardless of policies or leader. This is changing. … argues ‘European economies have changes in ways which make collectivist policies less effective. Transport of goods has become more efficient; capital more mobile; trade deals more far reaching; and automation more sophisticated. Jobs have gone overseas or just gone altogether; the unionised industries of the Industrial Revolution, mining and steel, are hugely diminished. There has been a fundamental shift away from manufacturing and towards services, and from state ownership towards the private sector’ (ROSE THOU ART SICK). What is important to consider with Labour is that it has always been able to rely on its core support no matter its policies however, as with the SPD, this demographic is in decline. Technology has reduced the number of low-skilled workers who traditionally populated the trade union movements and this has weakened social solidarity amongst left-wing voters. The new class of Labour voters who are the heart of the party are the young. This was shown most recently in the UK 2017 election and the phenomenon of the Momentum movement in Labour; Labour won 60% of the vote amongst 18-24 year olds in 2017 compared to 40% in 2015. This new base is important in two ways; firstly, the young are often less involved in politics and will often pursue policies which are idealistic in nature and very difficult to carry out. Further, as people age they are less likely to be tempted by giveaway such as abolishing tuition fees and will often lean towards safer, conservative policies. Though this is a new factor, and therefore we do not know how left wing parties will react, it must be taken very seriously indeed. Further the 2017 election demonstrated that classes are now crossing party lines with Labour increasing its share of ABC1 voters by 12% with the Tories increasing their share amongst the working classes by 12% also. Keating and McCrone to directly link these factors to a general demise of centre-left parties in Europe and attribute but also cite the rise of right-wing populist parties as a major factor. They argue that ‘‘populist parties have been able to put across their simplistic appeal to an imagined community of insiders, threatened by a combination in which foreigners, capitalism, social democracy, multiculturalism, Europe and globalisation can be presented as a single danger’. Not only does this mean the demise of social democratic parties but further it can be seen in the recent wave of anti-European sentiment which swept across Europe and brought about Brexit.
A further argument which stands as a potential factor behind the fall of the left is that it has lost its raison d’être in having achieved that which it set out to do so. A credo of universal public services and redistribution that used to be contentious is now so widely accepted as to be easily captured by rival parties of right and left. Muscat points out, ‘is anyone contesting that people should have a pension’. This goes for a wide range of policies which would have previously been seen as inherently left-wing such as free healthcare, a minimum wage and a widespread social care system. This somewhat feeds into the failure of the left to capitalise on the 2008 financial crash. Many commentators predicted that the ‘credit crunch’ would mean an unprecedented questioning of the neoliberal ideology that had been brought in, and was still supported, by centre-right parties which would surely lead to a boom for the left. In fact, the opposite happened. The crash occurred when most western-European countries were under left wing governments and so parties such as the Conservatives were able to suggest that the crash had happened due to the incompetence of the left and what was needed was the frugality of the centre-right.
Whilst the above points to a long future of centre-right domination of politics, others have suggested that it could just be the political spectrum swinging as it tends to. Many argue that there was such a seeming invincibility of the Thatcher government until it did, indeed collapse and eventually Labour found a solution, and then the Tories did the same. A similar pattern can be seen in Germany between the SDP and CDU. Some point to Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly successful 2017 election as Labour beginning to find a new platform. Corbyn ran on a hard-left/socialist platform of mass-privatisation and vast spending on public services. Some manifesto pledges were to scrap University tuition fees, renationalise water companies, end zero hours contract and re-introduce the 50p rate of tax. This was simply for his first day in office with promises to renationalise the railways and Royal Mail to be done ‘at the earliest opportunity’ (BBC). Before Theresa May called the snap election Corbyn was polling around the 27% mark but come election day his Labour party won 41% of the vote after Corbyn revealed the policies he would enact if in government (BBC). Whilst these statistics do, indeed, point towards the British public approving of left-wing policies I believe that this is misguided and the British election of 2017 was such a disappointment for the Conservatives for two reasons. One, the Tories still were the largest seat in the Houses of Commons. True, the election was hugely disappointing but the election can certainly not be adjudged to have been a victory for Labour. Secondly, I am confident that a lot of people voted for Corbyn simply because they did not like Theresa May and did not trust her with Brexit. Where she was quiet and awkward, he was confident and comfortable. Where she failed to engage, he debated and got involved. Fundamentally, the Tories ran the 2017 election in a poor fashion and it cost them but their ideas and ideology is what kept them in government.
In conclusion I have argued that the reasons behind mainstream conservative parties having success in Western Europe is down to two interlinked, but distinct, reasons. First, I looked directly at the success of mainstream conservative parties, focussing on Germany and the UK. I examined how new leaders were able to redefine the parties, both in terms of policy and image. I then moved on to how conservatism in Europe has now come to be associated with financial safety and stability and what this means for the electoral success of both the Conservatives in the UK and the CDU in Germany. After this, I moved on to explore the other factor, which is the decline of the centre-left in Europe. I looked at the changing demographics of Western Europe and what I thought this meant for the fortunes of centre-left parties before examining if socially democratic parties had achieved their raison d’être and had failed to move past this on to a new sense of purpose. For both of the above I used empirical data as well as analysis to investigate the points. I then moved on to use the UK general election of 2017 as a counter and examine whether the recent success of mainstream conservative parties in Europe is little more than the pendulum of mainstream politics swinging, and whether it was beginning to swing back to the direction of Labour in the UK, as the result of the election may suggest. I then looked at the mitigating circumstances before concluding that this argument was invalid as that the success of conservative parties is indeed more than a swinging of a political pendulum and has deep rooted factors which mean that it will continue for the foreseeable future. What I find most interesting about my conclusions is that they have their bases in opposite fields. The success of the conservative parties is rooted in the ability of individuals, particularly David Cameron and Angela Merkel, to move their parties to the centre. Whereas, the lack of success of Labour is owed to a deep undercurrent of changing demographics in Europe more than anything else. This raises two interesting further questions. First, can conservative parties continue their success under new leaders? We have already seen Theresa May throw this into doubt for the Conservatives in the UK but it will be fascinating to view what happens for the CDU post-Merkel. An equally interesting question is how centre-left parties react to the changing demographics and if it is the case of a modernising leader remoulding the parties in his/her image which will be necessary for this? Both of these look at the future and are impossible to predict, however it is interesting to look at whether success of mainstream parties generally is located in leaders or in deeper under currents of society.
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