Gordon Campbell on how moderates empower the political right

Macron image .

Struth, what a week. Having made sure the rural sector won’t have to pay any time soon for its pollution, PM Christopher Luxon yesterday chose Fieldays 2024 to launch a parliamentary inquiry into rural banking services, to see how the banks have been treating farmers faced with high interest rates.

Because hey, only farmers have had to contend with branch closures, predatory bank charges, obscene levels of bank profit-taking, and the impact of high interest rates on one’s ability to service one’s mortgage. Yep. Some farmers, in their greed, have piled up such high levels of debt on high-risk ventures that those interest rates are now biting them hard. Apparently though, we now all have to pass the hat around and hold a parliamentary inquiry to see how we can give those farmers some relief.

This will be a totally redundant exercise, given that the Commerce Commission is already knee-deep in a study on (the lack of) banking competition in this country. Once again, Parliament is going to be used as a platform for the National Party to send political love letters to the farming community, at our expense.

Macron’s gambit

Talking of risk management..whatever happens in the snap election for France’s (lower house) National Assembly, Emanuel Macron will remain President for another three years. He will therefore continue to be responsible for foreign policy and defence. (Meaning: France’s support for Ukraine will continue. Yet a post-election National Assembly dominated by the right-wing will probably double-down on the voting rights law change that triggered the recent crisis in New Caledonia.)

Reportedly, the shock decision to dissolve the National Assembly was pitched to Macron some time ago by allies of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. The strategy seems to be to lure the right-wing party of Marine Le Pen into government, in the belief that this will blunt her appeal as an outsider/protest vote candidate in the run-up to France’s next presidential election in 2027.

That strategy says a lot about what a poisoned chalice being in government tends to be in election contests held anywhere in Europe right now. Besides the obvious risks of offering the far right an avenue to power, the Macron strategy already seems to be unfolding in different ways than he would have hoped. Early polls indicate that Le Pen’s National Rally party would win the election, but fall short of a governing majority. It would need to find other allies on the right. So, there will be no shortage of scapegoats that Le Pen can blame if she underperforms in government.

Currently, here’s how the numbers look in the run-up to the first round of voting on June 30:

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, Eurosceptic National Rally party, known as RN, would win 235 to 265 seats in the National Assembly, a huge jump from its current 88 but short of the 289 needed for an absolute majority… Macron’s centrist alliance would see its number of lawmakers possibly halve, from 250 to 125-155, the poll showed on Monday. Left-wing parties could together control 115 to 145 seats… There is no certainty the RN would run the government, with or without an alliance with others. Other scenarios include a wide-ranging coalition of mainstream parties, or a completely hung parliament.

For the meantime, and in order to shore up her numbers, Le Pen has been courting the conservative Republican Party (PR) which currently holds 61 seats in the National Assembly. Some of those PR members have been helping Macron to get parts of his legislative programme through the Assembly, ever since Macron lost his majority in that chamber in 2022. At this point, PR appears to be having a minor split over the wisdom of joining an alliance led by Le Pen, although the majority would probably do so if it proves to be absolutely necessary.

To make Le Pen and her young protégé Jordan Bardella look more palatable to PR, Le Pen has been putting daylight between herself and the ultra-right populist party of Eric Zenmour. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, France’s main left wing parties have agreed to run as an alliance, but have yet to decide on a leader, or a policy framework- although former trade union leader Laurent Berger has been put forward by some.

Despite their divisions, left-wing parties agreed….to form an alliance that includes the Greens, the Socialists, the Communists and the far-left France Unbowed of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The first round of voting is on June 30; the decisive second round between the main contenders will be held on July 7.

Europe goes right, left and centre

The upheaval in France has been the main aftershock of the recent elections held in 27 European countries, to allocate seats in the European Parliament. The headlines have treated the outcome as a shift to the right across much of the continent – which is true – but the reality on the ground has been contradictory, and far more interesting. One could equally argue that despite the headlines about immigration and the cost of living crisis, the centre has held up better than many would have expected:

The far right gained a bit of ground, but the gains were concentrated in a few places. Social Democrats and Greens lost big, especially in Germany, while the technocratic centre [Macron’s party]was crushed in France. But the net swing to the far right overall was only about 2 percent. The bloc of centre-right and centre-left parties will maintain a (slightly diminished) working majority of about 407 seats in the 720 member parliament

In France and Germany, the ruling mainstream parties were trounced, with the fascist AfD in Germany gaining five points on its 2019 vote to reach 16.5%, despite being rocked during the campaign by internal scandals. In Italy the ruling far right-wing party of the popular PM Giorgia Meloni doubled its presence – but arguably, this reflects just how deftly Meloni has moved her party onto the centre ground of Italian politics. Overall, the outcome was very mixed, with some definite bright spots:

In the Netherlands, the party of ultranationalist Geert Wilders, which placed first in Dutch national elections last November, picked up seats but placed slightly behind the Labour-Green alliance. In Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Spain, the far right lost ground. Even in Hungary, the far right was slightly weakened. In Poland, the governing Civic Coalition of the pro-EU moderate Donald Tusk maintained its lead over the nationalist extreme right. And in Hungary, while Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party gained the most votes, the opposition Respect and Freedom party, under former Fidesz regular Péter Magyar, made large gains, perhaps a prelude to a serious challenge at the next national election in 2026.

Rather than a hard right turn, last week’s European Parliament elections marked a by no means uniform slow drift towards the right. How has this happened, and what lessons might it have to offer?

Self-fulfilling politics

Routinely, immigration gets cited as the issue driving European society’s shift to the right. Across Europe, far-right and fascist parties promote a hellish vision of national and racial identity being swamped by a tidal wave of refugees. Yet extensive polling carried out last year in 11 European countries and commissioned by the European Council of Foreign Relations found that the vast majority of voters do not regard immigration as their prime concern, let alone view it as an existential threat.

Arguably, by shifting rightwards on immigration to counter the perceived strength of the far right, the mainstream parties of the centre-left and the centre-right have inflated the issue, and turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, while undermining their own credibility in the process. After all… if every party across the political spectrum is talking about the immigration threat and whose response is the toughest, then immigration will inevitably become a central issue of the campaign while playing right into the perceived strengths of the far right:

Migration is not as central as many policymakers think, and voters hold strong beliefs about the motivations of their leaders, meaning what matters most is who speaks and not what is said. While the former risks overemphasising the role of migration policy, the latter could end up inadvertently mobilising voters of anti-European parties by highlighting precisely those issues where public opinion is more likely to be aligned with the far right.

To boot, this process tends to exaggerate the unity of the far right :

…Focusing on a far-right surge wrongly implies that European far-right parties are a unified front, when in fact, the far right has so far shown very low levels of cohesion and a limited capacity for co-operation. And, relatedly, it ignores the very different trajectories of anti-European parties. The last few years have seen a simultaneous radicalisation of some European right-wing parties and a de-radicalisation of some of the far right [eg Italy] which complicates efforts to counter their rise.

In the same fashion, the polling evidence indicates that “ immigration” and “refugees” are perceived differently in various parts of Europe. The pollsters found that refugees from Ukraine are being welcomed by a majority of Europeans, at least everywhere except in Poland – while the negative perceptions of migrants tend to be limited to those from the Middle East, and from Africa.

“Immigration” also tended to be a misleading umbrella term in that parts of Europe are as much (or more) concerned about the outward flow of their citizens (“emigration”) as they were with the influx of foreigners. In that respect, New Zealand is a pretty good example of the anxiety being generated by emigration, as the exodus (mainly to Australia) of young people, nurses, Police, tradespeople, uniformed Defence staff etc hit record levels in the year to April 2024.

Crisis? Which Crisis?

Ingeniously, the EU pollsters found a way to put immigration in a comparative context with other sources of social anxiety that have been finding political expression:

Over the last 15 years, the EU has been subject to five major crises – the migration crisis, Russia’s war on Ukraine, the global economic crisis, the climate crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic – all of which have left their mark on the population and crystallised constituencies that increasingly have a political identity. In a recent paper based on polling conducted between September and October 2023, we described these identities as “crisis tribes”, which were determined by which crisis people felt had most shaped the way they look at their future…

Those five crises are being experienced simultaneously. Yet the voters who picked the immigration crisis as their main concern were the second smallest of the “crisis tribes,” at only 15%-16% of respondents. The national variations were fascinating :

Germany is the only country where the largest number of people select immigration as the issue that most concerns them; recent migrant arrivals may have triggered memories of 2015, when the country took in 1 million people, including Syrians fleeing Bashar al-Assad. France and Denmark are the only EU countries whose citizens consider climate change to be the most important crisis. Citizens in Italy and Portugal point to the economic turmoil of the last decade and a half; the euro crisis will have left a long tail in those countries. And in Spain, Great Britain, and Romania, people view the Covid-19 pandemic as the issue that has affected them most. Estonians, Poles, and Danes consider the war in Ukraine to be the most transformative of crises.

Of the relatively small group who cited immigration as their main concern about the future, another key response was apparent. Whenever mainstream centrist parties try to adopt “tough on immigration/ tough on crime” credentials, not even their own supporters believe them, let alone the wider public.

…Even those who are most concerned about migration are unlikely to believe mainstream parties that adopt far-right policies. The results of our polling show that despite what leaders say or do, voters suspect them of having ulterior motives – a phenomenon we refer to as “the rise of suspicious majorities”.

Again, credibility comes back not to what is being said, but who is saying it. Centre-left – or would-be centrist parties – cannot hope to look credible when they venture onto the right wing’s home ground. Triangulation – whereby parties deliberately co-opt the policies of their opponents – has proved to be a passing fad, and only very charismatic leaders can pull it off. Otherwise, all that parties achieve by stripping back their own identity and achievements is to focus the election debate on the very policies and issues where voters feel their opponents are inherently stronger.

Mind you, trying to sing their own praises isn’t an easy road either, for any incumbent government either here, or in Europe:

This may be bewildering for European leaders who are, in many respects, rightly proud of the way they have dealt with the risks of Covid-19, supporting Ukraine, and advancing the European Green Deal. But our data shows that few of these arguments will mobilise voters to their benefit. On the contrary, they risk creating more opposition than support.

How come? It comes back to the prevailing culture of deeply ingrained political scepticism, which – in New Zealand at least – has been one of the legacies of neo-liberalism. Basically, the market reforms have de-legitimised the political process far more extensively than any stray bits of fake news floating around on social media.

The first reason for this [scepticism] is that many citizens see the EU’s performance in responding to several of the recent crises in predominantly negative terms. And while success has a short memory – people who may previously have seen the EU’s policy in these areas in positive terms now often take it for granted – the resentment of sceptics often has a longer life, and has become an enduring part of political identities.

The New Zealand public has earned their right to be sceptical of political promises. The market reformers promised to lift everyone’s boat but succeeded in putting only a few of their friends and donors into super yachts. Voters have come to expect the worst, and resent being fooled again. That’s one big reason why the Luxon government has been reaping so much discontent, so quickly.

Francoise Hardy, RIP

In the 1960s, Francoise Hardy (who died this week at the age of 80 after a long illness) personified the ineffably cool sense of style of the best in French pop culture. This track was probably her biggest international hit, although her iconic influence extended well beyond music.

Hardy’s long-time partner was Jacques Dutrtonc, and Hardy is a giant presence (literally) in this amusing Dutronc video: