A Tale of Two Elections

Stefan Rousseau/Pool via AP

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the Dhamecha Lohana Centre in north west London, where she is meeting Conservative party general election candidates from across London and the south east of England, Monday May 8, 2017. 

Emmanuel Macron’s overwhelming 2-to-1 victory over Marine Le Pen has led to immense relief that the center held. France has rejected ultra-nationalism and will not destroy the euro and the EU.

The problem, however, is that Macron’s kind of center has been an incubator of the kind of right-wing populism epitomized by Le Pen. The globalist center has devised rules of the economy that reward the cosmopolitan class and leave regular people far behind. Macron’s history and program suggest more of the same.

The European Union, with its tight budgetary rules, imposes continent-wide austerity. Macron hopes to “modernize” French labor markets, meaning weakening unions and making it easier to fire workers.

This policy is supposed to produce more productivity and jobs. But a context of full employment needs to come first. Without the right macroeconomics, “flexibility” is a path to less security and lower wages for workers, and a downward spiral of reduced demand.

Macron won big, less because of the appeals of his own program than because a majority of French voters were repelled by the crude racism and economic nihilism of Le Pen. She compounded her own weakness with flip-flops on the euro and other policy issues. Late in the campaign, Macron showed greater progressive inclinations. We’ll see what he delivers.

The most important thing Macron could do, buoyed by his impressive mandate, would be to challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s role as enforcer of Euro-austerity, and give France and the rest of the continent some breathing room. His admirers hope he will attempt just that. However, Merkel is far from a pushover and French bankers side with Merkel.

In order to break the neoliberal cycle of a two-class globalized economy breeding resentments for large numbers of downwardly mobile citizens and more support for the nationalist far right, Macron will need to move far beyond his own history of technocrat/investment banker/right-wing socialist.

France, at least, has bought some time. Not so the British.

In London, with a snap general election scheduled for June 8, politics are insanely scrambled. In all likelihood, the British will blunder toward an outcome that hardly anyone wants—a “hard” Brexit which leaves Britain far worse off.

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May of the Conservative Party, began as an opponent of Britain leaving the EU. When she succeeded David Cameron after Cameron’s disastrous gamble of calling a Brexit referendum in hopes of silencing critics of the British membership, May then flipped and vowed to make Brexit a success.

With her term set to continue until 2020, May also vowed not to call a snap election, which British law permits if two-thirds of the House of Commons approve. But then May flipped on this issue too, seeing an opening to strengthen her majority, currently just 12 seats, due to the weakness of the opposition Labour Party.

With a stronger hand and a bigger majority, May reasons, she will be able to negotiate a better deal with Brussels on the terms of British departure. That, however, remains to be seen.

Senior EU officials are determined to make the terms as punitive as possible, either as a last ditch effort to get Britain to reverse course or as a warning to other nations considering exit. Big majority in Parliament or small one, it’s Brussels and not London that holds the cards.

Here is the current state of play, bizarre even for Britain:

As the likely consequences of British exit from the EU sink in, British public opinion is about evenly divided between leaving and staying. Leaving would devastate British exports to the continent. It would produce a nightmare of disentangling and rewriting regulations that would no longer be harmonized with Europe’s.

With Scotland determined to stay in the EU, British exit from Europe could trigger Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom. A “hard” border with Ireland, a member of the EU, would also increase tensions in Ulster.

If politics were rational, the June 8 election would be a head to head vote between the Leave party and the Stay party. But no such luck. May is the leader of the Leave forces, but many of her business allies in the Conservative Party would rather stay.

Conversely, the Labour Party nominally supports staying in the EU, but Labour’s current hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a lukewarm supporter of the EU; and many Labour voters in Britain’s ravaged industrial heartland provided the votes in the referendum for leaving. Only the small Liberal Democrat Party is enthusiastically in favor for staying in Europe.

So the election will be a series of mixed messages. Some have urged a kind of grand coalition that unites all the forces favoring staying in the EU. But this is all but impossible in British politics. 

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who turned the Labour Party into New Labour, opined in an op-ed piece defending the center: “The open-minded see globalization as an opportunity but one with challenges that should be mitigated; the closed-minded see the outside world as a threat.”

Lovely, but during his 13 years as prime minister, mitigating the impact of globalization on Britain’s working class is exactly what Blair failed to do. Thus, Brexit; thus a ravaged Labour Party.

Right now, Theresa May’s Conservative Party is polling at around 43 percent of the vote, and Labour is languishing at just 26. The Lib-Dems are pulling about 10 percent. If these numbers hold, the Conservatives would pick up about a hundred seats, and have an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons.

But then the troubles begin. If May does lead Britain out of the EU, life will only get worse for the left-behind workers who voted in droves for Brexit. And if Britain somehow stays, she remains yoked to a system that promotes austerity.

The French center avoided the worst. The British center is leading the U.K. into an economic chasm. If the center is to hold against rising neo-fascism, it needs a very different course. Better yet, it needs to be displaced by a plausible democratic left.

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