Sunday, 23 April 2017

On Tactical Voting

French presidential elections under the Fifth Republic have always been invested with a greater significance than they perhaps deserve, largely as a result of the theatrical style pioneered by Charles de Gaulle. The current election, whose first round of voting took place today, has raised the bar for hyperbole because of the darkness versus light framing of a runoff between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Both sides have seen value in presenting the election as part of the a la mode populist/nationalist surge that produced Brexit and Trump, and even as an existential threat to the EU (neither is true: the FN is an old malignancy and there is no anti-EU majority in France). The election is certainly unusual in that neither of France's two main parties will have a candidate in the second round, but this doesn't mean that the final result will be a departure from political orthodoxy. Both Hamon and Fillon were quick to endorse Macron tonight. While Le Pen is likely to do better than her father did in 2002, and will certainly present her opponent as a creature of the establishment, there are enough votes from those who consider the FN anathema to see Macron to the Élysée Palace. In France, tactical voting allows the dominant parties to be punished, but it rarely produces an upset and is most effective in defending the centre. There is a lesson here for the British.

In a system based on first past the post elections in single-member constituencies, such as the UK, all parties are necessarily coalitions of convenience, forged outside of parliament and in advance of an election. This is why electoral pacts are non-existent outside Northern Ireland (where Labour and the Tories do not stand) and why coalitions are routinely ruled out pre-vote. This means that substantive debate over policy takes place outside parliament within the parties, which can easily be interpreted as discord (see the history of Labour). Parties on the left tend to be more honest about this, emphasising democratic debate and plurality, while parties on the right tend to frame disagreements more as matters of personality. For reasons of entertainment as much as partisan bias, the media tend to present this as bloody division on the one hand and the head-butting of alpha-males and females on the other. The emphasis on personal rivalry during the Blair-Brown years was indicative of the political shift to the centre, while the current emphasis on tribal warfare reflects the revival of policy disagreement within the Labour Party (given that Corbyn has only advanced mild social democracy so far, this framing is largely an anticipation and thus a warning to the left).

In systems based on proportional representation, such as The Netherlands, there is an incentive for parties to sacrifice a degree of scale for policy unanimity outside parliament, as effective coalitions can usually be made post-election, hence the profusion of parties with often minor differences or parochial concerns. This means there is often a greater divide between the purity of political theory outside parliament and the messy reality of the compromises required to form coalitions within it, which can lead to voter cynicism. This arises not because the electorate is naïve, and simply doesn't understand the exigencies of coalition formation, but because they note how cheaply smaller parties tend sell their support. We saw this in a rare UK context during the 2010-15 coalition, in which the Lib Dems made costly concessions over student fees and austerity for trivial gains (beyond the abject failure of the PR referendum, it is hard to even remember what these were). What Nick Clegg's tenure as Deputy Prime Minister proved was that the Lib Dems were incapable of supporting coalition as a party, rather than as an opportunistic bloc of MPs, showing how much they had become institutionalised by FPTP (the Lib Dems have little real social presence - compare and contrast with Labour's union hinterland or the Tories social networks - hence they are almost wholly defined by the electoral system).

The French political system is a hybrid because of two-round voting. The PR-like nature of the first round encourages looser party formations and independents, while the forced FPTP of the second round consolidates the leading parties. In the current French National Assembly, 82% of the seats are held by the dominant parties of the centre-left and centre-right, the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains (for comparison, Labour and the Conservatives currently hold 86% of the seats in the House of Commons). The French Presidential election has an inbuilt bias towards a centrist, but one that allows for the emergence of a non-party affiliated national saviour "above the fray", a la Macron. You can think of this as an institutional memory of de Gaulle. In practice, a candidate not backed by one of the big two is rare (the centrist Valery Giscard d'Estaing was the last real independent winner in 1974, benefiting from partial support by the fragmented Gaullists on the right). While a "non-establishment" candidate can make it to the second round, as Jean-Marie Le Pen famously did in 2002, the odds are stacked against them unless they can command significant support among those who voted for the defeated centrist party candidate(s) in the first round.

A single-round FPTP system gives rise to a duopoly, with other parties being either special interest groups (e.g. regionalists, such as the SNP) or essentially "none of the above" repositories (e.g. the Lib Dems rely on the votes of truculent reactionaries as much as the bien-pensants, which became evident in the EU referendum). This prompts the major parties to face towards the centre because that is where the pivotal votes tend to be. The margins are no less populated but they tend to be less biddable (Theresa May's unashamed grab for UKIP voters now is an exception that proves the rule). This is reinforced by the inertia of the state and para-state apparatus: the civil service, the BBC, think-tanks etc. A PR system produces a typical left-right balance, but with two centres of gravity rather than one. This means that the centre parties face outwards but instinctively seek to back towards each other as they moderate the margins, hence they can become near-indistinguishable. They do not, however, formally merge, though they may enter a "grand coalition" on occasion, as in Germany. This is because their identity is often formed in opposition to a more radical party (or radical independents) on their flank as much as the other centre party.

Though continental social democratic parties in the postwar era defined themselves against communists as much as conservatives, in practice the presence of the communists encouraged the centre-left to adopt more radical policies. The march of social democratic parties towards the centre in the 80s and 90s was a product not just of deindustrialisation and financialisation  but also of the disappearance of an organised leftwing goad as the communist parties folded and the radical left fragmented. In other words, there was a superstructural dynamic as much as a change in the material base. This was particularly evident in those countries with historically large communist parties, such as France and Italy. The ideological distance traversed by Francois Mitterand between 1981 and 1995 was much greater than the gap between Michael Foot and Tony Blair. This shift to the centre paradoxically made party formations less stable as space opened up not only at the left margin but in the area vacated by the social democrats. PR encourages dissenters within the leading parties to break away and create their own formations, hence the appearance of "real left" parties since the 90s adopting radical rhetoric in combination with mild social democratic policies (in the French context, Melenchon isn't that radical - much of what he offers is a left-Gaullism - while Hamon is trying to upgrade social democracy - e.g. his interest in a basic income).

The oddity of this year's presidential election was the emergence of two refugees from the centre-left party, Macron and Melenchon, reflecting the eclipse of the PS under Francois Hollande, combined with a weak centre-right that has opportunistically normalised the FN agenda. In other words, the two dominant parties are intellectually bankrupt (Hamon's attempted resuscitation of the PS came too late in the day), but they remain institutionally strong and there is little prospect of the duopoly losing its grip on the National Assembly. The PS will now fall in line behind Macron for the presidency but will hope that the prospect of a more congenial if critical cohabitation will revive its fortunes in the legislative elections in June. Just as the two-round system has limited the FN to only two deputies, so En Marche!, which has even less of a social infrastructure, will struggle to win seats (you need to beat one of the big two in the first round and then hoover up their voters in the second). Les Républicains are likely to indulge in a bloodbath following the ill-starred candidacy of Fillon, which might ironically aid the PS recovery.

Liberalism has no party loyalty. It will advance through splits, entryism, or as a "transpartisan" movement. It will even claim to be a populist reaction against the discredited establishment, as En Marche! has. The strategy it chooses will reflect the opportunities and constraints of the electoral system. In the UK, liberalism remains broken, a condition it is still in denial about and which it instead projects onto Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party. It is this weakness, rather than Labour's poor polling alone, that has prompted Theresa May to call a general election and seek what is in effect plebiscitary approval for an elective dictatorship. At any other time she would expect liberals to rally around Labour as the only way of limiting the power of Number 10. Instead they are calling for tactical voting in support of anti-Hard Brexit MPs (given that many pro-remain MPs flipped their views, this is heroically naïve), which can only fragment the opposition. Liberals who moan about the "dispiriting choice" are ignoring what is at stake - our ability to restrain the executive - and thus giving May a free pass. The threat to liberty is in London, not Paris.


  1. Ben Philliskirk24 April 2017 at 12:13

    I have been rather exasperated at the enthusiasm even of many Corbyn supporters for 'progressive alliances' and tactical voting to keep the Tories out. They would not recognise that their support for Lib Dem candidates would not be reciprocated for left Labour or that, in the unlikely event that an increase in Lib Dem MPs stopped the Tories winning a majority, they would hold the balance of power again and would insist that Corbyn be sidelined/replaced. They learnt very little from 2010! A strong Labour showing, even with a Tory majority, would benefit 'anti-austerity' politics more, as it stands more chance of stabilising Corbyn's position. The Labour right would be only too willing to sell the poor down the river given half the chance, as they proved in summer 2015.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment25 April 2017 at 18:21

    I don't see how any leftist could vote for either le pen or Macron. You could argue Le Pen to simply destabilise the West, which I think explains Russia's tactics. Russia have attempted to revitalise the left in Europe and America but have pretty quickly realised that the only extremist game in town is on the far right. So I can't blame Russia for its tactics. Not that Russia have an atom of influence on Western elections, other than the anti Russian hysteria plays into the hands of the centre right, who having their hands on the Nuclear button and are ready to use it we can all sleep soundly at night!!

    "A strong Labour showing, even with a Tory majority, would benefit 'anti-austerity' politics more"

    A Labour win would benefit it even more but both are outlandish prospects. I would say given the choice most Blairites would vote for the Tories before Corbyn and even if they said they wouldn't I would why why given their policies are so close to the Tories.

    "The threat to liberty is in London, not Paris."

    That horse has already bolted. We have been on the road to totalitarianism and authoritarianism for quite while now. Never before has Bourgeois democracy been such a transparent sham. The thing is and here is the surprise, the liberals don't seem to mind one iota!

    High ideals are dead, long live the cesspit!