Throwing out the bums

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A Tale of two elections: Britain and France show the voters are restless

This week marked the first in modern history when Britain and France both held national elections that overlapped. The results were, like the nations themselves, similar yet very different: Britain went left, and France went right—but the real story in both places was throwing the bums out. The voters are angry today, my friends.

The similarities between the two elections and how they mirror what’s happening in America are striking. Everywhere there is a backlash against mass immigration and disappointment with globalization, yielding anger at the establishment elites for not being truthful about how these developments harm the masses of ordinary people who are not generally invited to Davos for the World Economic Forum.

And everywhere there is pushback against changes to the culture caused by the influx of so many new arrivals, in Europe’s case mainly Muslims. Many French people want to be French, and the English mostly want to be English (Britain as a whole is a matter for another column).

That’s why the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen hammered the centrists of President Emanuel Macron in Sunday’s parliamentary election in Paris – even though in macro terms Macron has been good for the economy. It won a third of the vote to Marcon’s 21%, and is likely to easily win the most seats in the second round on Sunday.

Marcon will stay in power but with the rest of the vote badly splintered, and with his party outperformed by a leftist bloc that opposes his pro-market reforms, he will be a lame duck of sorts. He cannot run again, and Le Pen may end up winning the presidency in 2027.

At first blush the British election is confounding, because the country turned to center-left Labour even though the zeitgeist might have been expected to also help Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives. Look deeper, though, and the situation is explained.

Labour cruised to victory, winning at least 412 out of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. In a feat of efficiency that should get Americans reflecting, its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has been installed as the new prime minister within a day. Viewed by number of seats, it was the biggest win by any party in many decades.

The popular vote is where it gets more complicated. Labour won just under 34 percent. That’s less than 2 percent higher than its share under the much-derided Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, when Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won 44 percent of the vote.  Under Sunak, the Conservatives fell to just under 24 percent—because the right-wing vote was split by the emergence of the far-right Reform UK, which won about 14 percent. Under Britain’s first-past the post one-round system, it is that ultranationalist disruptor that guaranteed Labour’s win.

Through the prism of the actual popular vote, then, the “Tories” were actually punished for not being right-wing enough. Indeed, immigration to the United Kingdom has increased in recent years, even though anger at immigration was a main reason for the narrow victory of the cross-party Brexit camp in the 2016 referendum that caused the rupture with the European Union.

Johnson famously joked that he wanted to both have his cake and eat it—meaning do Brexit and still preserve a strong economy; the Brits found instead that the cake was gone and was being eaten by someone else entirely. Britain’s economy took a beating, and GDP is estimated to be at least 10 percent lower than it would have been without Brexit; and immigration actually rose—only now it’s coming from the developing world instead of Eastern Europe.

That’s why there is some relief about Starmer, but nothing like the euphoria that greeted Labour in 1997 under Tony Blair. Starmer is rewarded simply for not being an idiot after 14 years of Tory government that trashed the country’s health and other services, severed a trade-dependent economy from its largest trading partner, trashed its major industry, which was London’s global financial center, and somehow didn’t even slow down immigration.

In France, anger at immigration takes on a special hue, because it is illegal for the state to collect racial and ethnic data, and so we can only estimate the number of non-Europeans and other migrants who live in France. Officially it’s around 10 percent; the people sense the real figure is double and growing fast.

This may startle Americans, who find themselves in a race-obsessed society where every job application demands intrusive information about one’s race and gender. Americans know how their country has changed due to the leaky border in the south, and many clearly do not like it; in top-down France they tried to create a color-blind society—but the voters are not color-blind at all.

Big business and many experts say immigrants are good for the economy, especially in countries with declining populations, and there is truth in that. But in the short term many voters see low-wage migrants competing for jobs, dragging all salaries down, and weighing down welfare services—in addition to diluting the local culture. It is a question of macro versus micro—and voters live in the micro.

Macron epitomizes the macro—a former investment banker and a prototypical “Davos Man.” Much the same can be said of Rishi Sunak, a multimillionaire who can be expected to return to that world as well.

These kinds of experts have been telling people that global free trade is great for efficient supply chains and cheaper products; but people in France, Britain and also the United States see manufacturing jobs disappearing and know that not everyone is cut out to be a computer engineer.

That’s why to different degrees, the dynamic in Britain and France – and also the United States, if Trump should win in November – is decidedly swinging toward protectionism: Steve Bannon’s “economic nationalism.”

This week of France and Britain drove me to reexamine “A Tale of Two Cities,” the classic novel in which Charles Dickens portrays Paris as a city steeped in violence, chaos, and upheaval. The atmosphere is charged with the tension of the impending French Revolution. The awesome destructive power of the upheaval not only brought down the monarchy but soon engulfed the revolutionaries themselves, who vastly overreached and became despotic, leading to a backlash (as I wrote last week). London is depicted as a city of relative stability and order—a place of moderation compared to the tumultuous streets of Paris.

It is startling how that dichotomy, in this most Dickensian of weeks, has been preserved. France is flirting with a dark and revolutionary path should Le Pen get her parliamentary majority. In Starmer, despite a dramatic election result, Britain is getting a lesser drama.

Which way will America go? That’s where the real drama begins. Unless President Joe Biden is compelled to step away from the race, it is looking very much like a global tsunami of Trumpian madness lies ahead.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Dickens in his book. “It was the age of wisdoms; it was the age of foolishness.”

Is history repeating itself, then? The foolishness part, at least, is clear.

Landslide win for Britain’s Labour ending 14 years of Conservative rule

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