Shifting back to the centre

Support for the hard left and hard right is receding across Europe, as voters and political parties inch back towards the centre, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.


Whisper it carefully. It would appear that while those on the political extremes remain full of a passionate intensity, the centre is holding.

For example, in the UK, the advance of the nationalist forces in Scotland should not distract from the fact that the hard left is in eclipse across those parts of Britain where it once walked tall, while the forces of the far right appear to be in retreat when compared with the heady days of last autumn.

Examine the SNP’s manifesto and its performance in government in Scotland over a decade and what you unearth is a centre-left movement that is pretty pragmatic, but which displays a canny awareness of the needs of key interest groups, which have often felt neglected in the past.

It is promising a modest increase in taxes on incomes over £100,000 a year, with a modest spending increase of 0.55% a year. It aims to boost spending on the NHS up north by £2bn a year, but this won’t be fully implemented until 2020. The SNP may be about to sweep all before it, but they are not exactly Bolsheviks.

We are not getting a repeat of the politics of Tony Benn, 1980s-style. Instead, the voters are gathering around parties of the centre-left and centre-right, albeit with Labour, under Ed Miliband, abandoning the union-bashing tendencies of Tony Blair.

Labour has long since abandoned talk about nationalisation, or beer and sandwiches for union leaders in Downing St.

The Tories and Labour are once again following core vote strategies, but read between the lines and, bar the Tory toughness on welfare and holes in approaches to fiscal policy, the gap is not exactly huge.

The people who actually vote appear to like it this way, while enthusiasm for hard-left policies has given way to a sort of extravagant apathy best embodied by that pied piper, Russell Brand.

A similar message of a reverse in the centrifugal tendencies of recent times is emerging in some of the peripheral countries of Europe, where the hard left has appeared to gain the greatest purchase.

In Spain, the left-wing Podemos movement no longer enjoys the support levels approaching 30% that it enjoyed back in January and February, though it has done remarkably well nevertheless.

In Greece, support for the Syriza-led government has begun to drop back following a long period of economic turbulence and growing financial uncertainty. The Greeks are being forced to stare into the abyss and they do not like what they see.

The country is more dependent than ever on life support from the ECB and there was panic on May Day, with queues lengthening as pensioners received their monthly payment at the last minute. The government is now raiding the coffers of local government so as to be able to pay its civil servants and police.

A survey released last week revealed 70% of those polled want their government to reach an agreement with the country’s creditors. Prime minister Alexis Tsipras is walking a political tightrope, trying to appease pro-Communist hardliners while reaching out to the centre ground beyond. He has visited Moscow, but he has also announced the sidelining of his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in ongoing talks with EU finance minister colleagues.

Another economist, Euclid Tsakalotos, viewed as much more low-key and discreet, has been tapped to lead the Greek delegation.

Back in Spain, a new centre right party, Ciudadanos, has emerged as an alternative focal point for voters, while Podemos has suffered the loss of its co-founder, Juan Carlos Monedero. Monedero quit following the party’s tack back towards the centre under leader Pablo Iglesias. This has been driven by a growing weariness with the language of perpetual crisis. The Spanish economy has begun to recover with around 500,000 jobs created in the past year.

In Portugal, the opposition Socialist party has tacked towards the centre while in Italy, the Blairite Matteo Renzi appears to have brought some political calm.

The picture is somewhat complicated by a rightward shift following a general election in recession-hit Finland which could complicate efforts to reach any agreement with Greece on a debt deal. There are plenty of potentially craters still left on the eurozone road, but it seems ECB president Mario Draghi is playing an important part in calming the horses for now through his ambitious quantitative easing measures.

The message for our Government from all this is: No time to panic, but no reason for complacency. Austerity capitalism is not about to get an enthusiastic thumbs up from Britain’s electorate, though when you combine the Tory and Ukip poll ratings, you end up with a right leaning vote nearing 50%.

One of the most interesting aspects of the campaign is the way the prime minister, David Cameron, has rushed into making the sort of promises and undertakings that would make the most shameless of Irish political operatives blush.

He promised an extra £8bn (€10.8bn) for the National Health Service, offered deep cuts to inheritance tax, and committed not to increase a series of taxes in the next parliament. Such policy- making on the hoof would unsettle financial markets in normal circumstances, but the bond markets are pretty somnolent with sovereign borrowing rates at record lows. This, of course, could change.

This UK election has been the most surveyed one in history, with the former Tory financial backer, Michael Ashcroft, spending millions on a host of constituency and national polls. It should provide plenty of fodder for the political strategists on this side of the water as they assess what really drives the opinions of the voters when it comes to the crunch.

One source of comfort is that dislike of the EU may be in more of a minority than previously realised, whereas bread-and-butter issues are more to the fore. Another finding is that while few enjoy a succession of cuts, people are canny enough when it comes to judging what brings about growth.

Some recent polls have found a significant majority of people think a Cameron-led UK government would be better for the country’s economy, but it would not be good for them personally.

Enda Kenny and Joan Burton will, in turn, hope that the broad benefits of growth will have begun to impact on household wellbeing by the time they face their great day of judgement.

After all the sacrifices, the UK may be entering a period of minority government, late-night sittings and legislative indecision.

As far as the Republic is concerned, this could be a foretaste of things to come.


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