Leo Varadkar and Emmanueal Macron's recent ascents to power are two of the most interesting political stories of 2017 for many global media outlets. They have shattered the record books for becoming the youngest leaders of Ireland and France respectively. Their personal relationships have captured the imagination of the wider public. Varadkar is Ireland's first openly gay leader while Macron married his secondary level drama teacher, 24 years his senior. Their enthusiatic and frank style of speech has lead to much praise and publicity. They are both viewed as 'fresh' and 'dynamic' in their homelands.
Now that I have gotten the seemingly obligatory fawning out of the way I want to dig a little deeper and highlight that while both of these politicians may espouse a new departure in politcs they are a lot more traditional than the public has so far realised.
The domestic conditions for their success do vary slightly, given my patriotic bias, we'll start with Varadkar. The leading party in Ireland, Fine Gael, has been in power since 2011. Enda Kenny has been their party leader since 2007 and is currently Ireland's longest serving member of Parliament. A very poor performance in the 2016 election led to him being returned as Taoiseach only as the head of a minority government. A number of controversies involving the national police force made his position untenable and there were very few shocked when he announced his intention to step down in mid May. Within 48 hours Leo Varadkar launched his campaign with a very smooth website and the immediate backing of two thirds of the party's members of parliament. His only opponent Simon Coveney stood little chance enduring what can only be descibed as the political equivalent of a blitzkrieg. Since his public announcement that he was gay in January 2015 in the lead up to the Marriage Equality referendum, every statement and public appearance has been carefully managed.
The sophistication of his campaign is definitely something he has in common with Macron, whose catchy (if completely meaningless) slogan En Marche! (Onwards!) seemingly captured the imagination of the French public. Or at least that is the narrative his campaign team pushed. In reality Macron emerged from one of the weakest pools of candidates ever put forward for a French Presidential election. The two traditional parties both offered flawed candidates. The Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, never really stood a chance after the disastrous tenure of his predecessor Francois Hollande. Francois Fillon of the Republican party was an early favourite before his campaign was derailed by allegations of corruption. Meanwhile the FN party of Marine Le Pen is reviled by a majority of the French Public. At times in the second round run-off the sum of Emmanuel Macron's argument for election amounted fact that he was 'not Le Pen'. Immigration often took centre stage in the campaign and Macron used this to take public attention away from his very pro-business policies and intention to reduce the government footprint on French society. To me these policies are basicaly those of the Republican party under Nicolas Sarkozy, wrapped in a shiny new box.
They include cutting public service headcount by 120,000 and reducing the headline corproate tax rate from 33% to 25%. This would take it lower than Germany, whose total rate varies from 30-33%. Furthermore, his intention to overhaul social welfare and provide employment insurance for all can be deemed a more conservative policy as it includes provisions like necessity to prove a genuine attempt to find a job and mandatory loss of benefits if two suitable positions are rejected.
Leo Varadkar has tried to limit his planned policies thus far as he was more intent on convincing the Fine Gael members to follow their elected parliamentarians. His manifesto for party leadership was titled 'Taking Ireland Forward' (another catchy but utterly meaningless slogan). His carefully managed facade has fallen on occasion and there were potentially ominous hints of what is to come when he said he wants to lead a party for 'people who get up early in the morning'. His manifesto has a distinct Thatcherite feel to it. In the past the Irish people have rejected governments who move too far to the right (including the decimation of the Progressive Democrats). A Fine Gael party who try and drive these policies through under the illusion of a 'new type pf politics' will suffer a similar fate.
I have undoubtedly taken a cynical view of both men and may in time be proven wrong (particularly as both men finally have time to act and not only use catchy soundbites). However until then it seems fitting to borrow a Gallic phrase to describe my views on the direction both men will take their countries ; 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose' . The rough translation for this is the more it changes, the more it stays the same...
How politicians can make hay while the violence reigns
This is a very sensitive issue and while this post will look at it from a purely political (if Machiavellian) style I want to first mention that the writer is unequivocally against all violence and my thoughts are with all the families and friends of those impacted.
Over the last 18 months or so we have been inundated with images and reports of atrocities carried out across Europe, usually by individuals or groups affiliated by members of the so-called Islamic State. While these have all been disgusting acts of violence, I want to take a look at what impact they have had on elections. Will they be a key campaign topic moving forward or has the average European voter simply reached the shoulder shrug stage where a message on social media will suffice.
The comments from politicians in the aftermath of any attack have become disturbingly similar ; "now is the time for people to come together", "the people of ....... will show the world they will not bow to terrorism" or the standard "I would like to thank the emergency services for their outstanding bravery in the face of such horror" , however you do not become a leader or a senior member of any party with at least some political acumen and I am certain they immediately analyse the political fallout these attacks will have.
The two dynamics I would like to assess are incumbent versus opposition and the party's views on immigration. Whilst there are clearly other dynamics at play these are two of the factors I believe play a major role in how politicians perceive these attacks and whether they will privately view them as something they can use or will put them in defensive mode. I am going to focus on the French election that took place recently and the current UK election campaign. There are numerous other elections taking place across Europe but these may require a re-visit of this topic.
Three major incidents have taken place in France in the last 2 years; The Charlie Hebdo attack (January 2015), the Bataclan (November 2015) and the massacre in Nice (July 2016). All three would have not have helped the incumbent Socialist party. During this period President Hollande'sa approval ratings did plummet. However they were already suffering I don't believe these attacks directly lead to Hollande suffering the lowest approval ratings of any French President at 4% in October 2016 (in the summer of 2016 he published a memoir where he attacked everyone from the French national football team to the poor).
So for the incumbent government in this situation the obvious accusation is that the security forces failed or he is 'weak on security'. I think the sheer audaciousness and shock of these 3 very different attacks insulated the president from too much damage here. In fact, he actually benefited from being one of the first to master the necessary soundbites listed above as well as adding a line about taking a firm stand against terrorism.
In France the more obvious argument is the rise of the FN under Marine le Pen with her aggressive views on minimizing immigration and leaving the EU. The obvious narrative is that each successive attack increased her chances of winning and enhanced her campaign and profile. I am not so sure this is necessarily the case in terms of votes. In May 2014 the FN garnered 24.9% of the votes to win the French European Parliament elections. In March 2017 Le Pen won 21.3% of the vote in the first round run-off. So in spite of three of the most serious terrorist attacks in French history they actually lost vote share when the 'real' vote took place. In my opinion her views were still too distasteful to the majority of electorate and realistically she would have needed a lot more 'attacks' to justify her position on Islam and immigration, as well as the economic collapse of a European economy to gain any further support for her views that France should leave the EU. For FN it is difficult to see how their current approach would benefit enough from any number of attacks to move the Richter scale and hit the 30% or even 40% marks.
In my view the French have simply seen too many attacks now to be convinced to make their decision solely based on this and economics, not security will be the crucial factor over the next campaign. Macron was quick to identify this and was astute enough to avoid making it a key tenet of his campaign, instead choosing to focus on a rather woolly 'new politics' platform.
The current UK General election campaign has been blighted by two terrorist attacks which were preceded by another attack earlier in the year. They have undeniably had an impact on the campaign but have not been the key focus of it despite the campaign to label Jeremy Corbyn a terrorist sympathizer due to his alleged historical support of the IRA. The British right-wing media have continually hounded him with this label as well criticized his economic policies. In polling prior to the calling of the election by Theresa May these factor combined to give the Tories a twenty point lead.
The Labour strategy team correctly identified that they would have more success changing the public perception of their economic views than of Corbyn's past and started strongly with their Manifesto launch (May 17th - though leaked a day earlier) which received a favorable reception from the public here. The lesson here is if you are trying to regain the working class vote focus on what you can give them financially and leave nationalist policies aside, especially if you know you are perceived as 'weak' or soft'. The five days following the manifesto launch gave Labour a solid platform to voice their message and gain support in polling.
The Manchester bombing on May 22nd could have ended this momentum for Labour but there were able to deflect the weak on terror accusations and even landed some hits by pointing to the police cuts enforced by the Tory government. Corbyn's speech which claimed that terrorism was a cause of British foreign policy could have been disastrous but fortunately for him there was a precedence of Conservative politicians voicing similar views previously. So in the aftermath of this attack Labour continued to narrow the initial 20 point polling lead of the Tories and the election campaign still focused on manifestos and the differing approaches both parties would take in government.
The London Bridge attack may now have swung the pendulum back to security and foreign policy. It , at the very least, has again (rightfully so) taken up the news headlines with less than a week to go to the election. The incumbent government have the stronger line on immigration (despite never achieving any of their immigration pledge caps) and will benefit more from this potential shift. Labour have again tried to attack the Tories on their cuts in police numbers but this approach is more blatantly seen as political opportunism and will be tricky to effectively convey in the limited timeframe available to them.
My view on the attacks in the UK is that they have indirectly benefited the incumbent Tory government simply through taking the attention of the public. Neither party have been canny enough to figure out how to turn these events into an increase in their votes. The Tories realize that after their disastrous start, no campaign news is good news and will now try and quietly make it to the election on June 8th, hoping their once impregnable lead will still hold strong. Labour are faced with a tricky dilemma ; do they try and get the narrative back to the manifesto pledges which had served them well despite the public attention on terrorism for at least another 48 hours or double up on their message that the Tories, due to cuts they have made to the Police following their austerity policies, can't be trusted on security. This is a major gamble to take when the right wing press can counter this with a picture of the Labour leader with the original bearded, terrorist nemesis of the British state. An interesting week ahead....