Throwing out the bums

What if the entire political response to the Great Financial Crisis could be summed up as “Punch the incumbent”?

Americans threw out George Bush. Obviously this was overdetermined, but still, they did it in the winter of 2008. If you look around the democratic world, what seems to make the most difference is timing – how much distance was left to run in the political cycle. Nicolas Sarkozy got hugely lucky by running for election a couple of months before the crash, thus getting a full term. But then he married Carla and got away with paying all that cash into the Balladur campaign’s account at the Boulevard Haussmann Credit du Nord, so falling in the shit and coming up smelling of roses is hardly unusual in his life. Had the election somehow held off until the winter, though, after the whistle blew for the crisis, who would have bet against the electorate lashing out at the incumbent?

In Spain, Zapatero was in charge when the storm broke and took the punishment, although one does begin to wonder if he might eventually pull it round, having survived this far. I’ll come back to that. In Germany, the incumbent-bashing reflex hit both the coalition partners, but the biggest winner was the FDP. Wasn’t that simply because they hadn’t been in charge for many years, unlike the Greens? As a result, Angela Merkel was able to stay on and form a coalition with them. In Austria, the crisis hit with a rightwing government in power and the Social Democrats got back in. In Greece, we had the same pattern, unfortunately for the Socialists who got stuck with the bill. Poles threw out the Kaczynski brothers and brought back the Social Democrats. Swedes threw out the Social Democrats, who were in charge, and brought in the conservatives. Ireland sacked the Right and brought in Labour and Fine Gael. Australia finally binned the rightwing coalition that had been in charge since 1996 and pulled in Labour. Danes threw out the Right, who were in charge, and brought back the Socialists. The pattern was the same everywhere – whoever was in charge, was replaced at the first opportunity. Rather than anything like a coordinated move right or left, there was a rush to throw out the bums.

In the UK, therefore, what would you expect a priori? Labour were in charge when the crisis blew up and therefore they got a beating. However, it’s worth unpacking this a little. As things got progressively worse, so the Tories did better and Labour did worse, until the winter of 2009. From then on, the Tory lead began to fade through the spring, and eventually they collapsed just short of the line and were carried over by the Lib Dems. This fits perfectly with a burst of rage at incumbents that just looked like a move to the Right because of the electoral calendar.

It’s also worth considering Germany carefully. In many ways, German politics since the crisis has been a preview of British politics a few months ahead. They had an anti-incumbent backlash and a bout of Cleggmania. The conservatives held onto their core vote, with the broad Left fracturing, and the Liberals getting an unusually good score by virtue of not having been in government recently and smiling a lot. (This is quite like the British election of 2010.) As a result, a Tory-Liberal coalition was formed, started yelling for austerity, and began to decay almost as soon as it was launched. It made a lot of rather silly pronouncements, adopted a cuts budget and a succession of gimmes to clientele groups…and now the Liberal element of it is down to 2% in national polls as the economy turns for the worse.

Interestingly enough, they’re now seeing (as well as the crushing of the FDP) a broad revival across all the Left parties – the SPD, the Left Party, and the Greens, whose halfleader Jürgen Trittin was making a lot of sense about the Euro last week.

But it would be foolish to think May 2010 was a judgment on the Left or the Labour Party as such. Given the hugely favourable circumstances, it was also such a judgment on the Tories.


  1. Your Australia chronology is a little off – Labor trounced the Coalition in November 2007 long before the GFC was to coalesce.

    Labor managed the crisis well but still suffered from it, via a combo of poor communications (they were told by pollsters that people weren’t crediting them for averting a crisis so they stopped talking about it – result: the opposition made it a debt and waste story) and plain old ingratitude. Can’t really pin the 2010 hung parliament on it but it’s helped create that assetholder v everyone else politics, in a country with much less to fear on that regard than the rest of the OECD

  2. The crisis was well underway by November, 2007. Personally I date it from the MBS market freezing up in July. By November we’d already had a run on the banks.

    • Neither had any noticeable impact on Australia’s staid, generously nurtured banking or real estate sectors and neither had any role in the turfing of the Howard government. For all intents and purposes Australia’s exposure to the GFC started on 9/9/08.

  3. Cian

    Labour had also been in power too long, and Brown was not a very good leader. Even with all these advantages, still the Tories couldn’t actually win.

  4. aelilea

    Not sure the German situation is entirely comparable. The FDP traditionally always did well in federal elections because people who would otherwise have voted CDU, but did not want one-party government, would vote for the FDP instead. They knew what they were getting. Now the party landscape has diversified and the system of 2 big parties seems to be dead for good (not least as a consequence of ten years of austerity packages). With the FDP having been bringing the crazy for quite some time, few people will vote for them on their own merits and so the old pattern might just have died out. Well, you will know all this, but my point is the German system is based around people trying to pick their desired coalition, while the mere fact of a coalition is a pretty novel thing here in the UK.

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