8 July 2024

This week witnessed elections on both sides of the Channel. Many on the center-left are (I think mistakenly) celebrating this as an electoral rejection of what they label right-wing populism. I would, however, urge these folks to be careful about prematurely drawing the wrong lessons from these electoral returns.

Putting aside the maddening tendency of the new political alt-left to label all things conservative as populism, I would argue that doing so in these cases is more than a bit of a simplification. There is most definitely an element of populism to it, or more correctly to the expression of what is driving this upheaval, political discontent. This is, at its core not about left or right, it’s about a rejection of mainstream establishment politics. It has right-wing elements and a growing concern with immigration and law and order. It also has left-wing elements such as a focus on the social safety net and the growing gap between wages and cost of living. Both are expressing themselves in the same way, distrusting the wealthy and establishment. At its core this wasn’t a rejection of right-wing populism or conservative politics, that’s a misread. The UK has had a Conservative Party in power for 14 years, clearly, the British don’t have a major issue with ‘right-wing’ politics. This was about rejecting the status quo. In the case of France, it failed but only by a narrow margin and given the direction the electorate is trending it’s not all that far-fetched to argue it will go the other way next time.

In the UK the Tories are the default ruling party. Not unlike their counterparts across Western democracies, they aren’t so much left or right as centrist ruling parties with a thin veneer of either left-leaning or right-leaning politics that are far more concerned with maintaining power. The level of corruption and disconnect from average voter issues grows with every passing year. This disconnect was massively accelerated by the compounding effects of the pandemic. This is what led to the Tory ousting in the UK. This was not the warm embrace of left-of-centre politics by an enthusiastic electorate. Labour received a smaller voter share than under the Trotskyist Corbyn. Make no mistake this was not a rejection of conservative political views but of the Tories’ corruption and disconnect from voter issues.

This isn’t about left or right but establishment and anti-establishment.

Likewise, what has happened in France should not give the centre-left the warm and fuzzies. The Rassemblement National (RN) has grown its vote share to 37%. This cannot be explained away by a French affinity for populism and xenophobia and instead reflects a larger issue of social malaise. Were it not for the last-ditch efforts of an unnatural coalition of centre and hard-left parties, including over 200 candidates withdrawing from various races, things would have most definitely gone the other way. This was the result of Macron’s me or the chaos strategy which will become more and more difficult to sell as things in France continue to trend in the direction they have under his leadership. The left-wing coalition needed to hold off Le Pen is unwieldy, chaotic, and not long for this earth. Macron is not known for compromise and the cracks are already showing in the divided demands of various coalition members. With a deficit budget and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 110%, I suspect regardless of demands that higher taxes and austerity (which will ironically make the debt-to-GDP problem worse) are in France’s near future. Macron will have to pass a budget this fall, which is far from guaranteed to succeed.

My own country of Canada is a useful counterpoint. Despite traditionally being very open and liberal, the polls are dramatically shifting away from openness to immigration towards concerns for law and order, the military, and most of all the economy with a special focus on our housing hellscape. Canada has changed a lot in a short amount of time, much of it unnoticed by the rest of the world. The youth and increasingly middle-aged millennials in Canada are moving decisively toward the Tories. This is very clearly explained in at least part as their rejection of Trudeau’s hard-left social agenda. It is also, just like the Tories in the UK, about power fatigue, the growing list of scandals, and overwhelming evidence of corruption. And, again, in addition, it clearly possesses ant-establishment characteristics as the average voter feels increasingly disconnected from their leaders, their policies which don’t speak to their concerns and really are, to call a spade a spade, internationalist woke upper-class urban elitist champagne socialist fantasy bullshit. Their frustration and disdain are clearly palpable here in Canada.

Regardless, the underlying reality remains the same, an increasingly frustrated and disenfranchised electorate that is slowly but surely growing a vote share that is moving towards the anti-establishment. In the case of France, after coming so close and losing out to a legitimate, but nonetheless manipulative feeling, twist of the democratic process these voters will not be cowed but even more animated next time around. If Macron’s budget passes this fall, and these voters have to wait, they will be even angrier and more frustrated as their situation will only worsen. In the UK the new Labour Government, (I suspect already realizes this given their careful campaigning) is going to find that regardless of their ideals if they have any hope of being seen as legitimate in the long term, they are going to have to speak to voters concerns over what are more traditionally right-wing views on issues like law and order and immigration just as much as their own leftist views on the working class and social safety net.

It is worth mentioning that in both the French and British cases, coming out of these elections they have to face the harsh realities of the market, economics, and an electorate that is increasingly angry and less enthusiastic about showing up to the polls.

Again, this wasn’t about left or right but establishment and anti-establishment.



Feature Photo: Feature Photo: Wikimedia Commons – Liberty Leading the People (1830), Wikimedia Commons, 2024

DefenceReport’s Analysis and Opinion is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are not necessarily reflective of any institutions or organisations which the author may be associated with. In addition, they are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.

By Chris Murray

Chris is the Assistant Editor at DefenceReport and Senior Analyst. He holds a PhD is Defence Studies from King’s College London, an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, as well as both an Ba in Anthropology and an HBa in History from Lakehead University. He specialises in irregular conflicts, guerrilla insurgencies, and asymmetrical warfare. His areas of focus include the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, but are primarily aimed at the Balkans. Chris is an Associate Member of the of The Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King's College London, a Member of the Second World War Research Group at King’s College London, as well as an Associate of King’s College London. Chris has formally served as a defence and foreign policy advisor in the Canadian House of Commons to the office of a Member of Parliament. [email protected]