Oz Blog News Commentary

The three party system in France and Australia (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

June 8, 2022 - 07:18 -- Admin

For a while now I’ve been arguing the political crises in the developed world can be understood as the breakdown of a two (dominant) party system in which power alternated between hard (Thatcher) and soft (Clinton) versions of neoliberalism (or market liberalism), with two sides drawing respectively on the votes of the racist/authoritarian right (Trumpists) and the disaffected left (environmentalists, socialists/social democrats etc) who had nowhere else to go, even if they were entirely unsympathetic to the market-liberal version of capitalism.

As the failures of neoliberalism have become more evident, there’s no longer enough support to maintain two neoliberal parties, so the natural outcome is a three-party system, with Trumpists, neoliberals and a left coalition, all of roughly equal size. In political systems set up for two parties, this creates a lot of instability.

When I looked at this in 2016, it seemed that the biggest losers were soft neoliberal parties, typically nominally socialist or social democratic, which had embraced austerity in the wake of the GFC. Prime examples were PASOK (which gave its name to the process of Pasokification), the French socialists under Hollande and the Dutch Labour party. More recently, though, hard neoliberal parties have also been replaced by the Trumpist right (as in France) or simply swallowed by Trumpism, as in the paradigm case of the US Republicans.

Following recent elections in France and Australia, I thought I’d take another look

Political realignment in France has embodied the three-party system perfectly. Macron has absorbed the hard and soft neoliberals from both of the old major parties into his own vehicle, now rebranded (itself a term redolent of neoliberalism) as Renaissance. The Trumpist right is represented by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National a and the even further right Reconquete. The left split in all directions during the Presidential election. For the Parliamentary elections has formed a coalition called Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (NUPES).

The two-party system in Australia has been a little more robust. Political power has alternated between the Labor party (soft neoliberal since the 1980s) and a permanent Coalition consisting of the Liberal party (urban pro-business party, hard neoliberal) and the National party (rural conservative). Over time, Labor has been challenged more and more by the Greens on the left, while the Coalition has lost support to far-right Trumpist parties. At the recent election, a third force emerged, so-called teal independents who challenged the Liberals in high-income urban seats. The name ‘teal’ (that is, blue-green) reflects the idea that the independents are broadly centrist or centre-right on economic issues but focus mainly on climate change and social issues such as #MeToo.

The electoral system in Australia, preferential voting (AKA alternative vote, instant runoff) is more favorable to minor parties than the plurality/first past the post system common in constituency systems derived from Britain. Voters rank all candidates. In the absence of a majority, candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes’ second preferences allocated among the remaining candidates. So, for example, you can safely give your first preference (primary vote) to the Greens, and give Labor a second preference without the risk of ‘wasting your vote’. If the Greens are eliminated (as usually, but not always, happens), your vote.

In the leadup to the election, the two major parties converged on most issues, with both adopting very weak policies on climate (though the conservatives were weaker). The outcome of voting saw the electorate divided into three: the main parties each got a little over a third of the primary votes, and the rest of the field a little less (the far right about ten per cent, and the Greens and teals a little under twenty per cent). The most notable result was that the Liberals lost nearly all their metropolitan seats (those in state and national capitals), winning only in the peri-urban fringe, and some regional cities. Both major parties lost seats to the Greens. Labor won a narrow majority of seats with a primary vote of about 32 per cent,

In the immediate aftermath of the election, it seemed that the big vote for candidates supporting climate action, and the unprecedented number of crossbenchers would push Labor to a more progressive policy. So far, however this hasn’t happened. Labor has stuck with soft neoliberalism, while the political right is torn between a full shift to Trumpism, or simply waiting for economic problems to return them to power.

Unless there is a big shift, it seems likely that the neoliberal duopoly will be eroded further, with Greens and progressive independents gaining ground in cities, while the far right increases its influence over the conservative parties.