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

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 More recently, though, hard neoliberal parties have also been replaced by the Trumpist right (as in France) or simply swallowed by Trumpism, as in the paradigm case of the US Republicans.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.

8 thoughts on “The three party system in France and Australia (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. JQ: “tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism” – better make a meme then.

    “Matt Yglesias has written a couple of posts (1, 2) on the subject of this meme (originally by Colin Wright, recently signal-boosted by Elon Musk):

    https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/which-party-has-gotten-more-extreme

    And creator, as Elon Musk posted above on Twitsville, is now going to sell it as an NFT.

    “Political cartoon shared by Elon Musk is being sold as an NFT
    https://nypost.com/2022/04/29/political-cartoon-shared-by-elon-musk-is-being-sold-as-an-nft/

    3 parties to nft transaction.

  2. I would add another component which given current world events would be unpopular – that Putin was right in saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe. The western democracies were also hinged to the USSR by dint that the working classes needed to be looked after so the right had an interest in ensuring a modicum of decency. With China going quasi-fascist (I find it hard to reconcile it with the traditional norms of communism) and the disappearance of the USSR, the right had no where to go other than back to being a feudal movement run by oligarchs.

  3. An insightful post John, much of which I agree with.

    My major point of disagreement is that I don’t think we should over-estimate the degree to which we (Australians) have changed from a two-party system to something that is more fractured or fluid.

    At our recent (21 May) election, I think there was the conjunction of two lively forces: (1) almost everyone in the country with a brain and a heart hated Scott Morrison – he was so sleazy and greasy it could make your flesh crawl … and his second tier was just as bad – the execrable Michaelia Cash, the barge-like Marise Payne, and in particular, the ex-Valley copper, Peter Dutton. And secondly, there is a strong movement for both sex equality, and climate-change action – and the teals plus the Proper Greens found a rich vein that they could tap.

    As an old anarchist-commie-hippie, I trust all those bourgeois teal women have some real influence in Canberra, and can kick the grey male suits right down the corridor.

    Rather than wander around Parliament House on the first day, blinking and gawking like the new kids at school, they should TOTALLY reject all that ritual nonsense – brush all those consigliere people aside – and simply strut their stuff and state that they are not there to play by the Lib-Lab rules. That would be fun.

    But anyway – I think our alleged “Third Party Force” thing is probably a short-term blast … the teals and greens are really going to have to team up with Labor in order to defeat the Tories long term. My view anyway.

  4. I think there is a battle for the soul of the ALP, between genuine true beleivers and neo lib opportunists.
    Let’s see if Labor has the guts to finally challenge the system instead of being servile as they have been in the past over privatisations, energy/taxation, FTA’s and social infrastructure renewal, against dumbing down.
    Even ALP politicians must realise the true nature of the system after this long and how abject to keep it going.

  5. “Even ALP politicians must realise the true nature of the system after this long and how abject to keep it going.”

    I think this is optimistic, and evidence is not on your side here. The aim of ALP politicians is to remain in government, and I expect they won’t do anything very much to scare the horses. They know they have almost all the media, most public and private institutions, most commentators, a ruthless Coalition, and a huge disadvantage in terms of rural and resource seats – all against them.

    In effect, the ALP is “allowed” to govern only if they behave in a manner which is essentially indistinguishable from conservative and neoliberal parties and agendas. For example, what are they going to do with the scores of refugees | asylum seekers who have been in detention for far too many years?

    I’m pleased they’re in government, but I don’t have high expectations … but at least they might hose down the more extreme rhetoric and the culture wars.

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