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Political shift in Britain reflects Europe's rightward tilt

Despite the near-meltdown of the global financial system, voters have turned to conservative parties to fix the situation rather than punish the right for the failings of capitalism, analysts say.

May 13, 2010|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from London — The Conservative-led government that got down to the business of running Britain on Thursday is the latest manifestation of a rightward tilt of politics across Europe.

With David Cameron ensconced as prime minister here after 13 years of Labor rule, center-right parties or coalitions now have the upper hand in Western Europe's most populous countries: Germany, France, Britain and Italy.

They also rule several Eastern European nations, such as Poland and Hungary, while on the Iberian Peninsula, the Socialist governments of Spain and Portugal are struggling to fend off gains by conservative opponents.

The shift to the right, underway for several years, has persisted despite the near-meltdown of the global financial system and the worldwide recession that followed. Rather than punish the right for the failings of unbridled capitalism, voters have turned to conservative parties to fix the situation, analysts say.

"In many European countries, people believe that parties on the center-right are more capable of dealing with the economy than the center-left," said Clara O'Donnell, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London. "They basically seem to believe that the center-right is more capable of getting through the economic crisis."

That seemed at least partially true here in Britain, whose economy, barely out of recession, was the No .1 issue in last week's general election.

The Tories campaigned on the need to fix the country's broken finances, criticizing Labor for allowing the government budget deficit to reach Greek-like proportions and promising $9 billion in spending cuts this year.

Although the Conservatives did not win a majority of either the national vote or seats in Parliament, they easily outperformed their rivals. Now in an unexpected coalition government with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, the Tories have prevailed over their junior partner on the matter of spending cuts.

On Thursday, Cameron convened the first meeting of his Cabinet. The ministers imposed an immediate 5% pay cut on themselves in a gesture of collective responsibility for their top priority of getting the government's books in order.

Cameron is also dispatching Foreign Secretary William Hague to Washington on Friday for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the Cabinet meeting, Cameron stressed the importance of the war in Afghanistan, where Britain has deployed the highest number of troops after the United States.

The Tories' plurality at the polls was one of a handful of successes or expected successes for center-right parties across Europe this year.

Last month, the opposition Fidesz party in Hungary, which promised to trim the size of the state and cut taxes, thumped the ruling Socialists, sweeping two-thirds of the seats in parliament. In Poland, which elects a president next month, the center-right's candidate is far ahead in the polls, and June general elections in the Netherlands could see significant gains for the far right.

If present poll ratings hold, the right would dominate in Spain's national elections in 2012.

The tilt toward conservatism across Europe has been a source of puzzlement in many ways.

"Most people would have expected a shift to the left as a result of the crisis in the global financial industry," said Christian Schweiger, an expert on European politics at Durham University in England. "What occurred is the opposite."

One reason, he said, is that parties on the left have moved closer to the center, at times even co-opting the ideas of those on the right.

In Germany, little seemed to distinguish the left-leaning Social Democrats from the conservative Christian Democrats, who handily won reelection in September. Many leftists, angry over what they saw as abandonment by the Social Democrats, cast their ballots for a new party on the left that made little impact.

"The center-left has found it very difficult to find a narrative to attract voters," said O'Donnell, the London researcher. "In a lot of countries, the center-left is in disarray."

The debt crisis roiling the region and threatening stability of the euro has also scrambled traditional politics to some degree.

Socialists hold power in Greece, Spain and Portugal. But those governments, constrained by rules governing countries that use the euro, are imposing harsh austerity measures to reduce their ballooning public deficits — in short, acting more like their conservative counterparts.

"The circumstances [are] really forcing ideology out of the way, because there are not many solutions here. You have to cut deficits and you have to cut spending," said Francoise Boucek, who teaches at Queen Mary University of London.

"I don't see any big socialist or social democratic parties that are offering a different program to address this," Boucek said. "If there is no alternative, voters are going to take that in and reckon, 'Well, then we'll go ahead with these guys' " on the center-right.

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