Redheads in Normandy

R.W. Johnson

  • The British General Election of 1997 by David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh
    Macmillan, 343 pp, £17.50, November 1997, ISBN 0 333 64776 9
  • Labour's Landslide by Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge
    Manchester, 211 pp, £40.00, December 1997, ISBN 0 7190 5159 2
  • Britain Votes 1997 edited by Pippa Norris and Neil Gavin
    Oxford, 253 pp, £12.99, January 1998, ISBN 0 19 922322 X
  • Collapse of Stout Party: The Decline and Fall of the Tories by Julian Crtitchley and Morrison Halcrow
    Gollancz, 288 pp, £20.00, November 1997, ISBN 0 575 06277 0
  • Les Election Legislatives, 25 Mai-1er Juin 1997: Le president desavoue
    Le Monde, 146 pp, frs 45.00, June 1998

No one this time last year would have predicted a victory for the Left in France, yet it is in a sense far easier to explain Jospin’s triumph than Blair’s. President Chirac, elected in 1995 on a promise that he would reduce unemployment, had actually done the opposite; and, faced with the need of his deeply unpopular prime minister, Alain Juppé, to squeeze the economy yet further to meet the Maastricht criteria, called a snap election simply because he feared things would get tougher by the time Parliament’s mandate ran out in 1998. He was eager, too, to take advantage of the fact that the Socialist Party was still in a mess after the devastating unravelling of the Mitterrand Presidency and its own catastrophic defeat in the 1993 election, which left the Party with 56 seats in a chamber of 577 Deputies.

French voters, however, were indignant at being asked to perform ‘au bon plaisir du président’, as Le Monde put it – something which Jospin grasped more quickly than most. ‘What we are going to do,’ he said succinctly, ‘is to take our democratic revenge.’ In the course of the five-week campaign the election simply ran away from Chirac and the PS swept to power. It won 246 seats and the rest of the Left a further 74. To most commentators, it seems, all this came as a great surprise, yet there was nothing very remarkable in the voters’ sharp reaction to record unemployment, broken promises and Presidential arrogance, particularly in a country where the most deeply felt political sentiment has always been the wish to ‘sortir les sortants’ – to throw out whoever’s in power.

The British situation was exactly the opposite. Parliament had run its full term, the Prime Minister was generally liked, the economy had been growing strongly for five years, inflation was low and unemployment had dropped steadily throughout the Parliamentary term. Interest rates were low, income tax had been cut, the balance of payments was in surplus and the currency was strong. In sum, the Government’s boast that Britain’s economy was in better shape than any other in the EU looked reasonable enough. It was a boast no other government in the post-war period had been able to make and it would have been taken as axiomatic that any government that could make such a claim would be the safest of shoo-ins. Yet Labour, which had taken a lead in the polls in late 1992, never lost it thereafter and always looked like the massive winners they ultimately proved to be. Given the conventional wisdom about the centrality of the ‘feel-good’ factor, it was an astonishing result.

It was in 1945, that other great Labour landslide year, that the first Nuffield election study appeared, with the hand of a young David Butler already apparent. It was, sadly, a jejune and disappointing volume which explains very little of the last great realigning election of modern times. Since then Butler has taken an increasingly dominant role in the enterprise and the books have improved accordingly. By the late Fifties the Nuffield studies had become part of the election ritual and David Butler himself a national monument. Extraordinarily, he has now been doing this job for over fifty years. Yet by the Sixties it had already become fashionable to sneer at the sheer abstruse weight of Butler’s empiricist style. For most students of electoral behaviour the analysis of the result is the main point of the whole thing, but Butler has been happy to farm this section out to others and has even coined a new word – psephology – to describe his own preoccupation with the election-as-event. The term has often met with derision elsewhere. ‘Ah, Professor Stokes, you’re a psephologist, aren’t you?’ the Queen once said to the great American political sociologist, Donald Stokes, who collaborated with Butler in the Sixties and Seventies. To which Stokes, who was fond of telling the story, replied: ‘Absolutely not, ma’am.’

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