Is the Left really losing elections across the world?

The Left is retreating around the world. The Great Recession has produced a landscape so favourable for right-wing parties, their opponents can only feel sorry for themselves as they watch support drain away from them.

At least, so goes the popular narrative. At the last Labour Conference, Douglas Alexander said: “for a decade around 1997, the centre left was defeating the right. Now the centre right is beating the left”. Fraser Nelson agreed, with the assertion “across Europe centre-Left parties are in electoral retreat”.

But an analysis of elections over the last 12 months doesn’t bear out the argument that the Left is on a losing streak.

What we see instead is that while the main centre-left parties have indeed lost some ground to the main centre-right parties, left and centre-left parties have generally done slightly better than parties of the right and centre-right.

The results come from all country-wide parliamentary general elections held in Europe, North America and Australasia in the last 12 months, totalling eight elections. See here for the full methodology.

If we look just at the performance of the main centre-left party in each country, and compare it with the result for the main party of the centre-right, we do indeed see a drop for the centre-left.

In six of the eight elections, the main centre-left party lost support; only in Ireland did it gain, and that was at the expense of the centre rather than of the right. The average swing is about 2pts to the main centre-right party.

But that’s only part of the picture. If we count all parties of the left and centre-left, and compare them with all parties of the right and centre-right, the result is reversed.

Now, we see left parties gaining slightly, and right parties falling back a little. The average swing is about 1pt to the left parties.

So it seems that the main parties of the centre-left are having a slightly harder time than their counterparts on the centre-right. But their voters generally haven’t crossed the political divide. Instead, they’ve split to smaller parties on the left, and perhaps have picked up a small number of extra supporters from the Right.

This of course doesn’t say anything about how their policies have changed to adapt to the economic conditions: only how the parties themselves have performed.

Incidentally, this doesn’t seem to be about extreme parties picking up support from the centre-left and centre-right: they haven’t gained much.

Given that most of these countries have proportionate systems and are ruled by coalitions, the result has been a slight move towards more governments by parties of the left (two gains for the Left, one gain from the centre for the Right). Clearly that is an outcome that wouldn’t translate easily to Britain, were the results to be replicated.

 

Methodology

Being consistent in how the parties were selected and described was the toughest part of this.

For the party designations (left, right, centre) I followed Wikipedia’s descriptions, on the basis that while some may disagree with particular allocations, I was at least using a consistent approach. I counted all parties that had won seats in parliament either in this election or in the previous one.

The one place I diverged from this was in Green parties. Wikipedia has some of them designated as centre parties (and so under my rules, wouldn’t have been counted in either camp). But for the sake of consistency, I allocated them all to the Left. Since they fared worse in 2011 than in the previous election, this had the effect of reducing the score for the Left overall.

Croatia presented a challenge for the main centre-left party score. In 2007, the Social Democratic Party stood independently, but in 2011 it was part of a coalition, so its scores couldn’t be compared. Since the parties of the left did much better in 2011 than 2007 in Croatia, it’s possible that this also has had the effect of reducing the score for main centre-left parties.

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  5. funny poll question…

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