Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The UK and France have both gone to the polls over the last couple of days. The outcome of both was relatively predictable in terms of how the opinion polls had read it, with a kicking for Labour in England and Scotland and a win for the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in France, consigning the Socialists under Ségolène Royal to a third straight defeat.

What's more difficult to predict is what this might mean going forward. In the UK, despite gains for David Cameron's Conservatives, I still don't believe that there is any great enthusiasm for a return to Tory government. Not yet. I have no doubt that many people are heartily sick of Labour, as is to be expected in the middle of a third term. That doesn't mean that the Tories are home and dry. In 1992, the Tories were hideously unpopular but the voters were still not ready to embrace Neil Kinnock, resulting in a wafer-thin majority for John Major, and a government that was dead on its feet a matter of months into the new administration.

The only thing that seems definite from the UK results is that the electorate is disappointed and disillusioned and that they don't trust any party to be able to deliver the kind of vision they want to follow. That suggests two things - firstly that political engagement between the electorate and those who purport to represent them is becoming more and more difficult to achieve, and secondly that the voters haven't really made it clear what kind of vision they want, if indeed they know themselves. Those two scenarios are inextricably linked and point to even lower voter turnout in the future.

On the contrary, France's election saw a record 85% turnout with Nicolas Sarkozy emerging triumphant. It's the third win in a row for the right-wing party but this one feels different. Sarkozy is immensely unpopular in many quarters for some of his views and his description of rioters last year as 'scum' certainly ruffled a number of feathers. But although he is nominally from the same stock as Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy seems certain to be considerably more active in terms of changing French culture. He talks tough on crime and immigration, he embraces America and he has promised a 'rupture' with old-style France.

Can he get his reforms through in the face of union opposition? Is he France's Margaret Thatcher, thirty years later? Who knows - it might not be pretty but it will certainly be interesting across the Channel in the next few years......

Last song on the iPod: Billy Bragg - Sexuality

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