Past electoral lessons

Delight of second-hand bookshopping is finding curiosities that shed unexpected light on present. Two old examples of British electoral studies read recently have some lessons for present. Elections Abroad studies the Polish, South African and French elections of 1957 and 1958. The French chapter describes the constitutional referendum of 1958 where an 80% yes vote ratified the coming to power of de Gaulle and the subsequent election where Gaullists won a landslide victory. The results reflected an overwhelming rejection of ‘the system’ and significantly the Communist vote was substantially eroded although the party still resited the Gaullist tide much more than other parties. This political earthquake was unexpected. The contemporary revolutionary left believes that the acquiescence of voters in the alternatives offered by capitalist democracy obscures a fundamental alienation from the political process. They anticipate an eruption of class consciousness what Michael Mann calls the ‘explosion’ theory. Implausible but the speed with which the Fourth Republic collapses is thought provoking. However the contemporary revolutionary left largely eschews specific proposals for the radical reform of political structures. The chapter on Poland is very interesting. As in France a near revolutionary situation led to the emergence of a new national leader who sought electoral ratification. In Poland this was reform Communist Wladyslaw Gomulka. The election did not offer voters a choice between competing parties; there was a single list in each electorate of candidates from the Communists and allied parties. However voters had the option to cross names of the list. Initially the reform Communist government believed that almost no voters would take up this option and that the election would be a popular ratification of reform Communism. As the campaign progressed however the Communists began to fear that many voters would cross names off the ballot and in particular that they would single out Communists. The party struggled to mobilise its rank and file membership many of whom were disorientated by the fall of the previous Stalinist leadership. Strong support for the government came from the reform Communist intelligentsia but these were a small group. In the last weeks of the campaign the governments turned its campaign focus from a positive appeal towards the argument that any significant rejection of Communist candidates would led to a Soviet invasion, Gomulka declared ‘Crossing off our Party’s candidates means crossing out the independence of our country, crossing Poland off the map of European states’. The Catholic Church encouraged citizens to vote and implicitly supported the government. The government was successful 89.4% of voters crossed no one off and in only one electorate was a candidate in a leading position on the ballot defeated. Is the acquiescence of voters in the alternatives we are offered equally unrepresentative? The eelction also revealed the profound weakness of reform Communism as a political force and eventually its proponents would reject Marxism altogether a journey chronicled by one of the number Leszek KolakowskiColour and the British Electorate 1964 is a study of six electorates at the British general election of 1964. The editor comments ‘One of the most curious characteristics of the British, both individually and collectively, is their capacity for considering themselves tolerant, even in the act of displaying prejudice’. In 1961 the Conservative government legislated to restrict immigration from the Commonwealth with the clear intention of limiting non-white immigration. Labour reluctantly acquiesced. Some rank and file Conservatives believed the issue to be a major vote-winner. The most famous of these was Peter Griffiths candidate for the Midlands electorate of Smethwick. When asked about the slogan ‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour’, Griffiths replied ‘I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that’. At the 1964 election Griffiths won Smethwick from Labour. Yet in the five other electorates race was not a significant issue even although when prompted local white residents often expressed strongly racist views. Looking back to the fears evoked by the book it is surprising that they did not come to pass. Labour regained Smethwick in 1966 and never lost the electorate again. Race never became the huge political issue feared by many of the left or hoped for by the right.


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