Votes from 2017 Conservative Party of Canada Leadership Race

Last weekend the Conservative Party of Canada held a leadership election and selected Andrew Scheer as their next leader. This decision has important political and policy ramifications for our country but those will not be discussed today. Instead, I am going to look at the electoral system used since it is particularly fascinating. The system used for this leadership race involved a ranked ballot but with each of the 338 federal ridings carrying equal weight. Inside each riding, it was one member/one vote but each riding’s results were then normalized out of 100 points. The actual raw vote numbers have not been released, although they would be informative to those trying to determine if this is a better system than one member/one vote ranked ballots for leadership elections. Meanwhile, the analysis of the election itself presented on Canadian television and written media has been weak since without the raw votes the journalists and pundits don’t really know what happened. The results as they currently exist are available here

While looking at the leadership results, I realized that each riding’s raw vote totals can be determined by figuring out the only numbers that make those percentages possible on each round. I tried this for a few ridings and determined the raw votes for Newfoundland and Labrador. Those are below and followed by some comments on what they suggest for the national analysis. The first table is raw votes for the entire province by round.


Newfoundland and Labrador Leadership Votes[1]


Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Bernier 208 211 211 212 214 214 215 228 231 257 281 287 336
Scheer 70 70 70 70 70 71 71 80 93 108 117 157 221
O’Toole 71 71 71 72 73 73 74 83 83 109 139 151  
Trost 41 43 43 43 43 43 43 44 73 83 86    
Chong 76 76 78 80 80 80 81 86 88 92      
Leitch 91 91 91 92 92 92 93 94 97        
Lemieux 51 51 51 51 51 51 51 51          
Raitt 39 39 40 40 40 40 40            
Blaney 3 3 3 4 4 5              
Alexander 2 2 2 2 2                
O’Leary 3 3 3 3                  
Peterson 5 6 6                    
Saxton 3 3                      
Obhrai 6                        


One of the first observations is that the raw votes, don’t correspond very well to the provincial riding points. For example, Andrew Scheer received twice the riding points on the first ballot as Michael Chong despite having fewer votes. This is due to large differences in the Conservative Party membership between the ridings. Although, Newfoundland and Labrador is a small province its ridings are quite different from each other. This is particularly evident in comparing the well-educated, cosmopolitan, wealthier urban residents of St. John’s East to the dispersed Innu of Labrador or the rural ridings outside the Avalon Peninsula. Below, I am noting the total votes per riding from the first round of voting.


Votes Per Riding, Round 1


Riding Votes
Avalon 94
Bonavista-Burin-Trinity 90
Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame 69
Labrador 24
Long Range Mountains 55
St. John’s East 207
St. John’s South-Mount Pearl 130


The most obvious observation is that raw votes do not correlate well with provincial riding points even in provinces whose federal voting patterns are relatively similar. Urban ridings have more Conservative members and cast a disproportionate portion of the votes in this election. The result is that candidate’s whose primary appeal is to urban conservatives underperformed their raw vote. In particular, this hurt Maxime Bernier and Michael Chong in Newfoundland. These raw votes confirm the movement of social conservative voters towards Andrew Scheer in later rounds while also indicating considerable movement of voters from the more secular candidates (Lisa Raitt, Kellie Leitch and Michael Chong) towards Maxime Bernier.

[1] I have slightly less confidence in the 13th round, since there are a few possibilities for how Avalon’s 60/40 split actually arrived. Thus, the 13th round could be off by 3 or 6 votes for Bernier and 2 or 4 for Scheer with both errors in the same direction. For the other rounds and ridings, these are the only numbers which are possible.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fuel Prices, Regional Diets and Cooking Habits in the English Industrial Revolution

Energy prices have a profound impact on daily lives, particularly cooking habits. Between 1750 and 1830, various English regions had one of four main energy sources (local coal, non-local coal, peat and wood) with their own environmental and price dynamics. Coal is a non-renewable resource but mining increased to meet the demands of a growing population. As a result, coal prices were stable with industrialization and population growth concentrated where it was cheap. Meanwhile, wood supplies rely upon the amount of land dedicated to its growth and could not meet the needs of a gradually growing population. The result was that wood prices tripled in inland southern England between 1750 and 1820, while many poorer households were priced out of cooking. They came instead to rely upon purchased wheaten bread, instead of the traditional soups or pottages. Meanwhile, peat supplies were sufficient to meet the needs of local residents and cooking did not diminish in such regions. They also came to grow and eat more potatoes since that fuel source is particularly useful for cooking them.

For more information on this subject, I would recomment my article “Fuel Prices, Regional Diets and Cooking Habits in the English Industrial Revolution (1750-1830)” which is available in the November 2015 issue of Past and Present.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Some Thoughts on SSHRC’s Open Access Policy

In late February, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada announced a new policy mandating that publications resulting from funded research are to become openly available within one year.  Similar policies are already in place in Britain. Ian Milligan makes effective arguments about its benefits, while Andrew Smith has also written about the new policy.    I generally agree with Drs. Milligan and Smith on this topic, but have a few thoughts which might be pertinent to the immediate subject.

Some sort of open access policy is important, because currently a Canadian without university affiliation would effectively be paying three times for access to a journal article. In general the research towards that article was funded by public money, through research councils and university operating budgets. The journal to which said article was submitted then improves the quality through copy-editing and publishing. Legitimate costs are incurred in this process and the business-model of academic journals relies upon being able to then sell subscriptions to university libraries. The acquisition budgets of university libraries are also funded through government operating grants. Finally, if someone without university affiliation wants to read about the limits of optical character recognition software for Canadian historical research, they will need to pay an additional $16.39. Very few people actually pay that per article fee, as it exists mostly to preserve the journal’s monopoly on its content and ensure that university libraries pay the subscription fees. In order to create fundamentally open-access while preserving the important contribution of journal editors, will require major redesigns of the publishing model.

In addition to their gatekeeper functions, journals improve the quality of publications and need to recoup their costs. This has to be paid for somewhere. The publishing culture in most fields is also highly-international as Canadian scholars are expected to publish in the leading British, American and French journals. This raises one of the fundamental challenges in creating complete open-access. If any single country mandates that its journals be open-access, they will need to fund their journals to replace subscription fees while still providing university libraries with budgets to purchase subscriptions to journals from other countries. The most effective long-term option for open-access would be for the OECD countries to pool the journal acquisition budgets from their public universities, use them to fund all the current journals and then mandate open access. Otherwise, we are looking at piecemeal national solutions, of which SSHRC’s appears to be a fairly well-thought out one.

The SSHRC and NSERC proposals insist that publications from funded research are either made open-access by the journal within 12 months of publication or be placed in university repository. This gives multiple options, and many journals now offer authors the choice of making their articles open-access for a fee. For example, I have an article forthcoming in a journal that allows authors to make their articles open-access for a fee of £1,700 ($3,241). Meanwhile, articles and their content cannot be made available in other outlets for 24 months. If this research were SSHRC funded under the new rules, I would have left $3,000 in the research budget and used it to pay for making the article open-access. As research grants tend to be relatively large, the money exists to pay those fees. However, money spent for open-access is money that is not available for other aspects of the research process and this should be acknowledged. The total pot of money provided by the Tri-Councils is not being increased, so paying open-access fees means that there will be some reductions on other spending out of research grants.

One important thing to remember in these discussions is that in many fields, graduate students are funded through faculty research grants. For historians, this is the case in Quebec but not in other provinces. It is also frequently the case in the natural sciences. I expect that one result of the open-access policy will be somewhat less funding for Quebecois graduate students to research or present at conferences. Open-access policies have many benefits, but its advocates should acknowledge that at the margins it will reduce spending on other purposes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

1847 and 2010: Ugly Manifestations of the Macroeconomic Trilemma

On January 25, 2015 the New Democracy government led by Antonis Samaras lost its bid for re-election. Meanwhile, its coalition partner, PASOK, received less than 5% of the vote, despite having been the largest party in recent decades and in government for over half of the last 40 years. They were voted out after presiding over the worst peace-time economic collapse ever in an advanced economy. The statistics are staggering and reflect great levels of both suffering and lost opportunity for a skilled generation of young adults. With an economy losing over a quarter of its capacity in six years, unemployment of 26%, youth unemployment over 50% and the emigration of many university graduates. Despite the colossal failure of their administration, it is hard to imagine that Messrs Samaras and Venizelos wanted so many young graduates to head for Melbourne or middle-aged adults scrounging through dumpsters for food.

In thinking about the causes of the current Greek suffering, I am reminded of an excellent paper given by Charles Read on the role of monetary policy in Irish Famine Relief in 1846-1848. As it is available online, I would highly recommend that people read it.  (Read’s paper begins on PDF 73) Read effectively argues that the British government of the 1840s was a victim of the macroeconomic trilemma, whereby government policies are limited. For reasons connected to the dynamics of currency, the trilemma explains that governments are effectively limited to choosing any two of the following three policies: fixed exchange rates, free movement of capital and trade, and discretion over levels of spending. The British government of the mid-1840s was ideologically committed to fixed exchange rates through a gold standard and to free trade.

In 1846, Ireland was an impoverished portion of the United Kingdom, with many people living in abject poverty in rural areas. Those same people were dependent upon the potato for food, and a blight in 1846 caused the crop to fail. The government of Robert Peel initially instituted relief policies to provide food to affected areas. These policies were generally supported in England, including by establishment newspapers such as The Times. However, the gold standard and free movement of capital required continued balanced budgets to avoid a run on the pound, and possibly defaulting on a large government debt incurred during the Napoleonic Wars. In the midst of an economic downturn in April 1847, a parliamentary bill to extend Irish relief led to a brief run on the pound and rising interest rates. The government could not run continued deficits and largely ceased famine relief in order to keep itself solvent. Overall, the famine killed over a million people and led a million more to emigrate. Most of the excess mortality and migration of the Irish famine occurred after May 1847 and was as much a victim of the gold standard as the potato blight. The gold standard and free trade were not compatible with famine relief in 1847, while Prime Minister John Russell in London could not conceive of abandoning either for the sake of deficit spending.

In many ways, Greece is currently the victim of the macroeconomic trilemma, as a member of the Euro. The Euro is not a fiscal union, leaving member-states nominally independent and responsible for their own social spending. As a currency union, it has essentially fixed Greek exchange rates at their value on January 1, 2001. Meanwhile, the free movement of capital and goods between member states is a key component of the European Union. These two policies allow money to flow easily between members, but include two elements of the trilemma. The same easy flow of money that benefits trade in normal times, can mean bank runs, capital flight and rising interest rates in bad times. The also limit the ability of governments to deficit finance to help poor people in recessions, while fixed interest rates prevent the devaluations which would make Greek manufactured goods competitive again. The Samaras government was ideologically committed to both the Euro and European Union, which effectively constrained their ability to provide social services or invest in economic developments after 2008. The resultant cuts in social spending, government services and tax raises known as austerity, crippled the Greek economy. These policies exacerbated a severe economic downturn and turned it into six years of continual economic decline. Like Russell before them, austerity would not have been imposed if they thought the macroeconomic circumstances allowed it.

The circumstances of Ireland in the late 1840s and Greece in the early 2010s bear many similarities. The largest difference is scale, since poverty, hunger and a lack of opportunity in a formerly advanced economy are very different from the outright starvation and disease that afflicted so many in western Ireland. However, both reached the severity they did due to macroeconomic priorities that prevented discretion in government policy. Simon Wren-Lewis has previously compared the the Irish famine and Eurozone crisis, with an emphasis on cultural stereotypes in London or Bonn that allowed policy makers to disregard suffering in Athens and Galway.  Hopefully, the policy dangers of such attitudes and fixed exchange rates will be learnt and policies adopted that don’t repeat such suffering.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Coal Power with Low Emissions: Is Boundary Dam a New Energy Paradigm

Energy sources are interchangeable for many purposes. Pre-industrial people burned various woods, peat, coal, dung and straw for cooking and basic manufacturing. In such societies, fuels varied between communities depending upon local availability and cost in either money or labour. Pre-industrial people cooked with whatever fuel required the least of their effort.

Energy has never been free or unlimited as the availability of each energy source faces its own limitations. Wood, dung and straw growth are all limited by annual photosynthesis and the need to use land for growing food. Societies that rely upon these energy sources are often characterized as organic economies and had limited carrying capacities for human populations. One such example is England in 1600, when it had a population of 4.15 million but was self-sufficient in food, energy and raw materials. Most of the population lived in villages, where their houses were relatively small and made of wood. Brick was rarely used as the fuel to bake bricks made them prohibitively expensive. Although the country was self-sufficient in food and most people had enough, we generally teach that population growth in the preceding century increased poverty as the region was pushing its carrying capacity for humans. Sixteenth-century England had a fair bit of manufacturing compared to other parts of the world but this mostly involved hand-spun wool cloth. E.A. Wrigley famously captured the organic limitations on metal use when he observed that if all of England were turned over to growing wood for smelting iron, it could only produce 1.25 million tons of bar iron a year.

Since 1600, economic and population growth has been intimately tied to increasing energy consumption. Much of this has involved finding energy sources that don’t rely upon photosynthesis or directly compete with agricultural land use. The adoption of coal as a household and manufacturing fuel was uneven. If population grew beyond those 1600 levels in areas without access to coal or peat, they could not produce sufficient fuel for all households to cook. I have previously written about the limitations of local food sources for the English population as it rose over 6 million after 1763.  In the same years that English and other Europeans were becoming shorter, rising fuel costs priced an ever-larger portion of them out of cooking their own food. Instead, such households came to rely upon purchased bread or cooking as little as once a year and eating stale biscuits for the rest of the time. Even in areas of relative fuel abundance, heating homes when not cooking was an unimaginable luxury for most 18th and 19th century Europeans. In short, compared to organic economies our mineral-fuelled world currently has many more people, who are better fed, live in larger, warmer homes and use previously unimaginable materials.

Another fundamental difference between organic and mineral economies is the rate of economic growth. Pre-industrial economies sometimes grew slowly but this was neither guaranteed nor expected. In fact, classical economists like Adam Smith don’t discuss economic growth because the concept was foreign to how they understood the world. Meanwhile, we expect our economy to grow by a few percent a year and plan many things around such growth. In the current world, an economy that only grows by 1% a year does not produce enough jobs for young people entering the workforce. In addition, such low growth probably increases income inequality as stock prices rise faster than incomes. Our society cannot function without the economic growth it has come to expect in a mineral economy. Any proposal to revert to entirely local, organic energy would require vastly reducing population and have disproportionately negative effects on those in their 20s.

Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels in large quantities often causes air pollution. This was historically a severe problem in Europe and North America, and is becoming an ever-larger one in Chinese cities. Fossil fuels also release carbon into the atmosphere, which is changing climates and acidifying oceans. These are serious problems that affect the long-term sustainability of our current population levels and bring us to the fundamental challenge of energy systems. As a global society, we need to emit substantially less carbon, while also producing enough energy to support an ever-more affluent 7 billion people. In the minds of many across the political spectrum, these imperatives are seen as conflicting. In recent years, it has seemed that people supported different energy sources by prioritising one of those concerns, with solar panels supported by those worried about climate change and coal-powered electricity favoured by those worried about growth.

This conflict between fossil fuels and carbon emissions may have fundamentally changed with last month’s developments at Boundary Dam, near Estevan, Saskatchewan.  Saskpower has developed the world’s first large scale system to capture carbon emitted from a coal-fired power plant and store it underground. They have effectively managed to create coal-fired electricity that generates minimal carbon emissions and air pollutants. However, this project was expensive, as its $1.4 billion cost for the carbon-capture system works out at $12,727 for every kilowatt of electricity generation at the plant. This is in addition to the costs of building the plant or buying coal to burn. The first development of new technology is usually more expensive than later versions and prices will likely go down. If future carbon-capture is not cheaper, it will not be economical. This project is also uniquely suited to Boundary Dam, which sits on the Bakken Shale formation along the Saskatchewan/North Dakota border. This region is currently experiencing an economic boom as oil gets extracted from the Bakken Shale. Much of the carbon being sequestered will replace natural gas in shale oil production and the carbon will be stored between layers of the shale. This creates a market for carbon dioxide that subsidizes the plant and makes the area particularly well suited to storing carbon. There are many places with coal-fired power plants that are not on shale-oil formations and it is unclear whether carbon-capture and storage is feasible there.

If carbon-capture technology does not become cheaper in the future, Boundary Dam will prove to be an overpriced novelty feature on an existing plant. The money could have been spent on known low-emission energy sources. $1.4 billion would buy a lot of solar panels and these would thrive in Saskatchewan’s sunny climate. Meanwhile, at $12,727/kW of generating capacity, the Boundary Dam upgrades to an existing facility cost similar amounts to building new nuclear plants. Nuclear power would increase the amount of electricity in Saskatchewan without emitting carbon in the process. It would also use local resources and helped bring jobs back to far northern Saskatchewan. Once built, nuclear plants produce cheaper electricity than coal. If Boundary Dam does not ignite a rash of technological efficiencies, nuclear or solar power would have been a better solution to reduce emissions while increasing electrical capacity to deal with Saskatchewan’s growing population and the likely rise in electric car use.

If carbon-capture technology and electric cars become cheaper, we may be entering a fundamentally new paradigm in selecting energy sources. If coal can be burnt without emissions, it is no longer an impediment to environmental sustainability. Coal-fired electricity would become more expensive but should not turn off environmentalists. Such a world would return to the pre-industrial mentality where fuel sources were chosen based upon which was cheapest locally. In some places that would be coal with carbon capture, while in others it would be nuclear, solar, wind or hydro. If it becomes effective in many places, carbon-capture would remove the environmental value judgements from choices about energy sources and return them to cost-benefit analysis.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Are the Repeated failure of Polls to Predict Canadian Elections due to a form of Observation Bias?

In recent years, polls have failed to predict the outcomes of numerous federal and provincial elections. In last week’s Ontario election, poll aggregator Eric Grénier predicted a Liberal minority government with the possibility of a Progressive Conservative minority government. These predictions were based upon aggregating the best-available information but proved to be quite different than the eventual election result. The failures of polls to predict the election of a Liberal majority government in Ontario, follow larger predictive failures in the last Alberta and British Columbia elections and a general failure to predict the 2011 federal election. Jonathan McQuarrie wrote about these difficulties for and sees this as part of a larger Canadian crisis of confidence in social scientific evidence.

The difficulties of predicting Canadian elections stand in stark contrast to the United States, where polling has been highly successful at predicting presidential, senate, congressional and gubernatorial elections in recent years. This raises the fundamental question as to why American pollsters are effective in predicting elections but Canadian ones are not. Grénier suggests that the failure lies with the methodology of Canadian pollsters, either in which voters they reach or the ways in which they predict which voters will turnout. Political polling is a similar exercise to social scientific research and they see its difficulties as being solvable with better research methodology.

However, the problem is not in the calibre of polling but rather that polls shape voter behaviour to a greater degree in Canada than in the United States. The social scientific ideal is to be able to observe behaviour without the observation shaping that behaviour. We can later make conclusions and try to shape future developments based on this knowledge. This is particularly the case for historians, as our study of the past cannot change human actions that have already occurred. Sociology and anthropology both have considerable literature about the how to deal with situations in which observing human behaviour changes the behaviour being observed. Much of that is relevant to the failure of polls to predict Canadian elections.

Canadian polling is implicitly compared to the United States. However, we have fundamentally different political systems, particularly as the US operates on a two-party system. Only Saskatchewan provincial elections are similar, and these have the best polling track-record in recent years. Meanwhile, there are four-party systems in Quebec and Alberta provincial elections and Quebec federal elections. The remainder of provinces have three-party systems. A key difference between two and three party systems is that there is a noticeable portion of the Canadian electorate that is comfortable voting for more than one party and makes a decision in the final week based upon electability. These are most frequently centre and left-of-centre voters who support either the NDP or Liberals but the switch their voting intentions in the last day or two of a campaign out of fear of a Conservative governments. To a lesser extent there are voters willing to switch between other combinations of parties. These are engaged voters who prefer one party and inform pollsters of such, but vote to avoid a disliked government. For them, polls serve not to predict behaviour but to shape it. Looking at polling errors in recent elections, I expect such engaged last-minute swing voters are between 5 and 10% of the Canadian electorate. I also expect that they are disproportionately young and urban. The ways in which polling shapes their voting explain many of the discrepancies between pre-election polls and voting results.

The last-week volatility of Canadian voters has been pronounced since at least the 1988 federal election. In 1993, the final pre-election polls predicted a Progressive Conservative minority government. In the 2004 federal election, fear of a Conservative minority government led about 5% of Canadian voters to switch from the New Democratic Party to the Liberal Party on the weekend before Election Day. The reverse happened in 2011, when the NDP gained support in Quebec in the middle of the election campaign and overtook the Liberals as the second-most supported party nationally with two weeks remaining. At that point, many Liberal supporters switched to either the NDP or Conservatives to avoid a government of the other party, so that between 10 and 15% of Canadian voters switched support during a one-month campaign. Polls changed perceptions of electability in that campaign and the volatile voter behaviour cannot be understood without their influence. Another example is that 2012 Alberta provincial election when polling indicated that the Wildrose Party was headed to a majority government. Those polls inspired a successful viral campaign, along with many centre voters switching their allegiance to the Progressive Conservatives in the last days of the campaign.

American political polling appears more social scientific because it generally tracks the voter behaviour of more a more polarized country and does not influence it. Similar methods in Canada have less predictive power because our three and four-party systems mean that they influence some voters to switch allegiances. In this way they play a more important function in Canadian elections than the American equivalents. They cannot be understood as anything more than a reflection of voter intentions on the day being surveyed but should continue to strive for the best standards at those times.

The more volatile Canadian electorate also speaks to some other factors that distinguish Canadian elections. Compared to the United States, parties have considerably less organization and member involvement. As its effects would be less predictable on election outcomes, Canadian parties also do not attempt to organize Get Out the Vote efforts which compare to the American ones. Meanwhile, volatile Canadian voters mean that elections are often contingent on polling. Elections have a large impact on policy and people’s lives so it can be nice to think of them as the product of larger structures. People disagree about the relative merits of the 2¢/kWh subsidy to Northern Ontario heavy industry or the creation of an Ontario Pension Plan that have been promised by Kathleen Wynne. However, one cannot dispute that these will have a large influence on the future of Ontario and the lives of Ontarians. Policy played a large role the last campaign and will be its lasting impact, but polling mattered and its distinctly Canadian importance should be valued.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why is this time Different? Political Implications of prolonged Economic Downturns

Historians place a disproportionate emphasis on the 1930s when teaching European History. The decade looms large in our courses with discussions of economic depressions, the rise of far-right political parties and the onset of the Second World War. We generally try to instill greater complexity to our lectures but a fairly straight-forward narrative emerges: Economic collapse and high unemployment contribute to the election of far-right political parties, war and 6 million dead Jews. Interestingly, the Eurozone’s economic trajectory since the financial collapse of 2008 has been similar to that of the 1930s but political spectrums have barely changed. Why?

A number of economists and economic historians have noted that the overall European economy performed similarly between 2007 and 2014 as it had done between 1929 and 1936. Both continent-wide comparisons mask major regional hardships, since Britain in the 1930s or Germany and France in the 2010s have fared relatively well. The circumstances in a number of Eurozone countries are staggeringly bad. After 2008, Latvia lost a quarter of its economy within a year and 10% had emigrated within two years. The Greek economy contracted by 13.5% between 2007 and 2012 and continues to shrink with over a quarter of the adult workforce unemployed. Meanwhile, in both Greece and Spain over half of the workforce under the age of 25 is unemployed. The lack of employment for those entering the workforce will limit their skill development, while the general hesitancy of employers to hire the long-term unemployed will hurt this cohort going forward. The current generation of 20-25 year olds in Spain and Greece might have the worst long-term employment prospects of any cohort ever. Economic conditions have also noticeably deteriorated in Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark over the last six years.

It is generally understood that economic depression contributed to political extremism in the early 1930s. Within six years of the financial collapse of 1929, politics had changed radically. Parties proposing fundamentally new economic paradigms were either in government or popular in many places. The most pronounced of these were the communist and far-right parties in Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Russia and Poland. In the early 1930s, both the Kommunistiche Partei von Deutschland (KPD) and the Nationalsozialistische Deutsches Arbeiter Partei (NSDAP) had organized paramilitary wings that fought in the streets of Berlin and Munich. The NSDAP formed a government in 1933 and abolished elections. Spanish and French far-right parties were gaining in popularity and in 1934 popular front coalitions of liberals, socialists and communists were formed to oppose them. By 1935, there was limited support for economic liberalism and most European countries were no longer democracies.

We are now at a similar point in the recession that began in late 2007 to where Europeans were in 1935. Yet, outside of Iceland and Greece there has been remarkably little political change. The same parties with the same leaders are in power in many countries, notably Germany. Meanwhile, in other countries the current governments were in opposition in 2008 but have implemented similar policies to what they were proposing at the time. The most radical change has been fiscal austerity and that largely follows the pre-crash economic orthodoxy. Very few people are voting for parties that propose radical shifts in the economic organization of society. The indignado movement gets a fair amount of media coverage but it is still remarkably small and ineffectual for a generation facing the difficulties of young Spaniards. As a thought experiment, I suggest that readers try to imagine the political development of European countries (or North American ones) since 2008 in a situation where the economy grew steadily at 1% rather than the financial crash that resulted. Can you think of any situations where the parties in power or the policies being implemented would be different? The difficulty in thinking of these reinforces how little politics has changed in the last 6 years despite a prolonged economic downturn.

The experience of the last six years shows that the relationship between economic depression and extreme politics is not automatic. A more complex causal explanation is needed for the rise of far-left and far-right parties in the 1930s. A key difference between the 1930s and now is the existence of the Soviet Union and the credibility of communism. The far-left politics of 1930s were encouraged by the perception of Soviet economic growth and the widespread belief in an alternative to the Depression. In Germany, the KPD was particularly popular among the unemployed. Meanwhile, it was the threat of communism that drove the popularity of far-right political parties. Many people saw the far-right parties as authoritarian anti-communists who were best able to prevent revolution. Currently, there is no credible threat of communist revolution and limited far right support. Unemployment encouraged far-right politics to the extent that unemployed people were perceived as potentially overturning the entire political spectrum. Without that threat, unemployment may not affect the voting habits of employed and retired people. The Soviet Union is only one difference between 1930s and 2010s politics, but reminds us that there is not a simple connection between economic downturn and political change.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized