The world's voters say it's time for a change

The defeat of left-wing governments in Spain and Australia is good news for Tony Blair, says Peter Kellner
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Politicians often look abroad in order to instruct themselves and inspire their followers. Neil Kinnock made friends with Spain's Felipe Gonzales, and used to cite his success to show that socialists could return from the wilderness. Tony Blair is close to Australia's Paul Keating, whose economic and social strategy helped to shape Blair's vision for new Labour.

Now Gonzales and Keating have been swept away by their own voters. The right is back in power. So have Labour's modernisers in Britain got it all wrong? Should they be looking to Spain and Australia to discover the mistakes to avoid, rather than the lessons to copy?

The short answer is: no. The reason Blair and his colleagues can afford to be relaxed about this weekend's two elections is that they both follow 13 years of one party holding continuous office; the voters in Spain and Australia had decided it was time for a change.

In many respects the news is worse for John Major than it is for Blair. The last elections in all three countries (Britain in 1992, Spain and Australia in 1993) were won by the incumbents against the odds and against vulnerable oppositions.

All three governments have faced economic difficulties since. All three have been hurt by sleaze. And, probably most important, all three have seen the emergence of more effective oppositions.

John Howard took over as leader of Australia's Liberals, abandoned his party's previous tax policies and allayed voters' fears. Jose Maria Aznar, the 43-year-old leader of Spain's conservatives, has imposed his will on his party with Blairite vigour - and made a virtue of avoiding large promises. Had the two men been centre-left politicians unseating centre- right governments, we would now be discussing the difficulties Major would have in bucking the trend.

On that analysis, the news from Spain and Australia should do nothing to dissuade leading Labour politicians from either briefing the Queen or being briefed by Roy Jenkins, along the lines reported by different newspapers yesterday. Indeed, those two countries seem to be part of a larger movement in democratic politics round the world. Between 1979 and 1983, new political leaders defeated incumbent administrations in six leading democracies: Britain, Germany and the United States turned right; France, Spain and Australia turned left.

All six countries then enjoyed, or endured, at least 12 years of political stability. If we add Italy and Japan (whose governments had remained more or less unchanged for far longer), then we see that the Eighties were balmy years for governing parties in much of the world. During the past four years, however, six of the eight incumbents have been ejected - and the other two have been lucky to hold on.

George Bush lost the White House in 1992; Italy's Christian Democrats and Japan's Liberal Democrats were ousted in 1993; France's socialists lost last year's presidential elections, and now Spain and Australia are turning right. The two exceptions are Britain and Germany; but both ruling parties lost seats at their last elections and came within a whisker of losing power.

Of course, it might all be just coincidence. Each country has different political systems, different economic records and different electoral rhythms. Yet there are common features. We are becoming used to talk of a global economy; perhaps we are also seeing the beginnings of a sort of global politics.

The global politics thesis observes that the middle and late Eighties saw a worldwide economic boom. Not everybody did well, but enough people in most democracies prospered enough to reward their governments with re-election. The Nineties have been much harder. Growth has faltered. Well-paid jobs have been harder to find. Welfare systems have faced increasing strain. Inequalities have widened. Above all, opinion polls round the world show an increase in middle-class insecurity.

These generalisations do not apply to the same degree in every country; nor are the trends identical. Yet it is striking how similar are the elements of voter discontent that have caused so many countries to change their political direction after such long periods of stability.

This brings us to the first caveat for Blair as he contemplates his chances of being the next beneficiary of a worldwide tendency to vote for change. He may win power next time, but can he keep it the time after? Could it be that we are seeing not simply a series of one-off changes round the world, but the beginning of a new era in which governments will be less and less able to satisfy their electorates' demands for jobs, welfare and security?

The second "but" is more specific to the Australian election. Keating promised a referendum on turning his country into a republic. Recent opinion polls showed that up to 80 per cent wanted an Australian-born citizen to replace the Queen as head of state. Much good did Keating's policy and those opinion polls do him.

Blair has a substantial constitutional agenda for Britain. Different people will disagree about whether it is too radical or not radical enough. What is certain is that it will occupy a great deal of legislative time if Labour wins the next election. Keating's defeat suggests a blunt lesson for any Labour politician who thinks constitutional reform is the route to short-term electoral success: just forget it.