Link to the scientific article:
Negri, F. (2019). Economic or cultural backlash? Rethinking outsiders’ voting behavior. Electoral Studies, Volume 59, June 2019, Pages 158-163.
Social democratic parties are experiencing a sharp drop in support in all European countries. Think, for instance, of the nearly-extinct Socialist Party in France, or of the Socialist Democratic Party in Germany – which is hemorrhaging voters to the Greens. The Democratic Party in Italy, too, is in dire straits. After experiencing the biggest setback in its history and a leadership challenge between minor candidates, the Democratic Party suffered the split of former leader Matteo Renzi and is now bogged down in an unprecedented and litigious coalition with the Five Star Movement.
The common cliché has it that social democratic parties are losing support because voters fall prey to the siren call of left-wing and right-wing populists – who fuel the fear of otherness, of migrants, of supra-national institutions, of globalization, and of international finance. This reading is unflattering to voters – who are described as unable to rationally scrutinize political proposals – and self-indulgent towards social democratic parties – which are described as the ‘last bulwark’ against rising irrationalism.
A recent study (Negri 2019) on the voting behaviour of labour-market outsiders in 27 European countries between 2008 and 2016 contradicts this reading. Those who don’t have a job vote with their wallet, not with their guts. In the secrecy of the polling booth, they tend to favour those parties that promise more social protection and more access to welfare, not those that fan the flames of fear.
Social democratic party lose at home
The voting choices of outsiders are heavily influenced by traditional ideological contrasts between the left and the right wing of the political spectrum, between market and state, and between higher and lower public spending. The novel line of contrast between “integration” and “demarcation” – or, between cosmopolitanism and nationalism – does not seem to have much salience. To put it bluntly, social democratic parties are losing the game despite home court advantage. They appear to be losing voters to their opponents because they are no longer able to win their support in relation to their most historically distinctive battle – the extension and reform of the welfare state – and not because voters fall prey to the populists’ promises in matter of immigration. This is what emerges from an analysis that is less indulgent towards social democratic parties, but more empirically grounded and more useful for developing future strategies.
Outsiders: who they are, what they want
So long as the main cleavage in the labour market was that between capital and labour, it was easy to infer someone’s political preferences from their job: workers wished for major redistributive measures and therefore voted for the social democrats, while capitalists wished for lower taxation rates and therefore supported the conservatives.
Beginning in the 1980s, the cleavage between labour-market “insiders” and “outsiders” has started to complicate the picture. “Insiders” are those who are employed with a permanent contract; “outsiders” are either unemployed or employed on a fixed-term basis, and therefore have no right to protection against dismissal and are by and large excluded from the welfare system.
These two categories of workers have diverging policy interests: insiders aim at preserving the current welfare system and labour law; outsiders, on the other hand, wish for a new welfare system aimed to be more inclusive and redistributive. According to some findings, outsiders would even be prone to accept a reduction of labour protection if this could favour their access to the labour market.
A recent study suggests that a new category of working people is becoming part of the “outsider” group alongside temporary workers and unemployed people, namely, autonomous workers without employees. This is because freelance work is becoming more and more a cover for non-permanent employment.
What outsiders vote for
To start with, outsiders tend to vote less in comparison to insiders. The likelihood of abstention is 2% higher for fixed-term workers than it is for permanent workers, with a peak of +5% for the unemployed. It would seem, therefore, that marginalization in the labour market also affects what happens in the political arena.
But when outsiders do go to the polls, what do they vote for? To answer this question, the study compares the employment status of voters with campaign promises of parties along four dimensions: left-right, higher or lower social spending, pro-union or anti-union, and for or against immigration.
The results confirm that fixed-term workers and unemployed people tend to choose parties that are further on the left wing than those for which insiders vote. Voting choices of those who don’t have a job or only work intermittently are influenced by party campaigns on social spending (outsiders favour pro-welfare parties more than insiders do). But not only that: contrary to expectations about outsiders being sceptical of unions – which are seen as only serving the interests of permanent and retired workers – they seem to be indifferent to parties’ connections with unions.
The immigration divide and the “strange case” of freelance workers
A salient difference between unemployed people and fixed-term workers concerns the issue of immigration, which instead unites insiders and unemployed people in the polling booth. Fixed-term workers, on the other hand, support parties that are more open to welcoming migrants. Disregarding difference in education, age, or household income, fixed-term workers appear more cosmopolitan and more open to the free movement of people than unemployed people are.
Finally, let us consider the electoral behaviour of self-employed workers without employees. Are these really a new entry in the composite family of outsiders? The study concludes that they aren’t. Their political preferences are a moderate version of those of regular entrepreneurs: they vote for center-right parties proposing social-spending cuts and opposing trade unions.
Outsiders want more welfare, not less immigration
All things considered, outsiders of the labour market vote for those parties that most convincingly promise extending the welfare state, without paying much attention to where they stand vis-à-vis unions. Campaign promises regarding more public spending matter much more than the narratives that identify immigrants as the source of unemployment and job insecurity. The wallet wins, not the guts.