Saturday 3 December 2016

French Lessons for the Centre Left

In ordinary times, a French president announcing they wouldn't be seeking re-election is something of a deal. Especially as none have stepped down after a single term in the history of the Fifth Republic. However, as it's 2016 this milestone will go down as but a detail. Still, you can't blame Francois Hollande for throwing in the towel. His approval ratings are among the most abysmal a Western leader has ever accrued and, as a result, the first round of the French presidential election was bound to finish with him in a heap, bruised and humiliated by a hostile electorate. All this matters because Hollande's collapse invites the far right under Marine Le Pen to consolidate their position and make further gains. And there are very serious lessons here for centre left politics everywhere.

Readers with memories and an acquiantance with French politics will recall that Hollande was selected via a primary to be the joint nominee of the Socialists and Radical Left, and beating the unlamented Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of voting in the 2012 presidential elections. His platform was what we now call Milibandist, though it would be more accurate to note Hollande revealed his policies while the blessed Ed kept his under wraps, all in the hope of under-promising and over-delivering. Le sigh. Hollande favoured the stock items: regulation of finance, including the separation of investment and saving arms of banks, taxing the rich and turning up corporation tax, shrinking class sizes by hiring tens of thousands of teachers, equal rights for same sex partners, the founding of a public investment bank, lowering the retirement age, and targeting the creation of jobs for the young in unemployment black spots. Not a bad centre left offering, all told. Unfortunately, it's often what goes unsaid that can be more significant.

The first was labour market reform, or to put it more explicitly, the attempt to hammer workers conditions to help steady France's way through the consequences of the 2008 crash. On the one hand, Hollande tried to be the friend of the worker by making it easier for them to move jobs. The flipside, however, was a bonfire of employment rights. Getting rid of workers became easier, and it gave companies the right to cut wages and salaries during "tough times". It also shortened the period employees could contest lay offs in the courts. More controversial changes, was to do with pensions. Remember the pledge to lower the retirement age? France had a pensions deficit to contend with, which Hollande chose to plug by mandating an increase in contributions. This policy was successful in uniting France ... against him. Workers took to the streets in opposition, and the package had a torrid time getting through Parliament - especially from his own Socialist Party representatives. Meanwhile, he advanced a series of targeted tax breaks in the hope that French business would take on more workers, but unemployment remained stubborn. There was a certain incoherence to his approach, of helping his progressive vote out and kicking them simultaneously (also copied by Ed Miliband), which in practice meant paralysis and the perception of dithering and incompetence. Hollande got a temporary boost for firm action taken in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, but the overall political dynamic quickly reasserted itself. Subsequent terrorist outrages have compounded the sense of rudderlessness. Still, despite the litany of failure and sense of doom dogging his presidency, under Hollande France managed to overtake Britain as the world's fifth largest economy.

The reason why Hollande is set to limp off the French political stage is thanks, once again, to the structural blindness of the centre left. In September 2014, his former partner published a memoir that called Hollande's integrity into question. Defending himself, he said his entire political career was guided by a commitment to helping the poor. And this sums up the problem. An ethical commitment to progressive politics is essential, but not sufficient for developing a properly political understanding. And that, at the risk of belabouring a point made countless times here, is politics is always fundamentally about interests. It's crude and impolite to discuss this publicly, but it's true. The right represent, defend, and attack on the behalf of class interests bound up with the status quo. And the left represent the interests of the many that, in the long-term, push beyond the limits of established politics and economics. However, while the left is drawn from and speaks to this huge constituency, it is stymied by its own refusal to see things as they are. It's not that the left are thick and have an imperfect understanding, but because the bulk of them engage in constitutional politics that in their everyday militate against seeing the world in this way. Change comes through committee meetings and resolutions, policy formation and implementation. Everything else is window dressing. And they are conditioned by the stakes of these political systems. The lived reality of voters is erased by the cult of numbers, or replacing the feeling and perception of economic relief by indices measuring GDP, inflation and wage growth. Interest becomes more and more narrowly refined into a bland national interest, expressed in increasing and decreasing metrics assumed to be in congruence with the good life. It's by this process that honest centre left politicians can come to believe liberalising hire and fire is in their constituents' interests, that making them work longer for less pension is something they should accept, because they are the nation and it's in the nation's interests these things should get sorted out.

It's this commonsense that is responsible for the incoherence of Hollande and Ed Miliband. And its consequences spell disaster for social democratic and labour parties. The Socialist presidency, the collapse of PSOE, the evisceration of Scottish Labour, the annihilation of PASOK and now Syriza. Where the centre left see themselves as somehow outside of history, where they substitute the politics of class for the politics of technocracy, they fail. They attack their base and sometimes, the base kills them in return. The right, on the other hand, never forget they're bound to certain class interests and that we live in a class society. If the centre left is to survive the apparent crisis breaking over us, we need to stop thinking woolly thoughts about the nature of our economy and politics and be as hard nosed about it as some are with their factional struggles and policy positioning. The centre left has to think radically about itself and its position. Otherwise the future is one of Francois Hollande-style approval ratings - forever.


Speedy said...

Can you give some examples of what being hard nosed would mean?

Really? The issue that politicians have to struggle with today are global - banks collapse because international investors withdraw their funds, and people lose their savings. The national debt rises, and interest has to be paid. The currency may plummet, but prices in the shops rise, and then where does the money come from for schools, and hospitals.

What's your plan?

SimonB said...

You've ignored the Euro. Surely the constraints of the single currency have a lot to answer for in the failures you cite?

Anonymous said...

Valls is hideous - makes (late period) Blair seem like Corbyn.

If he is their candidate, I hope that the PS crash and burn. There is a good chance that they would, too ;)