French lessons for British social democrats

Opposition has brought a certain coherence to the British left. There is nothing like a hate-figure being in power to bring about a sense of unity. And the idea that runs through the left’s thinking on the state is social democracy. But last weekend’s electoral disaster for the French Socialists, and the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front should give them pause. The left is becoming is becoming disenfranchised from the working class.

What do I mean by social democracy? It is the coming together of several elements. The first is the conventional understanding of western democracy and the rule of law – in contrast to a more radical revolutionary style. The second is a grudging acceptance that the private sector is the primary motor of the economy – but heavily managed to prevent its excesses damaging society, including strong protection for employees’ job security. Next is strong, national government, setting standards that apply across the whole country, rather than the chaotic and inconsistent approaches that come from bottom-up policy. Then there is a faith in large public services, covering health, education, railways and much more.  A strong social, state-funded safety net is added to it. And it is all funded by high levels of taxation, with a strong progressive element.

In Britain I have noticed that a historical narrative has built up around this idea. Social democracy’s breakthrough moment was the Labour government of 1945 (after the perceived success of the country’s state directed war effort). Something like a consensus built up around it, as economic growth allowed the scope the social democratic system to be extended. Then disaster struck in 1979, when a new breed of politicians, the “Neoliberals” were allowed to take over. Mrs Thatcher’s government started to dismantle the social democratic apparatus. Tony Blair’s Labour government wasn’t much better. But at least Mr Blair’s public sector “reforms” were balanced by Gordon Brown’s creeping extension of the scope of public services. In 2010 the Tory-led coalition of Tories and the neoliberal wing of the Liberal Democrats has continued the dismantling process. But the neoliberal ideology is a demonstrable failure – leading to the financial crisis and escalating inequality. The new Labour leadership, under Ed Miliband, has shown interest in reviving the old social democratic system, but it is being urged to be more radical. Social democrats within the Lib Dems hope that the party’s current leadership will be up-ended and the party will never again be associated with Tory government.

My aim here is not to challenge this flawed narrative, though I choke when I’m told that privatised industries like energy, telecoms, water and even the railways all better run when under public ownership. I want to draw parallels between this social democratic vision of society and France. For surely the country where these ideas have been carried through most thoroughly is France. Of course the Left would rather talk about the Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden especially. But these are small, homogenous countries which do not make good parallels – and never mind the often rose-tinted spectacles.

But France is a big, diverse country like Britain. It’s anti-capitalist attitudes are deeply embedded. It combines a very efficient private sector with a strong central government run by a very well-educated and brainy elite. More than half the national income is paid in tax. And in 2012 the Socialists were swept back into power in a landslide. But now the economy is sliding and the Socialists are deeply unpopular. The working classes are defecting en-masse to the anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, anti EU National Front. What are the lessons?

But first a word of caution. It is commonplace for Anglo-Saxon commentators to write the French economy off as a basket case. It is not. Slow growth is probably an affliction that all developed economies will have to deal with. It was no accident that France weathered the 2007/09 crisis better than most developed economies – and just how secure is the new growth in Britain and the USA? Still, it has some big problems.

There are important lessons for the left in both strategy and tactics. Strategically the toughest lesson is than not all neoliberal inspired ideas are rubbish. The world economy is changing, thanks to trade and, above all, to technology. National economies must adapt to this. Developed economies are already highly dependant on global trading – shutting it off would mean a step backwards and reduced living standards. Accepting it means that industry has to reshape, causing job losses in obsolete industries. The neoliberal approach of letting market forces shape the change, by allowing struggling business to go bust and not getting in the way of new industries to take their place, is the quickest and cleanest way of adapting to this change. Fighting it means declining tax revenues, which means putting pressure on the public services and the social safety net. By pretending that there is an alternative to the globalised market economy, all the left does is build up false expectations about what can be achieved. That is the first cause of the Socialist failure in France. Too many on the British left don’t understand this basic, strategic problem.

The tactics are just as important. In France the Socialists have become part of a distant elite, remote from struggling working-class communities. They are full of clever intellectual answers, but they don’t feel the pain. Hence the appeal of the National Front. The British left too is too attached to its own intellectual sphere, sustained by Westminster think-tanks, and various left-wing publications – as well as intellectual cells in universities and (to a lesser extent) insulated public services like schools and hospitals. Strategy is set by using opinion polls and focus groups, not by politicians in the hard grind of finding solutions for hard-pressed local communities.

There is a tactical blind alley here. The focus group approach is telling politicians to respond to working class (and much middle class) anger by taking a tougher line on immigration, the EU and so on. To be fair on the left, they are resisting this temptation. But it isn’t just the pollsters and focus groups that are pulling politicians in that direction: any politician who spends serious time with the public understands that the pollsters aren’t making this up. The problem is that pandering to this anger also leads to false expectations; for very good reasons the politicians can’t deliver, and if they did the public would not like the result.

How to win back working-class communities while staying true to liberal instincts? Well you won’t find the answer in grand reforms and new laws promulgated in London or Paris. It isn’t about crafting the right sort of attack material to wound the right. It is about politicians winning trust by getting out into their local communities, meeting people and facilitating solutions that people can see. The choice of the word “facilitating” is important. It is about helping people to help themselves, not creating new government schemes (though these have a place). It is about mediating between different interest groups, not stoking up fights. People are much more realistic than many give them credit for. They appreciate honest facilitators and mediators more than people who just stoke up anger. But they are suspicious of elites that would rather talk to focus groups than their local electors, or who want to make their name with some new national reform – rather than helping to sort out a local housing estate, or bring together local ethnic groups.

It’s a hard road, but it is one the left must embrace if they are to avoid the fate of the Socialists in France.