Pity the French Socialists. Last weekend they managed to stall the Front National at regional elections – but only by supporting the centre-right Republicans. The collapse of the left and centre-left in France offers lessons to the British left – in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties. But they are not listening.
Now remember that only three years ago the French Socialists were triumphant. François Hollande won the presidency, and parliamentary elections confirmed the party’s ascendancy, along with left wing allies, including the French Greens. France was in an anti-capitalist mood; this was no victory of the centre ground. The Socialists promised tax hikes on the very rich, and the reversal of many of the centre-right’s reforms on public services. It is probably as close as we will see in Europe to a triumph of the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn – right down to a leader that did not follow the conventions of personal charisma.
But the Socialists lost their way almost immediately. They put through a few token left wing changes, but have been following the political centre ever since. The left wing programme proved unworkable. The electorate could not see the point of the party. Working class voters defected to the Front National, offering another mix of un-keepable promises, alongside its defining xenophobia. That France’s fractious centre-right was able to recover and provide the main challenge to the FN completed the humiliation of the left.
The problem for the left is that it is happier protesting and airing their “values” rather than governing. And a lot of its protest turns out to be very conservative. Many on the left seem to see their mission, not as improving the lot of the disadvantaged, but as protecting (“defending”) this or that public institution from attempts to reform them. Alongside this they protest at “injustice”. But there is no clear and consistent picture of how to make things better. There is an idea that you can raise taxes harmlessly by aiming at the wealthy, and then using the money to pump up public services and benefits without asking whether they are doing the job they are meant to be doing. And as for foreign affairs, it seem to be largely making a noise about various victim groups, and then doing practically nothing about it.
One example of political failure is dealing with racism. Look at this article from Kehinde Andrews in the Guardian. He is commenting on the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act. He points out how some forms of racism have been driven back in the 50 years, but then points at the racial minorities still suffer discrimination, and are disadvantaged on a wide variety of measures. The failure is clear, but what to do? All Mr Andrews can say is this: “Britain must acknowledge the uncomfortable history and reality of racial discrimination and be prepared to consider solutions that transform the conditions faced by oppressed groups”. Note that he has moved to language of victimhood and oppression. And the complete absence of thinking about how on earth to solve this intractable problem. To be fair, Mr Andrews is not a politician. But I hear all too often the language of victimhood and difference amongst leftist politicians who address ethnic minority issues. Everything is always somebody else’s fault.
As Tony Blair put it in a recent article in the Spectator:
Right now we’re in danger of not asking the right questions never mind failing to get the right answers. All of it is about applying values with an open mind; not boasting of our values as a way of avoiding the hard thinking the changing world insists upon
This leaves the left with two big problems. First is trying to present themselves as a convincing party of government. This is what Labour failed to do in this year’s General Election. But the French Socialists showed that you can still win, if your opponents are even more distrusted than you are. Then comes the second problem: what do you do when the left achieves power. Does it “stay true to its principles” and push through a populist left-wing programme, attacking independent businesses, and cosseting public sector workers, including an expanded nationalised industry. Recent examples of this approach are Argentina under the Kirchners, Brazil under Dilma Rousseff, and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. In the end the government cannot escape economic reality, and the economy turns sour. Interestingly this approach seems to be much more difficult in Europe than in South America. No doubt European institutions are stronger – making wilful suicide much harder. France cannot print its own currency, for example. The other choice is simply to U-turn, as the French did, and implement policies that most people cannot distinguish from those of the centre-right. This leads to an existential crisis for the governing party.
In Britain we can see that with the second party of the left, the Liberal Democrats. They entered coalition with the centre-right, the Conservatives, in 2010. Activists and members fled; the party felt as if it was imploding. It was vilified from across the political spectrum for selling out. Mostly this was because they dared to face up to the compromises of government – although it was also tangled with the toxicity of working with the Conservatives.
Rather than confront the realities of government, the left indulges itself with the language of protest, usually constructed in abstract terms (“austerity”, etc.) that means little to people they are supposed to be helping. And that leads to two problems. The first is losing working class voters to the populist right. British leftists have had some luck here. Ukip is the only credible party fishing in these waters, and they are not adept. But the popularity of movements like Britain First shows that there is a ready group of white working class (and not a few middle class) voters who are ready to take this direction. The second threat is the centre-right. If this group has an organising philosophy, it is economic liberalism, using a conventional wisdom that has built up since the 1980s. It is well past its sell-by date, and yet it is more credible than the non-offering of the left.
To reverse this, I think the left will need to do three things:
- Develop a new policy framework that addresses the challenges of the current world. That is the main focus of this blog, so readers should have some idea of what I mean. It needs to focus on sustainability, local networks and public services coordinated around the needs of users, not providers.
- Develop a better language with which to frame its ideas to those currently disillusioned with politics. I suspect this is better done through local, community politics than clever brand building by Westminster operatives.
- Develop alliances across the parties of the left, and move away from destructive tribalism. This will need to be underpinned by political reforms that make such collaboration easier (proportional representation, for example). There are some good ideas bubbling up across all the parties, alongside the nonsense.
There is, alas, almost no sign of progress on any of these three lines. But I will not give up hope.