A weekend by the sea, part three: Plastic Carrots and Paper Sticks

Since their creation as organised movements in the latter half of the 19th century, political parties have depended on a measure of discipline within the ranks to maintain their structure. Whether appointed in smoke filled rooms or elected by powerful union backers or just e membership, the leader’s legitimacy was to be respected and their decisions implemented without question for the good of the party. The American political system, now so dependent on the two party system, used to be a prime example of this trade off: everyone gets to shout, but when the top take the decision, the bottom quietens down.

But something has gone wrong with this system in French politics. The malaise in party discipline can also be seen in the US and the UK. Political parties are struggling to adapt to the new relationship between the base and the leadership. This weekend at La Rochelle however, after an embarrassing defeat in this very town during the legislative elections, the party cadres seem to have recognised that it’s time to reassess the old means of control over the members.

In June’s Legislative Elections, Segolene Royal was parachuted into the reliably socialist constituency of La Rochelle and it’s surrounding villages. The local mayor, Maxime Bono, was a reliable supporter of Royal, who had spent much of her political career as an MP in a neighbouring constituency or as President of the region in which La Rochelle sits. This seemingly easy parachutage however didn’t reckon with Olivier Falorni, the secretary of the local party committee. He had long waited for the previous MP to retire and had strong support from local members who, according to party rules, elect their own candidates. Royal had announced that she wanted to run for the Presidency of the National Assembly. The party tried to use the usual carrot in such circumstances: Falorni would run with Royal as her suppleant and step into the role as MP when Royal won the speakership. Falorni wasn’t interested. And so he ran anyway, and with a large chunk of Royal-hating right wing votes, he won by a thin margin, thus humiliating Royal, but also Martine Aubry, party leader, who had come and campaigned personally for Royal. Falorni has been excluded from the party and sits as an independent (albeit reliable vote for the PS) and was told to stay away from this weekend’s jamboree – all the more ironic given that, as local party chief in 2011, he gave a keynote speech alongside Royal.

Tensions in La Rochelle this weekend indicate that the party base wants to forget and forgive the whole episode. Even those fervent Royalists seem to want to turn the page, the better to prepare Royal’s inevitable return to frontline politics. The leadership cannot afford to do so however, at least not before everyone in La Rochelle realises how jolly naughty they were (given that the local party held a small rally yesterday afternoon outside the hall at the Summer Conference, with tables draped with signs that read “The Local Party is Not Dead (Contrary to Popular Belief!)” that may be some time…).

This case is a prime example of the weakening of party methods of discipline over the faithful: the usual carrot no longer entices (Falorni may have thought, quite reasonably, that there was a risk of Royal loosing the speakership election and him being stuck as her invisible number 2 for 5 years); the stick no longer hurts (the different currents in the party seem all the more heterogenous and the leadership more tolerant of discord).

The breakdown of party discipline is evident in other political parties too. In Lyons and the Saone et Loire, local committees within EELV (the Greens) went rogue and ignored the leaderships orders to stand aside in favour of the officially designated candidates.  In the Vaucluse, PS candidate Catherine Arkilovitch refused to support the UMP candidate to prevent Marion Maréchal-Le Pen from being elected, allowing Jean-Marie Le Pen’s granddaughter to become the youngest elected official of the new parliament.

The phenomenon in the US can be seen in the unfortunate case of Tom Akin, a man whose ignorance should disqualify him from driving a car, let alone running for election as a Senator. Again, the great and good of the party, including the presumptive nominee for presidential election, have called on him to skulk back to the hole from whence he came, but he’s defied all because he believes that there are enough in the party membership who support his ignorant theories (and according to polling, alarmingly, he might be right).

In the UK, Nick Clegg, deputy Prime Minister, has been faced by a perennially ill disciplined base who snipe at his every U-turn (to be fair, there are quite a few) and rumblings of his replacement by a more reliably defiant figure such as Simon Hughes or Vince Cable.

This weekend, La Rochelle threatened to become the crucible of disorder within the PS, something that, due to the presence of the national media, could have been disastrous. Everywhere, cameras snooped, trying the find the first seeds of disappointment in the base. Generally speaking the media were the ones to be disappointed.

Instead, a strong desire to put on a brave face was in the air. There is discord in the party. Party members frustrated and angry at double-dipping elected officials who sit on multiple councils (Gerard Collomb was shouted down in a meeting on decentralization that I attended by a furious activist), concern about local government reform (a large chunk of the Socialist base works in local government) and the latest controversial issue of the day: the EU Fiscal Treaty.

This weekend, in an impassioned speech, Marie-Noelle Lienemann raised the roof of the main hall at the conference by asking why the treaty should be rushed through parliament without a proper debate. The audience went wild: they don’t want to be seen doing Sarkozy’s dirty work, and the addition of some growth-boosting (in theory) Keynesianism didn’t placate them. On the same stage, Pierre Moscovici, looking grave, reminded the hall he had been with the President and the Greek Prime Minister that morning and that the treaty was a necessary – and urgent – building block in the future of Europe. It was the result of compromise, but fundamentally the right thing to do. He scolded the hall for groupthink on the issue and talked of competitiveness, but he also praised Liennenmann’s role in raising the issue for debate and said firmly that voting against the treaty’s ratification was not treason, but a choice. Strength in diversity? Perhaps. It indicates in any event that the PS is not going to make an issue out of the small handful of rebels in parliament who will not vote for the ratification.

Later, the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, indicated a change in strategy of managing the base. He asked for time and support: European treaties were always the result of compromise and the party cannot expect the government to take an “all or nothing” approach. What the government needed from the party base was time: in short, lots done, lots to do. His energetic performance, not a given considering his awkward speaking style, galvanised the room and sent the party faithful away feeling a little less rebellious.

The new carrot could be the promise of real change trough reform. The new stick could be explaining the consequences of ailing to act. Idealistic, perhaps, but in any event both are more effective when the party is in power rather than opposition.

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