The Socialists’ have always enjoyed needlessly complicated internal procedures, both to govern the party day-to-day, and to make the biggest decision for a political party, the choice of leader. Put aside concerns about the cult of personality and the importance of the grassroots, issues that the left perennially frets over, and results in them choosing dreadful leaders. The leader gives momentum, political direction and visibility to a political party.
Following an attempt to streamline the process and avoid the messiness of a bitterly contested vote that was the consequence of the Reims party conference in 2008, the Party is choosing a leader this year under new rules. That the new rules could allow the outgoing team to pick their successors was not something that the party members had in mind back in 2008. But it seems it was at the forefront of Martine Aubry’s thinking. Now that the party cadres have chosen Harlem Desir as the next leader, members will rubber-stamp this decision in a vote next month. How did the party that brought the open primary election to France end up using its membership as an echo chamber for the choice of leader?The weekend of 22/23 November 2008 was one of the most politically traumatic in living memory for the Socialist Party. The outgoing leader, François Hollande, was about to go into the political desert for several years, and seen as a lame duck. He would of course return resurgent, but in 2008 the newly-elected President Sarkozy was still relatively popular, and the Socialists, having failed to win yet another Presidential election, badly needed credibility in the eyes of the electors.
Instead of projecting competence, the result of the second round of the leadership election overseen at the Reims conference resulting in a party split right down the middle, with one hundred votes (out of approximately 140,000 votes cast) separating Martine Aubry in the lead and Segolene Royal. What followed was a cacophony of accusations from the Royal camp that Aubry’s supporters had fiddled the vote in several regions where Aubryists held court (notably the Nord and the Bouches-du-Rhône) and suggestions of administrative incompetence of the outgoing party leadership. Royal eventually backed-down (conscious that the only way she could win was to destroy the party in the process) and Aubry became party leader, almost by default.
Aubry then set to work to simplify the process of picking a leader. Up until then, the leadership election had run parallel to the selection of the party “motion”. Not so much a portfolio of policies, as a statement of political principle (similar to the party platforms of US politics), leading currents of thought in the party, always a broad church, would submit their motions and, after some tweaking to make them more inclusive (the process of synthèse), the party would pick their motion. Aubry decided to combine the two procedures, so that the leading signatory of the motion that was chosen became the party leader
This makes sense in that it binds the choice of leader to choice of principles. However the simplified process has now been used by Aubry, President Hollande and the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is titular head of the majority, to pick Aubry’s successor. The three have conceived of an ultra-majority motion, co-signed by all the Socialist cabinet members, and have been discussing who should be parachuted into the top signatory spot. The majority motion will then be chosen by party members, reduced to confirming the choice already made by the de facto leaders of the party.
The choice faced by the Ayrault-Hollande-Aubry triumvirate was not without its perils: Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, a loyal Aubryist, faced Harlem Désir, the current party number two and long-time supporter of the President. Ultimately, Désir has been chosen and will become the next leader of the party. Members, me included, have been receiving missives from our local party chiefs to urge us to support the majority motion in the name of “unity”. Party unity is important. But it is important to have, not to pretend to have. The Socialists have missed a great opportunity to show how democracy and transparency, even in a political party, can make good decisions.
Désir, a competent man, liked by the party-faithful, perhaps lacks the punch of Cambadélis and it will be tough for him to perform well in debates in TV studios in front of François Fillon, the likely future leader of the UMP and de facto head of the opposition. The President however has his loyal man at the top of the party. Désir’s job will be to ensure that the boat is only rocked if the President wishes it. He kept the party together throughout the primaries, no mean feat given the novelty of the process, but whether he can do so during the next two years, the darkest hours of dissension for the party, is another matter.