It has been sometime since I lasted posted on this blog; my silence deserves an explanation. This year I skipped the Summer conference of the French Socialists in the pretty seaside town of La Rochelle; that absence deserves an explanation. But above all, the title of this post, written by someone who has felt connected in a deep and enduring way to the ideas and the principles of the centre left, to the extent that my tribalism would not permit me to stray from the main parties who represent those principles in the countries in which I have lived (Labour in the UK and the PS in France) deserves an explanation.
Proud to be a Socialist, I have been and remain, but I can no longer tolerate the state of the left in France (and indeed elsewhere – a quick detour to England will occupy some of this post). For the worst crime of a political movement is not to lose an election, not to change its principles in changing times, nor even to make fatal errors in judgment, but to fail to aspire to power or, when in power, to fail to govern.
A Political Party is not a Protest Movement
I like protest movements. I like associations and ad hoc groups. I sign petitions and go on marches. But I am also a member of a political party and value the distinction between the former and the latter. What makes a political party different? The aspiration not just to convince others of the need for change, but to realise its ideas in governing the country. This might be through violently overthrowing the status quo, but happily for most, it amounts to working within our democratic systems to win over a majority of people to the party’s views, win elections and implement policies through government, whether local, regional or national.
Protest movements do not have this aspiration. They complain (sometimes illegitimately, but often legitimately), criticise and – yes – protest. But they rarely seek to directly implement the changes that they deem necessary to cure their complaint. They often lobby political parties who they use as instruments of change. There is however a growing trend of not doing this, perhaps due to the public’s cynicism of political parties in most of the Western world. Instead, the protesters flail about in the public space, sometimes violently, decrying the lack of action but often failing to make it clear what change they seek. I applaud those of my friends who joined protests recently to voice their welcome to refugees, but I have yet to figure out what they think should be done about the people waiting in the cold and the rain on Europe’s periphery.
Increasingly the protest movement (which requires no membership fees, no time spent at long meetings discussing parochial matters of internal organisation and avoids the tedium of applying to stand for elections) with its eye catching media events and its opt-in/opt-out culture has begun to bleed into certain political parties. The Greens in France have, over the past few months, finally confirmed that they exist only as a political party for legal and financial reasons. They are bound together by no clear policy platform, indeed little philosophically connects even their elected officials. Instead they have an adolescent petulance in the face of authority, a seemingly random approach to policy (a serious matter as they control local municipalities – albeit often in coalitions with Socialists who act somewhat as the supervising parental figure in places like Lille and Paris) and petty internal jealousies.
In the UK, the Labour Party has, with a bizarre semi-open election for party leader that opened up a party matter to those protesters who would never have joined the party otherwise and are unlikely to remain engaged beyond the leadership election itself, chosen a Protester-in-Chief in Jeremy Corbyn. His failure to understand the difference between his pet ideological hates and party policy, his frustrating tendency to identify a problem correctly and then apply a policy answer straight from the failed playbook of the left of the 1970s and early 1980s, and with his inability to manage his parliamentary colleagues (or even string together a coherent sentence), cements that party as one that will tell you what is wrong with the world, but will fail to provide any compelling solutions.
Elections aren’t diagnoses of problems. They are choices about the future. If a protest movement stands for election and does not transform itself into a force for governing in the process, they fail (and have failed – either just the ballot box, or at the subsequent electoral test when they were lucky enough to blunder into power) because they cannot provide s compelling and coherent explanation of what that future will look like. They have no plan to govern. Syriza’s recent victory is proof of this; rather than remain a protest movement, the compromises made by Alexis Tsipras were those of government, not the sound and fury of the protest march.
This protest movement is beginning to take hold of the PS. In the vacuum created by the government the “frondeurs” (trouble makers) – a moniker designed as an insult by those opposing them but one that they have gleefully adopted themselves in the continuation of a fine historical line – have announced that they are considering voting against the budget, and will even provide early next a year a checklist of all of the failures of the Socialist administration thus far. The goal is to push for a presidential primary to find a single leftist candidate to fight the next presidential election. By implication this would be a fatal challenge to the authority of Presdient Hollande, if not an outright call to dump him and replace him with someone more ideologically pure. The frondeurs have argued for months now that they want to see policies from the “real left”. Again, ideological purity is what is key, not efficacity.
What are those policies? The frondeurs are short on them, but if they ever manage to develop something like an implementable policy (they are some way off that and may never get there) one suspects that those policies would be, depressingly enough, the same kind of Corbynistic bilge that Labour is now inflicting on the British people. The frondeurs, like Corbyn, betray a shocking conservatism, in wanting to return to a world of retrenched regulation designed to protect various interest groups (thus excluding those outside, usually the young and – ironically – the poor). Economic freedom is sacrificed on the altar of protectionism and “security” in a way that is heretical to the same frondeurs when applied to security policy.
A Government is not a Political Party
The other aspect of my disillusion with the left lies with the current French government, for they are to blame in providing space for the frondeurs to grow and prosper. The crime of the government is simple: they are simply not good enough at governing.
It must be extremely frustrating to be told that you lack vision. President Hollande has repeatedly sought to paint a picture for the French on what he actually wanted to do with his five years in power. Alas, despite almost every big speech being sold as a reboot of this vision, nothing ever took and no impression has ever been created in the minds of the French that they could use to shape their view and frame their judgment of Hollande and his government.
The failure has its root in the campaign of 2011/2012 and the laundry list of presidential promises. This was a seemingly disconnected and somewhat random list of promises. Some were vague, some very precise. Many were rather unobjectionable and somewhat timid. Many have been implemented – at least partially – with little or no apparent effect. The most eye catching and arguably the one that is likely to be remembered in fifty years is opening up the institution of marriage to same sex couples. However the laundry list has proved an ineffective basis for economic policy where much greater radicalism has been needed, and whilst a few steps have been taken, their absence from the campaign has allowed the frondeurs to claim that Hollande has betrayed those who voted for him.
Why such a list of promises that would inevitably shackle Hollande to a timid five years in power? The development of this list was symptomatic of the Hollande style. Development of policy by committee, not for the purpose of developing a platform, but to give enough interest groups within the left enough to be able to support him. Equal marriage itself was not a priority for Hollande (more associated with the Catholic socially-conservative wing of the party) and was instead rather forced into his platform by certain Trades Union and the social liberal wing of the party.
In government, Hollande begun to check off his list, relying on it as the plan for government: a five year to-do list. Thus, rather than provide an idea of what he wanted achieve for France, he simply pointed to his list. The Ayrault administration typified this, lurching from issue to issue without any attempt to connect the policies. Hollande kept attempting to theme the years of his mandate – 2015 was to be the year of reforming the institutions – 2016 to be the year of social change. Yet there were no clear policies to fill these years and the themes soon fizzled. The to-do list also failed to provide any help in dealing with unexpected crises – the greatest of which being the failure of the economic to jolt back into life. Some have speculated that Hollande (a former Economics professor) expected the economy to fizz back in to life as part of the change in the economic cycle, and thus required no effort from the government. Elsewhere, to fill the policy void, ideas have sprung seemingly from nowhere, with little preparation or explanation. The most stark example was the reform of the French regions which was so cobbled together at the last minute that the President’s office accidentally sent to the press an early draft that had left the final number of regions that would remain blank – apparently to be filled in at the last minute. Time and again public policy is determined according to the needs of holding together the Socialists and their fragile coalition with what remains of the Greens. The plan is actually quite simple: survival. It is a bitter irony that the largest socialist parliamentary majority in two decades is so susceptible to rifts within the party itself. A movement that held all the levers of state in 2012 has gradually ceded them to either the conservative opposition (town halls, departmental governments, the Senate) or the chaos within the party itself (the National Assembly).
The one policy that did catch the popular imagination, at least in terms of its branding, was the “Pact of Responsibility”. This rather technocratic plan amounted to reducing employer contributions towards state pension and insurance schemes, thus reducing the cost on employers of hiring workers. The Pact was to be paid for by a small increase in VAT and cuts in government spending and dominated public debate through out late 2013 and 2014. Its final stage of implementation has just been delayed – perhaps an indication that the failure of quick results (unemployment continues to climb albeit at a rate much reduced) has sapped the government’s ambition. The Pact is a chief bête-noire of the frondeurs, who, typically, have no counter proposal to replace it with.
This is Not a Government
What is the solution? Faced with such a blistering assessment, it would be tempting to dismiss them all. But that would plunge France back into a Sarkozian administration (whether he heads it or not) pandering to the far right.
And yet it is increasingly likely that an electoral reckoning awaits the left in 2017. The prospects for the job market in 2016, the only thing that would shift the public’s view of the Socialists in time for the elections in May and June 2017, remain gloomy. The fabled return to growth will continue to evade Hollande’s administration and 2016 will see increased calls for a primary on the left. The state of the party will continue to decline, and no amount of collective navel-gazing will stop it.
It is inconceivable that Hollande can be re-elected, and it is even uncertain he will stand. Perhaps that is a necessary part of the process of changing the current state of politics.
Will the left be wiped out? Perhaps. But only the politicians. The voters, those who traditionally vote for left-leaning parties, won’t disappear. With a new compelling offer, they could be enticed back. Until then, I shall continue to look on with despair at this incompetent left.