Sitting in the inner courtyard of the magnificent Chateau of Suze la Rousse, enjoying some superb jazz being provided by an 18-year old guitarist of phenomenal talent (at least as good as Django Reinhardt) and a violinist better than Stephan Grappelli, one could be forgiven for being unaware of the tremendous political change that has occurred in France in the last three months.
And, earlier, celebrating Bastille Day on 14th July at the customary open air banquet before the Mairie in our village, one had not become much more aware of that political change. Although the number sitting down for the banquet was down on previous years, at 300 it was not significantly so, and the mayor made his customary eloquent and passionate speech about Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but it was preceded by a minute’s silence in memory of those 86 people massacred by a terrorist in Nice on Bastille Day last year.
Talking with friends in the village and elsewhere, it was clear that they had been impressed by Emmanuel Macron’s mobilising a new movement and winning power within a year. However, while the general view seems to be that Macron’s success reflects a widespread desire for change, there was some haziness about the nature of the “change” that was desired and not all that much more clarity about the “change” that Macron would effect. This could in part be explained by the fact that the President was enjoying a “honeymoon period” and that more details of his aims and intentions would emerge soon.
Macron had, of course, signalled some of his intentions before the Presidential election – reform of the employment laws and social security provision, reforms within the EU, the removal of the “taxe d’habitation” and reduction in the size of the National Assembly.
He also has a particular view of the role of the President, likened by some as a concept like that of de Gaulle, suggesting an aloofness from involvement in day-to-day government business, which would be left to the Prime Minister he appointed and his Cabinet. But while that might have been his aspiration, it looks as if the hoped-for aloofness will not last for long, if it even starts.
One challenge to the President has already been precipitated by Macron’s intention to cut defence expenditure by 850 million Euros. This was not foreshadowed in his election programme, and has led to the resignation of the head of the military, General Pierre de Villiers, and the President’s replacement of him by another General. It is hard to imagine that this clash, and the consequences of the defence cuts, will be something which Macron can shuffle onto the shoulders of his Prime Minister. The same is likely to apply to the widely anticipated clash with the trade unions that is sure to be provoked by the President’s plans for the reform of the labour laws and social security provision. The strength of the opposition offered by the three major trade union centres – the CGT, CFDT and Force Ouvrière – may vary in intensity, but it is not likely that any of them will offer Macron their support.
One other “change” that was signalled by Macron, the abolition of the “taxe d’habitation”, could also bring strong opposition from local councils if the President does not provide an alternative source of income to the councils, for the “taxe d’habitation” provides a substantial degree of financial support to local government, and although the President has said some alternative source of funding will be proposed it is by no means clear whether that alternative will fully compensate for the loss that the abolition of the “taxe d’habitation” would inflict. Our local Mayor told me that, unless there is an adequate replacement, local services would be badly hit – not, I would have thought, a change that most voters would welcome.
There is also the major issue of reducing the high level of unemployment, especially youth unemployment. As in our recent General Election, the “youth vote” was a very significant factor in Macron’s success, but if he does not succeed in reducing unemployment substantially he could suffer the same fate as his predecessor, François Hollande. At present there does not seem to be great confidence that he can achieve this.
If there is lack of clarity about some important features of the new President’s plans, as opposed to intentions, there is certainly clarity about one of the major political changes that has occurred in France and that is the virtual disintegration of the Socialist Party. Described by one commentator as “one of the most resounding political defeats in modern electoral history”, the fate of the French Socialist Party should be of particular interest, and of some serious concern, to members of our own Labour Party. It is true that all the traditional parties of France suffered from the Macron revolution, including what had once looked like a possibly triumphant Front National, but the party that suffered by far the most was the Socialist Party. It was, after all, a party which enjoyed considerable power at regional and local levels, and success in the previous Presidential election. Almost certainly, the principal cause of the Party’s losses in the Regional elections prior to the Presidential, was the disastrous presidency of François Hollande. But the Party’s own internal divisions will also have been a factor.
It may be argued by some Labour Party members that their party could suffer the same fate as that of the French Socialists, since no party has a God-given right to exist regardless. Until recently, Jeremy Corbyn might have been seen by some members of our party as Labour’s Hollande, given his poor position in the polls vis-à-vis Theresa May, but her abysmal performance in the General Election has changed that, at least for the time being. And in any case, low though Corbyn’s ratings were prior to the election, they were never anything like as bad as those of Hollande in France.
It is also said by some that Labour’s own internal divisions were as damaging as the earlier unpopularity of Corbyn, and in that regard, there is some similarity to the problems in the French Socialist Party, but in fact that party’s internal divisions were wider than those of Labour. In addition to having to contend with the Hard Left, the Socialist Party has to combat the growing appeal of the Front National in various parts of the country, an appeal that varies in character from one part of the country to another.
There is also the important difference that, whereas the Hard Left group “France Insoumise” led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon is not part of the Socialist Party, the Hard Left faction led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and their supporters is not only within the Labour Party but seeking to achieve complete control of it, and to change its fundamental nature and purpose.
Europe was a big issue for the Front National and the Hard Left but not the other parties and, of course, Macron called for greater integration in Europe, so the issue was nothing like as divisive and damaging as it became for Labour, and for the Tories.
The issue of trade union influence has not been a problem for the French Socialists, in so far as that none of the principal trade union bodies had or have links with the Party, and so undue influence of unions on the Party’s leadership has never been the issue it is for Labour. Maybe, because of the present very parlous financial position, some of its members would wish they had the funds that our unions provide to Labour. Whether at least some Labour members and candidates would wish that Labour MPs in some parts of the country did not have to contend with pressure from affiliated unions is another matter.
Given the different histories and make-up of the Labour Party and the French Socialist Party, it would be inappropriate to argue that the popularity, or lack of popularity, of a leader is the determining factor in the success of a party, although it is surely of great importance. But when a party loses 200 seats and is left with 30 in the National Assembly, and when its President declines to stand for a second tour, one has to ask some fundamental questions. While Labour did better in our own General Election and has a leader who, at least temporarily, has become more popular than the Prime Minister, its members must also ask fundamental questions, the heart of which must be the effect on its prospects of regaining power if a major division were to develop between the majority of its MPs and the Party’s leader and his minders.
Labour unquestionably did better in the General Election than I and many other members expected, but we didn’t win it, and, although some foothills have been scaled, that high mountain remains to be conquered. Great though the difficulties are that the Tories face at present, they will fight like hell to maintain their power – and thereby the threat they pose to the nation and countless communities.
You didn’t need to actually go to France to learn the lessons about the damage that divided and weak leadership can do to a political party. In spite of all those differences, what has happened in France could possibly happen here.
Obviously, we must strive to ensure that doesn’t happen. There are no simple “cure-all” means of doing that, but a couple of basic truths and some lessons from the past can guide us.
First, the Labour Party, in its Constitution and conviction, is dedicated to the Parliamentary road to Democratic Socialism. That means, among other things, that the proposition that we could or should elect a Leader who is nominated by just 5% of the PLP is absurd. Trying to apply it would guarantee derision from our opponents and the general public, deep and enduring division in the Party that goes way beyond the antipathies in Parliament, and distrust among an electorate that thinks “they are fighting among themselves and not interested in fighting for us”. All of that, as too much of our history teaches us, would obscure our assault on the Tories and the advocacy of progressive Labour alternatives.
Second, there is no doubt that younger people support the realistic radicalism of the Party’s Manifesto and a large majority also favour either remaining in the EU or, at least, maintaining the advantages of close economic, social, educational and cultural engagement for down-to-earth reasons of security and opportunity as well as – in many cases – of idealism. Both of those strong strands of opinion and belief must be articulated by the Leadership, by our MP’s, MSP’s and AM’s, Trade Union affiliates and local Councillors. The Tories are in shambles and there has never been a time when there has been more need for us to express clear purpose and workable answers. Simple slogans, complex fudges, lack of clarity and practicality in direction will waste the opportunity, let down a generation, and dissolve support.
If these elementary realities are recognised and acted upon, we can have unity of purpose, offer a programme that reassures and inspires, save our country from a “cliff edge” exit from the EU, and maximise our appeal and our chance of exploiting any breakdown in the flimsy majority cobbled together between the Tories and the DUP.
Focus on realities, unity in objectives and conduct, political dexterity in operations - they are not easy to combine, but they are certainly doable for a Movement with a sense of duty and mission. And they are the means of ensuring that we have enduring strength, and do not suffer the crumbled fate of the French socialists.