Is it time for toughness to discourage further defections or for accommodation to a changing public mood across the Union?
This summer’s accidental collision between a French presidential election and a British general election offers splendid opportunities for selective outrage on both sides of La Manche. How can those woad-wearing Brits stage an unnecessary election just to ram home their nasty Brexit referendum result? How can so many filthy French vote for a butch Nigel Farage in a skirt? Alternatively, how can their fellow-citizens now fall in behind a nerdy liberal centrist, a pro-EU technocrat who’s never been elected, even as a school prefect?
It is times like this when we can relish the old family feud in all its diversity, so much the same in many ways, so irreconcilably different in others. For the record, Emmanuel Macron’s chances of becoming a prefect at his lycee in Amiens – part of the northern French rustbelt which voted on Sunday for Marine Le Pen – were never high. At the time he was too busy, carrying on with his drama teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, now his wife but still 24 years older than the prospective president. So unlike the home life of our own dear Mrs May. I can think of one senior UK MP with a much older wife. But she never joins the campaign: we’re British.
And that’s the point really. Yes, as commentators have rushed to say, Le Pen’s version of authoritarian populism and xenophobic nationalism is recognisably part of a wider worldwide trend, except in Latin America which seems to be heading in the opposite direction. It encompasses America’s Trump and Russia’s Putin, perhaps India’s Modi, certainly China’s Xi, plus lots of local mini-me types. But no, she’s not really an outsider, as the media also claimed. She’s a well-heeled Parisian whose father and predecessor as National Front leader got to the final round of a presidential contest as recently as 2002. An MEP like Farage and different from the despised political class whose policies she rejects, but a professional politician all the same – much more so than Donald Trump, whose spouse, incidentally, is 24 years younger than the president.
Macron an outsider too? You must be joking. A deserter from the main party structures of Fifth Republic politics perhaps, though they have always been quite fluid. At 39 he is significantly younger than the usual greybeards too, many of them holdovers from the 90s. That is a break with the past. But the doctor’s brilliant son from Amiens ticks every box in the CV of France’s cross-party ‘republican elite’, self-conscious guardians of their country’s secular, outward-looking and liberal traditions. Except that the tradition isn’t all it claims to be either. When Le Pen outraged progressive France by saying that the real France didn’t round up its Jews in 1942 for deportation via the Vel d’Hiv, Paris’s winter cycle stadium – she was echoing what all post-war presidents have said until Nicholas Sarkozy put his hands up about eager collaboration. Charles de Gaulle had a good war, but the imperative to restore national pride and honour made him a ferocious pedlar of the myths of resistance.
Do the Brits do any better? Of course not. Though luck, fortitude and bold leadership saved them from Nazi occupation, their former colonial subjects do not all share their rosy self-image as freedom-loving, God-fearing and pious. Which is the real Britain, that of the 0.7% of GDP dispatched in overseas aid? Or of those who clamour for Theresa May to abandon that Cameroon pledge when she publishes her pledge-lite Tory manifesto? We may find out soon. So far May seems to be with the Daily Mail’s ‘saboteurs’ on aid. But these are early days and May appears to have few fixed ideological convictions. She’s ‘not a preacher like Thatcher,’ as the latter’s biographer, Charles Moore, puts it. Thatcher’s pledge-lite manifesto in 1979 was fairly internally consistent, though vague on detail. The word ‘privatisation’ did not appear.
What May’s ‘Me’ election (she used a lot of ‘me’ on the launch podium in Downing St) has shown so far is that attempts to broaden the election much beyond the Brexit debate will not get far. Jeremy Corbyn has made some attempts to rouse Labour’s slumbering base – he had started before May’s ambush – with appeals for a £10 an hour minimum wage, more money for schools, health care, and other social goods. But other than taxing the rich and catching tax dodgers, old standbys, he has not showed much evidence of how he would pay for it, or even of the will to govern. Four extra bank holidays is not evidence of serious policy-making in a troubled world. Nor is trying to unpick his party’s settled policy on Trident missile renewal (as Corbyn did on Sunday sofa TV) or putting a mistrusted agitator like Andrew Fisher in charge of the manifesto draft.
As with the Brexit debate, it feels eerily as if the Labour leader (‘in it to win it’) is going through the motions, as if the election was a distraction from his entourage’s real purpose, which is to refashion his party into a radical movement of social protest: out of the corridors of power, into the street and out of the clutches of so-called ‘Blairites,’ nowadays any critical MP more serious about obtaining power. The fact that two of Britain’s micro-communist parties this week declared their support for Corbyn (‘an essential first step’) serves chiefly to reinforce this impression. The newspapers express ritual fury – fury is a handily short headline word – but voters are more sensible. Jeremy Corbyn, beard and all, has been a pro-Brexit, fellow-travelling leftwinger all his political life. His off-the-shelf views have barely evolved in the four decades since Macron was born. No surprise there then.
In France the socialist party’s doomed choice, was Benoit Hamon, as much an Ed Miliband figure as a Corbynista. Hamon is pro-European, a much more experienced figure in both party and government, with enough intellectual clout and confidence to risk endorsing controversial concepts such as a universal basic income concept and a ‘tax on robots’. Mad? Perhaps, but Bill Gates said something similar about robots a few days later. And the pragmatist in Theresa May has just promised a cap on energy prices, something David Cameron and the free market media screamed about when Miliband did the same in 2013. In her determination to get Tory MPs elected in Labour’s Corbyn-enfeebled heartlands, May barely seems to care if it will do more harm than good.
Yet Hamon sank with barely a 6% ripple in Sunday’s voting, the charismatic far-leftwinger, Jean Luc Melenchon, picking up three times as much support for the old time religion: social reform, higher taxes on the rich (and the ‘rich’), higher public spending and hostility to the EU. Featherbrained stock markets around the world rallied as the nightmare of a Le Pen Vs Melenchon second round evaporated. But add Le Pen’s 21.9% to Melenchon’s tally and 40% of French voters backed stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off candidates in a country gripped by fears of terrorist attacks and still in a state of emergency. That should give wiser heads in Brussels cause for reflexion as they square up to Brexit talks. Is it time for toughness to discourage further defections (the expected Macron view) or for accommodation to a changing public mood across the Union?
With the left split and marginalised there is not much comfort here for Corbyn or May. Former frontrunner, Francois Fillon, standard bearer of the mainstream right, trimmed to the populist wind and recovered enough from his family’s no show jobs scam to capture 19.7% in the conservative and Catholic departments. That is a profound humiliation for his party. But a slice of his vote will ignore his advice to rally behind Macron, much as leftwing voters and ex-communists in the rustbelt have defected to Le Pen, who has already done better than her father’s 16.9% peak in 2002. June’s parliamentary elections will decide whether voters really want Macron to shake things up or to let stagnation resume.
Prospects for his infant En Marche! movement being able to legislate and govern effectively must look fragile. If so, Le Pen will be back. Readers of Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian 2015 novel, Submission, know what happens next: in the 2022 elections an exhausted French elite throws its weight behind a seemingly moderate Muslim candidate, a graduate of the grandes ecoles (so he must be OK), to thwart her, and France lurches into Islamisation. A satire, of course! Here in 2017 we must assume that a majority will rally in republican solidarity against extremism on May 7 (Melenchon has been slow to say so), but would be wise not to bet the pension on it. Notwithstanding the 78% turnout on Sunday, lofty disdain for both options and complacency are Le Pen’s allies.
What can British voters learn from all this as they shuffle unenthusiastically towards election day? Certainly that lofty disdain and complacency are the enemies of conscientious citizens. May knows that and every time an opinion poll allows dafter Conservatives to predict a Commons majority of 100, even 150, the word goes out to MPs and campaign activists to talk up a fluke Corbyn victory and that other Lynton Crosby standby, the ‘coalition of chaos’ between Labour, Lib Dems and assorted Nationalists. As noted here last week, a large Tory majority might prove a chaotic coalition between moderates, Brexit realists and the Hard Brexit Right, itself split between sovereignty romantics and small state free market worshippers. The constituency selection battle is underway to reduce their influence. Perhaps.
At the start of every election, promising scenarios are floated on the back of a rogue poll or a cleverly articulated speech. Journalists needing to make things more exciting than they usually are try to arrange a horse race. So in the past few days an historic defeat for Welsh Labour has been predicted, not at the hands of Plaid Cymru, but a resurgent Tory party. A similar script has been prepared for SNP dominated Scotland as nine years in power at Holyrood and accumulated, inevitable disappointment takes the shine off Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership. In Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories have a combative and attractive leader who is also a lesbian kick boxer. What could be more suitably post-modern?
Throw in an unplanned Lib Dem revival under Tim Farron in English seats lost to the anti-coalition backlash and May will have to do really well in the Labour West Midlands and north to justify the time-cost and reputational cost of her snap election. Voters who are told an outcome is a foregone conclusion usually react in two ways: either saying ‘Oh no, it isn’t’ ( 1970, February 1974 and 1992) or by staying away in Betty-of-Bristol droves (2001 and 2005). But this is not a normal election, it is a Brexit election, a chance to reinforce May’s belated appointment as Brexiteer-in-Chief with full plenipotentiary powers of negotiations, or to put curbs on her authority.
So getting a plausible anti-May grip on the campaign is what this phase of it has chiefly been about. Accusing the prime minister of staging the June 8 contest to avoid losing her majority via by-elections in those ‘battle bus’ marginals where police have been investigating expenses fraud was Nicola Sturgeon’s best shot, along with the usual reactionary English Tory stuff which has served the SNP so well since the poll tax era. Only if we believe the cops are keen to copy the FBI and interfere dramatically in Britain’s election – as they did in Hillary Clinton’s – is this likely to yield much fruit. Will Corbyn’s visit to the Scottish TUC in the spring snows of Aviemore do better? Probably not, though it is worth making the effort.
While the Lib Dems have the advantage of simplicity – their status as the unequivocally anti-Brexit, pro liberty party last week triggered the unlikely defection of Bob Marshall-Andrews from the sentimental Labour left – their attempts at building anti-Tory electoral pacts have run into familiar trouble. Parties have a habit of saying one thing and doing something else, even the saintly Greens have been tripped up by it. UKIP and right wing Tories can be relied upon to make a mess of non-aggression pacts. After the retirement of Douglas Carswell from the Clacton contest it took only a day trip to the Essex coast for his self-appointed nemesis, Arron ‘Ron’ Banks to pull out too. Banks is keen to show the political class how to do Politics 2.0, but what he mostly shows is how much he has to learn.
But nothing has been so hack-handed as Open Britain’s attempt to target 20 MPs for punishment, mostly Tory, mostly hardline Brexiteers, but also pro-Remain’s James Berry. Was it because he hadn’t opposed Brexit hard enough, the officially-declared reason? Or because he holds Kingston and Surbiton which Lib Dem ex-minister, Ed Davey, wants to take back on June 8? Don’t send a postcard if you think you know the right answer. Several senior Remain Tories promptly quit the Open Britain campaign. Such are the perils of amateur politicking. Peter Mandelson must have popped out for a burger when they decided that one.
Tony Blair is no amateur, but he got himself into similar trouble on Sunday sofa radio, trouble he had quickly to correct. His remarks on Radio 4’s The World This Weekend that voters should support the local candidate who would not ‘back Brexit at any cost’, seemed to fall foul of the heresy (Corbynite Andrew Fisher got away with it) that says Labour members must not advocate support for a non-Labour candidate. The heresy is an old and nonsensical piece of hypocrisy, as much ignored as the Catholic ban on contraception, but prompted witch-hunter calls for the ex-PM’s expulsion.
‘I have not urged tactical voting. It is up to each voter to make up their mind on how they will vote. I only want people to make an informed choice. Of course, I hope people will vote Labour, as I will,’ he hastily wrote in the Guardian. OK, Tony, we’ve got your message as loudly and clearly as we did Jeremy’s ‘Vote Remain’ (nudge, nudge) performance in the referendum. Vote tactically to oppose ‘Brexit at any cost’ candidates. Blair’s wider advice was less equivocal.
Forget the stuff about extra bank holidays or nurses bursaries. It’s not that kind of election. Voter research suggests that May’s ‘give me a strong mandate to strengthen my hand in Brussels’ has real traction. It can only be countered by a cross-party but Labour-led campaign which says that what May’s strategy actually risks is handing over control to the ‘Brexit at any cost’ hardliners on her rightwing and beyond, the Tory Andrew Fishers. Even in pro-Brexit Labour seats (Labour voters are often part of the Remain minority) clarity is better: vote for me, your Remain MP, so we can hold May to account and reject a bad deal in 2019, not in favour of Hard Brexit and the famous Nigel Lawson Cliff, but in favour of a better one.
That is what Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit minister, has more or less been trying to say too, another articulate lawyer trying to make the best of a bad job. Don’t reject membership of the EU single market and customs union, negotiate a mutual accommodation which also reflects the need to reform the free movement of people dimension of the equation that so angers and alarms French voters. Accept that EU citizens living and working in Britain must be allowed to stay. The Lawson Cliff, the one the ex-chancellor says does not exist, is real. We could go over it.
It is a tricky message to sell and will invite more ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ nonsense from the Daily Mail whose bosses will not suffer much whatever happens. But, articulated with conviction and often, it may be this election’s cross-party equivalent of this week’s appeal by Macron’s defeated rivals among France’s Republican elite. Some things are more important that battered party loyalty, the secure future of the country is one of them: vote to defeat extremists, dreamers and chancers wherever you may find them on May 7 or June 8.