French lessons for Labour….
I have something of a soft-spot for France. As a country it has a proud history of left-wing rebellion and being a crucible of left-wing political thinking. Culturally, as an aside, I also have something of a liking for classical French literature (Zola, Balzac et el). This weekend, France has a chance to further endear itself to my affections and indeed those of left-wingers across Europe. It goes to the polls and looks likely to elect François Hollande as its next President. It seems to me that in France, the battle-lines between left and right are mostly clearly drawn and this may well reflect both its cultural heritage and geographical proximity to Southern Europe which is socially restive to say the least; this and France’s pivotal position as a fulcrum country of the European Union means a Hollande victory could change the political mood music significantly.
In Britain, Ed Miliband’s relationship with the austerity agenda is still something of a mess, he is still giving it the occasional sloppy French kiss and treating it to the occasional back-seat-of-the-car nervous fumble. He has let to frame a clear narrative which is distinctly different from that of the government and often relapses, as we saw over public sector pay, for example, into a headlong race to the bottom for ‘respectability’. This is one of the reasons why he remains distinctly unpopular as a personal figure with the electorate and although Labour’s poll lead is, on the surface, a substantial one it is a classic castle in the sky. Comparisons with 1992 are entirely valid because currently it feels like the next election could very much play out that way.
In many ways Hollande is a similar personality to Mr Miliband, he is not glitzy and glam, nor does he inspire large amounts of disciple-like fervor; he has the same problems as Mr Miliband in this age of personality-obsessed and spin soaked politics. Nonetheless, he is poised to be successfully elected to a post which, by its very nature, encourages an even greater focus on the personality of the aspiring candidate than the British one. How did he achieve this? Firstly, he recognised he had an image problem and did something about it:
Over the following two years Hollande set about overhauling his image and building his support in the party. Seen by many as a jovial wonk with woolly views, an aversion to conflict and an inability to say no – he was once nicknamed “Flanby” by colleagues, after a brand of soft caramel pudding – Hollande began cultivating a graver tone, a more aloof persona.
Secondly, he set about successfully framing a growth-based narrative which has drawn support from the left and centrists. His proposal for a 75% top-rate of tax to fund jobs in state education has sent a clear message to the French people that he is a President for the many, not the few. He has also, successfully, boxed Nicholas Sarkozy in as a “president for the rich”, something Ed Miliband often tries to mimic in relation to David Cameron. However, while Ed rhetorically talks the talk but I have yet to see a policy proposal that illustrates the point he is making in the graphic way Hollande has and show the electorate he is walking the walk as well. Can you imagine Ed being as bold as Hollande has when it comes to the top-rate of tax? I certainly can’t. Hollande successfully sends out the signal that he is clear and decisive about what he believes and even though he is widely described in exactly the same way Mr Miliband is he is one of the people.
If François Hollande eventually ends up the with keys to Élysée Palace then Ed Miliband would do well to have has many chats with him as he can. He would learn a lot and maybe even become the Labour leader he could and should be.