There’s a revolution afoot across the sea. A charismatic former businessman, who has never before stood for office, is currently edging ahead in the polls with an unconventional campaign and could become President of the Republic. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Donald Trump, however, Emmanuel Macron is not. As the former banker and Economy Minister looks set for a showdown with the Front National’s Marine le Pen in a run-off for the French Presidency, at the head of a new party that has existed for barely a year, plenty on the British left have been casting envious glances across the Channel and dreaming of our very own Macron. Trapped in a hard-left, Corbynite nightmare, having just lost a by-election to the government for the first time since the bad old days of the 1980s and on course for a decimation at the next election, it’s easy to see why disaffected Labour members are looking for a saviour in the mould of the radical, centrist and popular Frenchman.
So what lessons can Labour learn from Macron, a man who could well be walking into the Elysse in two months’ time?
Firstly and most pressing for Labour, that damage a leader can do to a party’s brand can outlive the leader, toxifying it for his successor. After a woeful, ponderous, dithering and ultimately failed Presidency, François Hollande’s approval rating was mired in single figures. It was inconceivable that he could make a serious run at a second term with his name mud among more than nine out of every ten people in France. But Hollande’s withdrawal from the race has not helped the Socialist Party. Polls taken during their primary made clear that no candidate, from the Prime Minister Manuel Valls down, had a chance of making the final round of the Presidential contest. Hollande’s failure as leader has toxified the Socialist brand, perhaps fatally. Labour must learn that lesson quickly, before the toxicity of Jeremy Corbyn becomes an insurmountable obstacle to righting the wrongs of his failed leadership.
Secondly, Macron’s rise teaches Labour that there is no path to victory on the hard left. With Macron wisely choosing to shun the Socialist primary to run as an independent, party members rejected the experienced Valls and opted for Benoit Hamon, a little-known junior minister from the far left of the party. The effect on the party’s polling has been predictable – Hamon is in no danger of troubling the frontrunners looking to make the final round, and is in danger of finishing behind François Fillon, a man so embroiled in scandal his own party have considered abandoning him. Unpopular within his own party, Hamon has been unable to present a united front as the Socialists, all at sea, bicker among themselves instead of talking to the electorate – an electorate which isn’t listening to the old-school, unreconstructed leftwing rhetoric the candidate is pitching them. For a country which elected actual Communists to parliament in the last elections, this is a striking fall from grace and should be a lesson to Labour – there is no electoral crisis which a turn to the hard left can’t make worse.
Third, Macron’s campaign reaffirms a basic truth that the British Labour Party too often seems intent to forget lately – electoral success comes from being rooted in the centre ground. With the Socialists joining Corbyn in self-imposed exile on hard-left fantasy island and the Republican party nominating an unreconstructed Thatcherite, a gaping hole has opened up in the centre of French politics. Macron, with his blend of economic liberalism and social solidarity – solidly pro-European, pro-worker, pro-business and pro-reform – has greedily colonised this space and is reaping the benefits. His first campaign meeting attracted 10,000 people – numbers that even Corbyn can only dream of, and unlike Corbyn he has followed it up with success in the polls. His centre-ground platform has caught the mood of the French public and looks likely to propel him into the final round of the contest – where the smart money is on him beating the far-right Le Pen. Labour must re-learn the essential fact that a rise of this magnitude, much like our own landslide in 1997, can only come from the vital centre.
Macron’s platform also reminds us that, contrary to the arguments of some on the hard left, the centre ground is where the real radicalism lies. Hamon’s platform hails from the left of the Socialist Party, but like Corbyn’s it is not truly radical. It is an uninspiring recitation of dogmas from an institutional left which long ago ran out of ideas on both sides of the Channel. Macron’s manifesto – cutting through the mire of bureaucracy that has held the Fifth Republic’s productivity down for decades, boosting pay and pensions, cutting class sizes and investment in new technology – offers a real and concrete attempt to cut through the weaknesses that have dogged the French economy for too long without doing so at the expense of ordinary people. The extremes on all sides – a Socialist party in-hock to powerful labour interests, a Republican party wedded to austerity and Le Pen, interested in blame not solutions – are not equipped intellectually, nor prepared enough to stand up to vested interests, to engage with real, radical reform. Macron reminds Labour that the true radicals lie in the centre of the stage, not in the wings arguing with the noises-off.
Finally and most importantly, Labour must learn these lessons but not too literally. No new centre ground party, of the like of En Marche!, will succeed here. The vagaries of first past the post militate against new parties – just ask the SDP. ‘Britain’s Macron’ will emerge in Labour, not by breaking from it. We are unlikely, too, to immediately luck upon a candidate with Macron’s undeniable star power – a charismatic, easy-mannered and young leader in the mould of Kennedy or Blair. But the broader lessons for Labour are clear – a radical, inclusive politics rooted in the centre, tackling vested interests on all sides and genuinely changing the country through power, is the roadmap back to government. Beware false prophets bearing hard left gifts. And be prepared to remove a toxic leader before he brings the party down with him.