Battles ahead remain
‘To resist is to win!’ That was the rallying cry that Dr Juan Negrin, the socialist prime minister who led the insurgency against Franco’s coup, used to inspire the forces of Spanish democracy in their last stand against the nationalists. It could – almost – have been the call given out by the left as François Hollande ended the Parti Socialiste’s two-decade exile from the Élysée Palace, seeming proof that opposition to the Conservative agenda alone is enough to get Labour back into government.
At first glance, the portents from France should raise a cheer on the British left. Nicolas Sarkozy – at the time, the very model of a modern Christian Democrat – was elected in 2007 promising to bring about a revolution in civil society and the economy. In 2012, he was ousted by a former special adviser to the previous socialist administration, his government mired in crisis and failure, his only forward offer a series of increasingly desperate overtures to his right flank.
The problem with first glances, though, is that they are almost always wrong. Talking to French voters, there was no greater love for Hollande than there had been for the policies of Ségolène Royal, the defeated socialist candidate in 2007. What decided this election was a bitter hatred for Sarkozy, and what kept the left united was a fear of a repeat of 2002, when their candidate, Lionel Jospin, failed to make the second round and Jacques Chirac went on to be re-elected. For Hollande, victory was not the difficult part. Governing will be.
Despite what the more excitable parts of the left’s Ostrich Tendency may have you believe, Hollande is not advocating an abandonment of austerity. His deficit reduction timetable is, in fact, identical to George Osborne’s. Where he differs from the Conservatives is in recognising the importance of growth to deficit reduction, beyond ‘cut and hope’. But an Hollande administration will still have to enact savage and politically difficult cuts. As for Ed Miliband’s Labour party, the challenge will be to articulate a progressive vision that adjusts to straitened circumstances. Not outlining those policies in opposition made sense in France, where voters are still largely wedded to their social model, but in Britain, where strong majorities recognise the need for some form of austerity, slavishly following the Hollande model is the road to defeat.
Equally, the elation at the victory in France should not obscure the fact that the European left is still facing an existential crisis. Hollande’s win ended a seven-year wait for a social democratic victory in the European core; since Tony Blair completed his hat-trick, progressives have been in retreat in Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy. The fiscal model that underpinned ‘Third Way’ socialists like Blair, Schroeder, Jospin, and, to a lesser extent, Romano Prodi, where rising tax receipts from a buoyant financial sector allowed state spending to increase with limited political consequence, has run out of road. The pattern for the next 30 years will be of fiscal contraction. That will make building social democracy in 21st century Europe a much harder task that it was in the 20th century.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that progressives shouldn’t celebrate Hollande’s victory, which defeated not just an economic policy based on sado-masochism, but a brutally divisive social policy based on the politics of identity. But the glow of victory shouldn’t obscure the battles ahead. The local elections in Britain have shown that Conservative austerity isn’t working. The French elections have shown that an alternative can win, while the elections in Greece, where regular politics have been almost entirely given over to fascisms of right and left, show the full and terrible consequences of unrestrained austerity. But progressive politics still lacks a ‘big idea’ for the 21st century, has still yet to outline a new politics for the future. Until the left can truly articulate the urgent challenges of the modern world, victories like that on Sunday will remain the exception, not the rule.
Stephen Bush is a member of Progress, works as a journalist, and writes at adangerousnotion.wordpress.com
cuts, deficit, Ed Miliband, Europe, France, Francois Hollande, Greece, Labour, parti socialiste