This article was first published on the Independent 09 May 2017.
There is no doubt the last few years have felt like dark times for the British left. From the gut punch of the last general election, to the despair of the EU referendum result, to the intensely disappointing local elections last week, the centre left in Britain has been on the back foot for too long. Many people across our country are no doubt wondering if we can ever snap out of this defensive posture.
Emmanuel Macron’s overwhelming mandate for the French presidency at the weekend shows that we can, and that the retreat of centre-left ideals is far from inevitable. Indeed it proves that the ideas of the centre left – openness, internationalism, solidarity – remain compelling and relevant.
It is worth first acknowledging the scale of Macron’s achievement. In an age characterised in part by angry nativism, he stood on a pro-immigration platform – and won. Amid fears of Brexit “contagion” sweeping the continent, and in an increasingly Eurosceptic country, he spoke up passionately for the European ideal – and won. He stood up against Russian bullying, was hacked and smeared as a result – and he still won.
And all this in a country which should not be fertile ground for progressives; France has a youth unemployment rate of 24 per cent, and 61 per cent of the population hold an unfavourable view of the European Union. If the politics of Macron and his En Marche! movement can win in France, they can undoubtedly find favour in Britain.
So what can we learn specifically? Macron’s style is unashamedly optimistic and future-focused. He has not shied away from confronting the real economic issues facing France – addressing the real world, not the world as some would like it to be – and has proposed concrete policies to increase investment with a €50bn stimulus package to build an economy that works better for working people.
He is passionately pro-European, but is not afraid to lead an agenda for reform to make the bloc work better for its citizens. He is pro-immigration, and supportive of taking in refugees fleeing persecution, in contrast to the shameful inaction of the current British government. On foreign policy, he is tough on Russia and rejects any apologias for terrorism.
It is a pragmatic but appealing policy platform that has clearly appealed to people across the political spectrum, weaving together the two golden threads of economic competence and social justice. Above all, he presented a progressive platform with confidence and conviction, resisting the temptation to pander to the hard right and to anti-immigration sentiment. He realises, as should we all, that delivering for working people is best done by measures to create jobs and increase opportunity, rather than adopting a hard line on immigration that would damage the economy.
Of course France and Britain are very different places, with some challenges in common but many specific issues of our own. For example, we would not want to cut the numbers of public sector workers, or further liberalise our employment laws, as the new French President has advocated. The French party system is much more hospitable to political start-ups like En Marche! than the first-past-the-post model used in Britain. In Canada, which uses the same electoral system as the UK, Justin Trudeau has achieved Macron-like success through the established Liberal Party rather than setting up any new movement.
On this side of the Channel, it is the Labour Party which has always been and remains still the greatest vehicle for the advancement of working people. Our party has much to learn from Macron’s success, but the value of splits is not one of them. Only Labour can deliver the forward-looking, progressive agenda Britain requires.