By Jake Wilde
There’s a cruel hot sun beating down upon those of us stranded in The Desert of the Centre Ground. Aghast at the Trotskylite offer from Labour and the Tories’ intolerable incompetence I know I’m not alone in pondering upon the circumstances under which a UK version of En Marche, let alone a British Macron, might emerge, or whether the whole notion is simply a mirage.
In some ways the UK has already had its own En Marche and Macron in UKIP and Nigel Farage. It was Farage’s ability to attract voters from both the Conservative and Labour parties that enabled it to develop momentum, resulting in its extraordinary third place in the 2015 election, taking 12.6% of the vote.
However the death of UKIP, combined with the continued reduction in support for the Liberal Democrats, has resulted in the perhaps otherwise unexpected return to two party politics. I am not convinced that it’s a popular return. (The exception is Scotland, which has gone from two party politics, to a one party state and then to a three party system in the blink of history’s eye.)
The similarities between En Marche and UKIP, Macron and Farage, are narrow though. They only work if you view them both solely as expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo, which is a necessary prerequisite for all new parties to succeed anyway. I think Macron offers more than just oppositionalism and he doesn’t suggest that there is a silver bullet to solve his country’s problems. So I’m not going to dwell on the comparison other than to observe that those who dismiss the idea of a UK version of En Marche by referencing the SDP rather miss the point. The SDP was a simple party split, one party dividing into two rather than a new movement drawing support from across the mainstream political spectrum.
The lesson to be learnt from the SDP, and illustrated well by En Marche, is that for the centre to succeed it isn’t enough to simply split one party. Two things have to happen: firstly the new movement has to break with conventional approaches, to tangibly offer and be something new, something different to what is already there. Secondly the movement has to draw support from across the centre ground, not simply one side. In other words success depends upon being able to simultaneously package yourself as both an outsider, above “ordinary” politics, but also with a breadth of support.
Writing in December 2016, Kristen Soltis Anderson made this comparison between the anti-status quo, outsider politics of Trump (and Le Pen) and Macron:
“Le Figaro calls [Macron], roughly, “anti-system, but reasonable about it.” It isn’t clear how much of a market there is for this sort of Diet Populism. (“All the railing against elites, none of the ethnic political signaling!”) No one in the U.S. seems interested right now in standing up and defending things like startups and free movement of goods and labor in a moment when swinging hammers and closing borders are in vogue.
But the French presidential election will be an interesting time to see if the brand of forward-looking, market-oriented anti-establishmentarianism that Macron espouses today has any buyers, and whether it might be a model for being a counterweight to the more nostalgic strain of populism gripping the West.”
Macron also has utilised what John Rentoul describes as the anti-party model like Blair and Trump, by contrast to those who have used the traditional pro-party model:
“Although Blair was Labour leader, he appeared to be from outside the party’s history. Rubbish, of course, as he was a street fighter in London Labour politics on the “soft left” (although he was really on the party’s right) who stayed when the SDP broke away. But he used the party as a foil to present himself as the champion of Middle England.
If you think about it, the anti-party model has been followed by Donald Trump, too. He ran against the Republican Party establishment, using its fierce hostility towards him to dramatise the primaries and to define himself as an outsider in the general election. The opposite approach, the pro-party model, has been followed by Theresa May and her opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, and by Angela Merkel and her opponent, Martin Schulz. Corbyn’s model is slightly different because he, in effect, recruited a new party to outvote members of the old one.”
In respect of offering something new then perhaps one barrier to a British En Marche is that Corbynism might be seen as not yet having failed as a method of running the country. This Labour leadership have been effective in distancing themselves from all previous leaderships and this is, in part, to give the illusion that what Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell are offering is indeed novel, and that they are untainted by previous errors. In a purely British sense this is true – it has not been tried because the British public have never wanted anything remotely like it. So the fantasy remains unsullied by reality for now.
However is it absolutely necessary that we endure a Corbyn government before we are ready for British Macronism? One factor likely to stop Labour from gaining power is the crumbling of the alliance behind Corbyn. Prior to the 2017 General Election campaign Labour’s support was only really drawn from two groups – fans of Jeremy Corbyn and those who identified as Labour Party loyalists (“my party right or wrong”). This was the reason for the poor polling numbers throughout the period up to the calling of the election. What changed during the campaign is that both Britain’s Remain-minded middle classes and Leave-minded working classes were explicitly targeted by a policy approach that could be described as a contortionist’s juggling act on a high wire.
In whipping his MPs into supporting the government’s triggering of Article 50 Corbyn was pursuing his own beliefs but also ensuring that he was able to demonstrate to Leave voters, including previous UKIP voters, his authenticity on Brexit. And yet, just as with his stance on nuclear weapons, he was able to present, mainly through Keir Starmer, a different face to an audience that wanted to hear a more Remain-friendly message. This is an uneasy alliance as it requires both groups to hear what they want to hear. Nonetheless there are signs it worked better on the middle classes than it did on the working class, amongst whom support for Labour is now no better than 50/50.
Paula Surridge of the University of Bristol has undertaken painstaking research that shows that the more a constituency voted Remain, and the less a constituency is working class, then the more likely it was to vote Labour. Commenting in the New Statesman Daniel Allington observed:
“What if Corbynism appeals to the kinds of people to whom EU membership seems advantageous, and repels the kinds of people to whom it seems an encumbrance, regardless of the fact that Corbyn – as a disciple of Tony Benn – is resolutely anti-EU?”
In order to do better than the party’s showing in June then Labour must halt the haemorrhaging of working class votes without losing those middle class ones, and that is where the cracks will start to appear once the real Brexit negotiations start.
This paragraph from John Gray’s article, also this week in the New Statesman, lays out where it might go awry for Labour even in opposition:
“It is unclear that Labour, once in government, would opt for a soft Brexit. Corbyn has repeated the mantra about preserving access to the single market and putting jobs first. But the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has said that Labour accepts Britain must honour the EU referendum and may have to leave the single market. There is a hard-left tradition that dreams of a socialist Britain outside the EU, and while Labour may have won by attracting youthful Remainers, the millions of Labour supporters that voted Leave have not gone away.”
Voters may decide they don’t need to have first-hand experience of living under a Corbyn government to be unhappy with it. It might be enough that the actualité of the negotiations, and the stark choices on offer, expose Labour’s current paradoxical position of being both pro-Brexit and Remain-sympathetic.
For the Tories Europe is still the boil that refuses to be lanced and Brexit will be a tougher test for them. Any benefit of being bequeathed the majority of the estate from UKIP (deceased) is now offset by the struggle to contain the renewed European conflict within their party. We are back to where we started before Cameron decided to adopt his strategy of pacifying his internal opposition with a referendum. Only now the pressure upon the Tory hierarchy is to deliver “the right Brexit” but with little agreement within either that leadership or the party about what that actually looks like. Perhaps people will know it when they see it, or indeed the choice may simply be no choice at all.
The pressure points for the Tories are different to those for Labour though. The primary one will be the concept of sovereignty, of that mythical “control”, and the only test for success or failure is whether European Courts still trump UK ones, whether European institutions can tell UK ones what to do. (There’s a distinction between EU institutions setting standards and UK businesses choosing to comply with them, and EU institutions having primacy of legislative or judicial authority. The former are broadly acceptable – the occasional banana story permitting – but the latter will be almost completely unacceptable.)
The difficulties for Labour are going to be around immigration, freedom of movement & labour, and single market access. Where these conversations take place in public it will be hard convince everyone that Labour isn’t riding two horses with one arse. So while the aftermath of Brexit may (certainly will) harm the Tories because of the inevitable damage to the economy – the blame for which will land upon the government’s door – it could be that it is the debate during the Brexit negotiations that does for Labour’s credibility.
It’s for these reasons that I seek to reassure myself, and hopefully people like me, that there’s no need to worry that our salvation seems neither apparent nor imminent. I don’t believe that the conditions are yet right for either an individual or group to emerge successfully. My view is that both the Tories and Labour, both May and Corbyn, need to slump, or be seen to fail, or to generate sufficient general dissatisfaction, to encourage a critical mass of the polis to seek out that something new. Not everyone is there yet, and that’s ok. But those of us that are ought to start talking about what we think would give En Marche a rosbif flavour.