It’s a theme at the moment for senior Labour figures to compare the Labour approach to the challenge of government with that of Margaret Thatcher.
By this, they usually mean they want Labour to be inspired by Thatcher’s sense of purpose, determination and grit, rather than by her beliefs.
Mitterrand was elected on the back of a manifesto called “One hundred and ten propositions for France“. The title gives a clue to the scale of the transformation the Socialists intended for France. That broad approach carries over to Labour today.
The sheer number of “One Nation” themes Jon Cruddas highlighted last week demonstrates the general transformation Labour’s thinkers would like to see in British society. Whether it’s universalities, communities or families, the politics of place or the politics of class, investing in welfare to cut costs or in industry to boost growth, it’s all to be found in the file marked One Nation.
Similarly, look back at Mitterrand’s agenda, and what strikes you is how many of the ambitious ideas he proposed then find strong echoes in Labour thinking today.
Propositions 14 and 15 set out an economic stimulus programme focused on jobs, technology, bio-industry, the environment and automotive.
Proposition 16 is investment in public housing and local social infrastructure.
Proposition 17 is support for R&D. 18 is extra recruitment in public services. 19 is about increasing earnings, especially for the low paid.
Proposition 22 strengthens unions in the private sector. 25 limits rents, 27 offers tax benefits to employers with a social conscience, 28 promises greater regulation of poorly functioning markets. 19 is nice about local businesses. 31 increases wages, 32 cuts VAT, 34 taxes wealth, 35 promises tax cuts for the poor.
Theres’ a whole set of social reforms too – 54-57 promote a new decentralised localism, 60-63 propose economic workplace democracy, 64-70 focuses on equality for women, 71-77 focus on help for families and the young, 79-81 combines a cap on foreign workers with offering rights to those who do make it in.
Yet reading the propositions with the knowledge of what actually happened, you are struck not by the broadness of their ambitions but the patchy results of their contact with reality.
Many of the 110 reforms proved enduring. The section on Women’s right’s in particular now feels prophetic and advanced.
But the nationalisation of industry, the decentralisation of the state, the development of workplace democracy, the emphasis on industrial investment all made very little difference. (France’s Manufacturing share of GDP followed a pretty similar path to the UKs, though by a very different route).
The problem came with the careful plans encountering of the need for “rigour”. The policy of reflation and incomes growth didn’t deliver, and France was eventually faced with a choice between accepting devaluations and deflation or trying to protect and reflate.
It chose the former, and while it was subsequently able to deliver many social advances, the overall path of the government was from then on much more restricted in the scale of their ambition.2
In the end, most of the explicitly ‘Socialist’ elements of the 1981 programme were undone by the Chirac government of ’86-88, and the Socialists did not seriously return to them under subsequent Prime Ministers.
The lesson here is twofold, I think. First, overall economic policy is paramount.
I’d argue that the later success of a limited, fiscally tight, business friendly Parti-Socialiste allowed the left it to entrench wider social reforms, while attempts to reconstruct interventionism (whether in fact, as from 81-83 or in tone, as under Cresson), led to disaster.
Similarly, historians of British attempts to introduce a wealth tax suggest that it was effectively macro-economic concerns and economic crises that prevented such a move, not neo-liberal ideological rigour,
The second lesson is that politics isn’t as powerful as all that. Mitterrand is remembered as much for his U-turn as his propositions.3, but it can make a targeted difference.
The ambitions of the socialist propositions for France weren’t able to prevent the rise of the global market, while socialist found themselves constrained by the need to be a part of the European market and monetary system, ambitious shifts in nationalisation or taxation found themselves undercut in other ways.4
Yet where limited, targeted interventions and detailed worked through policy combined, the 110 propositions did make a significant difference. After the rigorous turn of 1983, the left approach was broadly economically and politically successful. This is most noticeable in the gender and family rights systems, but is also noticeable in the way the Wealth tax is used to support employment, in support for local businesses and so on.
As it happens, being of a liberal cast of mind, I’m not always a huge fan of much of this state interventionist stuff, but there’s no doubt it is part of the French national fabric and is politically popular.
So perhaps the answer for building one nation is to go with the grain of fiscal convention to begin with, not hopefully set your face against it, and to make your big interventions in the thickets of policy detail.
Of course, that’s what I think anyway and have said for ages.
At least in that sense, my article apes all the other “One Nation” essays produced by Labour thinkers, bloggers and activists.
- I admit that this series left me feeling that the ideal Labour supporter’s article now consists of the words ‘One Nation” repeated several hundred times, with an occasional “audacious“, “Ed Miliband“,“transformational” and ‘details need to be explored further” leavening the one nation pudding [↩]
- Political longevity is one of the strange differences of British politics. The French Prime Minister who oversaw much of this shift, Fabius, is, 30 years later, Foreign minister. [↩]
- I love this quote in the paper linked to: “However interpreted the political limits to fundamental change in the distribution of wealth and income are perhaps more powerful than many social policy reformers are ready to accept” Too true! Also, it follows a quote from Miliband, R [↩]
- for example, Mitterrand’s Wealth tax is still in place, but other taxes have steadily reduced –Corporate tax from 50% to 33%, while the top rate of income tax was in steady decline from 1981to today, and isn’t likely to grow much despite the proposed ‘Supertax” because Hollande has already said he wants it to be temporary, and his advisers downplay it. [↩]