The left’s tale of two cities

8th May, 2012 11:30 am

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

There seemed to be eerie echoes of Dickens’ words last weekend in the parallel events in those same cities of London and Paris. It was, in the midst of an economic downturn,  a very positive one for the left. Yet it is also as yet unclear how the results will be interpreted: wisely, or otherwise.

In London, Miliband rather secured the best of all possible worlds. For months the media had speculated that a defeat in the mayoral election would be a calamity for Labour. They were wrong. In the end, the defeat was such a personal one for Livingstone, and the wins elsewhere so resounding, that it seems to have caused very little damage at all to Labour’s 2015 electoral chances. And probably much less than might have been caused by Miliband’s jousting with a revitalised, awkward Livingstone as the party’s highest-placed representative in public office. Barring some major personal calamity, his position is secure.

No, the only damage might have derived from Labour having selected such a poor mayoral candidate in the first place, as even the normally-supportive New Statesman described him, thus reminding the electorate that it is not yet looking like a sure-footed party of government.

That said, the vote was clearly a punishment of the Coalition, first and foremost. It is hard to see it as a vote of confidence in Labour’s policies, given how few have been announced. It was also on low turnout and against seats which were last contested in 2008, the crisis year when the country suddenly turned against Gordon Brown. Not to have made significant gains would have been, frankly, a disaster.

Meanwhile, in France, François Hollande’s presidential victory is likely to have given great encouragement to his British counterpart. It makes Hollande the first leader of the left to return to power in a major European country, and the temptation for Labour is to perceive this as its long-awaited signal that the pendulum is swinging back from right to left.

“A new dawn has broken” tweeted MEP Mary Honeyball yesterday. While I admire her positivism, it is, in fact, a rather old, and very likely false, dawn. The Parti Socialiste has a traditional, Continental, social-democratic set of policies and has has come to power in possibly the most unreconstructed Western economy in terms of its attitude to state ownership and labour laws. France, even under Sarkozy, has still been subsidising failing state-owned companies, as well as holding steadfastly to its 35-hour week (the Economist recently ran a marvellous cover story called “France in denial”). All in an era where the Far East can run its factories at high levels of productivity and a fraction of the cost.

And, regarding his policy programme, it is difficult to see Hollande being a pragmatist in government. For example, take this declaration from a January speech:

“My enemy is not another candidate, it is not a person, it has no face, it is the world of finance.”

All very well, I suppose, down with capitalism: hurrah. But, whatever additional regulation the financial sector may need, is it a good idea, on any level, to emote about it being the “enemy”? In any event, this is an approach that Miliband would be wise not to try to emulate; in a country like ours, where one-fifth of GDP derives from the City, it would have very deep implications for government credibility, for borrowing and for investment. It is easy for France to talk about a financial transaction tax when it has a tiny financial sector compared with the mighty City; everyone wants higher taxes for the other guy.

The worst thing either leader could do now is to think that all this is a vindication for old-fashioned social democracy: quite the reverse. In both countries, harsh austerity programmes have made the right unpopular, little more. Both parties seem to be casting around for solutions. Hollande, having just won an election, naturally has the more advanced policy programme. Some ideas are sensible, such as splitting French banks’ retail and investment arms; some, such as 75% tax for millionaires, look like pointless populism which will make activists feel better but will change little. Worse, there are signs that he may reject the fiscal compact with other Eurozone countries, which would be a severe blow to a fragile euro.

While it seems plausible that ultimately Hollande might “do a Mitterand” by, once in power, shifting towards the centre, there is a plausible alternative scenario: that, being unable or unwilling to take on conservative elements in his own, stagnant party, he will end up like Spain’s Zapatero: a hapless victim of economic events, rather than a bold visionary of a new leftism. Or, as Olaf Cramme and Patrick Diamond of the Policy Network put it:

 “The danger is that leftwing parties will be elected by default but will have little idea of what to do with power in the aftermath of victory. Lacking direction, they will quickly flounder – risking catastrophic defeat only a few years later.”

In the meantime, the smartest thing for Miliband to do may just be to smile for the photo opportunity with Hollande, and leave it at that. Hollande still needs to prove that he has a sustainable vision which truly resonates with the French people, and has not merely capitalised on the backlash against the financial crisis and the resultant Sarkophobia.

Just as in Dickens’ tale, the revolution of the sans-culottes has not yet caught the imagination of the public this side of the Channel and seems unlikely to, without either a radical rework of its policy programme or a Coalition meltdown. Meanwhile, over there, it may still end with heads rolling all over the place.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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  • S K Lee

    Interesting piece. What’s your view of what the left should do then?

    I only ask because to my eye it looks like you’re saying do nothing? Just carry on? Depite the democratic expression of rejection of austerity? 

    This would seem to be an extraordinary conclusion to draw from recent events.

    • Well, first of all, I don’t have all the answers. A “democratic expression of rejection of austerity” is a pretty standard reaction to all austerity – who likes austerity?

      The question is whether it is a sensible reaction, or not, and whether it is a sensible policy, or not. We can all promise things to the electorate, but can Hollande deliver?

      If his policy were purely borrowing more and attempting a dash for growth, even though that’s risky, I’d have more sympathy for him than apparently trying to defeat the whole capitalist edifice single-handedly (there is only one of him and lots of them), and unnecessarily demonising the finance industry in the process.

      I believe that the democratic result is partly about, as the Economist observes, the French electorate and political class being somewhat in denial. Most countries have moved on from 197s0 statism, but France has been one of the last developed nations to do so.

      • treborc1

        yes we moved on from the 1970’s alright look at the sh*t we are in now.

      • S K Lee

        Actually Rob, some people like austerity rather a lot – those that benefit from the privatisation of public utitlities and state health provision for example, they love it. Austerity benefits noone but the super-rich.

        It’s one thing to say that an electorate is ‘not sensible’ and ‘in denial’ – we all often feel everyone else is wrong when we lose an election –  but we can’t just say ‘you were wrong so we won’t do what you want.’  You can’t choose to interpret it as saying ‘we don’t like austerity, but we recognise it’s the only sensible way so you get on with it’, can you?

        Who is to say what is a ‘sensible policy’. Sensible people like Joe Stiglitz have been saying that European austerity is suicidal for a very long time. He’s a noble prize winning economist so, whether you agree with him or not, presumably you would accept him as capable of propounding a ‘sensible policy’.

        It’s possible that the French have remained attached to their 70’s ‘statism’ as it has in some way mitigated against the rampant increase in inequality which has taken hold in this country and others in the last 30 years.

        • Well as I’ve argued before, “too far too fast” is not a bad economic policy. But it ignores the particular politics that exist around Labour at the moment. But that’s not what he’s proposing, it’s a lot more old-fashioned left than that. It’s tax and spend, essentially. That is not what Stiglitz and Krugman were arguing for. Besides, the American left (including them) has never been anti-business, which is I’m afraid what Hollande looks like from here.

          • S K Lee

             But Stiglitz is supportive of taxing the rich “It’s not class warfare to ask everyone in the country to pay their fair
            share. To say the wealthy have taken advantage of their political
            position and have not paid their share of taxes is not class warfare.
            It’s a statement of fact.”

            He also advocates more borrowing and lending to encourage spending and boost growth.

            Surely no policy which encourages growth can be anti-business?

          • But they already do, through a highly progressive tax system, in the UK. Income tax: you earn more, you pay more, and always have. That is your “fair share”.

            Now, if you are talking about tax avoidance, that is another matter. But tax avoidance is the responsibility of the government to sort out, and should be sorted out.

            In any event, Stiglitz is talking about the US tax system, which has considerably more margin for the rich to avoid paying tax.

            More borrowing and lending to encourage spending and boost growth seems right to me. But we have not been in a position to make that argument for nearly two years. We might be now, but even that is not clear.

            Finally, you do not encourage growth by increasing taxes, if that is what you’re suggesting.

          • S K Lee

             You must have been as shocked as George Osborne when you discovered that some arranged their tax affairs so as to pay virtually no tax. As shocked indeed as Claude Rains when he discovered Rick allowed gambling in his cafe in Casablanca.

            Cutting taxes for the rich does little or nothing to boost growth either, as it is rarely spent but rather invested in property (which artificially inflates proeprty prices flattening the housing market) or in offshore investments to avoid paying tax.

            I am in favour of giving money – through tax cuts, job-creation schemes, decent benefit levels and increased pay – to poorer people who are very likely to spend it, thereby boosting demand. That alongside increased investment, including in the 3rd sector – which has suffered more from austerity than the state sector thus far – and lending would encourage stronger growth to the benfit of all, including business.

          • Who said anything about tax cuts for the rich? Tax cuts is not the same as not *raising* taxes. Hollande is punishing them like Britain, pointlessly, in the 70s.

          • Sorry, I meant “not so far, not so fast”. You knew what I meant, I’m sure.

          • Krugman, commenting the French and Greek elections, concludes:
            “Europe’s voters, it turns out, are wiser than the Continent’s best and brightest.”

            It’s worth reading the whole of Krugman’s piece:


          • I already have. And several pieces before that. And I largely agree with him. Bet that surprised you…

          • “Bet that surprised you…”

            Not at all, Rob. You’ve referenced him a great many times and, if my memory is accurate, always approvingly.

      • derek

        For christ sake wake up!, austerity at the hands of the poor while it feeds the rich.London landlords are evicting renters so they came charge up to £5,000 a week for rent from Olympic visitors.You really ought to be ashamed of yourself, we’re not in it together. Viva Le France!!!! well done Hollande!!!!!!!!!! 

        • geedee0520

           Remind me again what Hollande has actually done – he is not yet actually in power, hasn’t been to Berlin, hasn’t produced a budget – it’s all just words.

          • Indeed. As Dan Hodges pointed out, Hollande has not really demonstrated much of a capacity so far for making tough decisions. Some measure of austerity is a fact, and promising otherwise is simply misleading the electorate.

          • AlanGiles

            As Dan Hodges pointed out……”

            Well, if Hutwal’s mate says it, it must be so. Perhaps the pair of them should concentrate on their little PR business, and stop meddling in things that don’t concefrn them

            * Harold McNair (1932-1971)

          • treborc1

             Well of course he has won an election so lets see where Miliband is when the next elections comes, I suspect if Miliband loses you will be screaming for dearly beloved David to take over.

        • mattwardman

          > London landlords are evicting renters so they came charge up to £5,000 a week for rent from Olympic visitors.

          We passed the stage where that was legally possible in time for the Olympics without Tenancy consent about a month ago.

      • Peter Barnard

        Whether or not France is “statist” or not, French output per hour worked is 25 per cent greater than in “liberated” United Kingdom – and has been that way since 1979.

        Source : US Bureau of Labour Statistics/international comparisons

        • It’s a fair point, Peter, but the problem has always been that we have poor productivity, not that theirs is particularly good. Germany, if I remember correctly, tends to be significantly higher.

          I would also point out that the reason that France manages good productivity is generally thought to be down to its large number of world-class companies, rather than because of its statist politics.

  • Bernard

    Hollande’s challenge is actually much bigger than that, and far larger than anything that Milliband would face if events bring him to power in the midst of the current economic crisis.

    This site and many others have gone over ad nauseum the constraints that Euro membership put on monetary policy and, as a knock-on, the pressure from other member countries and the absurdly named ‘stability and growth pact’ to avoid using expansionary fiscal policy.

    Hollande has come into power with the explicit mandate of doing that, and from a socialist standpoint that guarantees financial market hostility. Greece and Italy have made similar democratic choices, but as they have already been written off as basket cases it’s France that will be under the most intense German pressure to maintain and extend austerity so that the fiction can be maintained inside Germany that monetary union can stand without a central fiscal body with substantial powers to tax and spend.

    Where the Conservatives were priorly painted as pantomime villains before christmas for standing in the way of European economic suicide (including by many articles on this site that put keynesian economics aside in favour of cheap partisanship) it will now be Hollande who is presented as the key threat to europe.

    If Hollande bends and follows the technocratic path, I predict a disorderly break-up which begins with prolonged strikes and rioting in France. If he doesn’t bend and dismantles the absurd consensus of strict spending cuts that Germany have somehow pulled together then I predict a narrowly more orderly break-up based on Greece and then others falling out of the euro so that stronger countries can build a more sensible economic policy without worrying that the weaker ones will go on another huge spending boom at their ultimate expense.

    In either case, the futility of spending billions to prop up a system which wasn’t designed properly will soon be apparent.

    • Interesting thoughts. Yes, Hollande will certainly be presented as the key threat to Europe if he continues along this path. I agree with your two outcomes (messy break-up/smooth break-up), but not necessarily with what will cause which path. There also still remains the third outcome, that they work out some other deal to save the euro after this brinkmanship is finished.

      I think a big part of the problem is a generation of elected politicians in France (and, to be fair, here) who have little understanding of financial markets and how dealing with them clumsily can cause huge problems for a country.

      The principal result, for which French voters will not thank Hollande, may well be much higher interest rates for an extended period.

      • derek

        Bollocks, you and your kind are trying to find an aggressive narrative against Hollande.   

        • AlanGiles

          You do get the feeling that Mr Marchant and others like him are somewhat disappointed when somebody “left wing” wins – I am sure he would have been as happy if M. Sarkosy had won as he was when Boris Johnson won London. The right-wing don’t want us peasants to get too above ourselves

          • derek

            @Alan, they seek him here, they seek him there, that elusive PurpleBooker is a Rob in hand?

        • Sorry, remind me who’s the aggressive one again?

          • derek

            Pith of sense and pride O’ worth are higher ranked than you ya piff!

  • In a country where every single person gets the vote, then you have to please every single person. The easiest way to this is the traditional one of bribing the voters with money, with goods, with services which they can see you provide. There has always been bribery at elections, as Dickens noticed.

    The Labour Party is dedicated to “investment” and “looking after the vulnerable”. We all understand what that means when the election comes up, don’t we. “An end to austerity!”

    It has just won M. Hollande the election. Why should it not win Mr Miliband the next election too? Harriet Harman on Question time was quite open about it.

    • Well, where you are probably right is the question of whether Miliband decides to follow Hollande or not may well decide the next election. It’s also to be remembered that French politics has a centre of gravity significantly to the left of what the British electorate generally tolerate.

      • Our job to change that, then – not capitulate to conservatism

  • Duncan

    Once more tying yourself up into ludicrous knots, trying to claim that the only way to be a “bold visionary of a new leftism” is to gravitate to the centre, and accusing anybody that doesn’t share your surrenderist vision of being “conservative”.  It’s the boring old politics of the mid-90s and doesn’t resonate with anybody any more.

  • AlanGiles

    It is sad – but entirely predictable – that this writer has to have yet another dig at Ken Livingstone – mind you as he is about the sixth to do so, and it is now 5 days after the event, it is as stale as it is pointless, and merely regurgitates what other rabid right-wing scribblers have written. Reminds me of what George Bernard Shaw said about actors:-

    “Empty shells, from eight till ten,
    Filled with the wit of other men”

  • Peter Barnard

    “Finance” is not necessarily the same as “capitalism,” Rob M, especially when you take a look at the socially useless end of finance. John Pierpont Morgan (1837 – 1913) would be horrified by what passes for banking and finance these days and would probably feel sympathetic towards Messr Hollande.

    And where did you get the idea that 20% of GDP derives from the City? In 2010, gross value added by finance and insurance was £115 billion against a total of £1,301 billion of gva – just under 9% (Source : Annual Abstract of Statistics 2011).

    • Ok on the GDP, the statistic is that the City *plus dependent businesses* i.e. lawyers, accountants, etc. is generally thought to comprise one-fifth. You can find more detailed stats on it I’m sure, but it’s a fairly well-accepted rule of thumb.

      I agree that finance is not the same as capitalism, but “socially useless” is hardly an objective classification, is it? It can be whatever you say it is. In any case, although some might do, why do *all* branches finance have to have a social end – what about those which deal with big and small business?

      • Peter Barnard

        Not “generally thought” by the national accounts figures, Rob.

        The same table gives gives “legal, accounting, management, architectural, engineering etc professional services” as £64 billlion (4.9% of GDP).

        Given that many of these services are dispersed across the country (a local solicitor attending to Mrs Entwistle’s probate in Accrington, for example), I have to say that some people should get themselves new thumbs.

        I grant you that “socially useless” is qualitative, not quantitive, but the category does exist, for sure (Lord Turner would have a much better handle on this than me …).

        Are financial services needed? Absolutely. Are they needed to the extent that we have now? No.

        Sorry about the late reply – other matters interceded.

        • Hmm, would like to see a formal report containing the words “socially useless”. Will have to check where the GDP stat came from, but can’t right now I’m afraid. Not sure it changes the argument, whatever. Certainly a lot more than France.

          • Peter Barnard

            Rob M,
            Blue Book 2011 (Table 2.3, Line MA).

            Rob M,

            Blue Book 2011 (Table 2.3, Line MA).

            There is no report on “socially useless” but Lord Turner used the expression three years ago, and I actually posted an article on LL

            Thank you for the reply. Sorry – again – to be somewhat “now and again” in my comments.

          • Sorry, don’t have a copy of that. Interesting piece – I don’t mind the sentiment of, say, limiting the sometimes ridiculous margins that banks can make. But “social utility” is a pretty difficult thing to measure. I’d suggest it would only work on a case-by-case basis.

            Where I part company with you is that I can’t see this kind of thing (e.g. financial transaction tax) ever being agreed between Britain and the US, let alone with all the other countries required.

            What are really missing are international institutions for making these kind of agreements in all political spheres, which are not wholly dysfunctional (e.g. EU, UN). Until that time, these things will stay on the drawing board, and in the business sphere, as in most others, increasing internationalisation makes this problem worse, not better.

  • Daniel Speight

    subsidising failing
    state-owned companies…
    How disgusting!

    holding steadfastly to its 35-hour
    How could they reward the slackers like that!

    world of finance… Who could possibly see an enemy in this?

    Parti Socialiste Cover your ears children, we all know that word’s not allowed.

    Has anyone else noticed how some of those who were looking for soft spots in Ed Miliband’s back just a couple of months ago are now brown-nosing him? Very interesting isn’t it? If I were Ed I would let them behind me.

    Anyway back to Hollande, I suspect the pro-austerity supporters are not in hurry to talk about his ideas on using taxes to balance the budget. It  just doesn’t fit with what they have been pushing.

  • As ever, entirely wrong. 

  • Brumanuensis

    A few points:

    1). Carwyn Jones would have out-ranked Ken Livingstone.

    2). The Economist says a lot of things ( ). The Economist has also turned into a hilariously pompous self-parody ( )

    3). By strange coincidence, the Germans use the same word for ‘fiscal’ and ‘suicide’, e.g. ‘fiscal pact / suicide pact’.

    4). Doesn’t his top rate tax policy show that he in fact doesn’t just want to tax others?

    5). Given French GDP is larger than ours and a greater percentage of GDP is invested in R&D, not to mention the shorter, shallower recession France suffered in 2008-9, is it wise to be so sniffy about the French economy?

    6). Do we really want to have 20% of GDP tied to a sector with the stability of well-shaken nitroglycerine? ‘Again, is this something to shout about?

    7). Why when the Spanish Socialists lose is it an advance for the Right, but when the French Socialists win, it’s a set-back for the Right, not an advance for the Left?

    8). I don’t think the Dickens quote suits the article.

    9). We perhaps shouldn’t dismiss those tax plans out of hand ( ) , ( )

    10). Informed conservative opinion is shifting Hollande’s way ( )

    • 1. 2. 3. Thanks for sharing. 4. No. 5.  Wasn’t bigger than UK here, although might have changed now. In any case, so close that irrelevant.

      6. A bit exaggerated, and frankly we don’t have much choice, until the medium term at least.

      7. Wrong inference, and wrong anyway. Spanish defeat a setback for the *Left*. Candidate of the right awful but won anyway.

      8. Who cares?

      9. That is not Hollande’s argument. No-one is saying that the Tories and others are not doing “too much austerity”. He is about much more than that, and much more than Labour.

      10. Hardly.

      • John Dore

        Rob anyone with a half ounce of sense is not like by the commentators here. This a a freak show of lefties who are not interested in any sense.

        Dont lose heart and keep fighting the tribal [email protected]

        • AlanGiles

          You’ve discovered our secret “Mr. Dore”. We are all “tw*ts” except for your goodself.

          What a shame you just haven’t got a better command of the English langauge to express your contempt of us.

          It is embarrassing when somebody as erudite as you makes basic grammatical mistakes (for example in this latest daubing I think you meant “not liked” not “not like” (sic).

          This is no “freak show” except when you deign to make an appearance, and what do you expect to find on a site called “Labour List” if not “lefties”.

          Hope you soon feel better.

          * Bill LeSage (1927-2001)

          • Hugh

            “what do you expect to find on a site called “Labour List” if not “lefties”

            Che Guevara groupies, closet Respect supporters and Green voters?

          • AlanGiles

            Grow up Hugh.Or shut up. If you don’t like what you see here,  just run along – nobody forces you to be here

            * Michael Garrick (1933-2011)

  • Brumanuensis

    Somehow this version seems more appropriate:

  • robertcp

    Sorry Rob.  This article is just negative comlaining without suggesting anything positive.  Hollande’s programme was popular enough to get him elected and hopefully it will turn out to be realistic when he is in office. 

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