The political centre is dead – but the establishment won’t admit it

18th December, 2013 9:03 am

If you listen carefully, there’s one name that Ed Miliband’s team has stopped mentioning: François Hollande. The French President was persona grata earlier this year when the two met several times and discussed plans to tilt Europe away from austerity. Hollande even brushed aside protocols to warmly greet Miliband in Paris.

The speedy fall of François Hollande’s fall from grace – within six months he was the most unpopular President in French history – offer two key lessons for the Labour party leader.

Firstly, a consensus-style politics of trying to please all voters makes leaders look confused and ineffectual. Hollande’s unpopularity reached its zenith when, in an effort to look tough on immigration, his government deported a Roma teenager, only to give her the chance to return and finish her studies, but only if she did so alone. As the centrist Francois Bayrou pointed out, “[The French] think the state has totally lost its compass, deciding one thing and then deciding its exact opposite one minute later.”

You can’t please all people all of the time. But to avoid permanently annoying everyone, you have to convince them what you’re about. François Hollande failed in even that basic task.

milibandhollande

The more important lesson to learn from France is that the political centre is dead, but the establishment across Europe isn’t willing to admit it. The main beneficiary of Hollande’s fall hasn’t been the centre-right but the far-right National Front. Marine Le Pen commands some popularity for her anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric, but her populist economic policies are quite left-wing: nationalizing banks, protecting French industry, paying more to low-paid.

In fact this isn’t unique to France. Across Europe, the far-right is surging in strength. The Danish People’s Party, the Dutch Freedom Party (who’s Geert Wilders is allying with Le Pen), Greece’s Golden Dawn, the Finns, Hungary’s Jobbik party, the Flemish Block – are part of the same trend. In Germany, a newly formed eurosceptic party has already sent shockwaves.

In most of these cases, the right-wing parties are offering decidedly left-wing economic policies. They want to protect the welfare state and rail against how globalisation is driving down wages. In Denmark the People’s Party has attacked the Social Democrats for cutting services for the elderly.

Pollsters and think-tank wonks sagely repeat that the political centre is where elections are won, and that where social democrats must stay. But they cling to a bygone era without realising that the world has changed around them. Social democrats across Europe keep losing because they offer blandness, triangulation and meek responses to the havoc wrecked by the crash of 2008.

In this age of insecurity and political blandness, people crave authenticity and bold solutions. They want politicians they can believe in even if the solutions sound extreme. They’re so sick of the establishment they’re willing to vote for the extreme. In Greece, the radical-left SYRIZA is now leading the polls.

François Hollande is now making the same mistakes other centre-left parties across Europe have made. Ed Miliband should learn from his ally’s mistakes.

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