The Macron and Labour effect: messages for Europe’s centre left

By Florian Ranft
23 June 2017
France France
United Kingdom United Kingdom
What lessons can progressives learn from the surprising success of insurgent forces in France and the UK?
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Two down but many more to come this year. While British and French people have cast their ballot, Germany, Austria and Norway (plus possibly Italy) are still to hold a general election in 2017. And in all countries the polls for the centre left show a common direction: downwards. The Schulz-train of the German social democrats has come to a sudden halt. In Austria, the conservative leader, Sebastian Kurz, has been flying high in the polls, causing a decline in support for the SPÖ. And in Norway, Jonas Gahr carries the hope for the centre left but is struggling to hold on to his lead in the polls. Against this background, the meteoric rise of Macron in France and Labour exceeding expectations in the UK have revealed some key lessons for centre-left leaders and parties in Europe.

First, progressives must be prepared to step out of the ordinary. With En Marche, Macron took a significant political gamble that in parts paid off because he was at the right place at the right time. If Fillon had not been under formal investigation over corruption allegations, his chances of winning the elections would have been slim at the best.

A crucial factor that made his campaign a success was that he was committed to taking risks. A key scene in the fly-on-the-wall documentary, Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise, makes this clear. When Macron was ambushed by Le Pen and booed by workers outside a factory he later asked his campaign manager why he hadn’t been the one speaking to workers outside in the first place. His advisers referred to security concerns to which Macron responded that they would have to go to the heart of the fight to win. If they gave in to security issues they would “end up like Hollande”.

Openly defending the European Union and its core values calling for a comprehensive EU reform agenda was a bold step at a time when pro-Europeans were on their heels last summer. That calls for a progressive agenda for Europe can win elections may inspire others, Renzi is said to be planning to run on a Macron-style pro-EU platform, but will require a more resolute debate on the future of the single market, a new deal between creditors and debtors and the social pillar of the union.

Second, know your core voters. It has become a conventional wisdom that parties seeking to win in democratic elections must appeal to the median voter, the enigmatic figure or average woman representing the political centre.

The Tory manifesto was an attempt to capture Britain’s centre ground, which seemed abandoned with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, and blaze a trail further into Labour heartlands in the North and battlegrounds in the Midlands. During the campaign main targets were those in favour of a hard Brexit but also New Labour backers and the ‘just about managing’ who are usually not part of the natural habitat of the Conservatives. Although the Tories gained votes overall, and made some significant gains in the Midlands, it was not enough to secure an overall majority because Labour’s manifesto was not as radical as its candidate, young people turned out on polling day and the Tories ran a historically bad campaign.

Corbyn’s team knew quite well who stood at the centre of his endeavours: young voters, liberal urban elites and public sector workers. Scrapping tuition fees was arguably not a sustainable policy but it appealed to 18-24 year olds, among whom turnout was up about 16% compared to 2015. On polling day, Labour predominantly won seats in urban areas, Canterbury stands out here, and managed to hold on to most traditional working-class seats because campaigners convinced those who were not a fan of the Labour leader. This campaign on two levels, with voters voting Labour because and despite of its leader, helped the party to defy predictions and possibly alter the course of the Brexit negotiations.

And lastly, personality and outsider qualities matter. Theresa May’s slogan ‘strong and stable’ that promised Britain’s voters a leader that would successfully navigate the country through the most difficult negotiations since World War II became a major flaw over the course of the campaign. Her U-turn on the dementia tax, absence in TV debates and inability to connect with voters – she spoke as she had swallowed her party manifesto – made her appear ‘weak and wobbly’.

Sticking to his values, a plain language and traditional leftwing policies helped the Labour leader to reframe public discourse on his personality into ‘robotic’ May vs. ‘authentic’ Corbyn.

On the other spectrum Macron, a former junior minister and investment banker, created a connection with people, engaged with them and maintained moral and loyal throughout his campaign; at 39 years of age he also had the appeal of the youth on his side. What they had in common was their outsider status, Corbyn coming from the backbenches of UK politics and Macron never have been elected into office before, indicating that those who are unknown are here to stay, and seem to be more successful in times of populism and insecurity.

The near extinction of the Socialist party in France should come as a wake-up call for other centre-left parties in Europe. It has shown how volatile the political situation is and how tradition does not count much when outsiders are willing to take more risks and perform well. The good message is that those in government continue struggling to hold on to power. That’s a good motivation to push for change but progressives might need to spice things up a bit.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com/Guillaume Destombes