Don't look to François Hollande for inspiration, Ed

The French Socialist leader is a throwback, not a pioneer.

On Wednesday, François Hollande’s budget announced the doubling of a tax already planned by Nicolas Sarkozy, giving a sliver to the state of certain transactions executed in financial markets. So what, you say. Banks can afford it, can’t they? Besides, they messed up: they should pay. But it’s not that simple: like VAT or any other sales tax, the cost is simply passed on to the buyer; a paltry half-billion euros will be raised annually and the law is full of loopholes. Plus, the original Sarkozy tax was only scheduled to come into force the same day, so no-one yet knows what the effects are.

Clearly, there is a political point being made that banks must pay for their sins, but: at what cost? The advantages of a financial transactions tax are unproven, to say the least. At best, it seems like posturing: at worst, it adds to the cost of companies, and the country, raising capital, affecting growth and competitiveness. Plus, with a unilateral move, there is always the danger that people will simply take their business elsewhere, which is why no-one here – not even Miliband –  is suggesting such a unilateral tax for the City, a financial centre which easily dwarfs Paris.

Perhaps, then, it’s a good moment to take a closer look at the Hollande administration. He has, at least, one sensible positive: his belief that growth is the key rather than austerity. Good. However, unlike the UK, Eurozone rules cap his borrowing, meaning next year he needs to make €33bn of cuts. So one wonders how he can fulfil pledges which require him to spend to achieve that growth.

Then there’s his manifesto proposal for a 75 per cent “super tax” for earnings over €1m, a move not seen in Britain since the days of Denis Healey (that said, his own advisor, Harvard’s Prof. Philippe Aghion, admits it was probably just an electoral sop to the left that he didn’t really mean). But many suggested that Hollande’s manifesto largely comprised things he would not really implement, and which he now has. And these are nothing compared to Hollande’s decision to lower the national retirement age from 62 to 60, which gives an insight into some very flawed thinking, because it doesn’t seem to make sense at the level of basic maths. The explanation is quite simple and goes like this:

If I pay a portion of my salary towards a pension, I create a pot, which the government looks after for me. When I retire, that pot buys me a pension until I die, the level of which depends on the size of the pot. Four things determine the size of my pot: the percentage I pay in from my salary; the number of years; the amount I work each year (working hours, holidays, and so on); and the fourth and final thing is the number of years I’m likely to live – the more years, the bigger pot I’ll need.

The problem is in the fourth factor. Most national pension systems in the western world are broke, and are on the verge of not being able to pay out to all the pensioners. They didn’t quite count on so many people staying alive so long, so they under-provided. Most governments are therefore trying to find ways to fund the “pensions time-bomb”, by getting more money into each person’s pot.

So, what you’ve got to do is change one of the first three factors. But in France, the amount you work each year is already fixed at a relatively low level, because of its uniquely-constricting thirty-five hour week and generous statutory holidays. Then there’s the number of years you work, which in France we have just reduced by two. That leaves only one thing: to increase national insurance; raise taxes on those who are working to pay for those who aren’t – which is not really sustainable (particularly during an economic crisis). For this reason, policymakers worldwide are accepting an inevitability: people will have to work longer.

Ah, but not in France. Not in the homeland of Lagrange, Fourier and Descartes, where mathematics nowadays apparently work differently. Or rather, the raising of pensionable age makes no sense at all, because sooner or later the government will have to reverse it, as will all governments. And, in the meantime, it makes the ticking time-bomb worse. It is a sweetie, handed out to make people feel better: Hollande will give you a sweetie today, but some future government will need to take it back tomorrow twofold.

What is most disappointing for the left about Hollande, then, is that he seems much less the avant-guardiste of a new paradigm for the left, than a throwback to old, ostrich-like ways of the 1970s. It fits, too, because France itself has traditionally been the last big country in the west to accept realities such as flexible labour markets and the death of trade protectionism, as global business moves east.

The danger for Hollande, in short, is that he could end up like Spain's “Crisis? What crisis?” Zapatero, someone many on the left also had high hopes for, and whose career ended in ignominy as he was ultimately forced to take back all the sweeties. Miliband was politically astute in taking advantage of the apparent lack of connection between Hollande and Cameron, and right in going to Paris to make common cause with practically the only socialist premier left. But that, perhaps, should be as far as it goes.

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

French President François Hollande welcomes Labour leader Ed Miliband before a meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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