Miliband makes a political pilgrimage to Paris

For the Labour leader, France's president represents the possibility of stodgy social democratic substance beating slick conservative incumbency.

One of Ed Miliband’s closest advisors recently told me I’d start seeing the words “Real Change” behind the Labour leader when he was speaking in public. It was true. Since that conversation I’ve started spotting the two-word slogan that is meant to encapsulate the opposition leader’s offer to the nation. “Reconfiguring capitalism with a new ethos of responsibility in recognition of the obsolescence of the neo-liberal paradigm” wouldn’t fit on the banner.

Miliband’s contention (re-iterated in an interview with the Independent today) is that an ideological era – characterised by the cult of market supremacy and the accompanying denigration of government intervention – is drawing to a close. The next election, Miliband has told his MPs, will signal a choice for the country as significant as the installation of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. In this analysis, Miliband is the far-sighted herald of drastic change, the Tories are hapless custodians of a failed status quo.

Needless to say there are sceptics, including a few big hitters in the shadow cabinet. They worry that Miliband’s diagnosis of the shifting political terrain is really an elaborate intellectualisation of a familiar soft left conviction (delusion, some would say) that Britain is just itching to vote for social democracy but has somehow been prevented from doing so for a generation by Murdoch media and/or denied the opportunity because Labour was somehow captured by crypto-Conservative sell-out Blairites.

Either Ed Miliband is really onto something and will surf a wave of emerging cultural and political consciousness all the way into Downing Street, or he is the new Neil Kinnock – an easy repository of anti-government votes right up until polling day when he is unceremoniously dumped.

It is in the context of that broad ideological gamble that Miliband’s trip to Paris tomorrow to visit French President Francois Hollande must be seen. At one level, there is some petty political point-scoring going on. Diplomatic protocol would suggest that the British Prime Minister should get the invitation to the Elysee Palace ahead of the lowly opposition leader. But David Cameron failed to make diplomatic overtures to Monsieur Hollande when the Socialist leader was visiting Britain to campaign for ex-pat French voters in the UK. It seems the snub is being repaid and Miliband is happy to be the agent of repayment.

But Hollande is important to Miliband in a more profound way. His election coincided with a shift in the debate over economic policy in Europe. Crudely speaking, the arrival of the first Socialist French president for a generation seemed to signal a broadening recognition that the pursuit of fiscal retrenchment without compensating government action to spur growth and create jobs was proving economically suicidal. The advocates of raw austerity were, with varying degrees of zeal, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron – their approach was memorably satirised by Miliband as “Camerkozy economics.”

In other words, Miliband wants to be associated with a New European Order and to portray Cameron as the peddler of a decaying outmoded orthodoxy. For that to be a truly effective political device it would require people to (a) notice what happens in French politics and (b) think it in any way relevant to the UK. Both are tenuous assumptions. France had a Socialist President throughout the 1980s. Did Mitterandism touch British voters at all?

That doesn’t mean Miliband’s visit is pointless. For one thing, he really might end up as Prime Minister and so it can’t hurt to start building alliances. But also, the story of Hollande’s victory is psychologically important to the Labour leader. The French President was ridiculed as uncharismatic, soft around the edges, without definition, lacking the requisite authority. Even when he was ahead in opinion polls, pundits routinely predicted that the French would not endorse someone so un-presidential in manner … France’s Neil Kinnock. Sarkozy, they said, was the consummate media performer who should never be under-estimated.

It is not hard to see how that fable – the unglamorous social democrat tortoise and the flamboyant conservative hare – would appeal to Ed Miliband. Francois Hollande is more than a potential ally for the Labour leader; he is an electoral mascot.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.