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

Getty
Show Hide image

Most Leave voters back free movement – you just have to explain it

The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. 

This week, a piece of YouGov polling flipped on its head a widely held belief about the public’s attitude to immigration in the context of Brexit. The headline question was:

“In negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union, do you think our government should offer EU citizens the right to travel, work, study or retire in Britain, in exchange for EU countries giving British citizens the same rights?”

Of the respondents, 69 per cent, including 60 per cent of Leave voters, responded that they should.

The poll has been overlooked by the bulk of the press, for whom it contradicts a very basic assumption – that the end of free movement, and the implicit acceptance of the narrative that high net migration had strained services and wages, was an electoral necessity for any party wanting to enter government. In fact, the apparent consensus against free movement after Brexit owes much less to deeply-rooted public opinion, and much more to the abject failure of progressives and mainstream Remain campaigners to make the case for it.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” goes the old maxim of political communications. And this is accurate if you inhabit a world of tight, professional politics and your job is to capture votes using already widely understood concepts and a set of soundbites. So much of conventional political strategy consists of avoiding difficult or complex subjects, like free movement. This is especially the case if the exact meaning of the words requires defining. The job of radical politics is to change the terms of the debate entirely. That almost always means explaining things.

The strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe during the EU referendum campaign was a case in point. It honed down on its key message on economic stability, and refused to engage with the migration debate. As a result, the terms of the debate were set by the right. The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. If YouGov’s polling this week is correct, a majority of the British public support free movement – you just have to explain to them what it means.

That distinction between immigration and free movement was pivotal in the referendum. Immigration is a big, amorphous concept, and an influx of people, covering far more than Britain’s relationship with Europe. It makes an excellent scapegoat for the government’s failure to provide housing and public services. It has been so expertly blamed for bringing down wages that this has become received wisdom, despite almost nowhere being true. Free movement, on the other hand, can be understood more easily in terms of rights and security – not just for migrants in the UK, but for British citizens and workers.

As YouGov’s poll question explains, free movement would be a reciprocal agreement between post-Brexit Britain and the EU, enhancing UK citizens’ rights. We would get the right to live and work freely over an entire continent. Even if you might not want to exercise the right yourself, studying abroad might be something you want to preserve for your children. Even if you might not retire to France or Spain, you might well know someone who has, or wants to.

Perhaps most importantly, free movement makes British workers more secure. Migrants will come to the UK regardless of whether or not free movement agreements are in place; without the automatic right to work, many will be forced to work illegally and will become hyper-exploited. Removing migrants’ access to public funds and benefits – a policy which was in the Labour manifesto – would have a similar effect, forcing migrants to take any work they could find.

At present, Labour is in danger of falling into a similar trap to that of the main Remain campaigns in the EU referendum. Its manifesto policy was for an “economy first Brexit”, in other words, compromising on free movement but implying that it might be retained in order to get access to the single market. This fudge undeniably worked. In the longer term, though, basing your case for free movement entirely on what is good for the economy is exactly the mistake made by previous governments. Labour could grasp the nettle: argue from the left for free movement and for a raft of reforms that raise wages, build homes and make collective bargaining and trade unions stronger.

Making the case for free movement sounds like a more radical task than making the case for immigration more generally – and it is. But it is also more achievable, because continued free movement is a clear, viable policy that draws the debate away from controlling net migration and towards transforming the economy so that everyone prospers. Just as with the left’s prospects of electoral success in general, bold ideas will fare better than centrist fudges that give succour to the right’s narratives.