What Ed Miliband can learn from across the Channel
Hollande is not afraid to take on reactionary, right-wing austerity and challenge the status quo.
Much advice has been proffered to the Labour leader and his team in recent months; indeed, it has rarely been in greater supply. A consistent theme has been that the public in Britain, Europe and beyond has moved to the right as a result of the economic crisis. Everywhere, we're told, the centre-left is losing.
The advice has suggested that the shadow cabinet needs to accommodate to these trends and, in particular, that we should moderate our jobs, investment and growth strategy for economic recovery. But Ed Miliband has rightly rejected the suggestion that these difficult times call for timidity from the Labour Party. Last year, he told our conference that: "In every generation, there comes a moment when we need to change the way we do things. This is one of those moments."
It is too simplistic to say that there is a universal law of electoral politics that the centre-left loses in a time of recession. In so far as there is a common factor, it is that the party in power at the time of the economic crisis tends to lose, rather than the centre-left.
We can see this now, at close hand, in France. Although the election is some weeks away and there is much still to play for, the French left has recovered its dynamism and direction after a long time in the doldrums. The Socialist Party (PS) has concluded that difficult times call for bold choices. François Hollande's manifesto begins with a classic statement of centre-left democratic values: "What's at stake is the sovereignty of the republic confronted by [the power of] the market."
Hollande has surged ahead in the polls after several radical manifesto announcements, with recent results showing him 7 points clear of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Determined to cut the deficit within a single term of the presidency, he has nonetheless broken with the right-wing European consensus on austerity. In Paris the other day, in an echo of the points that Ed Balls and Miliband have been making, Hollande said that in austere times, the lack of a growth plan can only lead to more austerity.
Sarkozy's austerity government has led to damaging levels of long-term unemployment in France, with the rate of youth unemployment close to 25 per cent. Having so many people out of work damages the social fabric; it is also difficult to cut the deficit when the fiscal costs of unemployment are so high.
This is why Hollande has also said that he will put people back to work and begin to resolve acute social problems in the large cities and elsewhere by building a remarkable 150,000 social houses over the course of his presidency. France would use a newly created investment bank to secure fresh investment in a green economy and to favour small and medium-sized enterprises. All of this would contribute to the creation of 300,000 new jobs.
Hollande has listened to the Occupy movement and has placed the "99 per cent" message at the heart of his party's agenda. A substantial part of his deficit reduction strategy is to close down tax loopholes and to introduce a "bankers' tax" - both fundamental aspects of Labour's policy agenda, too.
Many ordinary French people have concluded that the system of austerity with no exit cannot be endured. Hollande and the PS are tapping into this mood. To the left of the PS, other parties are gaining support: the Greens, as well as the Front de gauche (the Left Front), look as though they have almost 10 per cent in the polls.
Ominously, another movement is being driven by the widespread desire for change. Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, the neo-fascist National Front (FN) has dropped some of its more outrageous rhetoric and has also adopted an anti-austerity programme that is gaining support. The PS has understood that the best way to defeat Sarkozy and resist the threat from the FN is to adopt a bold but realistic and popular response
to the problems facing France.
Hollande is not afraid to take on reactionary, right-wing austerity and challenge the status quo. Labour will be watching closely these next few weeks.
Don't dare whisper it yet but there is a real chance that we will soon have an ally in the Élysée Palace.
Jon Trickett is shadow minister for the Cabinet Office