François Hollande has achieved far more than his critics suggest

The French president has shown that deficit reduction need not depend on deep cuts and regressive tax rises. Miliband should take note.

If you listen carefully, you can hear it coming. With next Monday marking one year since François Hollande was elected French President, a tidal wave of I told-you-so’s and smugness is about to be visited upon us by Westminster’s commentariat.

It’s fair to say that most of them have never much liked the French president. And we are sure to be gleefully informed that the first year of his Presidency has been a disaster. It will invariably be held up as a stark warning to Labour against carrying any challenge to the austerity consensus into the next election.

It won’t surprise you to learn that upon closer inspection, things turn out to be a bit more complicated than that.

Hollande has certainly had a difficult time of it, sliding recently to 25 per cent approval in the polls. Much of this can be laid at the door of his one unambiguous failure – his inability to overcome German opposition to redrawing the EU’s fiscal pact towards a greater focus on growth. As a result, unemployment is stuck at around 10%, and consumer confidence is low. The Eurozone remains largely frozen.

Some of it is also his own personal style. Hollande’s more low key, unfashioned image and patient approach – once a selling point – has bored a nation who became used to the glitz and hyperactivity of the Sarkozy years (in much the same way that ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ rebounded on Brown).

But if he has failed to offer much hope at a European level, the same cannot be said about his record at home. For starters, he has already made good on most of his key campaign promises, such as the hiring of 60,000 new teachers, raising the minimum wage and setting up a Public Investment Bank to lend where banks won’t (which given time could prove crucial to the country’s recovery).

But it is on budgetary matters – tax and spend – where Hollande has offered something most markedly different. Contrary to received wisdom in parts of the British press, the French President never campaigned against the principle of deficit reduction; simply against the notion that this is best achieved through deep spending cuts and huge tax hikes on ordinary people (this is after all what austerity has come to mean). And it is here that his actions in government bear far greater scrutiny than the widely held, lazy caricature that he has bowed to 'inevitable' cuts.

In 2013, only a third of Hollande’s deficit reduction measures comes from reducing spending. And all of this is coming from departmental spending freezes, not deep cuts.

The rest comes from increased taxes, largely on big businesses, banks and wealthy individuals. This includes increased wealth taxes, alongside hikes on taxes on assets and dividends. A new 45 per cent top rate has been brought in for incomes over €150,000, while companies will have to pay 75 per cent tax on any salaries over €1 million (replacing the 75 per cent income tax rate struck down by France’s constitutional court). Big banks and oil companies have also been hit with special levies. Tax exemptions have been scrapped.

While weak growth across Europe has made things harder than expected, these measures will still see France’s deficit fall to 3.7 per cent in 2013, from 4.8 per cent in 2012. Hollande has also shown admirable flexibility, resisting pressure to bring in any further deficit reduction measures to meet draconian EU targets while the economy is still weak (he has instead delayed them).

The ratio between taxes and spending reductions will level up a little in 2014, and some entitlements may be means tested. But freezes are likely to continue to take precedence to significant cuts on the spending side.

Whatever one’s view of Hollande, to equate this with the medicine meted out by other Governments in Europe is fatuous. Compare it, for instance, to George Osborne’s approach, whose ratio of cuts to taxes is 80:20, with that 20 per cent borne by people on average incomes while millionaires pay less. It’s also a world away from the broad-based slash and burn policies being implemented in Italy or Greece. Low and middle income households in France have been protected, as have public services.

Here Labour can still draw positive lessons, as beyond the need for short-term stimulus now, they face up to longer-term decisions over whether to accept the enormous cuts currently pencilled in by the Tories for 2015 and beyond. The deficit faced by any incoming Labour government is likely to be of a similar order to that faced by the French President.

Drawing inspiration from Hollande, but outside the fiscal straight jack imposed on Eurozone countries, Labour could set a longer more flexible timetable for elimination of the deficit. Assuming they inherit low growth, they could then pledge a freeze on overall departmental spending. This would be tough but would cancel planned Tory cuts and shut down accusations of profligacy or ‘turning the taps back on’ in a relatively painless way, providing them space to talk more about growth and living standards. Beyond that, levies on the well off and big businesses (e.g Financial Transactions Tax, Land Value Tax, restoring the main rate of corporation tax etc) should go towards paying for the rest of deficit reduction.

Within this overall spending envelope, further tax rises on the top (a 50p rate, mansion tax etc) could pay for tax cuts for those on low and middle incomes, aiding demand. Growth measures requiring capital spend would then be funded by taking money from budgets with the least impact on domestic demand (cuts in defence and international development to pay for a large house building programme, for instance).

There are many areas, of course, where Miliband will want and need to do the exact opposite of Hollande. He will have to be careful to not be seen to over-promise, given the public’s already brittle faith in politics. But a closer reading of François Hollande than we will be afforded in our newspapers reveals an important truth; one that can be rescued from the carnage of an otherwise difficult first year for the Socialist President. When it comes to how, when and on whose backs the national books are balanced, there are still choices.

This piece originally appeared on Shifting Grounds

François Hollande speaks during the annual May Day ceremony at the Elysée presidential palace in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.

Steven Akehurst blogs at My Correct Views on Everything

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.