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A way out for Brown?

Is Gordon Brown finished? Well not necessarily so, according to the IPPR's Prof. Michael Kenny. And

The idea that the current government is embroiled in an irreversible endgame began to be heard several months ago. With astonishing speed, this has now become a given of current political discourse. The only storylines left for the hapless prime minister, it seems, are resignation, regicide or electoral meltdown.

But are endgames as inescapable and unwinnable as is widely assumed? Or are there strategic responses that have allowed seemingly doomed administrations to regain momentum and turn things round against all expectations?

Those with long memories and more detached minds will recall that this current bout of government-baiting is not without precedent. A common feature of the endgames associated with the final years of the administrations led by James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and John Major, was that in each case a complex tangle of pressures and failings got compressed into one overarching theme in the popular mind.

This motif became both lightening rod and symbol for all that was deemed wrong with leader and government. For Callaghan it was industrial discontent; for Blair, Iraq; Thatcher, the Poll Tax; and Major, Europe. In today’s context, we have to wonder whether the economic downturn has already forged the prism through which Brown and his government are widely viewed. Many believe that Brown’s fate has already been sealed with portions of the electorate.

And yet the historical record also contains some intriguing counter-examples and unforeseen political outcomes. And these ought to provide food for thought for those keen to write the obituary of this government.

The notices served on Mrs Thatcher’s first administration, in 1982-83, and the difficult prospects facing John Major’s before the election of 1992, did not result, as many expected, in electoral defeat. And in Major’s case this was despite a backdrop of economic recession.

Both examples illustrate the importance of unforeseen events, and the lingering difficulty which Labour in opposition had in establishing a relationship with a wary electorate. More directly relevant to Brown’s plight are the remarkable turnarounds engineered by the great electioneer Gerhard Schröder in the German elections of 2002 and 2005.

A mixture of changing circumstances and strategic acumen generated unexpected political momentum and a stumbling response from his opponents. These gave his party a surprise narrow victory in the first of these contests and though it did not win outright in the latter, it did force the Christian Democrats into coalition with the SPD.

The Brown government’s most recent efforts to ‘re-launch’ itself, and its over-hyped economic recovery plan, do suggest recognition of the need to break out of the vicious and self-fulfilling spiral of judgement associated with the politics of the endgame.

But the derision with which these proposals were received is a clear sign that modest measures and conventional political calculations are unlikely at present to shift the force-field of political life.

Policies emerging from cute tactical triangulations – balancing off tabloid editors and core voters - have not given people enough with which to identify. Nor have they communicated a clear sense to the public about whose side it is that the prime minister is on.

What then are the ingredients of the kind of approach that might give the government and its supporters a degree of hope, and interrupt the flow of popularity and initiative away from government to the Conservatives?

Above all, this needs to be a positively defined strategy, expressed in language that gives meaning to disparate policies and ties together important initiatives; not a calculated gimmick or one-off attempt to outsmart the Tories.

The government desperately needs greater definition, a well communicated purpose and a sense of direction. These will most likely come from a policy frame that is plausibly tied to Brown’s own political identity and keenest passions.

A push for greater social justice combined with a commitment to remaking the case for active government in difficult times, could provide a powerful way of framing some valuable and eye-catching measures across different departments, for instance legislating to abolish child and pensioner poverty, a major extension of the public provision of childcare and a further initiative to bring UK class sizes into line with the OECD’s average.

These would provide a more vigorous test of the substance of the Tories’ proclaimed new progressivism.

They could also be underpinned by a straightforward account of the importance and role of the state in terms that express a sharper difference between the politics of progressives and the seductively simplistic idea of the ‘post-bureaucratic state’ favoured by David Cameron.

For sure, economic policy is going to remain the major arena of political life in the next year and beyond. But the government’s ever more defensive tapering of its own agenda in response to the worsening crisis only seems to confirm its declining reputation with the public.

Opening up other related ‘fronts’ in the political struggle over the management of the economy is a vital means of generating the kind of forward momentum and sense of purpose which this government so patently lacks. As well as fairness and social justice, there is a strong case too for turning rhetoric about devolving real decisions and powers to elected representatives outside Westminster into some bold legislative realities.

Giving some real powers to local authorities and communities in areas such as taxation, health and policing, carries undoubted risks. But these are surely now outweighed by the government’s growing reputation as an overly centralising and distantly bureaucratic force.

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Head of Social Policy at the ippr

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.