The Tories a joke in Washington

Imagine a football match in which your team is performing formidably. It leads 3-0, then, inexplicably, it slows down, allowing the adversary to advance despite a weak, unconvincing performance and a desperate shortage of star players. Welcome to the match of your lifetime: Team Labour v Team Tory.

Though based in Washington, DC, where I am a Master’s student, I follow British politics closely. It seems to me that during more than a decade of leadership, Labour has delivered Britain into the 21st century. Sustained investment in state education has yielded demonstrable results. The risk of being a victim of crime is at historically low levels. The effectiveness of the British health-care system is envied in the US, and again the improvement is undeniable. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is potently orchestrating domestic and global economic strategies.

Yet, for reasons I find increasingly hard to understand, the Labour Party has been hesitant about defending its own policy record. This is surprising because Labour’s decade-long policy output is so superior to the Conservatives’ platform for the future that the latter does not stand up to serious analysis. On education, for instance, the Conservative vision is to divert funding to building new independent schools. This will incur unnecessary costs for taxpayers. Additionally, some of their proposed schools are to be funded based on the number of children they attract. The Tories are ignorant of, or unconcerned by, the severe distributional implications of this competitive system.

Wealthier parents will have an incentive to invest more in their children’s education in the same way they invest in luxury cars. Inevitably, schools in poorer areas will fall behind. The imperative for education should transcend the obsession with individual success conditioned by market competition and the profit motive.

Equally questionable is the Conservatives’ evaluation of education, which resembles

an engineer’s assessment of road construction. Using percentages of “poor discipline” and “truancy” to punish teachers and state schools is nonsense. It conjures up America’s No Child Left Behind programme, whose assembly-line approach consigned students to a vicious cycle of inequality. Education is a complex co-productive process, in which students, parents and teachers are all responsible for the outcome.

Tory policy on crime rests on a false causality between law enforcement and criminal behaviour. Overall, their objective is punishment at all costs to deter criminals,

but with no guarantee of subsequent social integration. They assume that punishment will generate fear and reduce criminal intent. But criminals do not act because of an absence of fear. Crime rates may be simultaneously a function of the economy, health, deprivation or family. Isolating enforcement from the rest is imprudent. This demonstrates a failure to distinguish between “law enforcement” as procedure and “increasing personal and public safety” as a policy goal.

Also unreasonable is the Tory rejection

of programmes such as early release. They shape their response to fit transient public fear, and call for more prisons and more severe sentencing, irrespective of crime type. Yet here, again, the Conservatives refuse to consider that the costs of building additional prisons and extending incarceration stretch out into the future, multiplied by the costs to society when inmates are released without proper rehabilitation. Cost-benefit analyses overwhelmingly show that enforcement tailored to the degree of criminality is more cost-effective than generic long sentencing, and transitional programmes are twice as cost-effective as longer sentences.

On health, the Conservatives introduce profit motives, exposing the NHS to the uncertainty of the free market. They believe that health providers must have financial incentives to deliver a better service, which implies an infusion of government funds into greedy competition among doctors and hospitals. Inevitably, rewarding providers for success will transform health care into a supply-driven system at the expense of the taxpayer. You can expect the NHS to overflow with unnecessary medical procedures that will increase costs.

Finally, the Tories’ overall economic policy is inconsistent with their spending pledges for education, health and crime. First, they commit to interventionist funding at all costs, especially as they promise corporations seats at the table. Next, they pledge fiscal conservatism by lowering business taxes and raising the inheritance tax threshold to £2m. This is oblivious to long-term negative consequences, including an imbalanced national budget.

The immaturity of the Tories’ platform reveals itself again as they intend to interfere with the demand-and-supply dynamic of the jobs market. They promise to ensure work for everyone, which is noble indeed. However, their actions would disregard sensitive aspects of the economy such as elasticity of demand for certain jobs. Failure to consider these will hurt British workers in the long run and could unleash endemic unemployment.

When we discuss the Conservatives’ policies here in Washington, DC, we are often reduced to laughter that a political party seeking to govern a country as important as Britain could publish such plans as it has. But it has. It is time that they were subjected to proper attack.

Alina Palimaru is a student in advanced public policy analysis at American University in Washington, DC

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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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.