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Nothing to turn back to

Irresponsible capitalism has left us in economic and political turmoil. The solution is a new democr

You wait ages for a crisis to arise, and then a stack of them come along at once. But the multiple crises that Britain is now experiencing have a common thread running through them: the relationship between markets and capitalism, on one side, and society and democracy, on the other. The interaction between these forces presents the left with its greatest threat – and its biggest opportunity – since 1945. It started with a financial services crisis because politicians put the banks outside democratic control. Then we were tipped into an economic crisis because of the credit crunch that ensued. As the Treasury bailed out the banks, the recession took hold and tax revenues plummeted, turning the crisis into a public-spending disaster.

Then the Daily Telegraph drew attention away from the bankers by lighting a fire under parliament. The expenses scandal is just another sign of our 30-year lurch towards consumerism. Too many MPs, it seems, are more interested in changing their homes than changing the world. The biggest crisis of all – the destruction of our climate – also has its roots in a capitalist system unfettered by social responsibility. We are on course to destroy our planet because, like our MPs, we can’t stop buying stuff we believe we don’t just want, but need. It’s the only version of the good life we know.

These multiple crises were a long time coming and will take a long time to be resolved. The European election results are a reminder that in the middle of a storm people can swing to the right, just as they did after 1929. But, over time, and given the right arguments, these crises could equally spark the start of a golden progressive era. The wonder of the moment is that, suddenly, politics is alive. Workers threatened by redundancy, homeowners staring eviction in the face, voters everywhere outraged at the expenses scandal: suddenly, everyone has a voice and view. We need each other, we need society – and therefore we need democracy.

Three months ago, John Harris and I wrote an essay in these pages entitled “No turning back”. We argued that, instead of slipping back to the pre-crash politics of debt and turbo consumption, the left must create new terrain on which to fight for a more equal, democratic and sustainable future. But since then, the possibility of turning back has gone – there is simply nothing to turn back to. The question we are all facing now is not whether to build the good society, but how.

The longest-ever Labour administration can now be deemed a failure. New Labour humanised Thatcherism and the market with policies such as the minimum wage; but it also embedded the market culture in schools, hospitals and every other part of our daily life. The current government has presided over growing inequality and the rise of the British National Party, the erosion of civil liberties and an unwillingness to take climate change seriously.

The overriding failure of New Labour, however – one at the root of all of these political disasters – has been the systematic weakening of institutions that make democratic change possible. Along with parliament and the party itself, the unions and the public realm have been hollowed out, not by accident but by design.

The moment it accepted the “inevitability” of market fundamentalism, New Labour signed the death warrant for social democracy. The relationship between markets and democracy is zero-sum – more of one means less of the other. Markets create efficiencies by closing down the space between producers and consumers, stripping out any organisations that stand between the two, such as trade unions, which demand negotiation and consensus-building. Much better to eradicate them through privatising services such as Royal Mail, turning the people who use them – all of us – from citizens into consumers. Economic efficiency and social justice, so the story went, go hand in hand. But while flexible labour markets were efficient, they destroyed jobs, cut real wages and imposed longer hours.

Efficiency through social democracy, on the other hand, is premised on the belief that the participation of people who run and use political institutions, public services and workplaces makes the most of everyone’s input, because everyone’s voice is heard. New Labour fears debate outside the party because it is deemed inefficient and internally because the membership would never back market-oriented goals. Broadly speaking, therefore, it is an anti-democratic project. Intellectually, organisationally and financially, it is bankrupt. But Cameronism is not the answer, either: he is a right-wing politician, and this should be a centre-left moment. He will not renounce Thatcherism. His leadership would be a pale imitation of Tony Blair’s, another sofa government. In seizing the moment, the democratic left must start with its moral compass: the values of equality, solidarity and sustainability. The principle of democratisation must be applied in five main areas.

First, the Labour Party needs to recognise that democracy is more than a means to an end – it must be both. The intrinsic worth of democracy is how it empowers us, not just that it delivers control. To have any hope of reforming parliament, the leadership must show trust in both the public and the party’s own members.

Second, the democratic system needs thorough reform. Proportional representation is the key, allowing politics to become a debate between competing visions of the good society. Without PR, reforms will just be a technocratic fix. The political system requires ideological blood coursing through its veins if it is to come to life.

Third, we have to democratise public services and local government as well as parliament. Fourth, there must be recognition that civil society matters: unions, NGOs, voluntary organi­sations – the places in which people can learn to be citizens – must all play a part. Fifth, we must democratise our places of employment. A voice in the workplace is not just a right, but also the means of unlocking our productive potential.

A new democracy and a new socialism are two sides of the same coin. The good society is the one we create for ourselves – we can’t turn back to the bureaucratic state just because the markets have crumbled. It is time for the democratic state. Do people need protection from global capitalism? Should we be a more equal society? Can people achieve more together than alone? The answer to all of these questions is: “Yes!” The potential for the left and the opportunity to realise it has never been greater. But we must seize the mantle of democracy firmly and permanently. There is no turning back. The past 12 years have left us nothing to turn back to.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass and author of “All Consuming”, to be published by Penguin on 25 June (£10.99) The New Statesman is sponsoring the Compass conference “No Turning Back” at the Institute of Education, London WC1, on Saturday 13 June. Book at: www.compassonline.org.uk

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

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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.