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29 June 2023

Is Keir Starmer the British François Hollande?

Boring, safe, centrist – and probably doomed.

By David Klemperer

A spectre is haunting Keir Starmer – the spectre of François Hollande. In literal terms, the former president of France still lingers on this earthly plain; politically, however, he might as well have passed on. His ill-fated 2012-2017 presidency offers a bleak warning for the Labour Party leader as he looks ahead to governing after the next general election.

Much as Labour members might wish to avoid the comparison, Hollande is a politician to whom Starmer bears more than a passing resemblance. A middle-aged Socialist Party bureaucrat, Hollande was a bland personality from the centre of his party, lacking both a clear ideological profile and experience of ministerial office. Although he stood on a platform that, like Starmer’s today, included bold economic reforms and plans for active industrial policy, he campaigned primarily as an unthreatening, consensual moderate – a reassuringly boring safe pair of hands. In contrast to Nicolas Sarkozy, the hyperactive and scandal-ridden right-wing incumbent, Hollande promised to govern as a “normal” president. (Starmer has played up a similar contrast with Boris Johnson.) Amid the eurozone crisis and pressure on the cost of living, Hollande succeeded in accomplishing what Starmer hopes to achieve at the next election – taking advantage of the incumbent’s unpopularity to end a long period of conservative rule.

[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]

“Normality”, however, is not a plan for government. Although his victory was hailed by Ed Miliband, Labour leader at the time, as proof that “a different way forward” was possible, Hollande soon floundered in office. Hamstrung by EU fiscal rules and faced with stiff opposition from businesses, his economically interventionist campaign promises were pursued half-heartedly and dropped at the slightest resistance, leaving the first two years of his presidency to be defined by a series of U-turns. Key reforms to France’s notoriously inefficient tax system were first delayed, then abandoned, then belatedly resumed, before ultimately being abandoned for good. With growth sluggish and unemployment high, Hollande’s government often appeared to lack any long-term economic vision. Ministers each pursued their own (often conflicting) agendas, while the president struggled to provide his government with any sense of direction.

By 2014 the Socialist-aligned economist Thomas Piketty was denouncing Hollande’s presidency as “a catastrophe”, lambasting his government’s “stop-go” fiscal policy and “permanent improvisation” in economic strategy. It was, Piketty complained, as if the Socialist Party in opposition had never really considered what it would do when in power. The French public clearly agreed: after two years of Hollande’s presidency, polling found that 82 per cent of voters were dissatisfied with his performance, and his Socialist Party suffered heavy losses in local and European elections.

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In response to these difficulties, and lacking a clear vision of his own, Hollande drifted steadily rightwards, ceding control of policy to his party’s most centrist figures. In a vain effort to stimulate economic growth, his government stripped back employment protections and introduced tax breaks for businesses that were paid for by cuts to public spending. Such measures, however, did nothing to restore Hollande’s popularity. Rather, by appearing to betray the interests of the Socialist electorate, they sparked widespread social protests and provoked rebellion within his own party, ultimately alienating much of whatever support still remained.

By the end of his term, Hollande’s approval ratings had sunk to such depths that he opted to slouch directly into his shallow political grave instead of standing again, and the Socialist candidate at the subsequent presidential election won less than 7 per cent of the vote.

[See also: Does Labour know how to make a green energy revolution happen?]

Today, Hollande’s presidency is regarded as a failure, and his Socialist Party has yet to recover from the experience. To avoid a similar fate in government, both Starmer and the wider Labour Party must draw lessons from Hollande’s experience.

Starmer must understand that if he wants to govern successfully, he needs to take office with both a clear idea of what he wants to achieve, and a plan to accomplish it. This is, of course, what the “missions” he talks about are designed to do. In the absence of such strategic vision, it was all too easy for Hollande’s government to find itself merely the prisoner of events, drifting ineffectually rightwards under both internal and external pressure. For a Starmer government to avoid doing the same will take concerted central direction, and he will need to have the courage of his missionary convictions.

Crucially, having a plan for government must involve being prepared to implement difficult reforms at the outset of a term in office. Through his dithering, Hollande squandered his opportunity to carry out a major reform of France’s messy personal tax regime. If Starmer is serious about his own proposals to shake up Britain’s planning system, or to spend big on green energy, he should be ready to act decisively upon entering government.

The Hollande presidency should be taken as a warning against prioritising adherence to fiscal rules at the expense of wider economic objectives. It was Hollande’s initial failure to renegotiate the terms of the European Stability and Growth Pact, and his subsequent insistence on bringing France into line with its budgetary limits, that forced him to ditch his campaign promises and doomed his efforts to boost growth and employment. It would be a mistake for Starmer to allow his own set of self-imposed strictures to produce an equivalent economic outcome.

The electoral collapse of Hollande’s Socialist Party shows how important it is that Starmer understands exactly in whose interests he intends to govern. As president, Hollande was convinced that if he increased growth and reduced unemployment, regardless of the methods employed, the electorate as a whole would reward him. As a consequence of this mistaken belief, he refused to prioritise the desires of his own party’s voter base, instead pursuing reforms that directly undermined their interests, with disastrous electoral consequences.

Starmer must avoid making the same mistake: to maintain political support, any future Labour government will need to be ruthless in meeting the needs of its own coalition – at the expense of others if necessary.

[See also: Keir Starmer: My mortgage is up too, and Rishi Sunak doesn’t get it]

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