Look to France for a vision of life under Miliband

Published by The Guardian (27th August, 2014)

History never tires of repeating itself. More than three decades ago Socialists won power in France with promises to revive the economy by raising state spending, reining in finance and nationalising key sectors. Their radical programme had supporters salivating at the chance to prove such policies could solve profound economic problems. It was hailed by many on the left, especially in Britain, where it seemed to offer an alternative to the rigidity of Thatcherism.

But the recipe proved a disaster as unemployment rose, inflation soared and the currency collapsed. After three years these policies were replaced by an austerity package that salvaged both the French economy and the presidency of Francois Mitterrand. Among his backroom advisers was a young apparatchik named François Hollande, who almost by accident ended up as his Socialist successor in the Elysée Palace – and now he seeks to pull off a similar trick to save his ailing economy  and abysmal presidency.

It is hard to overstate the problems facing this bumbling politician. He has sacked his finance minister for publicly opposing his new prime minister’s attempts to impose a degree of discipline on the nation’s beached economy. At last the government is attempting to remedy some of the high-tax, statist measures that have driven away jobs, dampened growth and deterred entrepreneurs – thousands of whom have fled to London. Yet, despite the obvious failure to tackle the structural flaws of a sclerotic state that threatens the entire eurozone, this has exposed deep fissures on the French left.

There remains much to admire about France, its culture and many of its businesses – not least in the technology sector. But its president has looked embarrassingly out of his depth from the moment he was elected by voters fed up with the flashiness of his predecessor. He was not meant to be the Socialist candidate, of course, only getting the nod after scandal ensnared Dominique Stauss-Kahn. Unfortunately Monsieur Normal’s biggest achievement has been to discover new depths in opinion polls for unpopularity; the slump is so extreme that the proportion of French people viewing him favourably is only 1% higher than the number who see Islamic State jihadists in a good light.

This is uncomfortable for Ed Miliband. Labour may be marginally ahead in the polls, but British voters remain uncertain whether its geeky leader is up to the job of running the country, an issue that may loom large over the general election given the global instability. The two share political backgrounds as bag carriers. They also share certain characteristics – personally popular yet awkward and mocked in public – and enthusiasms, including a liking for high taxes and anachronistic ideas about the ability of the state to reshape global capitalism.

The Labour party remains trapped by the legacy of its spendthrift time in office, struggling under Gordon Brown’s former sidekicks to find coherent policies that balance the reality of austerity with internal demands for higher taxes, heavier spending and punitive measures against privatisation. Yet its leader has made it all too easy, with his hasty embrace of Hollande, for opponents to point to the shambles in France as evidence of the plight that might befall Britain under him.

Miliband shies away from his French bromance now. But two days after the announcement of Hollande’s totemic 75% tax on the super-rich, the Labour leader proclaimed this ‘new leadership’ as something ‘sorely needed as Europe seeks to escape from austerity, and it matters to Britain’. Then there was his hasty pilgrimage to Paris in July 2012, embracing Hollande on the steps of the Elysée palace before the new president had managed to meet David Cameron. Miliband again hailed his soulmate’s leadership and vision in offering an alternative to austerity: ‘We are in agreement in seeking that new way that needs to be found,’ he gushed.

Miliband is a smarter and more subtle politician than Hollande. Yet how hollow that pose appears today. While France is stuck in its second quarter of zero growth and with unemployment at a record high, the British economy for all its flaws is expected to grow 3.4% this year, faster than any other state in the G7. Unemployment – four points lower than in France – is approaching its lowest level since the eruption of the 2008 financial crisis.

Little wonder we do not hear Miliband promoting Hollande’s inspirational leadership these days, or see envious glances cast at the French alternative of an overburdened, meddling state and praise for its brave fight against austerity. Instead, as Britain recovers we can look across the Channel at a country engaged in its heaviest spending cuts for 40 years, run by an inept president besieged by critics on both sides as he tries to turn around the ship of state from the self-defeating course he originally set.

After ditching Hollande the Labour leader flirted with a Rhineland model of capitalism, seeking inspiration from Germany with its strong manufacturing sector, regional banks and workers on pay committees. Yet Europe’s behemoth is also stumbling, its economy shrinking in the last quarter even before the impact of tougher sanctions on its close trading partner Russia. Perhaps the terrible truth will finally dawn on Miliband: our economic solutions may be found rather closer to home than he might like to think.

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