If your plan for resurrecting the British centre is ‘Macron’, you don’t have a plan

When everybody from Conservative Anna Soubry to Vince Cable, through to those on the Progress wing of Labour is talking about the need for a new centrist party, it is logical to assume someone has a plan to form one.

Sometimes Paul Mason manages to stumble towards the truth. When I wrote about the problems in creating a new centre party a few weeks ago, I was aware that it was being discussed by various people, and while those thoughts and discussions may have been somewhat muted by the election, they’ve not completely come to an end.

One thing above all has been adding the fuel to the centrist flame: the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential election. It’s played out like a centrist fairy tale as the young technocrat minister spots an opportunity, forms his own political movement and then capitalises on the flaws of the tired old parties of left and right to rise above the extremes and become President in the first ever election he’s contested. And it is a remarkable achievement, for no matter how much luck Macron had as the Socialists and Republicans imploded, he still had to show enough political nous to actually win the election. It’s just not one that holds too many lessons for those hoping to emulate him in the UK.

For a start, French politics is intensely personalised around candidates at an order of magnitude beyond anything we see in Britain. It’s tempting to look at the Gaullists and Socialists as being roughly comparable to our Conservatives and Labour Party, but both are not really parties as we understand them, more convenient labels for the cats-in-a-sack factional infighting that characterises much of French politics. En Marche! (now known as La Republique En Marche – REM) was different in that it was separate from the Gaullist and Socialist movements, but not in that it was an organisation heavily focused on its leader (and whether EM! was targeted at the Socialist primary or becoming a separate movement was an open question around its foundation). Because so much of the power in the country is held by a directly-elected President, French politics encourages this level of personalisation. Even formal party structures have tended to follow the needs to individuals, with parties forming and dissolving with much more rapidity than any other Western democracy. The Socialist Party was the oldest organisation in this year’s elections and they may well deal it a death blow before it’s even reached fifty years old.

It’s this personalisation and factionalisation, coupled with the power of the Presidency, that will likely earn Macron a majority in the Assembly elections next month. Even if REM doesn’t win a majority in the elections themselves, his appointment of Edouard Philippe as Prime Minister has driven a wedge into the Gaullists, pulling those close to Alain Juppé into alignment with him. Macron is benefiting from fissures and divisions already present in French politics, and an understanding amidst politicians and the public that factions will move in and out of different party groupings as they see fit in their quest for power. Macron has surprised by showing a centrist can win in France, but he’s done it by exploiting the way the French system works in ways that can’t be simply transposed to Britain.

For a start, politics in Britain isn’t based around the individual the same way it is in France. As the relative sizes of ‘Theresa May’ and ‘Conservatives’ continue their inverse relationship in election branding, we may talk about an increasingly presidential style in our politics, but that’s firmly based on the control of existing party structures, not supplanting them and remaking and/or fundamentally rebranding the party every time there’s a new leader. (Momentum is somewhat of a departure from this, but it still came about as an offshoot of a traditional leadership campaign, rather than predating it)

There’s simply no way for someone to ‘do a Macron’ in Britain as the processes are the opposite way around. In France, you win the Presidency and then try to win a majority in the legislature, whereas in Britain you can’t become Prime Minister until you’ve won that majority. There’s no shortcut to power, it has to be the long slog though the trenches of winning a majority in Parliament, and to do that you need to build a real organisation that can find and campaign for candidates, rather than just creating a campaign movement to get one person elected.

Macron also had (and will have, in the Assembly election) an advantage thanks to the French electoral system. The French two-round system is a massive boon for centrists who are popular enough to get into the second round as in any head-to-head contest with a non-centrist, they can expect to hoover up the votes from the side not represented in the runoff. If voter distribution follows a vaguely normal pattern with a centre, than a centrist is likely to win any two-way contest, but the trick is being able to make it a two-way contest in the first place. The problem in Britain is that our system doesn’t create that situation (hence why Liberal Democrats play up the ‘two horse race’ in constituencies to try and artificially create it) and any new centrist party is going to find that winning from the centre in one jump is harder than doing it in two.

“Ah,” comes the objection, “but people like the idea of a centrist party with centrist ideals, so they’d vote for it in large enough numbers to win.” The problem with that is that people like a lot of things in the abstract, especially when they’re being asked what’s little more than ‘would you like nice things or nasty things?’. People’s views on most things political are effectively a nonattitude, especially when they’re dealing with hypotheticals. There might be lots of people out there who think a centre party is a good idea, but each of them has a different idea in their head of what it’s like, and aren’t guaranteed to support each others’ vision of it. How many people who say they like the Party Of Guaranteed Nice Things For All will change their minds on it when they discover its leading lights are Tony Blair, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, for instance?

The circumstances may seem right for a realignment of British politics if things go the way a lot of people expect in the election, and all the nebulous plans floating around before it might gain some solidity. However, it may be that all this talk of realignment in the middle of the election campaign may go the same way as the millions of words that were written about potential coalition deals and arrangements in 2015. If something is to happen, though, it needs to rely a lot more on the practical details of just how one would create and build a new party in the British political system, not just assuming you can copy-and-paste something from France to here.

Reflections on the centre in France

First, a disclaimer: I’m not an expert on French politics so I may be just blundering cluelessly in here. For a more informed take, try this from Rainbow Murray.

It’s not usually a good idea to try and explain one country’s politics in terms of another, so I’m not going to try and draw any great extrapolations for British politics and our upcoming election from the first round of the French election yesterday. It’s tempting to do so, given that on the surface it seems to share some of the same characteristics, but it’s wildly different beneath the surface with a heavily personalised and factionalised politics with much more fluid party structures. For instance, in my lifetime the ‘Gaullist Party’ has been through a succession of identities from Chirac’s Rally For The Republic to Sarkozy’s Republicans.

Personalisation and factionalism have been just as strong in the centre as they have on the right and left, though not as prominently because it’s rarely produced Presidents or serious Presidential contenders. Valery Giscard D’Estaing moved towards the centre to win in 1974 and Francois Bayrou almost broke through in 2007, but unlike Macron both of them were established figures within French politics and used established parties and movements in their campaigns. Even without looking at his positioning, Macron is different in having established En Marche! outside the existing structures and built it into an election-winning machine in such a short time.

The main barrier for the centre in the Fifth Republic has been the polarisation the system which has tended to reduce most contests into left-right battles, assisted by the majoritarian two-round electoral system. Centre parties and candidates suffered from the problem of being everyone’s second choice, but not enough people’s first. In 2007, polls were showing that Bayrou could beat either Sarkozy or Royal in the runoff, but he couldn’t get enough support to break past them and get into it. We saw the same in this year’s polling, with second round projections showing Macron comfortably beating everyone else, no matter how close the first round was. This came into play last night, as Fillon and Hamon quickly endorsed Macron for the second round as they conceded the race (Melenchon has yet to make any commitment on the second round, but I’ll address that later). In part, that’s the ‘republican front’ coming into play, defending the values of France against the extremist option, but it’s also perfectly in line with a Downsian political science explanation of how voters decide.

That sort of analysis presupposes that we’re still in a period where politics can be characterised as a simple straight line between left and right where everyone fits neatly on the line. The problem (and an especially acute one for someone like me who studies centre parties) is that competition is now much more multi-dimensional with a whole range of other issues just as salient as the traditional class and economic ones. I think that helps to explain Macron’s success as much as a traditional view of him as a centrist. Because the old left-right model has broken and politics is much more fractured around questions of identity, it was easier for a candidate from outside the traditional party bases to get into the second round, but it seems that Macron was also able to attract voters on the new axes of competition. This is interesting, because while we’ve seen parties and candidates able to draw support from what Hooghe et al call the Traditional/Authoritarian/Nationalist (TAN) side of competition, we’ve not yet seen those who motivate the Green/Alternative/Libertarian (GAL) side, and while Macron isn’t as far along the GAL axis as Le Pen is on the TAN side, it offers an interesting contrast. (Indeed, one reason for Macron’s second round polling lead is that he’s closer to the centre of opinion on this axis)

A quick word on Melenchon here. While he has received some flak for not making a second-round endorsement last night, it seems that he had always said that he would only do so after consulting with his supporters and once he’s done that, I expect he’ll make a statement that’s at the very least strongly anti-Le Pen, if not fully pro-Macron. The problem, I think, stems from a minority of his supporters (and their British counterparts) who push the idiotic ‘better an honest fascist than a slimy centrist’ line, and those who think that the whole system needs to be brought down and would switch to Le Pen as their preferred wrecking ball against the seeming establishment figure of Macron. I don’t hold with the ‘horseshoe theory’ of political alignment that says the far-left and the far-right are somehow adjacent, but I do think that some people’s reasons for supporting politicians of one or the other does mean that their next most likely preference is the seeming opposite.

What comes next? Obviously, we all look towards the second round on the 7th May when Macron should roll to a convincing victory, but it already appears to me that he’s looking at a longer strategy, beyond winning just the Presidency. His rhetoric last night saw him pitching himself very much as what we in Britain would call a ‘one nation’ candidate, appealing across the political divide to bring the traditional republican values of France together. It’s a strategy that’s not just focused on winning the next round but establishing a strong base of support for the legislative elections that are coming in June. We already know that En Marche! is planning to stand in all 577 National Assembly constituencies (with promises of a diverse range of candidates, including many newcomers to politics) and if Macron can use the contest against Le Pen to position himself as the figurehead of the nation, and then use that to argue for a Presidential majority in the Assembly election. If his appeal is enough to get En Marche! candidates into the second round in many of the contests, then the same electoral factors that have almost delivered him the Presidency should give him a strong enough base of support in the Assembly to put together a government of his choosing.

Two-round electoral systems: a thought experiment

(AKA, today in anti-clickbait titles…)

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We’re just three weeks away from the first round of the 2017 French Presidential election and I’ve recently been trying to write a journal article about tactical voting, so various things have smashed together in my head to create an electoral system that would never be used but would make for interesting campaigns.

A quick recap for those who don’t know: the French electoral system has two rounds. In the first (taking place on April 23rd this year), all candidates that can get themselves nominated stand and all voters get to vote for one of them. The two leading candidates then advance to the second round (held two weeks later on May 7th) where all voters get to choose between them and the one with the most votes wins. (National Assembly elections, which will follow the Presidential election, follow similar rules, though any candidate with over 12.5% of the vote can remain in for the second round)

In theory, this allows people to vote in different ways in the two rounds. In the first, they can vote expressively for the candidate they want to win, then in the second they can vote instrumentally between the two candidates with the most support. In practice, of course, there’s a tactical element to any first round vote as voters have to consider who they want to see in the second round. For example, suppose there are 4 candidates in the election: A, B, C and D. You really like A, don’t mind B, don’t like C, and actively detest D. However, you also believe that D is very likely to finish in the top two accompanied by one of B or C and A will not have sufficient support to get into the top two. Do you vote for A, or choose to vote for B (who you don’t mind) in order to keep C (who you don’t like) out of the second round? What do you do if C is more likely to beat D in the second round than B, or vice versa? You can see how it gets complicated. (Now imagine having to do that and then choose your second round vote at the same time without knowing who the candidates are, and you’ve got the Supplementary vote system we in the UK use for mayoral elections)

So, my thought was how could you have an entirely expressive first round which would be a way to demonstrate the true level of support for a candidate or party? One way to do that would be to remove the compulsory elimination of candidates between the two rounds. There’d still be two rounds, separated by time, and whoever came top in the second round would be elected, it’s just that any withdrawal between the two rounds would be entirely voluntary on the part of the candidates, rather than enforced by the system. In the example above, you’d be able to cast your vote for A without concern about who made it to the second round as everyone would. In the gap between the two rounds, candidates and voters would be able to make decisions about whether to stay in and/or whether to endorse someone else with everyone aware of what their level of support actually is. The first round would be truly expressive, and the second very instrumental as people decided – based on their knowledge of the first round result – how they could best use their vote to get the result they preferred.

In the case of national parliamentary elections, it would also give people the chance to see how their constituency affects or is affected by the national picture. Imagine if we’d had a system like this in the 2015 UK general election, where a first round would have revealed that the Tories were much more likely to win a majority than Labour, that the SNP were surging and the Liberal Democrats had collapsed. The main campaign would have been entirely different, and people could have chosen their second round vote based on a much more accurate understanding of the national picture than they had from polling.

Now, there are plenty of problems with this as a practical solution, not least the difficulty of pitching ‘we’ll have an election, then we’ll repeat it a few weeks later’ as a practical and workable electoral reform, but for me it does solve an important issue of elections in that it gives voters both an opportunity to vote without tactical considerations and then the opportunity to have much more useful information when they cast their meaningful vote in the second round.

Worth Reading 85: Tie your tie

Do Not Hire John Brown Advertising – Andrew Hickey gets plagiarised. Plagiarist turns up in the comments to provide a great example of chutzpah.
It’s Official: Austerity Economics Doesn’t Work – “Having adopted the policies of Keynes in response to a calamitous recession, the United States has grown more than twice as fast during the past three years as Britain, which adopted the economics of Hoover”
We are all Alliance now – Spineless Liberal responds to the threats against Alliance politicians in Northern Ireland.
502: French conservatives temporarily unavailable – Alex Harrowell explains at A Fistful Of Euros how a close leadership election has split the French right.
Why we are calling for an end to the war on drugs – Julian Huppert explains the position of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

And don’t miss this special message from Alan Partridge: