Nicolas Webb considers the possibility for a resurgent centrist politics in Wales under new electoral systems.
The rise of Emmanuel Macron, from the meeting of a brand new movement in Amiens to the Élysée Palace, has understandably caught the imagination of political watchers around the world. What is more, this was achieved on a platform of radical centrism at a time when populism was making a breakthrough elsewhere and threatened to do so in France. With the British focus on Brexit, it is no surprise that much of our coverage focused on Emmanuel Macron’s staunch support for the European Union, a body which he looks set to tackle with the reforming zeal which is already changing domestic legislation. While important to him, the European dimension was just one part of a platform which noted the demise of “right” and “left” labels and focused on economic reform, harnessing globalisation and technological advancement. In fact, when one reads his book Revolution, the voice is often that of a technocrat rather than someone rallying support. Macron’s success in the Presidential election was followed by a landslide victory in the French National Assembly for his party, La République En Marche! (LREM).
It is little wonder that a pro-European centrist who was able to inspire such a rapid rise is of interest to observers in the UK. While there is much which supports the idea that the right/left divide is outdated, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has allowed some on both sides to reminisce about battles past over economic debates which, in reality, have long been settled. The Conservative retreat from the political centre-ground has been less stark than Labour’s but the language of the Tories since the EU Referendum has been disproportionately aimed at winning over former UKIP voters and gaining new support among formerly Labour-supporting leave voters in towns which have been particularly affected by the globalised economy.
Thus, a vacuum has occurred in the political centre. The Liberal Democrats feel that they should fill it, but there is little sign they can. So some have started to look for a British equivalent of Emmanuel Macron; someone who can lead a movement from nothing to success in little more than overnight. Despite a couple of short-lived attempts by journalists to ignite such an idea via Twitter, the role of a British Macron remains unfilled.
Perhaps we are looking at the wrong segment of the French political establishment if we want to draw a parallel. After all, even Macron himself would have struggled with a UK style electoral system. The idea of one individual leading a new party to win a majority of first-past-the-post constituencies at the first attempt is not plausible.
However, if adopted, the proposals for an STV or Flexible List system for Welsh elections could create a very different scenario. In the early days it is likely that the existing major parties would continue to dominate, but over time it is quite possible that challenger parties would emerge. Whereas first-past-the-post tends to lead to a bipolar hegemonic political dynamic with supposedly broad-church parties, the proposed continental style of Parliament would allow for more diversity within both the political right and left.
The far political left has a long history of splintering. There are the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Workers, Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Equality, Socialist Labour, Trade Union & Socialist Coalition, Republican Socialists, the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the perhaps inappropriately titled Left Unity! These are not the kind of challenger parties to which I am referring. Instead consider the current broad composition at Westminster which places Chuka Umunna in the same party as John McDonnell; or Heidi Allen in the same party as Philip Davies. In practice, each party has a wide spectrum of opinion within it.
When Macron’s LREM broke through the old two party system it presented a challenge as to how the existing parties should react. The left has succumbed to (further) infighting. Following their election defeat, the conservative Les Républicains have swung further to the right with their new leader Laurent Wauquiez. That did not sit well with more centre-right members who find greater synergy with their views in the programme of Macron and LREM than with their own party leadership. Initially this led to an informal grouping named Les Constructifs which still allowed for membership of Les Républicains, but last month things took a further step with the formation of Agir – La Droite Constructive as a formal political party. The party’s agenda is “to defend the liberal, social, European, humanist and reformist ideas of the right and the centre”. At present it is a small grouping without high profile figures, whereas some of Les Républicains’ better known names jumped directly to join LREM. By not formally joining with Macron, Agir provide themselves with flexibility to support parties of either the centre or the right as they deem appropriate after each election.
Agir does not enjoy the glamour or impact of Macron’s movement. Nor will it generate the headlines. But as we consider the potential impact of radical reforms proposed to the Welsh electoral system, it is perhaps more likely that we will see a Welsh Agir (or a leftist equivalent) than a British Macron.
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3 thoughts on “With a British Macron elusive, what chance a Welsh Agir?”
First of all, we must beware of accepting any politician’s narrative at face value. Macron’s curriculum vitae is one of an impeccable Establishment figure. It remains to be seen whether he proves a truly transformational leader or another Blair, or Obama, who talked big but left little in the way of positive legacy.
On the broader question of how people would vote if a reformed electoral system allowed them to reflect their actual views, our deeply divided nation would probably see simultaneous swings to both flanks, hard left and hard right. Eventually a Trump or a Berlusconi would emerge. It is not a pretty picture. The brand names of the Labour and Conservative parties would probably buy them time, but not long unless they were able to rebuild the connections to their respective bases. The – frankly surprising – failure of the Liberals to exploit the “Remain” vote in last year’s General Election indicates that particular brand is still tainted by the tuition fees mess, perhaps fatally. A new independent centre-right grouping is unlikely given that its natural leader is also leader of the Conservative Party – a fact not appreciated by those who insist on calling Mrs May “right wing.” A change in leader is less likely than media pundits like to pretend, and even a swing to the right by the Party would probably see the loss of only a handful of the usual suspects beyond hope of ministerial office. On the centre-left, careerists remember the SDP and realise their best option is still to stay put in the Labour Party, hoping for happier days.
‘But as we consider the potential impact of radical reforms proposed to the Welsh electoral system, it is perhaps more likely that we will see a Welsh Agir (or a leftist equivalent) than a British Macron.’
The party system looks increasingly unfit for purpose – scattering the vote more widely with voting reform will make them even less relevant and basically little more than vehicles for political snouts in the trough and endless horse-trading to form working coalitions, or not, which represent fewer and fewer party devotees. Look no further than Germany right now. People will increasingly question the validity of voting and even more will probably stay at home concluding that voting is a pointless exercise.
Actually I suspect the only party political movement to emerge in Wales will be that represented by the Abolish the Assembly Party – or ATWAP for short – with an emerging cross-party consensus that Wales has a layer of failed governance too many.
It would not surprise me either if a grassroots movement to democratise the Welsh language also emerges – something along the lines of the Irish Language Freedom Movement of the 1960s which arguably stopped Ireland falling off the same cliff that Wales is currently being driven towards by a cross-party political consensus which seems to be oblivious to the needs of industry, commerce, education, and the majority of the people they are supposed to be there to represent.
If an established party in Wales, or a professionally run new party, would take BOTH themes on board they could probably do rather well.
John Walker finds it intolerable that the Welsh people now have a democratic institution that gives them the possibility of some control over their own domestic affairs. If they choose to vote out of habit or not vote at all, that is their democratic prerogative, At least the possibility of change exists. Why is that so disagreeable? Is it because the Welsh are a miserabke subject people who should let every facet of their affairs be decided by their superiors? Or perhaps it is because Wales like its National Assembly should cease to exist. Everyone should speak English and drop these affectations of cultural difference that are so distressing to people like Mr Walker.
Alternatively people who dislike Wales so much should spare themselves the pain and live elsewhere.
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