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 While there is much which supports the idea that the right/left divide is outdated, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has allowed some on both sides to reminisce about battles past over economic debates which, in reality, have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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