Here's a radical idea for politicians hoping to make an impact: tell the truth instead of offering false hope, like France's Manuel Valls.

The most popular politician in France is Manuel Valls, the interior minister in Francois Hollande’s Socialist government. 

While the President has an approval rating around 40 per cent, Monsieur Valls’ rating tops 75 per cent. Three quarters of the country loves him…and the other quarter are from his own party: Only 6% of his Socialist party like him. 

His own party call him a ‘Sarkozy of the left’ and a French Tony Blair. He could be the next Socialist president.

The tangle has some resonance for left parties in every developed liberal democracy.

The ideological cul de sac always results from asking working people for their vote but not their values. Monsieur Valls’ insight is that, when voters express concern about crime in the banlieue (suburbs), or support French military intervention against jihadist terrorists in Mali, they are actually motivated by left wing values - and the left should not abandon these topics to the right, as if only the right had a monopoly on what’s popular.

He argues he is motivated by principle. Being tough on crime is consistent with left ideology. He once wrote in a book, ‘far from being illiberal, a hard stance on order and authority is the best guarantor of individual freedom.’ He’s not rejecting socialist principle, he is acting on it, he says.  

Standing up to the violence of terrorists in a former French colony, and protecting citizens from militants who chop off the hands of those who don’t agree with them, is a moral response. Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world, an area a little larger than France itself. Last week the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad or the MNLA, burnt down the famous and ancient Islamic library in Timbuktu. This is now a fight between barbarians and civilisation, and Socialists should be on the side of civilisation.

So consider left doctrine about crime, tax and welfare in New Zealand. Orthodoxy says the left should try to avoid these issues and stick to asking ‘but where are the jobs?’ To do otherwise, goes the doctrine, is to buy in to right wing ‘framing’ and ‘narrative’ as if potential left votes might be lured into a dreamworld of false consciousness from which the left’s only options are to persuade them they are wrong, or be less than frank about our real intentions. 

Spotters of doctrinal error label any attempt to deviate from this line, ‘selling out’ and flirting with ‘Rogernomics’ or ‘Blairism’, as if opposing crime also implies you want to invade Iraq and hock off public assets. 

The trouble with doctrine is it makes policy debate stale. It prevents the left from presenting the solutions of the future by locking it into the debates of the past.

Fear of debate, and attempts to marginalise and demonise anyone who questions the doctrine, are actually revealing of a crisis of confidence in the left’s own principles - as M Valls has illustrated, if the left can’t debate crime and welfare with more depth than saying ‘but look over there! At the economy!’, then it is repudiating its own principles.

Another cheap shot is to accuse people like M Valls of advocating a ‘Tory-lite’ version of the Left in order to win popular support. That misses his point. He is arguing that the Left and the Right are driven by different values. The French socialist’s intervention in Mali for example continues a Left tradition going back to the Spanish Civil war of standing up to fascism, in whatever guise is occurs. The values of the right-wing neo-cons in contrast see intervention as a pragmatic and necessary way to secure influence and security.

 If you think about, say, welfare, voters are motivated by deeply left values of care and compassion. Most people who are worried about welfare are worried about kids growing up in poverty, worried about their future, about violence that happens more often in poor families, worried about social dysfunction. Those are richly left wing concerns. Sure, there are loud voices who resent the community caring about others. But they are not the majority. 

The difference is that the Left believes it is the job of the state to help people get back on their feet. The Right tolerates it. 

 When the left is out of tune with voters on welfare or crime, or terrorism, it is policy and not the left’s values that are out of tune with the public. And that means having the courage to reform policy, make it practical and relevant, even when the choices are hard.

What keeps parties in opposition is when absolutism gets confused with principle. 

Ironically, US commentators have pointed out this same error is keeping the Republican Party in opposition. Speakers at a Republican conference recently were told not to talk about rape after the disasters during last year’s election when candidates like Todd Akin talked about ‘legitimate rape’. How can a conservatively moralising party get itself into a position where it can’t stand up and say clearly ‘we are against rape no matter who does it or how it occurs?’ 

It’s as absurd as the parties that invented welfare feeling unable to talk about reform and improvement of it.

Parties have to meet the people where they really are. You can’t fudge your basic position, telling them you are progressive on one issue and populist on the next. You need to choose. 

As Manuel Valls insists, politicians should simply tell the truth instead of offering false hope. He has told the French they will need to deal to their public debt, which will mean less public spending in future not more. 

They love him more for his frankness.

Comments (17)

by George Darroch on February 04, 2013
George Darroch

So, which country should we invade?

by Matthew Percival on February 04, 2013
Matthew Percival

Are we able to get some paragraph breaks in this piece?

Not the easiest to read.

[ed: Yes ... sorry ... new author production difficulties. Sorted now.]

by barry on February 04, 2013
barry

Who says it is left authodoxy to avoid talking about crime, tax and welfare?

by Tim Watkin on February 04, 2013
Tim Watkin

Thanks Josie, I agree with your core point, that boxing yourself into certain policy prescriptions doesn't do any party any favours; there can be new ways of expressing old values.

But is it down to the left not being able to debate these issues, or simply that most of the population aren't attracted by the policies being offered OR the values. We live in punitive, impatient times.

Look at the Republican example; the mis-steps about rape etc weren't because the party fears debate or were trying to fudge – quite the opposite. They were frankly expressed sincere opinions that most voters didn't like. Sometimes values from the same part of the spectrum conflict (right to lie and free choice) and sometimes deeply held values are just deeply unpopular. So I guess you either swallow a rat, spin and avoid or you die in a ditch. What I'm trying to say is that sometimes you can't just recast your values in policies for the majority, sometimes you're just in the minority, no?

 

by Tom Semmens on February 05, 2013
Tom Semmens

What a load of lazy intellectual tripe!

 

"...The trouble with doctrine is it makes policy debate stale...."

 

Err, the neo-liberal status quo, which you appear to have no problem with, is the doctrine that has made debate stale, not the ideas of the left. Socialism is a doctrine. Toryism is a doctrine. Nationalism is a doctrine. That you can seriously suggest you can have a political discussion free of doctrine is absurd and betrays a serious lack of the most fundamental understanding of the energising dynamics of politics and what the purpose of a political movements is.

 

"...It prevents the left from presenting the solutions of the future by locking it into the debates of the past...."

 

Huh? What does that even mean? Pure light weight pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo. Or, as one of Josie's eponymous voters would say, "Bullshit".

 

"...The French socialist’s intervention in Mali for example continues a Left tradition going back to the Spanish Civil war of standing up to fascism, in whatever guise is occurs..."

 

What sort of nonsensical historical revisionism is this? Are Islamists fascists? Islamists are Islamists, although I suppose you can label them fascist if it makes you feel better. If we are to follow Josie's interpretation of history, then was Lord Kitchener actually a leftist standing up to Islamo-fascists when he mowed down the Mahdi's army with his Maxim guns at Omdurman in 1898? Unless one counts Hungary in 1956, I cannot recall any socialist country anywhere invading anyone ever in order to "stand up to Fascism". Stalin's support of the Republicans in Spain was deeply self-serving and hardly a standing up to Fascism. And how Josie squares the (in her imagination) apparent willingness of individuals in the ideological left to travel to Spain to oppose with bomb and bullet the advance of fascism with her apparent distain of doctrinal rigidity and zeal is anyone's guess.

 

It seems to me the trouble with Josie Pagani is her arguments are always proceeding from a base of middle class bias. What Pagani sees as self-evident truths are merely the typical cookie cutter pseudo-dogma of a middle class marketing "expert" seeking confirmation bias in the tea leaves of "the left". The more she opens her mouth, the more I am convinced Josie Pagani hasn't the faintest idea intellectually of what socialism actually is as an organising principle. It is certainly more than simply a set of tools to justify complacent middle class prejudices.

 

Tax, welfare and crime?

 

In terms of tax, the left talks about tax incessantly. Tobin taxes. How to tax the 1%ers. How to ensure corporations pay their fair share. What Josie seems to mean when she says the left avoids talking about taxes is the left avoids talking about taxes in a way the NBR or assorted ACToid media talking heads would approve of. The left talks about welfare all the time as well. Just because the likes of Josie Pagani dismisses anyone who refuses to talk about welfare unless they do so by first framing the debate entirely in terms of right wing morality and values doesn't mean the left "avoids" talking about welfare. It is impossible for the left to join a debate about welfare reform when the starting position is how to discern and divide the deserving from the undeserving poor on the principle of punishment for the moral crime of poverty. Crime offers a similar intellectual trap. The crime debate Josie would have us have wouldn't be a debate at all - it would be a race to the bottom with both 'sides' using superficially different language to justify the same outcomes. What sort of "debate' is that?

 

With "friends" on the left like Josie, who needs enemies?

by DeepRed on February 05, 2013
DeepRed

"Being tough on crime is consistent with left ideology."

Which left ideology exactly? The illiberal authoritarian leftism of Pope Benedict or Hugo Chavez?

by Josie Pagani on February 05, 2013
Josie Pagani

Hi Tim, 

Yes, the right Republicans were not afraid of the debate when they made those comments, but they are now - because the absurdity of those outrageous rape-minimising and rape-excusing comments has made them defensive. But the point is that there is something deeper going on. Their attitudes to rape conflict with their claims to be the party concerned about morality and law and order, the party opposed to libertine social excess.

The point of the analogy is that their social moral values conflict with policy in practice.

So when you say we live in "punitive, impatient" times, that really amounts to saying the voters are wrong. Although you're right that deeply held progressive values can be unpopular - white voters in the US South thought slavery was morally permissable, so I am not advocating mindless populism - but we should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that voters are wrong, or don't share left values.

The point about M Valls is that he has seen in the voters frustration over jihadists and crime that voters are motivated by profoundly progressive values. You certainly should not recast your values - but sometimes the left needs to be careful we are actually practising them, and not instead defending policies in which we are heavily invested at the expense of being true to those values.

Tom Semmens'  points are an example of the reactionary left response to M Valls - there isn't  much argument in there, just ad hominem attacks. What he exhibits by failing to engage with the substantive points is his own lack of confidence in a progressive analysis. But on one point he makes: 

If he wants to defend the barbaric Qaeda conservatives who burned the historic Muslim libraries of Timbuktu then he should not confuse his position with leftism or civilisation, nor should he confuse al Qaeda with Islamism. Or make the mistake of thinking the left in the Spanish war would have been on his side. 

by Tim Watkin on February 05, 2013
Tim Watkin

I know politicians always have to say 'the voters know best' and I'd accept that typically they are and I guess in a democracy it amounts to the same thing... but sometimes they are wrong, slavery being a great example. Sometimes you need a Wilberforce or a King or whoever to say 'to hell with reframing this debate or triangulating etc, here I stand'.

In many ways this is the heart of political judgment – Josie, you're talking about listening to the people and moving your policies as a result (within the acceptable bounds of your values). Tom here – in his unnecessarily aggressive way – is talking about holding a line and winning people over to your policies. The truth is that real politiks is a combination of the two (Tom, taking Josie out of your argument, if she does have her finger on the pulse of many in the middle class, they vote and you're not going to win anything without them, so doesn't winning mean at least listening to those "middle class prejudices" you seem to disdain?).

Seems to me that the skill is in picking which principles to stand on and which ones to re-think with the times.

by Josie Pagani on February 06, 2013
Josie Pagani

I agree entirely with your last sentence. 

But this is not a debate of 'principle vs pragmatism' (in which I am cast as the unprincipled populist. It's the opposite - a call to ask whether unpopular positions are truly principled. That's why I gave the example of M Valls, who asked that question and discovered the public in more principled positions than his own party had been on issues such as crime in the banlieu  (where people in poverty are the victims of crime more often than those living in the centre of Paris) and the intervention in Mali.

It's true that sometimes a principled position will be unpopular, particularly when it is a call for change on a scale that upsets social conventions. But we should not reflexively assume that a position in which the left is deeply invested is the truly principled one. 

As you observe, democrats trust the public to favour the most principled position most of the time, at least over the long run. Not always, but often enough that when we are out of step with public opinion our first step should be an examination of whether we are being true to principle, rather than our first step being an assumption that our position is principled yet unpopular. To do otherwise is to assume that one's principles are intrinsically unpopular, and that is not the case. More often, we confuse principles with positions we have taken because of vested interests or past debates.

by Andrew P Nichols on February 06, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

 As you observe, democrats trust the public to favour the most principled position most of the time, at least over the long run.

When opinions are moulded by the corporate MSM and most voters are incapable of or unwilling to discern the truth from propaganda (cognitive dissonance), this is rarely possible.

by Brendon Mills on February 06, 2013
Brendon Mills

So if elected leader of the Labour Party Josie, what would you do? What would be in your manifesto? What would the shape of your welfare/health/education/housing system be?

"As Manuel Valls insists, politicians should simply tell the truth instead of offering false hope. He has told the French they will need to deal to their public debt, which will mean less public spending in future not more. "

I take it then, you wish to to impose spending cuts on social services and infrastrucure. Given that in the past 25 years or so, the wealthy has had their taxes slashed by almost half, while the rest of us have seen corresponding cuts to social services. Health is over worked, schools are wringing money out of parents like nothing else, state housing is shrinking while rents are growing, rail is shrinking by the week. Do you really want the left to condone a society where the poor live on the street like the USA?

 

Perhaps you should just put everyone (including yourself) out of their misery and throw your lot in with National.

by Brendon Mills on February 06, 2013
Brendon Mills

So if elected leader of the Labour Party Josie, what would you do? What would be in your manifesto? What would the shape of your welfare/health/education/housing system be?

"As Manuel Valls insists, politicians should simply tell the truth instead of offering false hope. He has told the French they will need to deal to their public debt, which will mean less public spending in future not more. "

I take it then, you wish to to impose spending cuts on social services and infrastrucure. Given that in the past 25 years or so, the wealthy has had their taxes slashed by almost half, while the rest of us have seen corresponding cuts to social services. Health is over worked, schools are wringing money out of parents like nothing else, state housing is shrinking while rents are growing, rail is shrinking by the week. Do you really want the left to condone a society where the poor live on the street like the USA?

 

Perhaps you should just put everyone (including yourself) out of their misery and throw your lot in with National.

by Keir on February 06, 2013
Keir

Josie, at this point in the debate, it might be worth starting to talk about concrete policy proposals here, and the concrete evidence backing those proposals. I agree that Labour needs to stand up for the rights of everyone to live free of fear and violence. But we can’t start adopting the failed policies of the unprincipled right, because they don’t work. So what would you have a future Labour government do? What policy should Labour be adopting?

I think the draft Platform puts it quite nicely when it says that one of Labour’s values in in the Justice sector is making justice decisions based on evidence-based policy, not retributive ideology. Another value is taking a long term approach to addressing the underlying causes of crime, and not playing to the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” audience. I think those are pretty core Labour values in the justice area.

So I definitely welcome a debate about where we go with justice policy, but it has to be underpinned by evidence, and it does have to be underpinned by those Labour values.

 [I posted this over at the DimPost, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to also put it here. Full disclosure: I represent Young Labour on the Party's Policy Council. My views  are my own.]
by Josie Pagani on February 07, 2013
Josie Pagani

Hi Keir - If you re-read the original piece, I'm talking about France not New Zealand,  and M Valls response to the very real issue of crime in the banlieue. His principled position  has made him unpopular in his own party and very popular with the public. 

That's what interests me. 

How could the most popular politician in France be the most unpopular politician in his own party? He is now standing up to party critics, and rejects the notion that he is choosing pragmatism over principle. 

My general point was not to critique NZ Labour's justice policy (or welfare or tax), but to argue that if a left party’s policy is out of step with public opinion, our first response should not be ‘What’s wrong with the voters?’ but ‘Are we being true to our values?’ In some cases the answer will  be 'yes' and we must stand up to prevailing public views (I use the extreme example of slavery in the US). In other cases, it is right to ask ourselves if we are acting on principle or on blind dogma. Are we serving the public, or vested interests? I want the Left to reclaim the moral highground in areas that we avoid talking about - welfare, crime and tax. Because we’ve got a better story to tell than the right. That will only happen when people on the left who want to explore these issues, and take public views on issues seriously, don’t get silenced or excommunicated. That’s why Manuel Valls is a politician to watch.

by barry on February 08, 2013
barry

josie....

 

The french (and english and Yanks) are in mali because there is Oil/Gas there......

 

If your deluded thoughts were true, the french and the poms and the yanks would be all over africa chasing the trouble makers out.  But they arent.  they are only interested where there are resources.

 

Honestly - 'the lefts tradition Left tradition ....... of standing up to fascism"

In many countries the left were the fascists..............

by Keir on February 08, 2013
Keir

<i>That will only happen when people on the left who want to explore these issues, and take public views on issues seriously, don’t get silenced or excommunicated.</i>

I agree! I think folks like Mark Kleiman bring a lot to the table. But I don't think that the left does excommunicate or silence people who want to explore these issues.

It would be interesting, perhaps, to start by compiling a list of people who've been silenced for being too populist on the left, and then compare that to the list of people who've been silenced for adopting stances thought to be too unpopular. Certainly, M Valls seems to be doing quite well out of his stance.

Welfare seems to me to be a different matter, because I don't see how you can talk about welfare without talking about jobs.

by stuart munro on February 10, 2013
stuart munro

It's a little hard to see the principle in your position,Josie, when your fascination with Valls seems more with his following than his sincerity. But you're perfectly free to peddle Labour manque if you think it will sell. Personally I think that the left has been over sold in NZ, and the exigencies created by the failure to produce the economic growth on which Rogergnomics was predicated is pushing working people away from the comfortable middle class values that once typified NZ. But by all means prove me wrong, even a squalid government of half measures would be an improvement on the current incumbents. Just it's not remotely aspirational. Government by a confused elite, of a confused elite, for no particular reason, really doesn't have the logic of of the people, by the people,for the people.

One thing we can be sure of: the NZer in the street is not contemplating the doctrinal virtues or otherwise of M. Valls. If you were to represent the left constituency, instead of presuming to lead it, you would be working on the problems that really matter to the people that ought to matter to you.

Labour is just too corrupt for me at the moment.

 

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