How political parties get stuck in opposition

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.