A Lesson from the 1980s Mitterand Government: Labour Needs to Keep to Socialist Values

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I used to be a member of the Fabian Society in the 1980s, and still have a few of their pamphlets around. One of those is by the Labour MP Denis MacShane, French Lessons for Labour. This discusses Francois Mitterand’s Socialist Party government which was in office from 1981 to 1986, its positive achievements and failures, and why it lost the 1986. Even after thirty-four years, some of the points made by the pamphlet are still very relevant. And one is particularly so now that Keir Starmer is leader of the Labour party and trying to return it back to Blairite Thatcherism. Because of the reasons MacShane considers Mitterand’s government failed to get re-elected was because they didn’t govern according to traditional socialist values.

This is very clearly argued in the passage ‘The need for socialist values’ in the pamphlet’s final chapter, ‘Conclusion: What Lessons for Labour?’ This runs

The relative failure off the French Socialists to set the economy moving in the right direction or to develop a positive partnership with the unions may be related to their dropping of the ideas and values of socialism soon after the election. By the end of the five years’ government, Socialist ministers were openly saying that their main achievement had been to show that they could alternate with governments of the right. This may be so but it was a major scaling down of ambition and unlikely to mobilise mass support.

Mitterand’s and ministers’ assumptions of the “national” or “above party” mode so quickly after the 1981 election and thereafter until very shortly before the 1986 contest was more than a choice of language. It was a suspension of that part of the socialist project aimed at developing egalitarian values and practices in society. In country that attaches great importance to parole, headed by a Socialist president with an extraordinary command of the language the adoption of the discourse of “modernisation” , “flexibility”, “dynamism” is to dilute the reference to politics with the nostrums of the Wall Street Journal. The qualities listed above may be necessary but to emphasise them to the exclusion of other values that distinguish socialist from conservative governments is a mistake. On all French coins the three words “Liberty”, “Equality” and “Fraternity” are inscribed. They predate Marx but each is an important element of socialist values. Of thee, the concept least applied by Mitterand was equality. Studies of the last Labour Government in Britain also showed that inequalities widened and poverty increased. If a democratic socialist government is to lessen those inequalities then some sense of necessary austerity, some imposition of standards of citizenship will have to take place. There must be some link between sacrifice and equality – that, in addition to economic growth, is perhaps the beginnings of the modern socialist project. The call to equality, the call to sacrifice was not heard clearly throughout the five years of socialist government in France. They began by thinking they could please everyone and ended by being voted out. (pp. 33-4).

I realise that Blair adopted much the same policy when he took office. His government included former Conservative MPs like Chris Patten in a ‘Government Of All the Talents’. His first act in No. 10 was to invited Margaret Thatcher round to visit. He had also managed to get Clause IV, the passage in the Labour Party constitution committing it to nationalisation, dropped earlier in the 1980s. Instead of pursuing traditional socialist policies, Blair claimed his government instead had found a ‘Third Way’. In practice he followed Thatcherite orthodoxy by continuing privatisation, including that of the NHS, and dismantling the welfare state. Blair was intent on winning over swing voters in marginal constituencies and turned away from the party’s traditional working class base. In reward for this, he was supported by the Murdoch press and received donations from big businesses that had previously donated to the Tory party. New Labour stayed in power from 1997 to 2010, so it might be thought that his policy of simply becoming ‘Tory Lite’ is successful. However, Blair lost the support of traditional Labour voters and members. He won with a lower number of votes, I believe, than Jeremy Corbyn had when he lost the 2017 election. It’s been said that by 1997 the public were so sick of the Tories, that Blair simply didn’t need to adopt their policies. He could simply have carried on with the real, socialist, Labour party policies of nationalisation, a mixed economy, publicly owned and properly funded NHS and a welfare state that genuinely supported the sick, unemployed and disabled. Policies that this country desperately needs.

For all Corbyn’s personal unpopularity, created by a vicious, libellous media, his policies – which were and are those of the traditional Labour party – were very popular with the public. But Keir Starmer has turned away from them in order to return to those of Blair. He and his grotty supporters no doubt believe this will win votes and the next election. This will probably not be the case. Blair had the support of the Murdoch press, and the Tories were more unpopular than Labour. Boris’ popularity has massively declined due to his massive incompetence in tackling the Coronavirus and is currently below Starmer’s according to recent polls. But the Labour party is still less popular than the Tories despite the Blairites telling us all that with Corbyn gone, they’d be 20 points or so ahead.

Blair’s government notwithstanding, one of the lessons Mitterand’s government has to teach us on this side of La Manche is that the Labour party needs to govern, and be seen and heard to govern, according to the values of equality and fraternity. And we need to get rid of austerity for ordinary working people. We’ve had nothing but austerity for the past ten years, and the result is nothing but bloated pay rises for the obscenely rich, and starvation and misery for the poor. It’s about time this stopped, and a proper taxation policy imposed on the rich for the benefit of everyone in this great nation.