Throwing Off the Shackles of Rigid Ideology Could Revive Democracy
The victory of Emmanuel Macron is arguably a more unlikely feat than Marine Le Pen making it into the second round of voting, despite the Front National leader’s ability to seize the limelight.
Macron is a political centrist, who tries to appeal to both left and right without being ideologically committed to either. He proposes some liberalisation of the economy and an end to some benefits, strict savings in some areas whilst increasing spending elsewhere, a strong proponent of green politics whilst also a believer in cutting corporation tax.
He wants France to meet it’s 2% target on defence spending and proposes more prison places and police officers whilst at the same time proposing a secular programme and cutting class sizes to 12 for primary schools in poor areas.
A problem with modern politics, certainly in the last few years, is that people have been increasingly defining themselves as either left or right. People who use this as a large part of their identity then seem to feel obliged to think in a certain way and will not countenance that the ‘enemy’ side might actually be right on some issues.
it has taken Brexit and Corbyn to change the dynamic, as scores of these traditional tribalists are now actually thinking of voting for something different
A good example is privatisation: a rigid belief that any solution to a problem must involve a free-market approach dominates the right - even if it actually makes no sense. This thinking has led to the creation of natural monopolies like water and rail.
Any sensible person who was looking objectively at ideas would weigh up the pros and cons and see the left long ago had ideas of mutualisation and co-operative models that would have made a lot more sense in such situations.
For the left a good example is education and health: any reform of the NHS or the schools system that is not just giving it more money is akin to destroying the service (regardless of whether that is objectively true or not). A lot of good arguments can be made for selective education or health reform; the Lansley reforms actually did a lot of good, not that you will hear anyone mentioning that and it will be completely ignored by all hardened leftists.
There has long been talk of supposed partisan de-alignment, the idea of people not identifying tribally with a party anymore. Very little evidence of this phenomenon has been seen in the UK in recent elections as people vote for a party nearly always on the basis of past behaviour and parental influence.
This is horribly depressing and it is ironic that it has taken Brexit and Corbyn to change the dynamic, as scores of these traditional tribalists are now actually thinking of voting for something different.
Perhaps we are entering a new age of the floating voter, the Holy Grail for those who believe in individual ideas over ideology. That saying, this is why manifestos are still dangerous things: a vote for a party becomes 100% support for its entire programme despite most voters probably struggling to agree with more than 40%.
So any new dynamic needs to also embrace electoral reform, more coalitions will actually help to stop this problem as coalition agreements are naturally programmes that are more reasoned than one party’s manifesto, seeking the best ideas rather than a rigid way of thinking.
Centrism is often taken to mean no firm commitments or being timid and not radical. Nothing could be further from the truth
Macron is unlikely to get a majority for his new party in the parliamentary elections in June; this will mean that he himself should also be forced to continue to act in a way that seeks what is best for the country. If he truly believes what he says, he should also at least countenance working with all parties regardless of ideology to get the best overall programme.
The Labour party should take a leaf out of Macron’s book. Centrism is often taken to mean no firm commitments or being timid and not radical. Nothing could be further from the truth. If parties liberated themselves from the shackles of orthodoxy, it would mean they could embrace innovative and experimental ideas from across the spectrum; the only basis of whether an idea is adopted or not would be due to its worth for the country rather than whether it fits into a party creed.
This approach could see a rebirth of the opposition after Corbyn (one of the worst examples of a rigid ideologue) and could become the norm for the right as well. Already - if you don’t count Brexit - Theresa May has adopted a more pragmatic approach than previous leaders, looking beyond market-based solutions.
If we see parties acting in ways people do not expect, the response may be to accuse them of an identity crisis. But this could be a good thing in the long term: if people are actually forced to judge a party on its individual programme at each election rather than just thinking of the party’s historical association or ideology, it might actually lead to a further increase in genuine floating voters.
Although wary of being accused of lacking patriotism, this move towards a flexible way of thinking is one French trend we should surely think of adopting.
About the author
Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London.
He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.
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