This is a tale of two delusions: or more accurately a familiar delusion in two cities.
Some people on the left seemed to imagine that the announcement by François Hollande last week that he would not be seeking a second term as President of France would herald a new harmony on the Left and enable them to enter the lists with unity restored. Well, the least that can be said about this piece of wishful thinking is that seven days on this is not how it feels. Manuel Valls has stepped up to the plate, and within days a new candidature has been announced, that of Vincent Peillon, on a day-trip from Switzerland and whose very existence some of us had forgotten standing on a ‘revenge Hollande’ platform to further weaken the embattled ex-premier.
So the socialists are now gifted with more than half a dozen candidates in their primary with Mr. Melanchon and Mr. Macron, and indeed the Greens, sitting out this dance and pursuing their own bids. They not only undermine the relevance of the socialist primary, they ensure maximum enfeeblement for the Left. In Mr. Melanchon’s case, his boycott of the democratic selection process is entirely consistent with his objective, now shared by the Communist party: the destruction of the socialist party in a reversal of the Mitterrand takeover of the Left in the late 1970s. Mr. Melanchon is not a serious candidate for the presidency: he is a garrulous, rabble rousing weapon of destruction aimed at the carcass of the Socialist party.
Mr. Macron should know better. He is an unfinished symphony but occasionally he does make music: alone of the candidates of the centre and centre-left he seems capable of saying something novel and interesting. There is far more active support for him among young voters and his appeal is wide. He is not a socialist in any traditional sense of the word but then in that way neither is Mr. Valls. He might have won the socialist primary and moved from that to build something which could have at least had a serious impact on the 2017 presidential race, tugging the debate back from the priorities of the right and the far right. From there he could have started the reconstruction and renewal phase for the social democrats. Now the 30% progressive bedrock will be broken up between the different tribes so intent on pursuing their narrow sectarian conflicts that there will be no appeal to the centre where the elections to the presidency are always won. Mr. Fillon may rejoice. Others of us will observe this descent into delusional destruction with nothing but regret at the absence for up to a generation of a progressive alternative in the political debate.
Across the Channel, same delusions, similar outcomes. For a flicker of a second it seemed to some that the election of Mr. Corbyn as Labour leader and his re-election this September might herald a new start for Labour not simply as a more socialist but as a mass party with hundreds of thousands of eager young activists ready to take their case to the people. Some of Europe’s socialists took heart from this apparent deathbed revival. The voters appear to take a different view.
One hesitates to draw many conclusions from the two by-elections which have taken place since the ascendancy of Mrs. May but one thing is clear: if Labour cannot even hold on to its deposit in Richmond Park and can only scrape fourth place in Sleaford, then it becomes hard to argue that voters are flocking to the New New Labour, red in tooth and claw.
The problem is that voters cannot by any stretch of their imaginations envisage Mr. Corbyn in Downing Street. They have no confidence in Labour’s economic slogans (even the most charitable person would not describe them as a policy). And even where on Brexit the party has scored some points over the government in asserting the need for accountability to Parliament (although the running on this has been made by Mrs. Geena Millar and the leaders of smaller parties) it has given no inkling what it might use its parliamentary influence for. A policy of ‘We insist on a parliamentary vote that the government wants to deny us so that we can then vote to support the government’ is a confusing clarion call. But the prevailing mood in the parliamentary Labour party is one of paralyzing fear: fear of deselection and fear of the voters. The result is, as one commentator has described it; Labour failing both the 52% and the 48%.
And to this political pusillanimity is now added organizational dysfunction. The new mass membership of the party so full of vim appears surprisingly slothful when it comes to getting out onto the streets to try to meet voters in by-elections. Now Momentum, the military wing of the Corbynista revolution, is riven by sectarian disputes. The media rent-a-leftie mob, the blessed Paul Mason and Owen Jones, The Guardian’s wunderkind, appalled to discover ancient Trotskyites and Stalinists making their customary mayhem in the Momentum ranks, have their Claude Rains moment (‘I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling’s going on here!’). The drift away of young people from this farrago and, indeed from the Labour party, has begun.
By-elections, council elections and the polls show no great confidence in a government which, called upon to manage the most complex political and economic challenge since the war, demonstrates almost daily how woefully unequal it is to the task.
What they do show is that combining forces of the progressive centre and left would give them a crack at winning some by-elections or at least limiting the damage in others. Labour shows as yet no understanding that its reduced circumstances guarantee exclusion from office until it remembers that it has only ever won power with an appeal to the centre, and that it now needs to work with other forces for progress to convince and to win.
And this propensity for wishful thinking which grips much of the French and British left is just as apparent in Berlin, in Rome and in Madrid.
For the difference between populists and the democratic left is that populists lie to the voters while socialists deceive themselves.