Herald 24/4/17

YOU could almost hear the sighs of relief in Brussels as Emmanuel Macron, the Tony Blair of French politics, came top of the first round of the French presidential elections. The one thing we know about the mercurial Mr Macron, a former socialist who set up his own party, En Marche!, to promote his candidacy, is that he is a dedicated pro-European.Nothing is certain in these turbulent political times, but all the polls say he’ll comfortably defeat the far right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, in the final round on May 7.

This suggests that Brexit Britain might not after all have been in the vanguard of some nativist, anti-European trend. The defeat of Geert Wilders in Holland and Ms Le Pen in France may indicate, as did the Greek referendum, that while voters on the continent are unhappy about the European Union, they don’t actually want to leave it.

This is not good news for the UK Government. Mr Macron is determined that Brexit, which he described as a “crime”, must not weaken the EU. He wants what he calls a “strict Brexit”, which means no access to the European Single Market unless Britain accepts the rulings of the Court of Justice and continued payments to the budget. He says Britain faces “Guernseyfication” – becoming a small trading zone off Europe.

Mr Macron is Theresa May’s nightmare. But for right-wingers in the Labour Party he offers a vision of hope. The anti-Corbyn faction sees Mr Macron as a reincarnation of Tony Blair and, after the expected Labour defeat in June, they will want to install a liberal, pro-market figure like him to restore the party to its former electoral glory.

Some in the Labour Party might even be emboldened to set up a new party, perhaps even with Mr Blair as leader, as has been suggested by his former adviser, John McTernan. But in the UK it is very difficult for new parties like En Marche! to get a look in because the first past the post electoral system effectively bars small parties from contention unless they are in a narrow geographical area. Ukip won nearly four million votes in 2015 but received only one MP in Westminster (the SNP got 1.5 million votes and returned 56 MPs).

The only way for dynamic political outsiders to prosper in our system is to take over moribund parties of left or right, as Mr Blair effectively took over the Labour Party in 1994. The Blairites reinvented it as “New Labour”, a pro-market party, shorn of policies like unilateral nuclear disarmament and Clause 4 nationalisation.

If Jeremy Corbyn meets his Waterloo in June, there will be an drive to remake the UK Labour Party in a Macron/Blair image, perhaps with David Miliband or Chuka Umunna as leader. It will mean a massive fight with the pro-Corbyn membership of the party, and possibly a formal split, as unions like Unite stick with Corbyn Labour, while the Parliamentary Group of Labour MPs set up as New Labour.

In Scotland, Labour is already in the past tense. The SNP will be pleased that a pro-European will likely be restored to power in the second most powerful country in the European Union. Anti-nationalist Mr Macron and nationalist Nichola Sturgeon may seem to have little in common. But the truth is that Mr Macron and the SNP leader are not very different. They are both pro-European, centre left liberals, interested in things like gender equality rather than socialism.

Sturgeon and  Macron are both products of the collapse of the old binary political order of left and right. The two parties that have traditionally dominated French politics – the republicans and the socialists – have been destroyed in this French Presidential race. The Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, won less than seven per cent of the vote. Even Corbyn isn’t going to do that badly.