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by Jamie Cater 11th May, 2017

Labour En Marche? 3 Reasons why we are unlikely to see a British Macron

In the days since Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France, much has been written on what it means for Brexit, but perhaps the more interesting question is what the former Socialist minister’s rise means for politicians potentially exploring the option of creating a new political party in the UK.

Reports suggest that as many as 100 Labour MPs could be considering the creation of a new political party, but should they be looking across the channel to Macron’s En Marche – renamed ‘République en Marche’ this week in the build-up to France’s legislative elections – for inspiration?

Macron’s election as President has certainly captivated a host of British politicians hopeful of a resurgence of liberal centrism in the UK. Sadiq Khan, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Chuka Umunna are among those who have attempted to claim the result as a victory for their own brand of politics, but the bigger test of the appeal of Macron’s political project – rather than his own popularity – will come with next month’s legislative elections. The most recent opinion polls put République en Marche narrowly in the lead, potentially as the largest party in the Assemblée Nationale and even on the path to a narrow majority.

Such a victory would be a resounding – and surprisingly strong – endorsement of Macron’s politics at the expense of the established parties.

République en Marche is combining a mix of experience and fresh blood, but with an emphasis on the latter; it is expected that many of its candidates in the legislative elections will have no or little political experience, and today the party has made headlines by refusing to accept Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister under whom Macron served in government and defeated candidate for the PS presidential nomination, as one of its candidates. Nevertheless, the party has been willing to associate itself with Mouvement Démocratique (MoDem), the centrist party led by thrice-defeated presidential candidate François Bayrou, and Macron himself has sought to counter claims of inexperience by recruiting a respected team of senior advisers around him.

One such adviser is Jean-Paul Delevoye, a former minister during Jacques Chirac’s second term as President and respected figure on the French centre-right. He is responsible for sourcing République en Marche’s candidates for the legislative elections and will have been instrumental in the decision not to endorse Valls’ attempt to stand under the party’s banner next month. He will also play a part in helping Macron decide who will be appointed as the Prime Minister.

Essentially, Delevoye is one of the key people charged with ensuring that République en Marche has the infrastructure in place to move beyond being a vehicle for Macron’s journey to the Elysée and into a formal political party. Macron’s popularity as a presidential candidate has provided a strong platform on which Delevoye has been able to build, but the chances of République en Marche’s success rest on his ability to field the right candidates to capitalise on the victory of the new President. Its chances are looking ever more promising.

There are three reasons why such a move is unlikely to have the same success in the UK as Emmanuel Macron and République en Marche are having in France, or indeed that new populist movements in countries such as Italy and elsewhere in Europe have enjoyed in recent years.

  1. Parliament, not President: The first reason is simply that it is much easier in a presidential (or semi-presidential) system for a single person to act as a figurehead upon which a broader movement or party can be built. Whilst elections since Blair’s 1997 landslide have focused as much on the leader of the party as the party itself, driven largely by media attention on the personalities of the people at the top, elections are still decided on a huge range of issues which vary across the country.
  2. Bi-Partisan System: The second is that most other aspects of the UK’s particular type of parliamentary democracy – from its first-past-the-post electoral system to the financing of political parties, and even the way in which the House of Commons chamber itself is laid out – are firmly geared towards a bipartisan system in which smaller parties struggle to gain traction. Even with a much larger number of MPs than the so-called Gang of Four who broke away from Labour to start the SDP in 1981, a new party of the centre or centre-left would face significant structural barriers to its success.
  3. Lack of political will: The final reason – and one which perhaps owes as much to current circumstance as the UK’s political and democratic traditions – is the dearth of both experienced elder statesmen and ambitious young prepared to commit fully to a new party. Some point towards the post-Brexit emergence of cross-party groups such as Open Britain and More United as evidence of support for a new political movement, but the tribal loyalties of the ‘big two’ parties prohibit these groups from developing into anything beyond this. Labour moderates remain committed to the legacy of their party and unwilling – for now, at least – to cede this to the current leadership.

Any attempt to draw a direct comparison between what is happening in France and what could happen to the centre-left in the UK fails to take all three of these reasons into account sufficiently.

The appetite among Labour MPs may be there to consider a new party, and there is certainly much they can learn from Macron’s approach to ideology and political discourse. The rapid decline of the PS will also give Labour parliamentarians cause to consider how low an established centre-left party of government can fall.

However, the barriers that must be overcome for a new party to succeed are surely too great for an En Marche-style movement to become a serious force in the UK.

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