The New Hard Left: Renzi and Valls.

As I was told on twitter, the new Prime Ministers of Italy and France, Renzi and Valls, sound like a Italian cop show airing on BBC Four.

They even look oddly similar, both being clones of Dan Miller from ‘The thick of it’.

Spooky satirical resemblance aside, Renzi and Valls’ ascension represents a big shift on the European centre-left, one that should obsess British observers.

A couple of years ago, the left in Britain was delighted by the election of Francois Hollande, and to a lesser extent Helle Thorning Schmidt in Denmark. In these post crash victories the British left saw progressive leaders who could develop a new paradigm of post-neo-liberal social democracy. (This rather overstated Hollande’s radicalism. After all, while he campaigned for real change versus Sarkozy, his pledge for a higher tax rate was rather less significant than his medium-term fiscal position, which wasn’t particularly socialistic).

Back to today, and both Hollande and Thorning Schmidt are in political trouble, unpopular and behind in the polls to right-wing oppositions.

Renzi and Valls seem to provide an alternative model for the left.

Renzi and Valls are very different politicians, but both  have positioned themselves as outsiders, relative to both the existing political consensus, and to their own party traditions.

Renzi is a former Christian Democrat, while Valls has said he “was accused – the worst of insults – of being a social democrat. Even worse, of being of the ‘American left’. Me, I like the left of Clinton and Obama“. He also turned down a ministerial job offer from Sarkozy in 2007. No doctrinaire man of the left, then.

Intriguingly, both men were trounced in their own party’s selection for the top job, but then found themselves the most popular figures in unpopular and uncertain governing parties.

Renzi and Valls represent something new on the centre-left, post crash. They offer economic centrism, and a certain social conservatism combined with an institutional and structural radicalism. It is as if both men are saying that while the left cannot and should not attempt to overthrow a relatively liberal economic order, and indeed should be pro-business, and supportive of lower taxes where possible, Valls, at least when he ran for President, supported abolishing the 35 hour working week, lowering labour costs,  and removing the word ‘Socialist’ from his party name. Renzi has launched a package of tax cuts, spending cuts and labour reforms that might be approved of by less deficit minded British Conservatives.

So are Renzi and Valls just archetypal neo-liberal sell-outs of Socialist principle once the traditional left is in power?

I don’t think so. Their positions should not be seen as a concession to a more general conservatism.  Renzi pursues an aggressive political reform agenda aimed at the old political order of Italy. Valls wants to break up what he sees as the lethargic and self interested French elite. In some ways their positions are symptomatic of an inherently populist stance- the people against the powerful, while at the same time rejecting the conservatism of a defensive social democracy that only seeks to protect the workers from a risky and dangerous future, rather than preparing them to succeed and helping them through the struggle. So Renzi’s tax cuts are aimed at the low income. Even Valls desire to reform pensions to save money is cast as a national effort of the order of post war-reconstruction, saying “we need to tell the French that the [budgetary] effort…will be as great as that achieved after Liberation“.

Perhaps this is why both men portray themselves as outsiders, but also as tellers of uncomfortable ‘truths’, whether on social integration or the ability to resist economic change by legislative fiat. Both offer a programme of improvement to ‘ordinary’ people, in part because they define themselves against the existing political structures, but also because they present their reforms as tough-minded, credible, even harsh, as Valls is on labour rights.

Both men appear to be telling the electorate that there is no easy path forward, but that the government can help make life easier by supporting those who need help, so long as they work for it and fit in with social norms. This is a new, hard edged left.

What could this mean for Britain?

Well, one lesson might be that defensive social democracy might not be either a outstanding electoral prospect (The Italian left could barely beat Berlusconi) or a great motivator when in office (as Hollande can testify).

The second lesson might be don’t make promises of reform, growth and social change you can’t be certain to keep, or face retribution.

A third might be that a reform agenda that is popular and motivating for voters doesn’t have to be predicated on a radicalism of economics, but can also be based on an agenda of social and cultural change.

The most important lesson though, is perhaps that being in government will be agonisingly tough.

Labour will need an agenda that is can hold together through the pain to come, even if it means not being able to offer comfort to all.

Renzi and Valls in different ways ,are sketching out one path to achieving this. So far, both seem popular, but in office, popularity is fleeting. Their real challenges will be two-fold. First, showing that such an agenda can work, second, holding their restless parties together as they make their rigourous and uncomfortable turns.

In office, any Labour government will face the same challenges. I hope we will be prepared for them.

5 Responses to “The New Hard Left: Renzi and Valls.”

  1. Michael Macdonald

    Hopi

    This is one of the most exciting pieces I have read in ages: European left-wingers who wish to answer hard questions and strive to gain the votes of ordinary people. If Labour is to win the next election, then we should resist the arrogance of the Westminster elite who seem to disdain the voters as the great unwashed and the urge of the professional left to wallow in the joys of oh-so clever opposition.

    It is time that we developed a new politics that relied on more than false promises of reversing unpopular policies unless we wish to become like Nick Clegg or preaching to the already converted.

    Cheered me up immensely

    Reply
  2. Jon

    I hope they get their arses handed to them in the elections – better one term of conservative government than the death of social democratic parties as engines for social change.

    Reply
  3. Keith

    What this means for the UK is that adopting hard money policies that produce deflation and unemployment namely, the euro, makes you unpopular and you get the boot from the voters.

    Then for France compounding your errors by pandering to racism by appointing the nasty Valls is just par for the course. Pandering to Racist gibber has been the response of Sakozy and now Hollonde and the winners of this policy are the French Natzi party. Economic malaise means ordinary people get demoralised and stop voting and the Front National come closer to their beloved race war.

    May be “the Left” if you can call them that, should ditch the hard money errors that repeat the gold standard debacle of the thirties that brought Hitler to power so some of their old voters and young people see a reason to vote. Bashing the Gypsies only gets you so far, and it failed for Sarko too.

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  4. Edward Carlsson Browne

    Way too optimistic, I think. Neither strikes me as a great reformist breath of fresh air.

    Renzi’s big idea is to rewrite the electoral law to ensure a majority on a small share of the vote and to shut out voices outside the mainstream right and left. That’s not a challenge to out-of-touch elites, that’s an attempt to assure their power. There’s a relevant Brecht quote here.

    Whereas Valls is so forward-looking that his first act was to bring back the 2007 Socialist presidential candidate.

    Both are presented as ‘new’. But so was Hollande. It’s not yet clear that either brings any more substance.

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  5. Keith

    It is not clear that Italians want “reform” as they never vote for any when they get the chance. Italian MPs are enormously privileged and that fuels contempt for electoral politics. But when you get down to policy the parties seem rather lacking in ideas. And the populist characters they love in Italy seem to have no actual ideas just sound bites that add up to little.

    Every Country needs a government and real reform would be about making both the state and economy work better. However we are still waiting for any practical policy to do that. Berlusconi for example played the outsider and reformer while mainly spending time with hookers in his many villas. Protecting Italy from an entirely imaginary communist threat. That threat is long gone. Slow decline is the real threat in Italy and other european countries. May be some one will think up a solution to that one day!

    Reply

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