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.
@hopisen "Renzi & Valls" sounds like next Euro copshow on BBC4. One's off flogging squad cars on eBay, other's deporting Roma schoolkids…
— William French (@redstarbelsize) March 31, 2014
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.