Another star Webdiarist has joined our media critic Jack Robertson in getting his own space on the net. Don Arthur, whose elegant, effortless style makes me very, very jealous, has begun A hail of dead cats. Luckily for me, Don too will still write occasional contributions for Webdiary, beginning today.
Kate Durham in Melbourne, who formed “Spare Rooms for Refugees” sends this plea regarding an Afghani family currently in immigration department housing. “They need to find a place of their own in the Liverpool area – kids in local schools etc., father still in Villawood. Whilst I am told rent assistance is available from the State Government there – bond assistance is not (unlike Victoria)…Is there a real estate agent with a heart could help or any SpareRoomers with a property or a sum of money to offer this family? They could get in touch with Chris Stanton (stantonassoc@optusho=me.com.au)
For Sydney readers, there’s a forum on the ALP’s future at The Gallery, Berkelouw Books, 70 Norton Street, Leichhardt, on Wednesday night at 6.30pm.(Admission $20 and $10, for bookings email brendan@plutoaustralia=.com) Organised by Pluto Press, speakers include Labor heavies Lindsay Tanner and Mark Latham, media academic and commentator Catharine Lumby, Radio National’s Background briefing producer Tom Morton and writer Guy Rundle.
Today, Don Arthur writes a contrarian piece arguing that the boat people saga has empowered the chattering classes, and Webdiary regular Alison Newman, Robert Lawton and Charles Diamond respond to my piece in Seeing through blindfolds on government censorship of the boat people story.
Then, Bernard Slattery, Warren Grzic, Ivana Bottini and Iain Thompson discuss the Le Pen shock in France. To end, two excellent pieces in The Guardian on the meaning of the French result for Europe, kindly emailed by David Refearn. It has meaning for us too: issues of law and order, immigration, alienation from mainstream politics and the extremity of the challenge for the left are just as true here as there.
Dead Cat Syndrome
By Don Arthur
“Nobody enjoys detention” says John Howard. And the Prime Minister is enjoying it less and less each day. The bounce his career experienced from the boat people crisis during the last election campaign may have been the bounce of dead cat hitting the deck. And all the complaints about the ABC’s coverage of an issue that he is responsible for forcing onto the media agenda, could be a sign of how tenuous the PM’s grip on his political future has become.
For a campaign in a tight spot the Tampa seemed like a gift. The public’s views on asylum seekers arriving by boat were easy to guess at. And with the election so close there was little opportunity for opinion leaders to reframe the issue or get competing messages into the public arena. So Labor’s best strategy was to match Howard on toughness and try to change the subject.
After the election the best outcome for Howard would have been for Labor, the media and the broadsheet reading public to have left it there and moved on. But there was never much chance of that. Ordinarily a difficult problem such as dealing with asylum seekers arriving by boat would have been handled away from the noise of talk back radio, the white light of the camera flashes, and the bureaucratic drama of letter writing campaigns. The insiders would have gotten together and worked something out – something far less newsworthy than Pacific solutions or children overboard. If it had been handled this way the whole thing might never have pushed itself over the average Philip Adams listener’s threshold of consciousness. After all, we had mandatory detention for years before the Coalition regained government.
But the Howard campaign closed off the quiet behind-the-scenes option. It deliberately made boat people into a full blown crisis. The short-term logic of the coalition’s campaign strategy made the issue prime time viewing. And now Howard is complaining that this thing he created won’t go away. Every silver lining has its cloud.
In an interview with 3LO’s Jon Faine the Prime Minister was griping about how the ABC’s Lateline program’s coverage of the issue was “out of proportion to, and not consistent with its obligations to provide coverage of other current affairs issues.” But of course the objective of the Howard campaign’s agenda setting approach during the lead up to the election was to use the boat people crisis to drive out coverage of competing issues like health, education, petrol pricing, worker entitlements and the collapse of Ansett. What’s happening now is simply a by-product of the strategy’s effectiveness.
Howard would like this issue to go away because, even though a majority of Australians support the government’s position, the issue has become a liability. There are three major reasons for this.
First the biggest threat to Howard’s Prime Ministership comes, not from Simon Crean, but from within the Liberal Party and the networks which support it. Howard’s problem is not with ill informed battlers but with politically aware influentials.
Second, the politically aware – Liberal, Labor and other – don’t spend their leisure time watching Temptation Island or ringing up Alan Jones. Instead they have to decide whether they’ll tape West Wing and watchLateline or catch the last half hour of Late Night Live. They read The Sydney Morning Herald, The Financial Review, The Age and The Australian, not The Daily Telegraph or the Herald Sun. Howard’s own politically aware constituency is being exposed to a large volume of negative messages about the government’s handling of the asylum seeker issue.
Third, research suggests that the quantity of messages for one side or another has a significant effect on attitude shifts. Political scientist John Zaller of the University of California at Los Angeles examined the way anti-Vietnam war messages at the elite level gradually managed to turn politically aware Americans against the war. Before the issue became polarized, the more aware the more politically aware an American predisposed to ‘dovishness’ was, the more likely they were to support the war in Vietnam. But after the issue became politicized this began to change. By 1970 the more politically aware a ‘dove’ was, the more likely they were to oppose the war. Among those classified as ‘hawks’, support for the war continued to be associated with greater political awareness. By breaking the bipartisan consensus on asylum seekers Howard has managed to mobilize a huge reservoir of latent opposition to policies such as mandatory detention – issues which once enjoyed bipartisan support. Some of this latent support may have been on his own side of politics.
John Howard has become so closely identified with the asylum seeker issue that if the tide turns against the government’s handling of this issue it turns against John Howard’s leadership. He now inspires the same intensity of loathing amongst his enemies as Paul Keating once did. It’s no surprise that Peter Costello is trying to run as cool as he can on asylum seekers.
Howard supporters might object that his preferred Prime Minister rating is still far ahead of Simon Crean and that, given time, the issue will die down. But Howard’s support has declined since the high point of the crisis – if the issue dies down then so will his popular support (and the party’s reason for keeping him). Howard’s satisfaction numbers are getting close to being back where they were in January last year. And a large part of the lead he has over Crean has to do with the fact that voters don’t know who Simon Crean is. Around one third of those surveyed by Newspoll late this month couldn’t decide whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with Crean’s performance. Howard’s substantial lead over Crean is soft and has little to do with his performance as Prime Minister. The more significant figures are those for voting intention. These show the government and the opposition neck and neck.
It would make sense for the government to move back onto its record of sound economic management – an issue where it enjoys a wide margin over Labor. But as long as Howard remains leader his enemies will continue to attack him over his stand on issues such as reconciliation and asylum seekers. Not only will this lead to internal divisions within the Liberal Party and its influential supporters, but it will eat up space on the media agenda that could otherwise be devoted to positive stories on issues such as decreases in unemployment.
By politicizing the asylum seeker issue Howard knowingly activated the ‘elite’ opponents he now complains about. He decided what game he wanted everyone to play. Now that playing that game isn’t fun anymore he wants it to stop. But his opponents the game is just starting to get interesting.
If it were just the Howard Government indulging in the malaise of government secrecy, there would be some comfort for those of us that really believe in democracy: Howard can’t last forever. Sadly, however, it isn’t just the Howard Government. The state governments (all Labor) are demonstrating that they can be just as fast and loose with the truth, and particularly in hiding the truth.
I am currently co-ordinating the development of transport policy for the Democrats (NSW). You would think that it would be a relatively simple matter for me to obtain transport research documents produced by the Department of Transport, so that I can develop a credible, quality policy alternative for the NSW public. This is after all central to a strong democracy: people have to be given credible options to vote for.
But in this case, I was trying to obtain the Christie Report (excerpts of which have been publish in the Herald over the last few months). The report was produced by Mr Christie at the request of the government. But because the report didn’t say what they wanted, it was buried for 12 months before it was leaked to the press.
Even after the leak, the Minister’s office will still not release the report for viewing. A report produced with tax dollars is being deliberately withheld from the NSW public because it makes a mockery of current Labor party transport policy, and would make life easier for their political opponents.
This is not the only example that I have bumped into in the restricted area of NSW Transport policy. Another classic example is the contracts between the government and providers of tollways. These contracts typically require that the government subsidises the contractor in the event that public transport steals some customers! And we can’t even find out the extent of the penalty clauses, because guess what? – the contracts are commercial-in-confidence.
To me, this is indicative of public opinion. The politicians have discovered the Orwellian truth that the public just does not care if they are lied to. In years gone by, a revelation that a government was lying or covering up would lead to the downfall of that government.
But no more. The public is crisis-fatigued. They just can’t get the enthusiasm up anymore to challenge the unethical behaviour of politicians. This was partly what Hansonism was about, but the Hansonites just could not maintain the rage long enough to make a true impact. Howard saw them off in the end.
It is near impossible to formulate real policies when the government of the day locks up all sources of information. The Federal Government is doing it with refugees, the state governments are doing it as well.
In my opinion, this is one of the causes of the great disconnect of the public from politics. Without access to decent information on which to form their judgements, they are forced to rely on the antagonistic and non-productive counter-claims of the two major parties: the “two dogs yapping” so beloved of Natasha Stott Despoja.
It’s a depressing situation, but one which I will fight against with everything I have, as I feel that it strikes at the heart of what has made our nation such a nice place to live for such a long time. The Democrats in NSW have been quite vocal about Open Government, and attacking inadequacies of the Freedom of Information Act. For further information, refer to open government forum
Robert Lawton in Adelaide
Interesting that Jack Robertson in Seeing through blindfolds has worked himself up to a high pitch of concern about access to detention centres. I’m angry about it too; I marched in the Palm Sunday rallies demanding changes to the Pacific solution; I approve the Spare Rooms for Refugees effort. But then I read Jack …
He wrote: “Trouble is breaking out in the Detention Centres constantly, now; we NEED and HAVE A RIGHT to see up close what is going on in them. (Who knows? It may even turn out to be the Paradise the government has been claiming all along.) Frankly, I don’t give a stuff if it’s a raging bolshie from the ABC or a Murdoch nutter like Andrew Bolt who gets in there with a camera and a notebook, but someone has to. We have a democratic right to see inside these places precisely when the government doesn’t want us to see inside them.”
Has any one cared half so much in recent years about our own prison population?? About the conditions in the hopelessly outdated “big” jails in many of the capitals, and the success or otherwise of the US-run private prisons in Queensland, Victoria and SA?
About time spent on remand, about access to telephones, medical care, legal advice, contact visits? About transition to life after prison?
About whether or not prison terms are even an answer to crime any more, in the wash-up of Alan Bond, Chris Skase, HIH and OneTel? To say nothing of Dolly Bell, Peter Liddy the pedophile magistrate in SA, or Martin Bryant… who will all be released one day… the better for their time?
Am I cynical, or are the educated social justice types more comfortable with demonstrating their opposition to new federal tyrannies involving unknown foreigners from interesting conflicts abroad… rather than pursuing nasty, tangled old state tyrannies right under their well-bred noses, and having to advocate the rights of undoubted thieves, thugs and drugdealers?
And has this something to do with the ABC/Australian axis, which elevates federal issues because they work well nationally, and keeps away from local issues because they don’t?
I am not untainted here, I once worked in jails but I’ve not been inside a prison for years. I’m just trying to get people thinking.
But when it comes down to it, I’d vote for better, more thoughtful law and order policies any day rather than any change to the Liberals’ current asylum seeker policy. Of course it never comes to that does it?
I have closely followed the entire children overboard scandal since October 7. Reading transcripts of statements made by Howard, Reith and Ruddock before November 10 and comparing that to Hansard, transcripts of interviews and the evidence of the various Inquiries and the Senate Estimates Committee is infuriating. A few examples are:
1. Howard has stated all along he personally had received no new information on anything related to the children overboard issue. Hansard (Question time 14/02/02) reveals Howard spoke to Ruddock on the evening of November 7. The topic discussed according to Ruddock was Howard’s decision to release the video. In the last days, of the campaign Howard wanted us to believe Reith told him repeatedly there was no new information. Yet, for an unexplained reason Howard did a Reith and released the video, taken on October 8 when the boat was sinking and not on October 7.
2. This is part of an interview Howard did with John Laws on November 9.
Laws: Do you think that what was told to you in the first instance was correct, or perhaps was wrong?
Howard: I don’t have any, I do, I’ve talked to Mr Reith about this again this morning and he indicated to me, he retailed to me another piece of the mosaic that the Captain of the vessel had apparently rung the Maritime Commander at some function and a colleague was with the Maritime Commander and he mentioned to my colleague that he’d just been speaking to the Captain of the Adelaide and apparently they’re throwing, he made that comment that apparently they’re throwing children in the water.”
3. This interview with Cathy Van Extel (Radio National) is from November 9.
Van Extel: Did the Navy or anyone in the Defence Department ring your office or Peter Reiths or Phillip Ruddocks office to advise you that the initial information about children being thrown overboard was incorrect?
Howard: Cathy, nobody rang my office to that effect and I’m not aware that they rang the offices of the other two ministers but you would have to talk to them to get a direct answer on that.”
4. Even the repeated mantra that Defence advised Phillip Ruddock children had been thrown overboard is false. Immigration department head Bill Farmer advised Ruddock. Defence had no responsibility at all for the release of the statement on October 7 that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard. The Howard Government then silenced the Military and the Public service controlling information released to the media. The famous ONA written advice came after the accusation of child throwing were made public and were based on statements to the media.
I would suggest the only way to find out more of the truth on the issue is for the ALP to have some backbone and subpoena Reith to appear at the Senate Inquiry. This would force Howard to answer questions even though he won’t appear at the Inquiry.
I would suggest that if Webdiarists and others are infuriated by the children overboard scandal then they email Simon Crean and the ALP and ask them to subpoena Reith.
Apart from forcing Reith and then Howard to answer questions the showdown between Peter Reith and John Faulkner would be marvellous to watch.
THE RISE OF FASCISM
The current Middle East conflict and recent European elections demonstrate how inadequate are the terms Left and Right to describe political situations and preferences. Your Paris correspondent (David Davis inCataclysme politique en France) asks: What is left and right in France now? I ask, what is it anywhere?
Australia’s broadsheet-ABC commentators in the main have been more critical to Israel than the Palestinian terrorists. These commentators would probably describe themselves as moderately left. Yet they support violent fascist anti-Jewish terrorists against a democratic state. Thus, in this case, the morally superior and prosperous left lines up with one of the most extreme right groupings you’ll find on the globe.
Many of Australian Labor’s other – traditional – constituency, hold grave and understandable reservations about globalisation and the unfettered rule of market over community that the new world order threatens. Although this socially conservative sector is reluctant to man the barricades, they hold unstated sympathy for the “extreme left” disrupters of WTO conferences, etc.
This grouping – a thinking section of the ‘mainstream’ – detest political correctness, just as their ancestors despised wowsers. They have grudging respect for Howard and Beazley – they’re still out on Crean – and couldn’t give a rats about the rights of illegal immigrants. So they are suspiciously left wing in regard to economic power but would be judged as ‘red neck’ (a ridiculous, derivative term which only reveals the shallow snobbishness of those who bandy it) and right wing by the commentariat.
It seems Australians are divided by far more than the old barriers of class and wealth. We’re split between city and country, educated and dumbed-down (by the educators for the corporations, a disgraceful situation that is overdue for debate openly), politically correct conformists and contrarians, new agers and sustainable environmentalists, blatant greedheads and compassionate conservatives, internationalists and nationalists, immigration realists and floodgate openers, ambulance chasers and the personally responsible. I could go on.
The challenge to you in the media is to come up with more accurate descriptions of political positions than Left and Right. Your copy would be more relevant and your biases less obvious.
Having read this week’s reports on Jean-Marie Le Pen, I thought, “Now where have we heard all this before?” I remember your reference to Le Pen in “Off the Rails”, how Pauline Hanson might have become like him had she had political skills. On Saturday I read the Herald’s News Review piece on right-wing movements in Europe, and it does sound like what’s happening over there makes Hansonism look like a tea party. Maybe the rise of Haider in Austria was more than just a minor difficulty, and people who have constantly blasted Hanson should go to Europe and examine the right-wing movements there.
One of the things that concerns me about the tone of the site is the kind of pervasive pessimism it contains. Not, I concede, that there aren’t reasons enough to be pessimistic. It just seems to me that people, even one single person, can make a huge difference to events.
The trouble with pessimism is that it often encourages people who could and can make a positive contribution not to bother. What’s the phrase? All it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing? Well pessimism and the cynicism it builds really encourages good people to do nothing.
As for Le Pen, personally I welcomed the election result. This is a warning shot for a very disorganised, factionalised left. Le Pen is not going to win the Presidency and he doesn’t represent a lot of people. In a way he got to the second round on the back of a strong protest vote.
The candidates and the policies paraded by the left were unthinkable relics from another era. It really was a shocking showing.
It occurs to me that swings to the right (as to Le Pen or Hansonism or Enoch Powell) occur in eras where that leftish liberalism has run mad (or at least partially amuck).
One problem that extreme liberalism has is that its views are imposed on people by their ‘reasonableness’. For example, it is reasonable, in Britain, France or Australia, that the ‘floodgates’ be let down, to some or great extent, to immigrants from other countries – the proponents of this are adept at making individuals feel bad about any reservations they might have.
The area of tension arises when those who are having reasonableness imposed upon them have their attentions directed to their own circumstances which are not reasonable! The consequent reaction is, I suspect, not an agreement with all that the rightists are saying but an intense disagreement with whoever actually occupies the government at the moment.
French alarm rings bells for Europe’s body politic
Democratic politicians must share the blame for Le Pen’s triumph
By Hugo Young
If the first British republic were modelled on the fifth French republic, the electoral picture might look like this. The voting system would encourage the same fragmentation of politics. As well as Lab, Con and Liberal Democrat, we’d list the Greens, the BNP, the SWP, doubtless Real Labour, very possibly the old CP and, for sure, several regional parties. Five hundred official signatures would be enough to get a party on the ballot, and less than 20% of the vote would probably suffice to guarantee a place in the run-off. The political structure that has kept extremism at bay would be smashed.
So the French election is a caution to both republicans and electoral reformers. Two lost causes anyway, but now blown over the horizon by a result that, as Liberation wrote yesterday, reduces France to a fight between the Superliar and the Superfascist.
The system does offer the beginnings of an alibi for what happened. Taken together the votes of the left can be made to add up to 44%. In a two-man contest the socialist, Lionel Jospin, might even have won.
You can put the fiasco down to the congenital inability of the left to unify in dangerous circumstances. On this analysis, there’s no great political crisis, just the political system of the fifth republic that needs to be fixed. Moreover, isn’t Jacques Chirac now certain to win anyway? Won’t the forces of democracy bury their mutual hatreds to dig a deeper grave for the super-enemy of democracy, Jean-Marie Le Pen? So all is surely well?
This would be a grand illusion, and hardly any French democrat now believes it. Le Pen is the first man of the far right to get within spitting distance of power in a major EU country. Two can play at adding up the votes, and Le Pen’s along with those of his fellow fascist Bruno Megreatly exceeded what Chirac got.
Though Jospin’s defeat produces a crisis for the left, Le Pen’s victory registers an even bigger crisis for democratic politics in the round. A deep pattern of alienation from democracy is visible, of which France now offers the most shattering example, but from which not even calm, secure, Blairite Britain is exempt.
Certainly there’s a crisis on the left. Towards the end of the 1990s, most EU countries were run by social democrats, and now most of them are not. Italy, Spain, Austria, Denmark and Portugal have swung to the right. It remains to be seen what happens to Gerhard Schroder in the autumn. Meanwhile, continental socialists confront the sometimes painful irony that the British Labour government, only now revertingto a recognisably social democratic programme, stands almost alone as a leftist party of unchallengeable power.
What matters about this rightward shift, however, is not its direction but its dependence in several cases on the far right. Centrist rightism is not much different from centrist leftism, as we see from the kinship between Blair and the Aznar government in Madrid. But the fascist tendency is eating its way into corners of real power, and the French experience suggests two main reasons for this frightening development, one particular and one general.
The particular is perceived defects in “security”, which is alternately a euphemism for crime and immigration, and often both. This was what Le Pen relentlessly played to, with the aid of Chirac who made it a main line of attack on Jospin, which Jospin in the end had to try to match.
In this degeneration, it was the man with the simplest answers who scored the best, in a shameful display for which the democrats were almost as much to blame as the anti-democrat. But one cannot deny the potency of the attack on foreigners, and the quest thereby for some protection of “identity”, especially given the presence of the second, more general factor: wholesale disaffection from the political system.
In France this can be measured. As many as 40% of those who voted, about 60% of the electorate, rejected the only two parties that could form a government, Chirac’s and Jospin’s. This was double the figure at the 1988 and 1995 elections, a pretty staggering decline, but perhaps little more so than the fall in turnout at last year’s British election from 71 to 59%.
Protest was delivered in one case by impossibilist extremism, in the other by withdrawal, but each was a way of registering disgust at what mainline politics now apparently offers.
The roots of this lie deeper than a government’s performance. Jospin had a decent record as prime minister, running a not unsuccessful economy, bringing in the 35-hour week, presiding, Brown-like, over more quiet anti-socialist reform than he liked to admit.
But governments these days face anomie, impatience, generalised discontent, which are less amenable than they once were to the recompense of doctrinal zeal, for the simple reason that it does not exist.
Governments, easily charged with failure, lack any vision to make up for it. Most elections, like this one, are full of languor and anxious imitation, where any semblance of vision is replaced by meretricious showboating, of the kind for which Jospin had no talent.
It’s easier to see the wrong answer to this than the right one. Le Pen’s answer is intolerable, and should not be graced for even a second with the knowing, if regretful, observation that he strikes a chord. He offers the pretence that there’s an easy answer to the security problem, and a commanding alternative to the complexities in which ordinary leaders seem to be trapped. On both counts his programme is as vicious as it is misleading.
There are no simple solutions to anything in these globalised days. The lure of the quasi-fascist answer, whether in France or Italy, deserves to be met with only one response: the re-energising of democratic politics, especially on the only wing that can be relied on to reject quasi-fascist solutions, which is to say the left.
The body politic laid bare by Le Pen’s success is Europe-wide. European, not just French, values are put in question; Europe as well as France faces the challenge of reaffirming progressive democratic answers to the problems of the age, including migration and social integration.
Europe’s credibility in the eyes of the world is on the line. Europe as well as France stands in desperate need of reconnecting political vigour with economic power, which I happen to believe can only be done properly on a Europe-wide scale – but that’s another column.
Britain, meanwhile, is protected from some of these manifestations by her electoral system. There will be no first republic, nor any PR at the heart of power. Even in Oldham and Bradford the forces of evil do not match those that brought Le Pen to the gates of the Elysee.
But the problem of disengagement exists here as well as elsewhere in Europe. Extremism is kept at bay by the system, but the seeds of alienation are buried deep. The wake-up call for the French left is an alarm bell that rings round the continent and its archipelago.
Confront the demon
The French left is paying the price for its failure to face up to the fear that is the lifeblood of the far right
By Jonathan Freedland
Now France will have to choose between right and righter. That’s a shock for the French and for a wider, watching Europe still unsure whether to laugh or cry.
What better reaction than ridicule for a country that could pick a bigoted buffoon as runner-up for its highest office? “We always knew France was a banana republic and now we have the proof,” quipped one Eurocrat in fthe power corridors of Brussels yesterday.
But most are in no mood for jokes. They are chilled that one of the three leading nations of Europe has elevated a fascist like Jean-Marie Le Pen to the highest level of its public life. France has already begun its own exercise in soul-searching, through that time-honoured method of collective reflection: the street riot.
But the introspection cannot be confined to France. For the choice French voters have made for themselves – between centre right and hard right – is an indictment of more than the French political system. It represents a great defeat for the left, which has always held its cause to be larger than any single country. Without precedent, a major democracy has presented its citizens with a ballot paper from which even the moderate left is entirely absent.
There are some tough lessons for progressives to draw from this failure, and they should start with the basics. In an unforgiving electoral system, where only one person can win, left voters have to unite behind a single candidate, otherwise they hand victory to the right.
US liberals have that truth etched on to their hearts thanks to the 2000 presidential race: if just some of those who voted for Ralph Nader had backed Al Gore, George Bush would still be on his Stairmaster in Austin, Texas. Neil Kinnock says the same thing: Sunday’s result reminded him of the bad old days of the 1980s when Britain’s anti-Thatcher majority was split in two, handing victory after victory to the Conservatives. (MARGO: This analysis does not fully apply to Australia – unlike the UK, France and the US, our preferential system allows votes for other left parties to flow back to Labor.)
In France, there were not just two alternatives for the left but nearly half a dozen – including not one but three separate Trotskyite parties. That’s fine on campus; in real life it’s an open door to the right.
Of course it helps to have a decent candidate. In France, as in America, the left were represented by a wooden technocrat, too lacking in the flesh-and-blood skills of modern electoral politics. That’s a risk progressive parties cannot afford to take again.
There is a last tactical conclusion to draw: the need to keep “clear red water” between left and right. As prime minister, Lionel Jospin initially set out on a distinctly social democratic course – red enough to bring old Labour types here out in a rash of envy – but increasingly he and Jacques Chirac edged closer together.
Owning the centre is always smart in politics, but not when the primary task is to galvanise your own side. Jospin needed to put ideological distance between himself and Chirac if he was to make the final two on Sunday – and only then reach out to the centre. His mistake: he fought the second round before he had survived the first.
But these are mere matters of electoral technique, and pale next to the deeper challenges the Le Pen result throws down to the left. Progressives need to realise that a premise for much of their thinking of the last decade, typified by New Labour, has now been shattered.
When any centre-left party drifted rightward, it always comforted itself that its core supporters would stay loyal because they have nowhere else to go. Now we know that is untrue. The once faithful can either stay home – as they did here in June 2001 – or they can turn right. Hard right.
Once progressives accept that the people they used to count as their bedrock vote – urban families on low income – can no longer be taken for granted, they should ask themselves a tougher question. Why did people who might once have voted for a socialist or communist line up so readily behind a fascist?
Supplying an answer might mean taking those votes at face value, and facing up to the grim fact that the National Front’s stance on immigration struck a chord. Some of the NF’s voters were drawn to Le Pen because they, like him, are plain racists. But, for others, the fear of immigration may be a more complex thing: a clinging to the familiar, tribal identity at a time of great uncertainty and confusion.
In a globalised world, where turbo-charged capitalism can take days to trample over and destroy a local culture that might have taken centuries to build, people seem to latch on to anything, or anyone, who promises to slow the pace – or even turn back the clock. (There seems to be less of this angst in Britain than on the continent: perhaps because, if globalisation means Americanisation and the spread of English, that threatens our neighbours rather more than us.)
Immigration, in short, is globalisation as people experience it. What Sunday’s votes suggests – along with the success of far right, anti-immigrant parties in Italy, Denmark, Austria, Holland and Belgium – is that people are scared of globalisation and will warm to any prophet, no matter how false, who tells them they can keep the world at bay.
Nor is this trend confined to Europe: what does religious fundamentalism offer if not a retreat from modern complexity, into the cosy realm of ancient certainty?
The left have to take this seriously. Until now they have been too quick to close down any discussion of race, fear ful that even uttering the word will let loose the demons of hate. Far better to acknowledge that this fear exists – and then to allay it, in language as clear, robust and even as emotive as that deployed by the right.
The left needs to present a case that says immigration enriches a society, rather than weakens it, and that there are ways to preserve and renew old and cherished cultures beyond simply keeping foreigners out. But the first step is to bring the subject into the open: if it stays in the shadows, the hard right can do its worst.
For some, immigration is not the point. It is a proxy, not for globalisation, but for disillusion with the system. Matthew Taylor, of the IPPR thinktank, believes big votes for racist parties are motivated less by overt prejudice than by the urge to “tell the establishment they are out of touch”. Think of Le Pen’s quip that he is “the candidate of the people against the candidate of the system”.
That does not belittle the importance of race in current politics but it does force a different response. It means upgrading the creaky institutions of our democracy, proving that national governments are not powerless in the face of global capital and that “politics” does not exist on another planet, but is connected to real life.
If the left wants to learn the lesson of the French thunderbolt, it needs to look anew at the relationship between government and governed. It is a big task – but we could not have been called to it more urgently.