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Lessons From Hollande and de Blasio: Why Labour Must Campaign as It Would Govern

11/04/2014 13:31 BST | Updated 10/06/2014 10:59 BST

There have been few electoral bright spots for the centre-left internationally since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Social democratic parties in Britain, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Portugal have all gone down to defeat.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Labour has been eager to seek enlightenment from the experiences of those of its sister parties which have bucked this unfortunate trend.

Barack Obama's victory in 2008 appeared to offer lessons about both organisation - sparking an interest in new ways to empower grassroots campaigners - and political positioning. Running for the Democrat nomination that year, Obama appeared dismissive of the Third Way politics espoused by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s, commenting that: 'Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.'

Four years later, François Hollande seemed to offer an even clearer break with the left's recent past. Declaring 'the enemy is the world of finance', the Socialist candidate pledged to end austerity, introduce a 75 per cent tax rate on the very wealthy, lower the retirement age to 60, restore 60,000 jobs lost in the public sector, and introduce rent controls. Like Obama's victory, Hollande's also provided campaigning lessons. Supporters of primaries drew inspiration from the manner in which the Socialist party primary appeared to build momentum behind Hollande's general election campaign.

Indeed, such has been the paucity of centre-left examples from which to draw lessons that some excitement was even provoked by the success of Bill de Blasio's populist campaign in New York's mayoral election last November, despite the fact that it was achieved in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by six to one.

But the lessons that Labour should learn are not confined to the moment the polling stations close. Instead, the party must seek to understand the relationship between campaigning and governing. Two years after his victory, the experience of Hollande is particularly instructive. Since the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, no French president has fallen so far, so fast. With his approval ratings at a record low, Hollande has led the Socialist party to a pounding in local elections, which also saw a record number of town halls won by the National Front.

This far-right surge is perhaps the most worrying legacy of Hollande's key failure: his decision not to prepare the French people before taking office for how challenging his pledge to eliminate the deficit by 2017 would be. Most of France's 'squeezed middle' has seen its taxes rise, thus breaking the president's campaign pledge that nine out of 10 households would not face higher taxes, while Hollande's populist 75p tax rate has proved virtually unworkable: thrown out by the Constitutional Court, it is now, in effect, transferred onto companies' payroll taxes.

With a much-promised fall in unemployment stubbornly refusing to adhere to the president's timetable, Hollande executed an abrupt U-turn at the start of the year. Having fought Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to trim public services, the Socialists are now led by a man who is vowing to cut public spending, and who warns that the state has become 'too heavy, too slow, too costly'. Taxation, Hollande suggests, has also become 'too heavy' and is deterring job creation; cutting spending would lead 'in time, to lower taxes'. A new 'responsibility pact' will be negotiated with business to cut employers' costs in return for the creation of more jobs.

Having won from the left, Hollande - like François Mitterrand before him - has now shifted sharply to the centre. 'Is there anything Socialist left in him?' asked Le Monde in response. Whatever the merits of the president's new position, the danger is that it stokes the feeling that voters were sold a false prospectus in 2012. Much may be forgiven if this new approach revives the flagging French economy and reduces unemployment but the disparity between candidate and president Hollande should be an object lesson for Labour.

Given the interest that his victory generated, it is also worth noting that de Blasio's first four months also offer warnings about the dangers of failing to level with voters on the campaign trail. For instance, de Blasio's signature campaign policy promised a vast expansion of nursery school and after-school programmes, funded by a tax increase on wealthy New Yorkers. Although the mayor may yet get some of the funding for this programme, the proposed tax increase seems highly unlikely to materialise in the face of opposition from New York's Democrat governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the state legislature. The tax only ever had 'a whisper of a prayer of coming true', commented the New York Times last month.

During the campaign de Blasio also wooed the teachers' unions by attacking charter schools (publicly funded but independently run schools akin to academies) in the city, describing them as having 'a destructive impact' on traditional schools. Research shows that charter school students outperform their peers in city schools in both reading and mathematics; 90 per cent of their students are black or Hispanic and three-quarters are from low-income families. In office, de Blasio's attempt to marry his campaign rhetoric with the need not to choke off a supply of good school places has proved difficult: his recent decision to approve the expansion of 14 charter schools, while blocking three agreed by his predecessor, has ended up satisfying no one; charter school pupils and their parents were joined by Cuomo at a protest rally, while de Blasio's erstwhile allies are threatening to take him to court.

'We campaigned as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour,' Tony Blair declared the day he entered Downing Street. Critics may claim that Labour today has little to learn from how he led the party to a landslide in 1997. But they should, at least, concede the importance of campaigning as you intend to govern.