British Progressives Won't Find A 'White Knight' Like Emmanuel Macron

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron, candidate in France's 2017 French presidential arrives at 10 Downing Street in central London, Britain, February 21, 2017. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

A great "white knight" (of either gender and any ethnicity), riding over the brow of the hill to save us. That's what every progressive in Britain dreams of when their sleeping hours are not consumed by the horror that is President Donald Trump or the latest twist in the Jeremy Corbyn car-crash closer to home.

Indeed, it is what progressives in pretty much every one of the traditional Western democracies dream of. Lacking from the center-left response to the populism that has repeatedly swept away progressive parties at elections across the West has been any sign of leaders with clear messages with strong public appeal.

We progressives are, though, a battle-hardened bunch and although such a hope may console us in the sleep-deprived small hours, we know in our heads that it is too much to think dreams could become reality.

But somehow it seems that for those hoping for a turn in the center-right tide have, in one country at least, found a potential savior. And that country is what seemed to be the unlikeliest of all: France.

The emergence of Emmanuel Macron—the charismatic banker turned non-aligned economic reformer in a sclerotic socialist government, turned centrist presidential candidate who came to London for a visit on Tuesday—has sent shock waves through Europe's established parties of the left. And although the very different electoral system in Britain makes exact read-across tricky, the Macron phenomenon should certainly be heeded by the left in Britain, and not dismissed as some sort of curious French fancy.

The first lesson to draw is that in the current political climate, competence—or at least perceived competence—trumps party label. No one is supporting Macron because of some ideological commitment to his nascent En Marche! movement. It explicitly doesn't have one. Instead, the former economy minister has gone from nowhere to 20 percent, and to a key second place in the polls because voters think he knows what he is doing.

Read more: Meet Emmanuel Macron, France's liberal Donald Trump

Secondly, Macron has hoovered up the voters that nobody wants. It's not just in Britain that right and left are in a panic about the so-called "left behind" who backed Brexit and Trump in great numbers. In a desperate attempt to re-connect, both ends of the spectrum are proffering their version of a closed society and economy. From Labour's fumbling response to the Article 50 Brexit process, which has succeeded in convincing no one and alienating many, to the continental left jumping on the Trump anti-trade bandwagon, it has become a given that the magic bullet to electoral success is to appeal to the discontented.

Voter discontent does need addressing urgently, but the simplistic solutions offered so far have left a whole bunch of voters in the middle ground feeling like they have nowhere to go. Reasonably prosperous, internationalist in outlook, socially liberal and, crucially, better educated than the average citizen, they have two key factors as a demographic: They are growing in number and they vote. Here lies the genius of Macron's campaign. After realizing that about a quarter of the electorate would see him through to the second round where "anyone but Marine Le Pen" is likely to romp home, he has ruthlessly targeted the cosmopolitan elite with an unabashed commitment to Europeanism and using government to try and shape, not hide from, the economic changes to come.

His message, that the key to a better tomorrow doesn't lie with trying to turn back the clock to a better yesterday, contrasts sharply with the current Labour leadership's obsession with re-fighting the battles of the 1980s. The lack of courage on Brexit, the lack of any credible message on the economy and the sheer absence of vision of the future has allowed this electoral cohort in Britain either drift off to the centrist Liberal Democrats, hide in despair or reluctantly back Theresa May's Tories.

The other factor that has made Macron a credible challenger is the realization that charisma does matter. It gives you profile and momentum, the two most important factors in any political campaign.

Though it is tempting for disenchanted and leaderless British progressives to hope that somewhere on the Labour backbenches, or anywhere for that matter, lies a British Macron, there are a couple of factors to bear in mind before we get overexcited.

Not least among them: Macron has been very lucky. When he entered the race many observers thought his aim was a valiant third place, eclipsing the socialists and putting down a marker for next time. The socialists did half this job for him by opting for a candidate, Benoît Hamon, who couldn't have made any more explicit the clear red water between him and the new man of the center. The implosion of the conservative standard bearer, the Republicans' François Fillon, has at least temporarily holed his opponent to the right. France's two round presidential poll helps shooting stars, while the slow grind of Britain's first past the post parliamentary system positively stymies them.

Perhaps more important is that while his energy and modernity are self-evident, it isn't quite clear what Macron actually believes. He is at pains to remind the French people that he isn't a socialist. Those on the left can only hope this is wise positioning in light of Hollande's failure. Being shiny and new won't be enough to see him through to the second round, let alone hand him the keys to the Élysée. He will need to put flesh on policy bones as the campaign intensifies and it won't be easy to craft an appeal that keeps progressives happy while reaching out to the small 'c' conservatives he needs to win.

How much happier it might have been if Macron had stuck with the socialists. Add his 20 percent to the dozen or so points the written off official socialist Hamon is getting and such a dream scenario would have seen him riding high in first place, trouncing Le Pen.

Which takes us to the biggest lesson, and conundrum of all. How can any white knight ride over the hill to save us, when between them and the electorate stand the recalcitrant forces of party members determined to virtue signal away by picking unwinnable ideologues, be it Bernie Sanders, Corbyn or Hamon? It doesn't look like the nightmare for progressives is going to end any time soon.

Matthew Laza is director of the pan European progressive think tank Policy Network and a former adviser to Ed Miliband.

British Progressives Won't Find A 'White Knight' Like Emmanuel Macron | Opinion