By John C. Dyer, UK Correspondent
22 April 2012.
“Change,” whispers the wind. "Momentum," adds the tide. "Struggle," replies the rocks.
The French appear about to change out its President, exchanging a leader from the Left for a leader from the Right in a vote of potentially historic significance for the West.
The first round of the French presidential elections is complete. With 80% of the vote counted, a 70% turnout gave Socialist François Hollande 28.6% of the vote, the incumbent Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy 27.9%.
Since neither have a majority, the election moves into its second round. Only Sarkozy and Hollande remain. They have two weeks to campaign.
Polls and pundits favour Hollande to take the second round by 7 to 8 points. But no one knows for sure how the 20% who supported the far right candidate will vote. Sacrkozy is a fighter. However, if Hollande does win, and this is of course not assured only projected, Hollande will take the Presidency from an incumbent who is personally unpopular, but whose economic policies represent conventional wisdom in the Eurozone. Whether or not Holland succeeds, it is clear the French vote is a vote of dissatisfaction, an electorate demand for change, whatever the direction of change turns out to be.
If Hollande wins, it will be more than a vote of disenchantment with Conservative handling of a failing French economy. It will be a vote for a change Left. Hollande leads from the Left. He reportedly may include Communists in his Cabinet. His election would be the first for the Left in France for a very long time. It is already the very first time an incumbent hasn't garnered the largest vote in the first round. If he is elected, Hollande’s campaign will represent a significant bell weather for both policy and politics in the Eurozone. His election would mark the end of what had been a trend for Conservatives across Europe.
UK polls now seem clear that momentem has shifted
Labour has gained an 8-10% lead over their next nearest rivals, the Conservatives. This represents a shift of 10-12 points since last month. UKIP syphoned off as much as 4% more of Tory support for a total of somewhere around 8%. Conservative partners in Coalition, the Liberal Democrats may or may not still be ahead of UKIP, a party Liberal Democrats once mocked.
Mark these dramatic swings down to the wide spread perception Liberal Democrats have been irrelevant, and to Conservative excesses, miscues, poor judgement, indiscipline (perhaps corruption), radical reforms, failing spin and failing management of the economy. Over 2/3 of polled voters reject government policy.
The resulting Labour lead appears solid but still less than a majority. It is neither avalanche nor mandate. Leader Milliband still polls badly compared to Conservative Cameron. But, it does feel like a shift in momentum toward Labour if not clearly toward the Left.
In both France and the UK the long term direction of change remains unclear. It is clear, on the other hand, that the demand for change is building and can no longer be ignored. But there is substantial question whether real change can and will come.
Needed- extraordinary uncommon vision and courage
It will take a type of courage and vision uncommon in politics for either François Hollande or Labour, should either go on to win office, to make changes that are more than tweaks. To do so would require them to go their own way. It would require them to defy the judgement of conventional economic and fiscal wisdom, views that currently grip Europe, including France’s partners (and, indeed, threaten to engulf the United States).
Uncommon courage and vision do sometimes arise. Agree with them or not, vindicated by history or not, Franklin Roosevelt and maybe Ronald Reagan and William Clinton, demonstrated uncommon courage and vision. Not saying I agree with their policies, only that they arguably had the courage and vision to take their nations in different directions than the conventional wisdom of the time would have thought wise.
More common are incremental tweaks, with Administrations undertaking two to three, at most five incremental policy initiatives during their entire tenure.
Some argue Tony Blair showed vision leading Labour from the British Left to the British Center. My personal evaluation is, that was politics as usual. It was a positioning for “market penetration” of swing constituencies and interests by repackaging the party message. He did not lead away from conventional wisdom. He capitalized on it and a Conservative reputation tarnished by years of painful policies. Many would argue he was a Conservative with a Labour membership card. Whether or not that is a fair assessment, the point is, it appears Tony Blair exemplified politics as usual, if an effective politics as usual.
I will leave the final judgement as to any historical figure to history. My point is to illustrate the difference between the type of leadership needed and the type of leadership usual.
Why is it so hard to transcend politics as usual, even in a time of grave national crisis? Because it is safe.
Politics as usual stays within narrow parameters of the acceptable within the belief systems embraced by the network of interests, constituencies, and reinforcing experts who support(ed) the politician. It is cautious. It looks for the “tried and true,” for how they did it in X, for blue prints. Perhaps ironically, many of today’s politicians say they follow the successful blue print of Reagan, Thatcher, Roosevelt or Clinton.
But their actions in their day cannot serve as a blue print for our actions in our day. The world the 1990s knew is gone, the 1980s a generation gone, and the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s may now be lost altogether through successive revisionism.
Roosevelt, Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton probably did not follow a blue print as such. They probably more made it up as they went along, receiving credit for what were actually as much the outcomes of compromise and accident in a complex world. But to the degree they each created a blue print, that blue print became obsolete even as it succeeded. The world changed.
Today’s Roosevelt, Reagan, Thatcher, or Clinton must make his (or her) own way in a different world to the one to which Roosevelt, Reagan, Thatcher and Clinton responded. That takes uncommon vision and courage.
Especially when the stakes are so extraordinarily high.
Especially when the largest choir ever assembled sings from the same liberal, free trade, free market, diminished government economic hymn book. This choir hangs on to this formula even as it fails, arguably has failed.
It takes extraordinary uncommon vision and courage to lead today any nation in the developed West through the reefs and shoals of today’s global geo-political circumstances and economy. There is no blue print commonly accepted, successful, or proven to be well adapted to these circumstances. Leading a developed Western economy in the adjustments needed to survive, much less thrive, demands nothing less than the extraordinary.
It also takes an uncommon understanding of the limits of his own philosophy and of the network of constituencies who support him. In short, he must be adept at politics as usual as well as a visionary.
The winners face a struggle
Wherever whomever leads, some things seem clear. It is not in the national interest for a leader to alarm his constituency, even as he moves it beyond its comfort zone. It is not in the national interest for either France or the UK to throw out the baby of fiscal responsibility with the bath wash of excess, miscues, poor judgement, indiscipline, corruption, radical reform, failing spin and conventional wisdom. Just as it was not in the national interest for the UK Coalition to throw out the baby of social responsibility with the bath wash of deficit. A new “New Deal” must emerge, one that binds society together and gives each element a stake. This Deal must also be rationally grounded in global realities.
“Change,” whispers the wind, but "struggle," replies the rocks.
A very challenging task ahead
Effective change likely will emerge only from compromise, trial and error, and not a little luck, rather than from an engineered plan. The leader cannot ignore the limitations that make politics as usual politics as usual. He must transcend them. He must avoid alarming the constituency into reactionary rejection of him and his policies. He must eventually take the constituencies with him and redefine conventional wisdom in succeeding at the not yet conventional.
A very challenging task indeed.