The British Left Could Benefit From a Few Lessons From the French Left

Five years after their electoral breakthroughs, the projects led by Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have gone in opposite directions. The British left would be in a stronger position today if it had displayed some of Mélenchon’s confrontational grit.

Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jeremy Corbyn on the fourth day of the Labour Party conference on September 24, 2019 in Brighton, England. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Five years ago, in elections held barely a month apart, the Left took a big step forward on both sides of the English Channel. First Jean-Luc Mélenchon won nearly one-fifth of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election — the best performance by a radical-left candidate since 1969. Then Jeremy Corbyn led the British Labour Party to its highest vote share in almost two decades, with the biggest increase in support for either of Britain’s major parties since 1945.

The current state of play for the movements that came together around Mélenchon and Corbyn could not be more different. The French politician surpassed his 2017 result in this year’s presidential poll, with 22 percent of the vote. He went on to lead a left-wing alliance that outperformed Emmanuel Macron’s governing party in the first round of June’s legislative elections. Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise, is clearly the most dynamic element in that alliance.

Corbyn, on the other hand, is no longer even a member of Labour’s parliamentary group, having been excluded by his successor, Keir Starmer. The former leader’s suspension is one aspect of Starmer’s unrelenting drive to exclude left-wingers from all positions of influence in the party, which has escalated to psychological warfare in an effort to remove one left-wing MP, Apsana Begum.

How can we explain this divergence of fortunes? In what follows, I’ll outline some of the factors beyond the control of the British Labour left that made their task harder than Mélenchon’s, before discussing where they would have benefitted from a different approach closer to that of the French left-wing leader.

Chunnel Vision

First of all, we should guard against the tendency to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side. There are many things to worry about on the French political scene. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen once again reached the second round of the presidential election this year, and her Rassemblement National party made a real breakthrough in the subsequent legislative poll. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the far right has a major presence in the French National Assembly.

Moreover, Mélenchon’s achievement in leapfrogging the traditional party of the French center left was only partly due to his own increase in support. Emmanuel Macron gobbled up a large section of the Socialist electorate in 2017 with his own centrist vehicle and led them rightward. There are also many unanswered questions about the ability of La France Insoumise to capitalize on its position as the largest component of the French left, and to bring forward a new generation of leaders who can eventually take the place of Mélenchon.

Having said all that, there is still no question that Mélenchon and his allies are in a much stronger position than the forces that mobilized behind Corbyn after 2015. As things stand, the British left would be very fortunate to face the same kind of challenges as their counterparts across the English Channel.

In making sense of this contrast, we need to avoid an excessively voluntarist approach that overlooks the constraints on political action. Take, for example, the question of the European Union. In general, critical understanding of the EU’s role in promoting neoliberalism since the 1990s is more widespread on the Left in France than in Britain. British liberals and social democrats still tend to see the EU as a benign force that upholds social rights and environmental protections.

This is not merely because the Euro-critical left in France has done a better job of explaining the situation than its British counterpart. The EU which took shape after the Maastricht Treaty left a much deeper imprint on French society and politics, above all because France joined the single currency. The pressure from European institutions to privatize, marketize, and cut public spending was tangible in France long before the crash of 2008.

Across the Channel, much of the Labour Party embraced the vision of “social Europe” set out by European Commission president Jacques Delors in a famous 1988 speech. Many of their Conservative opponents also took what Delors said at face value and perceived the EU as a nascent social democratic superstate.

Since Britain stayed out of the euro, neither side had to look very closely at the neoliberal doctrines that were built into its structures from Maastricht on. British-style neoliberalism was homegrown and never relied on support from Brussels or Frankfurt to advance its cause, whether during Margaret Thatcher’s heyday in the 1980s or in the decade of austerity that followed the Great Recession.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his supporters didn’t have to confront their own equivalent of the Brexit crisis that unfolded in Britain after 2016, with a successful campaign to leave the EU spearheaded by the nationalist right. In the British context, Brexit was a deeply polarizing issue where socialists could not honestly take up a position at either pole. It had a corrosive impact on the movement around Corbyn and on his own public image.

Inside Out

The warning about unrealistic voluntarism also applies to the most obvious difference between the two movements. Having been a Socialist politician for many years, Mélenchon broke with the party in 2008 and set up his own organization, the Left Party, before going on to establish La France Insoumise in 2016. He negotiated this year’s electoral pact with the Socialist Party from a position of strength, having outperformed its candidates by a wide margin in two successive presidential elections.

Corbyn, on the other hand, continued to work through the Labour Party, in line with the thinking of his political mentor Tony Benn. This was not merely a subjective choice. The electoral left has always been more diverse in France than in Britain. The French Communist Party (PCF) was much stronger than the Socialists for several decades after the war. Even when the PCF went into decline from the early 1980s, its typical vote was still much higher than the best-ever performance by the British Communists in 1945.

During the first decade of this century, Trotskyist candidates took 10 percent of the vote in the 2002 French presidential election. In Britain, on the other hand, the most successful left-wing challenge to Tony Blair’s New Labour — outside Scotland at any rate — came from the Respect Party. Although Respect achieved some local successes in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham, its share of the national vote in 2005 was less than 1 percent.

In other words, Mélenchon had a preexisting base to build upon when he first ran for president in 2012, taking 11 percent of the vote. The electoral space to the left of Labour in Britain was much more tightly constrained, especially when the party returned to the opposition benches after 2010 and could present itself as the only viable alternative to the Tories. While this does not mean that we could never imagine a group on Labour’s left flank making an impact in British politics, it would certainly face obstacles that Mélenchon and his party did not have to overcome.

There is a suggestive comparison to be made with the development of right-wing politics in the two countries during the same period. In France, Marine Le Pen and her allies have replaced the Gaullists as the dominant force on the right of the spectrum. In Britain, the Tories have absorbed the program of the UK Independence Party circa 2015 and swallowed up much of its electoral base in the process.

The Enemy Within

Jeremy Corbyn and his allies found it much harder to transform an existing party than the pro-Brexit Conservative tendency. Labour’s Westminster MPs are by far the most important and influential section of the party, closely followed by its representatives in Britain’s regional assemblies and local councils. At the moment when Corbyn became leader, the Parliamentary Labour Party’s center of gravity was further to the right than at any previous point in its history.

The first generation of New Labour politicians came of age during the 1970s and ’80s, a time of intense political debate and social conflict in Britain. The Labour Party was a lively space back then, with vigorous local parties and strong ties to the trade union movement. To become a Labour MP, you needed the ability to think on your feet and make political arguments with people who did not share the same basic assumptions as you.

The second generation, on the other hand, began climbing the ladder in the period between the demise of the Soviet Union and the great financial crisis. They internalized the idea that there was no longer any need to discuss the merits of capitalism, or indeed Britain’s post-Thatcher model of how to organize a capitalist economy. There was a well-established career path for would-be Labour politicians under Blair’s long stewardship: Oxbridge degree, service as a parliamentary assistant or researcher, and a parachute landing in a safe Labour constituency. At every stage of the process, loyal conformity was the best way to get ahead.

The collective psychology molded by this environment left these Labour MPs completely unequipped for the 2008 crash and its aftermath. Unable to identify any problems with Britain’s turbocharged version of capitalist finance, they settled on the idea that excessive public spending was to blame for the crisis. In the 2015 Labour leadership election, Corbyn was the only candidate willing to challenge this absurd consensus, which is why he won.

When Corbyn’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell argued that neoliberalism had failed and it was time for a new economic model based on public ownership and investment, he might as well have been proposing an extension of the London Underground to Saturn, so far as many Labour MPs were concerned. They could not respond to the rise of Corbynism as if it were a legitimate body of opinion — even a profoundly mistaken one. Instead, Labour MPs and their media outriders spent several years presenting all forms of political disagreement as bullying, abuse, or simply an eruption of madness from the depths of British society.

Before the 2017 general election, their trump card was “electability” — a nebulous quality, but one which Jeremy Corbyn appeared not to possess, judging by Labour’s opinion poll scores. When Labour took 40 percent of the vote under Corbyn’s leadership, this argument lost much of its force. Instead of questioning their baselevel assumptions about political reality, the Labour right fell back on a pseudo-ethical case against Corbynism. Having previously insisted that Corbyn was a good man, but not a leader, they now informed a receptive commentariat that he might be a leader, but he was certainly not a good man.

Fault Lines

Mélenchon has faced the same vitriolic attacks as Corbyn, with center-left critics accusing him of being an antisemite, a stooge of Vladimir Putin, and so on. Crucially, however, these attempts at character assassination did not emanate from within La France Insoumise. The fact that it was Corbyn’s erstwhile party colleagues who were leveling such accusations against him lent those charges a spurious credibility. It also discouraged Corbyn and his associates from hitting back in the same forceful and unapologetic spirit as Mélenchon.

Even if the finer details of the accusations against Corbyn did not register with much of the British public, they certainly picked up on the fact that he was frequently at odds with his own MPs. Party management skills are one of the first things that people look for when judging the competence of a political leader. On a superficial level, it seems like a logical point: How can you expect to run the country or the state when you can’t even run your own party?

However, the point breaks down when there are profound fault lines of ideology and material interest running through a single party. Corbyn faced the same kind of organizational problem that Nicola Sturgeon would have to grapple with if the Scottish National Party had a large cohort of MPs who were implacably opposed to Scottish independence, and who expected to be generously rewarded for that stance when they moved on to fresh professional pastures.

Mélenchon, on the other hand, effectively built La France Insoumise from scratch. He could shape its leading cadres around the party program instead of worrying about their efforts to sabotage that program. In the months leading up to the 2022 election, opinion polls suggested that Mélenchon might fall well short of his 2017 performance, yet there was no attempt to remove him as the party’s standard-bearer. He had the opportunity to campaign on the public stage and turn around his electoral fortunes.

Labor of Sisyphus

It’s important to recognize that Labour’s left-wing tendency would have had a much harder time establishing themselves as an independent force than Mélenchon and his comrades. But some of the habits that the Labour left acquired while attempting to transform an existing party proved to be counterproductive, even in terms of that goal. A more confrontational approach to their inner-party opponents, in the style of Mélenchon, would also have been a more pragmatic one.

After the unexpected breakthrough in the 2017 general election, the leadership team around Corbyn decided to soft-peddle the question of internal party democracy and open selection of MPs. They seemed to believe that they could win over a large part of the Labour right and marginalize the rest, clearing the path to victory at the next election. Instead, they faced an escalating campaign of sabotage spearheaded by figures like Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, throughout the 2018–19 Brexit crisis.

If the Labour leadership had pressed harder to democratize the party after 2017, they would probably have faced a much bigger split than the one that eventually materialized in the form of Change UK. A split of that nature might well have prevented them from winning a general election. But electoral success proved to be elusive anyway, thanks not least to the tireless efforts of their own party colleagues, some of whom have openly stated that they preferred a Conservative government to one led by Corbyn. Even if Labour had managed to win a majority of seats in 2019, carrying out its manifesto pledges in government with a largely unreformed parliamentary group would have been a Sisyphean task.

Realistically, it was too much to expect that the Labour left could take over a party on which Tony Blair had stamped his mark, transform its program and internal structures, and win a general election, all in the space of five years. A more achievable goal would have been to strengthen their position inside Labour in a way that allowed them to continue building on the positive work of the Corbyn years.

To some observers, they appeared to have accomplished that task, even after the 2019 election defeat. In their book Left Out, published soon after Starmer replaced Corbyn as party leader, Sunday Times journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire suggested that Corbynism had dragged Labour’s center of gravity “conclusively and irrevocably to the left”:

The 2019 intake of MPs was further to the left than ever. Never again will the Labour left be hobbled by the lost generation that saw Corbyn followed as the left’s standard-bearer by an inexperienced and unready [Rebecca] Long-Bailey. Keir Starmer won power by embracing Corbynism, rather than repudiating it.

Nobody would put forward a similar analysis today. Starmer has been engaged in a scorched-earth campaign to extirpate any trace of left-wing influence over Labour’s organizational structures and policy platform, with considerable success to date.

“Shouting From the Sidelines”

The Labour left couldn’t stop Starmer from lying about his intentions during the 2020 leadership campaign. But they could at least have been honest with their own supporters about what he was doing. Long-Bailey toned down her criticisms of Starmer during the final stages of the contest so that she would be able to take a position in his shadow cabinet. Starmer still found a pretext to sack her within a couple of months.

Even after Long-Bailey’s defenestration, John McDonnell wanted people to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt. Speaking to Times Radio in August 2020, McDonnell endorsed Starmer’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic (“Keir’s got this exactly right”) and his ideological credentials (“Of course he’s a socialist”). The following month, he urged the Labour left to play a loyal and constructive role:

The most important thing for the left now is not to allow itself to be portrayed as oppositionists, shouting from the sidelines . . . we mustn’t allow ourselves to be isolated . . .  we mustn’t alienate people within the party.

This strategy assumed that it was possible for the left-wing current to be anything other than “oppositionists” in their dealings with Starmer. The new leader took every opportunity to show that this was a forlorn hope, above all by suspending Corbyn as a party member in October 2020.

The main figures of the parliamentary and trade union left attempted to reach a compromise with Starmer over Corbyn’s suspension, as if it were an unfortunate misunderstanding. However, when Starmer reneged on the deal and declined to readmit Corbyn as a Labour MP, there was no plan B, unless one counts the ineffectual pleas for “unity” directed toward a leadership team that clearly wants to bulldoze the Labour left into the ground.

One of Starmer’s principal objectives has been to change the composition of the party membership and whittle away their power to select a leader, which is what made Corbynism possible in the first place. Earlier this year, his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, openly celebrated the fact that one hundred fifty thousand people had torn up their membership cards since Corbyn stepped down. This pattern of mass resignations was indeed a great boon for Starmer, and a major defeat for the Labour left, which has had to watch as its potential support base in the party dwindles away.

Two years ago, McDonnell was concerned not to “alienate people within the party” who had voted for Corbyn in 2016 and Starmer in 2020. But his chief priority should have been to keep the people who were never seduced by Starmer’s pitch on board with the project of the Labour left. Exhortations to “stay and fight” might have received a better hearing if there had been any sign of a fight in progress.

When there was no effective response to Corbyn’s suspension, an unprecedented act of factional aggression, Starmer and his allies pressed home their advantage. The thuggish attempt by Labour functionaries in Tower Hamlets to break the spirit of Apsana Begum is the latest episode in a squalid litany. Such behavior is standard operating procedure for the Labour right, as anyone who glanced through Martin Forde’s report on Labour’s organizational culture can attest. When people who are staunchly opposed to social democracy in any sense of the term are determined to control a nominally social democratic party, this is the way they have to conduct their business.

Starmer was struggling to keep his head above water for much of 2021, in the absence of any sustained pressure from the Labour left, so his ability to cope with such additional pressure was by no means guaranteed. Even if a fightback had been unsuccessful, it would at least have raised the morale of left-wing party members, many of whom have understandably turned away from this one-sided conflict in disgust. After the self-inflicted Tory meltdown of 2021–22, Starmer is much less vulnerable, and his factional warfare is sure to continue.

Lessons From Lula

At this point, it’s useful to make another international comparison with the Left in Brazil. If the Labour left was tongue-tied in response to Starmer’s aggressive moves, it was in large part because he made those moves under the phony banner of a campaign against antisemitism. That was his justification for sacking Long-Bailey and for suspending Corbyn. On the eve of last year’s Labour conference, he baldly denied that there had been any plan to marginalize the party’s left-wing tendency: “The battles we’ve had in the Labour Party in the last eighteen months have pretty well all been about antisemitism.”

For all the rhetorical pyrotechnics, nobody in British public life takes the standard media narrative about antisemitism in the Labour Party under Corbyn seriously. Their attitude to Stamer is an infallible litmus test of that: anyone who genuinely believed that a government led by Corbyn would have posed an “existential threat” to British Jews would be uncompromisingly hostile to Starmer, who campaigned to make him prime minister. The politicians and journalists who set such store by the narrative have categorically refused to examine or even acknowledge the wealth of evidence that shows it to be false. Yet much of the Labour left was reluctant to defend itself against those attacks.

The Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) also had to deal with a vendetta that its opponents prosecuted under the cloak of a noble cause, on a much grander scale. With the country’s media cheering him on, the magistrate Sergio Moro targeted the PT in the name of anti-corruption. This was the pretext for the parliamentary coup that ousted the country’s president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and for the imprisonment of her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which prevented the PT’s most iconic leader from running in the 2018 presidential election. After clearing the way for Jair Bolsonaro to become president, Moro promptly took a job in his cabinet.

While there was corruption in the ranks of the PT, the arguments used to justify Rousseff’s ouster were laughable, and Moro cooked up the charges against Lula specifically to block his return to the political stage. Brazil’s supreme court later quashed Lula’s conviction, clearing the way for him to run in next month’s presidential election, which he is widely expected to win.

Crucially, the PT and its supporters never doubted that Moro was engaged in a shabby, politically motivated campaign against them, as evinced by his refusal to go after right-wing parties that were up to their necks in corruption. They did not engage in self-flagellation when confronted with opponents who were determined to eliminate them as a political force. Nor did they tell PT members that it didn’t really matter whether the charges against their top leaders were justified or how many party officials were implicated in dirty dealings, so long as the true figure was higher than zero.

The PT is a political force with much deeper social roots than the Labour left — or La France Insoumise for that matter — which it put down over the course of many years. It had to draw on all its organizational strength in the struggle against Moro’s frame-up. But that struggle would have been hobbled from the start if the Brazilian left had not recognized what Moro and his associates were trying to do. You can’t win in politics if you allow your opponents to determine the rules of engagement.