Trevor Fisher finds echoes of the French Fourth Republic in making the case for tactical voting in May
Before the 2010 election, there was some discussion in the Chartist collective on whether Britain was taking the same route as the Weimar Republic in the twenties. The Blair-Brown years had seen the rise of the Far Right, with street fighters like the English Defence League (EDL) emerging and a serious electoral challenge from the BNP. Its leader Nick Griffin became an MEP and with the BNP wimning council seats, the risk of a British Front National succeeding was real. The pre-election situation in 2015 is very different but needs a similar debate.
The good news is the fascist right is retreating though not defeated. The bad news is it has been replaced by UKIP, and while this has split the Tory right, xenophobia also appeals to Labour voters. In Scotland, the Nationalists threaten to deny Labour the seats it needs for government. Electorally the Lib Dems are taking a hammering across the UK and the Greens are providing an appeal for progressive Labour voters. With seven parties in the TV debates, the election is beyond quick fixes. If Britain today looks less like Weimar before the Nazis, it increasingly looks like the French Fourth Republic – a Poujadist Party in UKIP, fragmentation and a future of coalition governments and instability.
Immediately there is an overwhelming case for a Tactical Voting campaign to stop the Green surge taking Labour seats. The threat of Farage in government should concentrate minds. A UKIP-Tory coalition could be the election outcome, with Cameron is ousted as Tory leader for a pro-UKIP leader. An alternative scenario, if Miliband does badly, is a threat to his position and a Grand Coalition of Tory and Labour for the still sizeable number of pro European Tories. For Balls the chance to become Chancellor in a Grand Coalition, backed by the Blairite M Ps, cannot be underestimated. It is possibly the only way to save a career blighted by his embrace of austerity. A pro -Austerity, pro- Europe coalition would have appeal to the Orange Book Lib Dems, though whether Clegg holds his seat is problematical . If he loses and the Liberals split, then a Labour-Left Liberal alliance is possible. The Oakshott grant to the Labour-Liberal candidates he favours is a big straw in the wind.
The Greens would probably not win enough seats to hold a balance, but could stop Labour victories, while the SNP is a real beast in this jungle. As the Nats have picked up the social democratic/pro welfare state cloak that New Labour threw away, it would have an appeal to many Labour voters. It’s a poisoned chalice however, and in Scotland Labour supporters might prefer an alliance with Left Lib Dems. With no major party having a clear alternative to policies of fiscal orthodoxy, austerity and more cuts save the fringe parties, the possibility of unstable short term coalitions would be considerable – just like the French Fourth Republic – making a Grand Coalition more attractive, but hard to achieve, hence the French Fourth Republic could be the reality and if fixed parliaments are kept, changes might happen without any electoral mandate at all.
While YouGov polling at the end of January suggests support for radical policies amongst Labour and swing voters, the message will be blanked by Labour. John Reid’s comment on the Left Futures website to the news -”We tried this in 1983 and it failed” – shows the anachronism of New Labour. However Blairites remain in action, actively hostile to even Miliband’s limited gestures.
In the last month both Blair himself and Alan Milburn have attacked Miliband, to the applause of the Tory press. It is possible a Miliband defeat would put them back on the political stage. Labour is internally divided and has spent the coalition period being studiously vague. It is unlikely this will change as Labour fears a 1992 repeat, though this is not 1992 and with the Greens attracting young Leftish voters, its present course is risky.
The immediate priority is to secure a Miliband premiership via tactical voting. This would also lay the basis for an Anti Austerity Alliance. While the People’s Assembly is marginal. it could be strengthened by a strong tactical voting network for May 8th. In the immediate post election period, repealing the fixed parliament Act would be an essential first step. A coalition may be the outcome if there is no majority, but not for another five years. It has to be brought to an end when circumstances change, for another election to seek a majority. Otherwise we really will have the French Fourth Republic in the UK, with disastrous consequences.
Weimar Republic 1919-1933
German constitution which was adopted in the town of Weimar as the capital Berlin was the seat of street fighting between the Communists and the Nationalist Far Right. These two forces made the years between 1919-1924 grim culminating in the hyper inflation of 1923-24 and the Hitler putsch in Munich. From 1924 the parliamentary system regained control as the revolutionary parties lacked the strength to take the government. From 1930 parliamentary government – the Reichstag – was undermined by the Great Depression and fighting entered into the building itself, Communists and the Nationalists both wanting to destroy parliamentary democracy to enact a revolution. The Nazis won in the face of a majority but divided left and in January 1933 Hitler became chancellor and wiped out the Weimar constitution.
French Fourth Republic 1946-58
French Constitution adopted 1946 against de Gaulle’s wishes, as he wanted a presidential system. De Gaulle quit politics despite leading the Free French in the second world war. A parliamentary system with a Prime Minister leading by parliamentary vote, not presidential mandate, proved unable to provide stable government with a plethora of parties, though there was no violence and communists generally worked with socialists. There were constant changes of government however – 21 in 12 years – and colonial questions proved increasingly difficult. The Algerian revolt and the Secret Army Organisation formed to fight it led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the return of de Gaulle as the only man who could defuse the OAS threat. He became President in a Fifth Republic constitution which survives today.