With Emmanuel Macron beginning his tenure as president of France, talk has naturally turned to whether Britain needs its own radical centrist movement to stop the Tories. One man has quite clearly decided that he is the one to lead it.
Chuka Umunna is friends with Emmanuel Macron – he’s been very keen to remind us of this over the last few weeks, getting all starry-eyed as he extols the virtues and praises the successes of the new French president. Macron has earned a lot of fans in Britain. Unsurprisingly the majority come from the ideologically-aligned Liberal Democrats, including Tim Farron, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, who have looked to his example in their own political campaigns. It is perhaps surprising, then, that the most praise has come from the Labour Party’s ostensibly social democratic Umunna.
This cross-channel sycophancy speaks to the crisis brewing within the Labour Party. How is it that Chuka Umunna, a man who seems to share more in common with Macron than McDonnell, cohabits a party with ‘hard’-left socialists? It’s a question that many – not least Umunna himself – have been asking themselves, and it seems like he at least has found the answer, even if he’s only whispering it: a split. If it worked for Emmanuel Macron, he seems to be asking, why can’t it work for me?
Last week, in the wake of Macron’s accession to the presidency, Umunna penned an article for The Independent, and spoke on BBC radio, about the need to use Macron’s victory against conservatives and nationalists as a blueprint for the Labour Party. Praising his radical centrist, pro-European ideology, Umunna spoke of the need to seize the political centre-ground with a new, positive movement. This, he said, should be led by the Labour Party, and – more specifically – by Umunna himself. The man who once had his own Wikipedia page edited to call himself ‘Britain’s answer to Barack Obama’, quite evidently fancies himself as its leader.
Isn’t the chief lesson from Macron’s victory that splitting from a centre-left party is a path to success?
Beneath the surface there was an undercurrent of doubt. He later tweeted that Macron won ‘by rising above the petty tribalism of the main parties.’ Coming from a MP of one of Britain’s two main parties, this can be nothing more than a statement of intent. After all, isn’t the chief lesson of Emmanuel Macron’s victory that splitting from an established centre-left party is a path to success? I wouldn’t bet against Umunna and his co-conspirators evacuating the Labour Party should the hard-left faction retain control following their impending electoral drubbing; reports from The Daily Telegraph suggest as many as 100 other MPs are prepared to join him.
We can even identify some of them. Last week, Umunna launched an independent, pro-European manifesto, calling for Britain to remain within the single market, together with a group of other London MPs, including David Lammy, Heidi Alexander and Stella Creasy. This move directly contradicts Labour’s own manifesto promise to exit the single market and end freedom of movement. ‘No ifs, no buts, no hard Brexit,’ said Umunna, doing his most prime ministerial impression. If this is to be the core of a new En Marche!-style movement, then it’s not a bad start.
All this depends on two things: first, the scale of Labour’s defeat in next month’s election; and second, whether Corbyn – or at least his ‘hard-left’ wing of the party – remains in charge. It may also depend on the Liberal Democrats. Many in the political centre will rightly be wondering where this would leave our already established liberal party. Tim Farron, Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown will tell you that the Lib Dems are already the positive, social liberal, pro-European movement that Umunna and co are calling for. But even the most fervent supporter of the party would have to concede that, despite a glimmer of recovery, their poll numbers have been stagnant, and their performance in last week’s local elections was at best, patchy.
The sense of renewal that En Marche! has created in France would be easy to harness against the Tories.
Can inspiration can be taken from Emmanuel Macron once again? During the presidential elections, Macron’s most useful endorsement came from veteran centrist and perennial candidate François Bayrou, who offered an alliance with his liberal Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) in exchange for an electoral pact (MoDem have secured around 90 seats in which they will run candidates on a joint ticket with En Marche!) and cabinet posts (Bayrou was named Minister of Justice in Macron’s new government). An alliance of this kind could satisfy doubters within a breakaway Umunna-faction and the Liberal Democrats.
All this fails to address one very important question: do we need an En Marche! of our own with which to end the coming Conservative dominion? Theresa May’s paternalistic, authoritarian vision of the future will only come about because of the weakness of the opposition. Labour are seen as unelectable because they are perceived as having gone too far to the left. A bold and confident centrist movement would be immune to this. Furthermore, the sense of renewal that En Marche! has created in France would be easy to harness against the Tories, whose modus operandi has always been rooted in the past.
With Labour seemingly not up to snuff, and a first-past-the-post political system stifling smaller parties, perhaps a shock to the system such as this is what Britain needs to kick start a political realignment. There is a danger that it – like the SDP before it – will simply fizzle away into nothing, especially if the 100 Labour defectors fail to materialise. If Umunna is to lead a secession, it needs to be big, bold, radical, and credible. Unfortunately, our political system does not favour the bold, and Umunna and his co-conspirators may just as quickly find themselves sidelined and ridiculed. Oh, to live in France.
Picture credit: 15.03.30 Bloomberg 42 – Image by Labour Party via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)