Lessons for Labour from France: manage expectations

Francois Hollande's popularity recently hit a record low for a French head of state, with a whopping 67 per cent of the French population disapproving of the President. The lesson from France should perhaps be that the most sensible thing to do in the current climate is to keep expectations low, or at any rate ensure they never approach anything like that generated in the run up to the election of Francois Hollande.

Francois Hollande’s popularity recently hit a record low for a French head of state, with a whopping 67 per cent of the French population disapproving of the President.

This has dropped a whole 10 per cent on the previous month, and just three in 10 now think Hollande is doing a good job, with two thirds saying “things are not changing” for the better.

It’s easy to forget that Francois Hollande came to power on the back of a wave of enthusiasm, noticeable among young voters and mainly generated by his promises to tax the wealthy, get tough with the financial sector and shun austerity.

Hollande demonstrated, as Andrew Rawnsley put it, that a geeky social democrat could triumph over a showboating conservative.

Sound familiar?

Less than a year later and Hollande’s poll ratings are worse than any French President in living memory.

So what happened? And more importantly, could the same happen to Ed Miliband should he win the 2015 election?

Two words: expectation management. Monsieur Hollande came to power on the back of a manifesto which contained 60 propositions, including :

  • Big tax rises for big corporations, banks and the wealthy individuals;
  • the creation of 60,000 teaching jobs;
  • bringing the official retirement age back down to 60 from 62;
  • creating subsidised jobs in areas of high unemployment for the young;
  • promoting more industry in France by creating a public investment bank;
  • granting marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples;
  • the separation of banks’ retail and investment arms and
  • pulling French troops out of Afghanistan.

The package of proposals was also cloaked in the broader message that Hollande was going to lead the country back to economic recovery.

As might have been expected, it didn’t take long for such high hopes to unravel amid a worsening Europe-wide economic backdrop.

There were also always going to be bureaucratic stumbling blocks in implementing such far-reaching measures, which further added to the sense of a chaotic presidency. France’s top court branded Hollande’s 75 per cent tax on incomes over €1m (£800,000) unconstitutional, with French newspaper Le Monde calling Hollande’s tax policy “a disaster”.

And Hollande’s budget minister, who was supposedly a “vocal crusader against the use of overseas tax havens”, has also been forced to resign over allegations that he had a secret overseas bank account that contained around 600,000 euros ($770,000) for some 20 years – which he has now admitted to.

Based on the speed of the collapse in support for Hollande, though, it’s hard not to see it in terms of expectations raised and then dashed.

It’s often said of Labour that the electorate know very little of what they will do should they win the next election. This is voiced as a criticism of Labour’s long policy review process, and those voicing the criticism appear to believe not only that Labor should be capable of drawing up a full manifesto at this point but also that it would be expedient to do so.

The lesson from France should perhaps be that the most sensible thing to do in the current climate is to keep expectations low, or at any rate ensure they never approach anything like that generated in the run up to the election of Francois Hollande.

Sometimes there’s a lot to be said for being boring.
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