Saturday, 8 May 2010

The UK Election from a French Viewpoint

As I write this the negotiations between David Cameron and Nick Clegg are still going on and the one thing that was definitely needed, a strong UK government, looks very unlikely.
On French radio the UK election generally took second place to the financial crisis concerning Greece and the Euro. The coverage intensified a couple of days before polling day when reporters were filing from London, Sheffield and Doncaster. The interviews with “ordinary” people were mostly describing their financial difficulties, their complaints about employment, the economy and their lack of ability to pay their bills. This may well be representative of people in Sheffield and Doncaster, which have for decades been in economic decline as a result of the closure of heavy manufacturing and mining industries. The electoral system was well described but came across as if it was like cricket: only comprehensible to the English. (Personally I find the French system with its lists and its two rounds of voting equally incomprehensible, like the rules of petanque and rugby).
Christiane says that I should not keep comparing how things are done in France with the equivalent in the UK, but I can’t help it! She thinks I am over sensitive, but it always seems to me that when the French media get stuck into UK politics they are always looking for the flaws in the UK “liberal model“ in which they consider that there is very little protection for the individual. I, on the other hand, consider that there is far more opportunity in the UK, for ambitious or bright individuals who, if they start a successful business there, are not going to be overtaxed and over-regulated and then taxed again each year on their total wealth as they would be in France.
There was another report about UK industrial legislation concerning strikes saying that it is the most draconian in Europe. It then went on to describe the strike ballot process, which in the UK is legally required before giving notice of a strike. The implication was that this was an unreasonable constraint on the right to strike.
Of course the French approach is far more revolutionary. Often you strike first to show how much support you have and, if you are strong enough, you might persuade the employers to negotiate. Employers are so used to this way of behaving that they sometimes won’t even start to discuss a claim before there has been a strike, so the employees have a justification for their actions. In a couple of extreme cases workers have rigged up bombs in factories under threat of closure and threatened to blow them up in order to get a negotiation started.
In others, directors and managers have been held hostage in their offices, sometimes for several days.
Secondary picketing is still legal in France and even workers from different industries come out in support if the case is sufficiently strong. I think that this confrontational approach has its roots in 1789 and the revolutions which followed right down to the near revolution of 1968.
After watching a performance of two very left wing former workers during the Story Telling Festival I asked my brother- in-law what to be sanctioned, ”ĂȘtre sanctionnĂ©”, meant in the context of industrial relations. He explained that it meant having some of your pay deducted. I found this difficult to understand, thinking it was some sort of fine but no, many French workers are paid while they are on strike and occasionally the employers decide to make an example of someone, or of a group, and not pay them while they are not working!
It is true however, as another French commentator said, that the economic growth in the UK over the last decade was fuelled by increased personal and public debt and that, like other countries in Europe, the debt now has to be paid back in terms of cutbacks in the public sector, tax rises and the reduction of personal spending!
As soon as Margaret Thatcher became convinced that the UK could be successful as a service economy, she allowed manufacturing industry to decline. But, following the financial crisis, the concept of a service based economy has been discredited. It was inevitable that de-regulation of the financial sector would lead to an explosion of financial products based on “funny money” and that freely available credit would lead to increased private debt. When you add to that the increased percentage of the gross national product now spent on public services, up from 39% when New Labour took over to 47% now, the diversion of resources away from productive industry becomes clearer.
France, although it is still a world class exporter of luxury goods and specialised food products, also has a declining manufacturing sector but without the service sector to compensate. Only Germany and a handful of other European countries are still competitively producing quality manufactured goods that people outside Europe want to buy.
At the time of writing this, under the UK constitution, it is the government in power which decides when to hold an election. Any coalition government will come under such powerful market pressures to apply stringent measures to control spending and reduce public debt, that it will become extremely unpopular. It will also have so many internal tensions that, in my opinion, it will not last.
I think that there will be another election in less than two years, whoever forms a government this weekend.


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