Monday, May 07, 2007

The "Fourth Way"

Francois Bayrou, the centrist candidate, finished in a creditable third place with 19% of the vote in the first round of this year’s Presidential Election in France. He was duly eliminated, leaving the field to the eventual second round winner Nicolas Sarkozy and runner-up Segolene Royal.

After the first round eliminations, Bayrou was naturally courted by both Sarkozy and Royal in the hope that he would encourage his considerable support from the first round to switch their allegiance in the second round. Interestingly, this courtship included participation by Royal in a TV debate with Bayrou about a week before the second round vote. Sarkozy turned down an invitation to a similar debate: “the team finishing third doesn’t get to play in the final” was his response.

What was interesting about Bayrou’s position following his elimination was his inability to fully endorse either candidate. It was quite clear that he didn’t like Sarkozy, regarding him as a divisive right-wing figure, although he would have supported many of that candidate’s policy proposals to reform work practices and the public services in France. Bayrou ultimately confirmed that he wouldn’t be voting for Sarkozy. On the other hand, while Bayrou appeared to get on well personally with Royal, he pointed out that many of her proposed policies were exactly what France did not need, both in terms of protective employment policies and expansion of France’s already over-burdensome public sector.

One Royal proposal was to make the state responsible for provision of creche facilities to enable parents to work. Bayrou pointed out that this would require the setting up of a whole new bureaucracy employing many thousands of civil servants and increasing the reach of the nanny state, with associated increased costs for the public purse.

Ultimately, Bayrou made no recommendation to his supporters who seem to have split reasonably evenly between the remaining two contenders. Bayrou is forming a new centrist political party, Le Mouvement Démocrate, so may well be a significant force in French domestic politics in the future.

Bayrou’s dilemma in choosing between two candidates is typical of what we’re faced often with in elections; the leftist parties promote caring social policies which include state monopolies, employment protections etc - policies that are now proven to be economically unsustainable (unless you‘ve got massive oil reserves or some other form of inherited wealth), while right-wing free-market economics have been proven to be successful but seem to come attached to parties and politicians who are somewhat short of the mark when it comes to societal and social considerations. It’s that clash between whether you live in a society or an economy when, in fact, you want the best elements of both.

Here’s my proposal as to how to tackle the dilemma.
Among the main functions of government are (a) how you raise money (b) how you spend money and (c) how you determine the amount of money you need to raise.

You allocate to the right-wingers all those cabinet seats associated with Finance, Business/Trade regulation, Employment Law, Infrastructure etc and you allocate to the left-wingers the major social spending departments e.g. Health, Education and Welfare.

The only real negotiation that needs to take place annually between the two sides is “How big is the pot of money required?”

Once this is agreed, it’s up to the right-wingers to regulate the marketplace anyway they like in order to raise the required finance, without interference from the left-wingers.

The left-wingers can then decide how they will prioritise the spend between and within their respective Departments, without interference from the right-wingers.

This system does away with the need for “collective cabinet responsibility”, which requires every minister to express support for every government policy. The situation would be made quite clear to the public and the media.

Thus a left-wing minister would be able to express criticism of some employment or taxation law, but point out that, under the agreed rules, this was beyond his/her control. Likewise, a right-wing minister could criticise some new welfare or health programme but point out the same limitations.

Naturally, one would hope that a strong leader of such a government would ensure some level of cohesion between the members of the team, whether left or right wing, and that measures would be debated and enjoy somewhat wider cross-cabinet support than might be implied above. But it would allow individual ministers to dodge more media bullets than is currently the case. And that just might allow them to get on with their jobs in a more productive and effective manner.

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