Just as all eyes turned to the imminent French presidential election, Theresa May announced that Global Britain would be voting hot on its neighbour’s heels. Even before May’s announcement, many on the British left were watching their French compatriots closely: particularly the self-styled left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
With two days before the first round of the presidential vote, Mélenchon certainly isn’t the front-runner — though if the polls are to be trusted he is one of four with a chance of winning due to a late surge in the polls. But what can Labour garner from Mélenchon’s rise now it has an election on its hands? What can Jeremy Corbyn learn from Mélenchon to put some meat on the bones of his lukewarm populist relaunch? Potentially quite a lot. One particular aspect of Mélenchon’s populist programme stands out: wholesale constitutional reform.
Mélenchon is calling for a complete overhaul of the French democratic system — he wants to be the last president of the 5th Republic, France’s 5th constitution since the French revolution:
“Democracy does not merely consist of going to the polling station once every five years; democracy requires citizens to engage continuously in public life. Yet the 5th Republic excludes the people from making political decisions.”
Describing the current system as a ‘presidential monarchy’, Mélenchon wants to make it easier to for people to deselect sitting representatives. Yet the leader of la France Insoumise (France Defiant) has held back from outlining a blueprint for the 6th Republic. Rather, he intends to put in place a citizens’ assembly that would design a new democratic system, in dialogue with the public *and subject to two separate referenda.
Given that trust in the political classes is at a historic low in France, such a move is not simply good for democracy, but electorally savvy — as reflected by Mélenchon’s advances. More or less the same could be said for the UK: politicians and their adjuncts are largely despised. And yet Labour — including the leadership — seems to have been lukewarm on the question of constitutional reform.
While Jon Trickett was put in charge of organising a constitutional convention from opposition at the start of Corbyn’s leadership, it seems to have gone nowhere. The failure is likely rooted in Labour’s historic reticence towards the question of constitutional reform: it is in fact one of the rare issues that unifies people from wildly different currents. Many in the party do not want proportional representation for the brutish, short-sighted reason that it would disturb Labour’s privileged position in the two-party tug-of-war. Many also take the patronising view that its working class base is uninterested in such distinctly non-bread-and-butter issues. Tony Benn in particular — who Corbyn appears to follow to the letter — had a “positively mystical reverence for parliament… apparently believing it the historic destiny of the House of Commons to be the legislative vehicle through which socialism would be implemented” as Jeremy Gilbert recently put it.
And yet Corbyn desperately needs to flesh out the content of his left populist vision in the next six weeks. Repeating ‘it’s the people versus the establishment’ is no silver bullet — and could indeed turn out to be a dud if there’s no coherent programme behind it. Creating a cleavage between ‘the people’ and ‘the establishment’ can be done on more than one axis. Wealth inequality has been the most effective of these axes in recent years (for the obvious reason that it has become so stark) as embodied by the infamous Occupy slogan ‘we are the 99%’. But attacking the corruption of the political classes and and the democratic system itself is another potent axis for drawing a line between ‘the people’ and ‘the establishment’.
This is what Mélenchon is doing with his call for a new constitution ‘for the people, by the people’. And it’s what the 15M movement in Spain, and later Podemos, did with slogans such as ‘que se vayan todos’ (get rid of them all) and ‘real democracy now’. It’s impossible to ignore that both France and Spain, unlike the UK, are republics with relatively recent histories of violent political rupture. However, if played right, both Brexit and a generalised disdain for elites could provide an opening for a similar populist strategy of democratic renewal.
Framed this way, constitutional reform starts to look a lot less stale and technocratic. Indeed, it forms the backbone of what Mélenchon is calling a ‘tranquil revolution’ — quite the opposite of dry reformism. If Corbyn wants to succeed as a populist outsider, he should find a way to drag his party behind a programme of wholesale constitutional renewal. Proportional representation is a necessary starting point, but will not suffice on its own. Why not propose moving parliament out of Westminster, abolishing the last remaining hereditary peers, and a huge redistribution of power to local communities from the bottom up, to name but a few possible policies. Furthermore, why not propose a citizens’ assembly to write a new constitution à la Mélenchon? If framed as a way of ‘draining the swamp’, such constitutional reforms would not only be democratically desirable, but popular too.