Euan McColm: March of the moderates offers hope

French situation shows that there is still solid support for credible and pragmatic politicians writes Euan McColm

He has fast become the poster boy for what right-wing populists disdain as the metropolitan liberal elite. Emmanuel Macron, a frontrunner in the current French presidential election campaign, is a political centrist, pro-European who has shown it is possible to build a successful political movement without resorting to scaremongering and xenophobia.

In these Trumpian times, 39-year-old former economy minister Macron emerges to lift the spirits of the battle-weary liberal.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

During a visit to the UK this week, Mr Macron highlighted the void which currently exists in our politics. Speaking to an audience of French citizens and British politicians in London, the would-be President said it was necessary to “believe in Europe, love Europe and breathe Europe”.

This was the message the Labour Party should have been delivering since the result of last June’s EU referendum. Instead, Labour’s foolish decision to meekly fall in line behind the Government in pushing ahead with Brexit, whatever the cost, means that almost half of UK voters have been abandoned by the largest two parties.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn appears to have made the mistake of believing that the 52 per cent who voted to leave the EU represent overwhelming public opinion. What they represent is a small majority whose political appetites are currently being sated by Ukip and the Tory right. Mr Corbyn missed the opportunity to position Labour as the party of the 48 per cent who voted to Remain.

This act of gross negligence surely reaffirmed his unsuitability for leadership.

Across the English channel, Mr Macron is the unashamed champion of those in favour of the EU.

Mr Macron’s is a relatively simple message and it is one that has helped his campaign build up considerable momentum.

France has been flirting ever more intensely with the right in recent years. Marine Le Pen has breathed new life into the far right Front National. Islamist terrorist outrages and ongoing public disquiet about immigration have fuelled the anger that keeps those on the political extremes in contention.

On the face of things, then, Mr Macron had an Alp to climb when he decided to stand for election. But his grasp of how politics has changed has helped him advance way beyond expectation. As the referendums on both Scottish independence and Brexit have demonstrated, around half of voters want tighter borders and greater “sovereignty”. It’s reasonable, then, to assume that around half of voters feel just as strongly about their opposing views.

Mr Macron - with a movement that proclaims a centrist position - has given a clear voice to the pro-EU half of France.

Of course, a French presidential election - with its focus on electing a single figurehead - is not directly comparable to a UK general election, with its 650 individual constituency contests. Nonetheless, that Mr Macron has become a serious contender for President less than a year after establishing the “En Marche!” movement shows a new banner can quickly draw its followers.

It may be tempting to think that the rise of the radical new right (or alt-right or whatever it is we’re calling the disreputable mob of populist xenophobes enjoying their moment in the political sunshine) demands an equally radical response.

Mr Macron’s success suggests that is not so. His politics is moderate: it is the politics that made Tony Blair Prime Minister in 1997 and allowed David Cameron into power 13 years later.

The screeching fury chimps of petty nationalism tell us that their opponents “just don’t get it”. What they mean is those opponents have the audacity to question their cheap populism.

In fact, a number of British politicians do “get it” when it comes to the liberal response to Brexit. And that response, from where I’m standing, looks nothing like the meek compliance Brexiteers would like.

The Tory Ken Clarke, who spoke so brilliantly in favourite of the EU before voting against his party’s Brexit bill, gets it. Former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, with his passionate pro-EU stance, gets it. Tony Blair, with his rallying cry that voters “rise up” against Brexit, gets it.

And Emmanuel Macron gets it. These politicians get that there remains a solid constituency for credible moderate politicians. They get that pragmatism is infinitely more effective than dogmatism.

As the Tory Party was dragged to the right by the populist showman Boris Johnson and his unlikely comrades in Brexit arms, the Labour Party should have been all over the centre ground, offering a defiant but reassuring message to those who reject the extremes. Instead, thanks to the still-bewildering decision of Labour members to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader, voters saw only a party of different, even less appealing extremes.

The correct answer to a rightwards lurch by the Tory Party has never been a swerve to the left by Labour. Instead, it is a calm, centrist message that might weaken the Conservatives.

There is no reason to assume that the Labour Party is not a dying beast. The constitution dominates our politics and Labour hasn’t found a credible position either on Scotland’s place in the UK or the UK’s place in Europe.

This being so, there is space for a political movement that stands up for those who believe in moderate, centrist politics.

In just 10 months, Mr Macron has turned “En Marche!” into a movement on the brink of winning a presidential election.

Might a new party of the centre be able to similarly garner support in the UK?

Unless someone tries to answer that question sooner rather than later, it’s hard to see how the Conservatives, no matter how far right they move, will ever lose their grip on the House of Commons.