“Tony Blair’s great legacy has been to achieve Margaret Thatcher’s ambition” January 24, 2010Posted by Garibaldy in British Labour Party, British Politics, The Left.
Depressing story in the Observer quoting the research of Professor John Curtice, who claims that the result of nearly a decade and a half of New Labour has been to shift the electorate to the right, the aim of Maggie Thatcher. Curtice documents how far attitudes towards key economic policies have shifted. In the mid-1990s, half the population believed government policy should be used to redistribute wealth downwards. That has now fallen to less than a third. In 1997, 46% of people believed unemployment benefits were too low; that figure is now under 30%.
The findings suggest people have become less concerned with inequality since Labour came to power – and less supportive of efforts by government to reduce it, according to Curtice. In fact, the proportion who want to see tax and spending increased is the lowest it has been since the early 1980s – during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
These figures reveal the stark facts of how the left has been losing the battle of ideas in the UK for the last three decades. Some of the most basic principles of the welfare state and of left-wing economics seem to be the preserve of a minority, even if a significant minority. I suspect if we were to break these attitudes down by age, the results among the generations that have grown up under Thatcher and Blair would be even worse. If it were just a case that the left was losing the battle of ideas over the idea of redistibuting wealth, tax and spend, etc among the general population that would be bad enough. But the fact is that the left itself has turned away from the centrality of economics, as we discussed here and then here last August. Essentially, the Labour Party in both Britain and the Republic has become a liberal party, concerned primarily with issues of formal legal equality and cultural politics, but stripped of any serious commitment to reshaping the economy or using the immense power of the state to combat the inequality of life chances produced by the capitalist system. In fairness, health remains one area where there is a real commitment to equality (at least in Britain), and we see sporadic attempts in education, though mostly centred on access to Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities. We’ll see how the Labour Party in the south deals with the calls to reintroduce third level fees that seem to be moving up the agenda when it is in coalition after the next election, which seems inevitable now. Not wanting to reverse the main legacy of Democratic Left may count for something; or it may not.
All of which I think is a large part of why the left is having such little success in exploiting the current crisis of capitalism. In the UK, Labour is divided on whether to adopt more egalitarian language of the playing fields of Eton variety or move to the right, while the Liberal Democrats have moved markedly rightwards as well. Even in NI, the Alliance Party has been moving to the right, as the fact that their European election candidate defected to the Tories. The left in the Republic made some gains at the last set of elections, but Fine Gael were the big winners. It seems to me that the public mood in the south has shifted further to the right since then as well. Whether through incomptence and/or spinelessness at the top, or through an insufficiently militant membership, or some combination of all these (delete as appropriate), the challenge that was coming from the trade unions has been significantly weakened. The Labour Party is trying its best not to scare the horses. As the recent departures of Christy Burke and Killian Forde show, PSF in the south is also facing pressure on the question of whether to move to the right or not, while in the north it is (assuming the Executive survives) one of the main players in a regime that is about to implement significant cuts. There’s really no need even to mention the Greens as part of this discussion. As for the media, I don’t think any of us expected anything other than we have got – an aggressive campaign in defence of neo-liberalism.
The parties further to the left must take their share of blame for the lack of an upswing, even recognising their smaller resources. Praise for Michael Taft has deservedly been pretty much universal on the left, and the TASC Progressive Economy blog has made a positive contribution too. The parties themselves, however, have not reacted well enough in terms of the economic debate, so that Taft has sometimes looked like a lone voice. While there have been some policies laid out – such as the insulation scheme advocated by several parties – designed to revitalise the vital construction sector, where is the party with, for the sake of argument, a detailed programme for developing the technology sector in the public interest using the power of the state? Perhaps such a policy exists, but if so I am unaware of it. The various parties have been holding meetings and publishing on the situation too, but on the whole, I think it is fair to say that the the transformative left has not developed its economic policies as concretely as it might have, and we have certainly not got our message out very widely among our target audience. Too many think There is No Alternative – or that the only alternative is Fine Gael. We are not doing enough to rectify this, to combat the effects of now two generations of a political culture that denegrates the possibilty of progressive economic change.
Among both the causes and the effects of the attitudes described by the Observer report are depoliticisation, and the attendant demoralisation. We can see this all around us – the decline in the membership and activities of political parties, the fall in trade union membership, the declining importance in politics in popular culture, even the virtual disappearance of student politics as understood over the last few decades. Again, the left cannot change this on its own, but we must find more effective ways to combat it.
All in all then, I’d say that the Observer report on the Professor’s findings chimes fairly well with the reality of politics across these islands. And more’s the pity. The left needs to find its voice once more, to go beyond the cultural politics in which too much of it has become trapped, to find the confidence to offer bold economic policies that step outside the lines set by the dominant ideology, and the focus to produce them. That means a change not only in the priorities and activites of left parties, but probably of us as individuals on the left too. Answers on a postcard to every left political party in the country.