Could have moved mountains

Over at the excellent Burning Bird, Shelley recently announced that she was abandoning the Democrats and joining the US Green Party. Here’s one of the responses:

To say “the Democratic party does not represent me” is not a meaningful statement, because what a party stands for in America is constantly in flux, depending on what the vote-getters are perceived to be.I think in England, the only party that truly gets it is Labour — they have ditched many of their core principles to grab the center, and focused heavily on branding and spin — and it has worked like a charm. Forget about a three-party system. If the Conservatives or the Lib Dems don’t buck up soon and take their place as a proper opposition party, soon we’d be calling Britain a one-party state.

“The only party that truly gets it is Labour.” I think this is valid, and I think what they ‘get’ is something relatively new to British politics. It’s not opportunism or the willingness to abandon principles in pursuit of votes – Harold Wilson’s first term as Prime Minister began over forty years ago, after all. It’s stronger than that: it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power.

The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone. Here’s something I wrote in 1995, for the wonderful but short-lived magazine Casablanca.

What bothers me is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left.What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’, but that’s about it).

I remember, at a planning meeting for the newspaper socialist (a distant forebear of Red Pepper), suddenly realising what we were doing: we were trying to make water flow uphill. We were giving our time and labour without payment – many of us were giving money as well, in fact – in order to create something which might, one day, be able to sustain itself. (Or perhaps simply to create something which was worth creating, even if we had to go on subsidising it indefinitely.) It can be done, but it needs a language to do it in. Initiatives like socialist need a culture around them which can sustain the belief that they are worth doing and that they are possible: to make water flow uphill, it takes words of power. (I suppose ‘Comrade’ and ‘Point of order, chair’ do have a certain numinosity – at the first Chesterfield conference in 1987, somebody even tried to table a point of order at the evening social – but it’s not much to work with.)

Other Labour leaders have neglected the Leftist underbrush or cleared it from around the party, but only Blair has set out to poison it at the roots. This is bad news for Labour as well as for the Left. There will be a Labour Party after Blair; there will be a new generation of Labour leaders, there will be ideological renewal. Or rather, there will be a crying need for ideological renewal. At the moment, I’m not sure where it can possibly come from.

My 1995 comparison between Blair and Clinton – although not, obviously, my eerily accurate predictions for both of them – was echoed by something David Runciman wrote in a recent LRB.

In Britain, during the recent election campaign, the battleground for this newly personalised form of politics was not tax, but defence, immigration, terrorism, security and crime, where all the arguments were played out on Tory territory. In due course, when the Tories recover their nerve and the state of the economy starts to place Gordon Brown’s reputation under pressure, the argument will move on to tax.It is worth considering what then will be the price of the triangulations of the Blair years, the abandonment of principle, the remorseless pragmatism, the cynical disregard for constitutional proprieties. Too much attention has been focused in recent months on the legacy Blair is likely to leave for Brown, when what really matters is the legacy the Labour government leaves for the next Tory government (and the next party to govern Britain will be the Conservatives, unless the electoral system is changed). The example of the transition from the Clinton years to the Bush years is a salutary one. Clinton left an open door for his opponents to march through, by draining his supporters of their resolve, and hardening it among his enemies. He also acquiesced in the personalisation of politics, without finding a convincing narrative to counter the stories of injustice on which the Republican Party chose to feed. In the end, he made it too easy for them to undo his good work, and he destroyed the short-to-medium-term electoral prospects of his party in the process. Can anyone in Britain say with any confidence that Blair won’t turn out to have done the same?

“they have ditched many of their core principles to grab the center, and focused heavily on branding and spin — and it has worked like a charm”

“It is worth considering … the price of the triangulations of the Blair years”

And the swordsmen, the damned stupid swordsmen will win after all…

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One Comment

  1. Blimpish
    Posted 16 June 2005 at 12:41 | Permalink | Reply

    Fair point. This is why it makes me laugh when some of my Tory brethren try to get all teenage angsty about NuLab, and oppose everything (tuition fees, for example). Me, I’m happy for them to do the hard work of moving public opinion forward in such areas.

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