Dead Men Left

Friday, March 18, 2005

The cloying, inescapable fear

I was out with a few Labour Party acquaintances a few weeks back. Not a Blairite amongst them, but all afflicted by the combination of well-intentioned loyalty, outright despair and blind terror that glues too many Party members to this government. Sheer blue funk is the major bind. It was during a discussion of prospects for the Britist left that one of them leaned over and, slightly conspiratorially, remarked that, "Of course, we all know that if proportional representation were introduced tomorrow, a right-wing populist party would sweep the board."

As an admission of utter hopelessness, it's pretty good. It also seems to be a keenly-felt concern amongst a certain sort of resigned left-winger:

But widening public disaffection with the political process has profound implications that stretch well beyond the immediate election. The recent audit by the Electoral Commission found barely a third of the population believed that they really can change the way the country is run by getting involved. Alienation on such a scale is profoundly dangerous. In the long term, ebbing public confidence in democracy will erode it of legitimacy. In the short term, it leaves our electoral process vulnerable to the sudden rise of flash parties with a populist agenda, of the kind which in the Netherlands swept their Labour government from office.

So this is what keeps Robin Cook up at night. The pessimistic belief in British exceptionalism and in a uniquely conservative Britain has long formed a central part of Labour loyalist mythology. It has provided both an elitist strain to Old Labour attempts at social reform - the ungrateful brutes simply don't know what's good for them - and an embarrassing faux-populist streak to New Labour, from the People's Princess to SMASH TEEN GANGS.

It has never applied in practice; it would be difficult to explain, for example, the continued existence of the NHS on the grounds of innate recidivism. The annual British Social Attitudes survey, the most comprehensive purview of public opinion, has shown majorities in favour of left-wing measures such as redistribution, greater nationalisation, higher benefit spending and so on for at least a decade. Cook admits as much in the same comment piece when he confesses that "...for two years opinion polls have discovered that Labour supporters now regard [the government] to the right of their own opinions." Tony Benn, a rare Old Labour figure who never bought into this version of the exceptionalist thesis, made the same point with more force a few days ago.

The thesis' most recent manifestation, in this peculiarly acute pessimistic form, seems to be the product of the widespread belief that politics has changed so utterly that the old ways to engage people simply don't apply any more: no more mass membership parties, no more public meetings, no more canvassing, no more protests and so on. We are left, instead, at the mercies of an unrestrained and unpleasant media that wholly dictates politics and that only adepts like Blair and Mandelson can hope to steer in a remotely progressive direction.

The anti-war movement dealt (or should have dealt) a death-blow to this belief, though Cook seeks to replace the loss of New Labour's allegedly skilled management of the media with its control by committee - a somewhat typical reaction. Cook falls down, too, in his suggestion that turnout will slide still further in this general election. I'm not so sure. Turnouts in by-elections have been picking up for some time, whilst the 2004 Euro-election turnout was hailed as one of the best ever recorded.

The driving factor with both has been the sense of competition, that there has been something worth fighting for. Comparing by-elections across Wales and Scotland, where competitions are more usually split four (rather two or three) ways between Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and the nationalists, show higher turnouts in general. When elections open up and the results are not foregone conclusions, turnout improves. Cook's real fear, I suppose, is that thanks to a war he did not support, the government he does is blundering into an election which is no longer a foregone conclusion.