Dead Men Left

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Reverse triangulation

You all know triangulation. It's what happens to the Left when it loses its backbone. Parties of the centre-left claim our votes as if by entitlement, occasionally frightening the odd wayward dissenter with a bogeyman from the right. The centre-left party then creeps as close as possible towards the same bogeyman in the hope a few confused right-wing voters will defect. Triangulation is what delivered anti-war votes for a pro-war candidate in the US last year. Triangulation is what the Left, us sad, recidivist elements, have to put up with.

Not any more. New Labour's lurchings over the few weeks prior to the election resulted from the failure of this strategy. Left-leaning voters were threatening to - and then, thankfully, many did - desert New Labour. In one constituency, this desertion produced a decisive breakthrough against the squashy neoliberal centre.

But look at the poor Tories. The more sensible elements realise that, their populist credibility in tatters, a retreat to the centre is necessary. A natural party of government cannot present itself, at present, like a parade of saloon-bar bores. This message is filtering through to the leadership. But they cannot budge from their default setting. Core Tory voters have already shown their capacity to defect and cause huge damage to the party, if necessary. Tory members have an enormous capacity to select unelectable pod-men of the hard-right as their leader - and so have now to be denied a voice in leadership elections. No doubt the Tory "modernisers" would love to triangulate this lot: frighten them with a good bit of socialist rhetoric, scare them back into line. Like the grasping young executive forced to look after a smelly aged relative, they remain tied to their disreputable rump of bigots and misanthropes.

Underlying the dilemma are the pronounced social and economic changes in Britain that have taken place since Thatcher. Socially, overt discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexuality, or race is less acceptable now than ever, though this broad consensus is by no means unchallenged. Economically, interpretations differ: one is that held by the political centre, emphasising the decline of class and class identity, and the rise of more assertive, and more affluent, consumers able to freely pick and choose identities and beliefs much as they pick or choose their wines. Belief in this vision of society underpins New Labour's idea of itself, and describes the course it has taken over the decade or more of its existence. Something like it is held to by the Liberal Democrats; the moderate Tories, as the Tim Yeo piece suggests, also see themselves appealing to a similar demographic. There is a lumpen, "socially excluded" "underclass" to be pitied and policed as necessary, but the picture is broadly optimistic.

The other interpretation is quite dissimilar, and is, as yet, confined to the margins. This emphasises the enormous (and widening) disparities of wealth, income and opportunities; the increased polarisation that has taken place in workplaces and in local communities; and the alienation and anomie that marks life in modern Britain. The "underclass" does not exist; far from being "excluded" from the market and society, they are decisive for its existence, with low-paid, insecure, and often illegal workers making up great chunks of the workforce, their wages and conditions regulated by periods of unemployment. The analysis is, in short, about class: that the neoliberal years, far from destroying or subsuming class divisions beneath a "property-owning democracy" or a "two thirds:one third" society, have led to a reinforcement of divisions that the prosperous Keynesian years helped undermine. Thatcherism, and its consequences, battered but did not break the historic institutions of the working class; whilst strike days remain low, union membership has stabilised and the potential for explosive struggles remain.

The type of politics suited to this society will be confrontational. The classic analyses of the Left, holding class as the determining factor in social matters, will reassert themselves against either an increasingly authoritarian centre, unable to successfully manage a non-existent consumers' paradise it placed so much faith in, or the screechings of the far Right. Either we build political organisations appropriate to those tasks, or we are condemned to further years of failure and defeat.