This is a cross-post by James Bloodworth
Julian Petley, co-author of the book Culture Wars, once observed that the British press had ‘perfected a way of representing the ideas and personalities associated with socialism as so deranged and psychotic that they presented a danger to society.’
It’s no secret that New Labour was evolved in part to counteract Labour’s image problems in the 1980s. The order of the day became finding the centre ground and sticking to it, rather than attempting to operate outside it and running the risk of remaining ‘unelectable’.
While many of us on the left did not necessarily agree with the political trajectory taken during the New Labour years, we understood that there was no inherent shame in trying to look like a credible party of government. The political landscape in the ‘80s and ‘90s was undeniably bleak for socialists, and reflected something the outgoing Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had said several years earlier: ‘You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.’
As if by prophesy, 30 years later we are again at a moment of profound political change. The certainties that have shaped political discourse for so very long are again being challenged, if not by the political class then by workers and students right across Europe and beyond. Questions many of us have long been asking about our economic system are today routinely being raised by those with little history of political struggle – people whose sense of injustice has developed as they’ve seen living standards fall and prospects for the future become increasingly bleak.
The right’s response to the crisis has thus far been defined by a willingness to take the easy way out at every juncture. In place of solutions they’ve clung to ideology. Instead of compassion they’ve hacked away at living standards. Their plan for the long-term consists only of a global race to the bottom. In summing up, their response has been to dig in and entrench themselves further in the failed orthodoxy of laissez-faire capitalism.
Through it all, much of the media has portrayed murmurings of dissent not simply as illegitimate but as disorderly and threatening. They have casually dismissed the Occupy movements and thrown handfuls of mud at any figure who has evoked the most basic right every working person must have – the right to withdraw one’s labour – and, as if looking admiringly at the authoritarian capitalism of the east, called enthusiastically for further restrictions on this right at every given opportunity.
Yet, in the face of this torrent of hostility the public mood toward the economic policies of the right has hardened. The latest opinion poll published by the BBC finds 61% believe Wednesday’s public sector strike is justified, a total that includes almost four in five 18 to 24 year olds. This is on the back of a YouGov poll from a few weeks back which found that 44 per cent of Londoners supported the aims of the Occupy LSX group, with 30 per cent opposed and 25 per cent answering ‘not sure’.
Rightly or wrongly, many inside the Labour Party routinely go along with the evocation of right-wing policies when doing so brings electoral gain. As someone on the left of the party, I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that my ideas would make the party ‘unelectable’ if adopted – as if the sole purpose of politics was the abandonment of all principles in exchange for political office.
I have previously accepted, however, that at times they might have had a point: the outlook for the left was, for many years and for a number of reasons, downright depressing. Resentfully, I bunkered down and grudgingly toed the line.
Today however, things are different. If nothing else, the above-mentioned figures should make it clear that it will not be crass characterisations of the ‘looney left’ that will eat into Labour’s support at the next election, but an unwillingness to properly stand up for the rights of working people in the face of this unprecedented onslaught of austerity.
The Conservative Party rarely needs reminding that it is the party of capital; yet far too often the Labour Party seems intent on forgetting that it is the party of labour.
There has indeed been a sea change in politics. This time, however, the boot is on the other foot: it is most certainly not the left that is acting as a drag on Labour’s electoral chances.
What reform and how can we achieve it? These are questions which have been asked on this blog repeatedly when it comes to demands for changing the means of electing our representatives. So what impact will be had by Gordon Brown’s announcement that Labour intend to pursue primary legislation before the General Election ensuring a referendum on the Additional Vote system?
Short term electoral advantage seems to be the order of the day, with a sop to the Lib-Dems and a potential wedge between a Tory minority government and a potential Lib-Dem coalition.
Overall, like Sunny, I doubt it will have much effect, though for different reasons. There are good and bad things to be said about most of the proposed systems, but no application of any of them anywhere in the world has been shown to make politicians less corrupt, more inclined to listen to people, less accessible to a business and political elite etc.
It is naive, in my view, to believe that AV will re-establish faith in the current system. It is routinely cited by pressure groups and columnists that the last Labour government was handed a massive majority with only 36% of the vote, but I don’t really see how playing with numbers until someone in each constituency has more than 50% makes the result any more legitimate.
One would think the whole concept of having a first preference will mean that this is the person you want elected; if he or she is not elected, then are you not going to be disappointed? In any case, each MP having 50%+1 of the vote doesn’t increase engagement by the millions who don’t vote, and it won’t increase the legitimacy of governments that act to harm the interests even of those who elected them.
Is anyone saying, for example, that under AV we might not have gone to war in Iraq? The most egregious acts of British democracy are often committed with the full support or tacit acceptance of the Opposition. Will it protect our civil liberties? Not if the Australian SIO Act 2002 is anything to by; despite John Howard’s tight (AV based) majority, this legislation was arguably more punitive than UK law.
So what is the point of the kerfuffle about electoral reform? It is more representative of those who have voted (and in some countries, where it is tied to compulsory voting, more tied to the entire country) but, in that a majority voted for what’s on offer. It doesn’t challenge, however, the processes which shape what is on offer, and as I’ve consistently argued, that is the key to a real democracy. Nor, incidentally, will it change some other side issues like safe seats (touted as correlating to outrageous expenses claims) – there will still be plenty of those.
Many, most recently Ben Bradshaw, have made a great deal out of the ‘crisis of legitimacy’ of British parliamentary politics. The call for electoral reform is usually tacked on somewhere in here, but I think this is a distraction.
Populist issues like individual corruption (or, for that matter, ceding power to the European Union or to quangos) aren’t the core of our undermined democratic legitimacy. It’s because the most important decisions – the ones that have an impact on jobs, healthcare, education, housing, transport and pretty much every other fundamental public issue – are taken on the basis of other considerations inimical to the well-being of the British people.
Policy is at fault here, not the meta-issue of British parliamentary mechanisms.
For the British Labour Party, despite a huge reserve of political capital, and the ever-present aid of an Tory opposition still stigmatized by the arrogance of its eighteen-year rule, policies at odds with what people perceived as its mandate have gradually eroded popular support. As this tide goes out, it exposes a deeply disconnected Labour. This creates a crisis of legitimacy for parliamentary democracy because the illusion of a party, any party, that will stand up for jobs, working people and spotted dick pudding, is shattered.
Faltering Conservative poll leads as their actual policies are discussed should give us pause for thought. Suddenly people realise that no party likely to form a government really speaks for them. Thus arises talk about PR and the majoritarian tyranny of FPTP. Without question, however, this problem will not be fixed by any variation on proportional representation.
The right policies, of redistribution, of intervention in the economy, or reinforcing the social welfare system, might restore the illusion, but the real fault is the inability of the Left to secure structural accountability of politicians to the members of their parties (the sort of thing which might encourage political engagement on the part of the average joe), or of parties to their delegate conferences, and of policy to the mass movement which would lend its life and weight to these things.
Meanwhile, a lack of accountability and the resultant turn towards the establishment-friendly centre attracts exactly the sort of chancers who can accommodate themselves to whatever politics are in fashion, with a side-helping of house-flipping thank you very much.
Barack Obama’s continuing dismal performance surely proves my wider argument, since his presidential campaign managed to whip up a huge movement, only for the realisation to spread that the movement existed on Obama’s terms and not vice versa. American disillusionment has resulted in falling opinion polls, defeats in formerly safe Democratic states and the looming threat of a new Republican Revolution this November, just as continuing disillusionment threatens a Tory victory by default here in the UK.
I’m encouraged, however, that some amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party have begun to take an active interest in the problem. It may be too little too late, but the world doesn’t end with a Tory election victory. Labour in opposition must be stiffened and transformed. I suspect, with a democratic, accountable party and a combative style capable of gathering and sustaining a mass movement to defend our ideas, the legitimacy of our electoral system will return to being an academic question.
(For an alternative, class-based, critique, see Liam’s, “Stay Awake! Electoral Reform is important!”).