Saw this clip of Labour MP, Thangam Debbonaire, and Martin Manear, a member of the Momentum National Committee, being interviewed on ITV in the South West, and was fascinated by the MP’s logic.
In the interview Martin refers a number of times to the failures of ‘triangulation’. Triangulation is an approach to the positioning of political parties developed by Bill Clinton’s team in the USA, and attempts to blend ‘the best’ of policies from both the left and the right and by doing so transcend these old political factions to constitute a third force in the debate, i.e. Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’.
To those of us in the UK this sounds remarkably like the Liberal Democrats, who have not been in government in the UK since 1922! Nonetheless this ‘centrist’ idea was presented by Blair as being something new and something guaranteed to win elections because it would appeal to uncommitted floating voters, because the Third Way was presented as a pragmatic, post-ideological politics that was almost apolitical, thus appealing to apolitical, floating voters. It was also presented as if devising pragmatic policies to achieve practical, real-world outcomes, could be free of ‘divisive’ value judgements or ideological assumptions. Indeed, the Blairites cried, the pragmatic, rational, Third Way would surely appeal to all voters except of course the ‘crazy’ ideologues on the extremes of the old left and right wings?
In this interview several times Thangham Debbonaire (you really couldn’t make that name up could you) said, “We have to win over Tory voters to win an election.” She went onto explain that its no good appealing to left wing voters because they all live in labour safe seats and won’t win us an election. To me this seems a quite startling statement for a Labour politician to make; surely it is the Tory parties job to provide policies attractive to Tory voters, not the Labour Party?
Indeed, so bizarre is this statement that one can only imagine this statement actually means something like, “we have to win over uncommitted floating voters who voted Tory at the last election.”
The logic to this statement is pretty solid. Historically most constituencies have returned solid majorities for one of the two main parties. The elections in these constituencies are pretty much foregone conclusions and it is fairly safe to predict the party who has historically dominated will do so again. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that a ‘safe’ Labour seat will vote Labour pretty much whatever policies are adopted or whoever leads the party, and vice versa for a ‘safe’ Tory seat.
So, the theory goes, elections are actually won in the marginal seats that historically do not return huge majorities for one party and flip flop between electing different parties. In these constituencies elections are genuinely contested in a way they are not in ‘safe’ seats.
At the last General Election there were 650 UK constituencies. About 70% (450) were regarded as ‘safe’ seats and 30% ‘marginal* (200). Indeed, in 12 of the 17 general elections since 1950, fewer than one-in-ten seats changed hands from one party to another. Even in the massive Labour landslide of 1997, some 70% of seats stayed with the parties defending them.
So it seems elections are won and lost in these 200 or so marginal seats, and further, that some of these seats are more marginal than others and parties increasingly concentrate on the most strategically important and winnable marginal constituencies and design policies and campaigns to attract marginal voters in these 50 or so ultra-marginal constituencies.
Accepting all this for the sake of argument one is still left with the question what is it that motivates someone to vote Tory at one election and Labour at another or vice versa?
In ‘safe’ seats most voters clearly see voting Tory as incompatible with voting Labour; that it is not possible to flip flop your vote because Tory and Labour are on opposite sides of some ill defined political battle. However, some voters in marginal seats seem to see no major ideological or principled difference between the parties and feel it is perfectly reasonable to vote according to the specific political package presented at that particular election.
New Labour orthodoxy says these marginal voters are by definition pragmatic, cautious and ideologically uncommitted (i.e. conservative with a small ‘c’) and therefore to win power the Labour Party policies have to also be pragmatic, cautious and ideologically uncommitted. This orthodoxy also assumes that whatever policies Labour adopts they will be ‘better’ than the Tories and thus gaining power at any cost must be the only aim of the Labour Party.
Interestingly the Tories don’t take this approach. They certainly try to dress up their policies in the language of ‘opportunity’ and ‘choice’, but this is merely presentational as their policies since 2010 are truly pursuing a radical neoliberal agenda.
But New Labour politicians also seemed to accept the neoliberal ‘end of history’, TINA narrative, that suggested that after the end of the Cold war in 1989, capitalism had ‘won’ and there was no credible alternative to it. Somehow Blair tried to claim this was merely a pragmatic response to historical reality and was not an ‘ideological’ position. Of course in reality Blairism and New Labour did have an ideology and it was neoliberal capitalism. And this is of course the real reason why the right wing of the Party oppose Corbyn, not because he is unelectable but because as Tony Blair has recently said, they don’t support a left wing agenda… because they are right wing. Duuuur.
Thus it came to pass that by the end of the Blair years there really was no ideological or principled difference between the three main parties in the UK and it was genuinely possible for floating voters to float between only mildly differing managerialist versions of the same policies.
Unfortunately this also gave a massive advantage to the Tories. If you are a floating voter and you see that all the major parties have accepted that it is genuinely true that there-is-no-alternative to turbo charged neoliberal capitalism and that the unregulated operation of markets is the only way to achieve freedom and prosperity for all and that financialised globalisation is the truest route to world peace, then surely you would be best to vote for a party that truly believed it to be so and is best equipped and connected to make it so? If TINA is actually true, by pussy footing around ‘moderating the worst effects’, and ‘protecting the weak’, aren’t you merely making the pain last longer? Surely if capitalism IS the answer to all our woes (rather than the cause of them) then the Tories ARE the only credible party to vote for?
By the 2010 election New Labour didn’t represent anything or anybody. The Tories still unashamedly represented the interests of the capitalist class, successfully arguing that the interests of this class were de facto the interests of us all. By contrast any claim that New Labour still represented the interests of ‘labour’, of the ‘working man’, was manifestly ridiculous. New Labour had courted big business, embraced globalisation and taken the historical ground of the LibDems, i.e as a centrist, socially liberal, capitalist party of the professional middle-classes. So much so that in response the LibDems were forced to shift further to the left than Labour in order to differentiate themselves for the 2010 election. It didn’t last long as in their desperation to taste power, the LibDems sold everything they claimed to believe down the river and facilitated the Tories joyous attack on what is left of the post-war welfare state. But bearing in mind the ‘ideology’ of New Labour one has to ask what exactly a Gordon Brown, New Labour government, committed to austerity, would have done differently?
Even if the triangulating calculations of New Labour were useful in 1997 they certainly aren’t today and by accepting the underlying hegemonic assumptions of neoliberalism, New Labour unwittingly prepared the ground for its own irrelevance and ultimately the brutality of the failure of neoliberalism has made the New Labour strategy moribund.
Over the Blair years the shift to the right cost Labour about 4 million votes in aggregate. In an electorate of over 44 million this is nearly 10% and enough to swing most General Elections in Labour’s favour. But according to MP’s like Thangham Debbonaire (I mean really?) most of these lost votes were spread across ‘safe’ constituencies, so were irrelevant to New Labour’s electoral success and thus their loss to Labour was regarded by New Labour’s strategists as a price worth paying to appeal to the few hundred thousand floating voters in marginal constituencies that were actually deciding election results.
The bunching of all the political parties into the centre ground (in order to attract these floating voters) has also meant that 40% of people now don’t vote at all because they perceive there is no point; that their vote will NOT ‘make a difference’, because they correctly perceive that the choice is merely between slightly different managerial approaches to effectively the same policies.
But what has ultimately changed is that the 2008 financial crash has opened the world’s eyes to the inevitable and entirely predictable, failures of neoliberalism; global environmental catastrophe, mind boggling levels of inequality, perpetual war, mass immigration, stagnant income, explosion of zero hour contracts and precarious ‘freelance’ work, unsustainable personal debt; all resulting in an epidemic of mental illness and record rates of suicide.
As a result the neoliberal political consensus is collapsing across the Anglo-American world. Radical mass parties of the left and the right are gaining traction everywhere. The New Labour approach of professionalised, corporate, strategic electioneering is no longer credible. It appears cynical and devoid of content. The Tories recognise this and their success since 1979 is built on a dogged, strident sincerity of belief in neoliberalism; they might be bastards but they make no apology for it and everyone knows where they stand.
A revitalised Labour Party needs to accept that ‘New’ Labour is over and that Labour needs to once again stand for something, and stand for something in opposition to the Tories; to shout loudly that there IS an alternative to austerity and neoliberalism and that the alternative is called socialism and that it is the only way to build a world for the benefit of the many rather than the few. If a self-confessed ‘socialist’ can almost win the nomination for the US Presidential election, think what could be achieved in a country like ours?
This revitalised Labour Party needs to give the 40% who don’t vote something to vote for, and by doing so bring back the 10% of the core vote who deserted the Party in the Blair years. The Tories have shown us that the way to win votes is by being sincerely committed to an ideology. Triangulation and everything that goes with it, only results in the strangulation of honesty, passion and commitment and is the death of Labour not its future.
* There is no fixed definition of a marginal: but if we choose to define them for the 2015 election as seats with majorities of 10% or less that require a swing of 5% for the incumbent party to lose, then there are currently 194 such marginal seats in Britain, of which 82 are Conservative, 79 Labour, 27 Lib Dem, three SNP, two Plaid and one Green.