Monday, October 09, 2006

British politics without a left

British politics will - for the next three years at least - be dominated by David Cameron’s determination to fight Gordon Brown for something we have all learned to call ‘the centre ground’. That’s the conventional wisdom, at least.

The thing is, the entire argument hinges on exactly how you define that centre ground. And that, in turn, depends on where you place the boundaries of legitimate debate.

On a scale running from democratic socialism at one to Thatcherite Toryism at ten, today’s ‘centre ground’ probably lies somewhere between points six and eight. When it comes to questions such as immigration and law and order - the sort of issues where cheap populism rocks - a better estimate might even be from seven to nine.

If that’s the centre ground, it is only so because points one to three have magically been chopped off the end the political spectrum. Socialism disappears by conjuring trick. Hey presto! Now you see it. Now you don’t.

No wonder Brown and Cameron - pictured above left - are reduced to branding themselves by degrees of touchy-feeliness. Both are essentially politicians of the mainstream right. They cannot fight over differences of high principle. They do not have any.

If you find the propositions above contentious, let’s consider the policies that the SDP/Liberal Alliance - the soi disant ‘hard centre’ of yesteryear - stood for in the 1983 general election. I have a copy of the manifesto.

Roy Jenkins and David Steel were for public ownership of utilities and the railways. As good Keynesians, they wanted to pump billions of pounds of public money - yes, public money - into infrastructural investments.

They proposed measures to create a million jobs, called for worker-elected directors, and promised to increase child benefit, unemployment benefit, and sickness benefit. Oh, and up-rate pensions twice a year.

It is a symptom of the political slippage witnessed over the last two decades that even these kinds of ideas - far, far removed from democratic socialism - are considered way too radical even to merit debate.

To add to the tragedy, much of the marginalisation is self-inflicted. I cannot think of a single section of the left that has truly come to terms with the last two decades, and made sense of the ways in which the world has been dramatically remade.

The challenges are many, from the collapse of communism, globalisation and environmental crisis to the rise of political Islam, European integration and the emergence of China as a world power in the making, All that was solid did indeed melt into air. But somehow we just never saw history’s sucker punch landing on our collective jaw bone.

Where are the thought out responses? Where is the recognition of the need for cross-border unions and cross-border political parties? Where is the debate on - for instance - whether co-ordinated action by European social democratic parties could maintain manufacturing employment without lapsing into reactionary protectionism?

Where is the serious attempt to draw up policies capable of combating climate change, the most important political issue of all? You can’t deal with a problem of that magnitude simply by sticking an additional bullet point onto the Transitional Programme.

Inertia at the level of political theory condemns us in advance to irrelevance. The left remains content to do what it has always done. That means it’s going to get what it always gets.

Consider the John McDonnell decision to run for the leadership of the Labour Party. Leadership bids are a time-honoured Labour left tactic for enthusing its base, of course. But this time round, it amounts to little more than going through the motions.

There isn’t a Labour left to enthuse. As a result, there is little buzz, no sense of excitement, about the proceedings. The meetings have been small, and largely attended by people old enough to remember the Benn for deputy race that represents the campaign‘s prototype.

Elsewhere, Trotskyist organisations have learned to run electoral fronts with a little more pizzazz than they did in the seventies. But Respect is clearly going nowhere fast. As one of Respect’s national committee members revealed recently, membership has fallen from around 5,000 at the time of the euroelections in 2004 to 3,040 last year and 2,160 this year.

The Scottish Socialist Party has imploded spectacularly. One side or the other in Sheridan dispute has committed perjury and some comrades may well be looking at an extended stay in Barlinnie.

Unions are increasingly compelled to merge together for warmth, and content themselves with providing legal and financial services to members, with a sideline as unpaid health and safety inspectors.

With a few partial exceptions, they do not make even a pretence of trying to exert political influence. The main leaders are convinced that Brown enforcing a public sector pay freeze from inside Number Ten is as good as it gets.

The end result is that Bameronism gets away with representing itself as all there is. Welcome to British politics without a functioning left.

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