Centre or bust ?!
A growing and increasingly commonly shared opinion amongst members of both the Labour Party and across the pond, the Democrat party, is that “the electorate are largely centrist” (politically) and that “a radicle left of centre leadership can not win electorally”. This opinion is shared, often with some regret; and is given as a reason why supporting a more centrist candidate for leadership might be the only possible path to power. After all, the argument might go, “isn’t it always going to be better for everyone if the result is a Labour (or Democrat led) Government?“
I intend to argue that such a view is entirely misguided, will result in no significant changes in the balance of economic power; and will almost certainly result in an increase of political alienation and disengagement, most especially within our most economically disadvantaged communities.
Back in 1997, I still just about held-on to my Labour Party membership; not because I had any enthusiasm for the new direction promised by our party under Tony Blair; but because of loyalty to my colleagues and friends within the local party, combined with my overwhelming desire to see an end to Conservative hegemony. It is also probable that some version of the above “centrist” argument had managed to burrow into my psyche. I, like tens of thousands of other Labour Party members, sat through election night and saw the morning arrive with a rising sense of euphoria. Surely, I reasoned, things can indeed “only get better”?!
I was to quickly come to understand that such a view was entirely wrong. “New Labour” was a very different beast to the Labour Party that I had come to regard as my family.
A massive increase in the use of the Private Finance Initiative for public works such as building new schools, hospitals, Police and Fire stations saw millions of pounds of public assets effectively transferred into private hands. Reforms to the Welfare system saw the introduction of “Conditionality” to benefit claims, An innocent enough sounding term, but the reality of its implementation was to lead to a system of sanctions for claimants considered to have “breached their contracts”. The reality, in the real world, was that thousands of people found that their payments got reduced or stopped altogether with all of the hardships, desperation and misery that has been such a feature of the lives of our most vulnerable people ever since.
The “revolving door” between Government departments and the private sector, if anything, began to spin even more swiftly during the Blair and later Brown years; with senior civil servants, Ministers and supportive members of the PLP picking up non-executive directorships and seats on the board of companies involved in Government contracts as common place; if not more so, than under any previous Conservative administration. The UK arms industry thrived, with active assistance from Government and the embracing and active promotion of interventionist policies by Prime Minister Tony Blair. It is a fact that Blair’s Government engaged in more international conflict than ANY other administration in British history.
My clinging on phase within the party that I loved (and continued to love throughout my wilderness years) did not last long. With great sadness, I came to see New Labour to be an enemy of just about everything I had ever believed. What I now understand to be “centrism” was and remains to be a form of political discourse that promises to remain within the confines of the dominant Neo-liberal political consensus. Nothing, whether that be economic policy or social policy, must actively challenge the hegemony of the social and economic elites. Such was the price paid by Tony Blair before his electoral victory in 1997, sealed with his visits to Rupert Murdoch to garner support and his “we won as New Labour and we will Govern as New Labour” post election speech.
I really hate to be the bearer of bad new, but, trust me when I say, Tory Lite; which is what centrism is, in truth is no different than actual Conservative. In fact, as the New Labour years demonstrated, it can be worse; simply because when a Labour Government follows the rules of the consensus, there is no opposition within Parliament. There is effectively no alternative narrative given. This translates into no hope for those oppressed and suffering under the real world consequences of neo-liberalism; which in turn leads to disengagement and alienation from the political process. Many will simply drop out, refuse to participate in elections. People thus affected are more easily enchanted by the simplistic messages of the far right. With a focus offered for their daily sense of disenfranchisement and misery; and scapegoats such as East European migrants readily to hand, it is easy to see why BREXIT has become the nadir of the political left.
It seems to me that we, as in the Labour Party; are at a crossroads. We can either choose to follow the path of least resistance; which may or may not lead to Government under a centrist leader, or, we can choose a more difficult path; this being one that continues to offer a genuine alternative and challenge to the neo-liberal consensus. This is not, by any measure, an easy path to follow; for the full weight of the established interest will be deployed against the leadership of such a venture. The fight will be one that is won and lost within the community. We can and will inspire hope where hope has been lost; but this can not be done unless we as a movement have the courage and conviction to believe that there is a better way.