Here's a terrific piece by Seumas Milne in today's Guardian on the battle for the 'phoney' centre ground.
I'm pleased he mentions 'social liberalism' as part of the Blair/Cameron consensus- for too many leftists carrying on the 1960s reforms of Woy Jenkins has become more important than meaningful economic reform. We've surely had enough of the 'permissive society' (just look at our record teenage pregnancy rates), let's now start to build the 'better society'. And that begins with the economy- renationalisation of our public transport, and other utilities flogged off by the Tories, a higher rate of income tax for the wealthy- and a concerted effort to rein in the pernicious effects of monopoly capitalism.
The battle over this phoney centre excludes the majority
Unlike Blair and Cameron, most people want an end to privatisation, higher tax for the rich and a British withdrawal from Iraq
Thursday January 19, 2006
No one can doubt that we are in the endgame of the Blair era. Even if the sense of crisis that gripped Downing Street in the run-up to Christmas - when John Prescott lashed out at the government's plans for schools, and Gordon Brown signalled his dissatisfaction with Blair's European rebate deal - has passed, the prime minister's authority is manifestly draining away. He has already been defeated by his own MPs on the flagship terror bill; he has lost control of Labour's national executive, and was unable even to get his candidate elected as general secretary; and he now faces a string of backbench revolts, culminating in the prospect of defeat on education reform, without a climbdown on selection and local authority powers.
Assuming he swallows that indignity, the next crunch is likely to come with the May local elections. They are almost certain to be a gruesome experience for Labour, especially in London, for which the prime minister will find it difficult to pass the buck. And while it's true that Blair relishes nothing so much as the war without end on his own party, an increasingly public cabinet struggle over the timing of his departure can only undermine the government's electoral prospects as the media darling David Cameron drives all before him.
But instead of opening up an unrepresentative political system after years of New Labour control freakery and spin, the prime minister's loss of grip seems to be closing it off still further. The forces that dominate British politics have responded to Blair's enfeeblement by rushing to occupy that narrow strip of territory now taken to be the centre ground. In the case of the Tories, Cameron has presented himself as Blair's natural successor, even as marginally to his left - appearing to challenge business and police privileges, prioritise global poverty and the environment and, in the ultimate pantomime of spin, redistribution and social justice. And whoever wins the Liberal Democrats' leadership election, there is no question that the young turks, with their little Orange Books and neoliberal nostrums, are the rising power in the party.
Gordon Brown has been heading in exactly the same direction. Presumably convinced he has party votes for the leadership succession in the bag, Brown has turned to the right. Declaring himself a Blairite at last, his attempts to woo Rupert Murdoch, the Daily Mail and the corporate world have become ever more shameless: boasting of his role in privatising air traffic control, the exorbitant private finance initiative and the disastrous partial sell-off of the London tube, all the while wrapping himself in an imperial union jack and banging the drum for a US labour market model that has seen workers' hours rise by nearly 40% over the past two decades.
Blair's response to the Cameron challenge has been to insist that only by sticking with the centre ground - and himself as long as possible - can the new Tory threat be seen off. Meanwhile, in case anyone else had any other ideas, he is seeking to clamp down on party pressure points (such as union voting rights) outside the charmed power circle of media and business.
There are two very obvious flaws in this cult of the centre presided over by the political elite. If only mathematically, it is clearly essential for any political party or alliance that wants to win office to straddle the centre ground (though in a first-past-the-post system, its importance will depend on the balance between the other main parties). But that in no way excludes the necessity of representing the majority of voters who are outside that political space.
For all New Labour's claims about its big-tent politics, the party has been less of a genuine political coalition under Blair than at any other time in its history. The result is a crisis in political representation that has fuelled a wider alienation from mainstream politics. And the price for Labour was spelled out at last year's general election, with well over a million votes lost to the apparently left-leaning Liberal Democrats and smaller parties, and a low turnout in its traditional areas. There is no need for Labour to evacuate the centre in order to give a stronger voice to working-class and more radical voters - but, given the Cameron novelty factor, among others, it is only through such an alliance that the party is now likely to be re-elected.
The other flaw at the heart of the current centrist mania is its cockeyed location of the centre ground. The assumption that the broad Blair-Cameron consensus - social liberalism combined with free-market economics, privatisation, low taxes on the rich, and a welfare safety net - reflects the centre of gravity of public opinion is completely unfounded. On the contrary, opinion polls have long recorded large majorities against privatisation and the commercialisation of schools and hospitals, support for stronger workplace rights and higher taxes on the wealthy - as well as opposition to the war in Iraq and kowtowing to Washington, all positions usually regarded as well to the left of centre in official politics. What is described as the centre ground in fact reflects the dominant views of the political, media and corporate establishment - hence the weight it is given across the political system.
But for Labour MPs, trade unions and all those who want to maximise the chances of a more progressive government after Blair has gone, the real centre ground of British politics is a pretty useful starting point. Key parts of an alternative agenda to address public concerns ignored by the Blair administration are in fact already Labour policy. In the last couple of years, Labour's previously docile conference has voted to halt the privatisation and commercialisation of the NHS, keep the Post Office in the public sector, bring rail back into public ownership, restore the pensionsearnings link, and end the ban on Gate Gourmet-style workplace solidarity.
Blair and his fellow ministers have, of course, rejected all this. But, along with withdrawal from Iraq, they are all policies that command public support and could be used to help shape the terms of a post-Blair leadership contest. Now that Labour MPs have started to take things into their own hands - half the English and Welsh backbenchers have already signed up to the alternative education white paper - there is a real basis to challenge New Labour control of the government's direction. But if Blair's legacy is not to be a Cameron administration, that challenge will have to go much further.