‘we have to do something about the economy’
The idea that big problems require big solutions is not entirely rational. But it is psychologically compelling. And so it is that politicians can secure radical policies more easily in the year after a crisis than in a decade of stability.
We have seen this to astonishing effect over the last two months: the speed with which the Conservatives have shifted public debate on policies surrounding the economic downturn is extraordinary. While they are beginning to suffer slightly in the polls, the new coalition government is pushing through some of the most radical fiscal policies in British history – with talk of 40% cuts to some departments leading not to riots in the streets, but mild bewilderment. When I was at univerity, people like Harry “Tory Bear” Cole would talk about how their party should be more radical – how they should cut public spending by 1/3 – how the welfare state was a ‘failed experiment’ that their party should end. Now they are in Government, they are doing just that.
But with one change. Rather than arguing that the welfare state has failed – making a case they know they would lose, they have adopted a new mantra: ‘we have to do something about the economy’. And that shuts down all debate. It doesn’t matter if the policy will help or hinder the recession – people accept that big changes of some sort are needed, and most of us feel like we don’t really understand macro-economics. And so, ‘we have to, do something about the economy’ becomes an excuse to do whatever you want – a meme.
Radical changes, in any direction, need a motive. It is hard to secure them when employment is high and the majority are feeling relatively comfortable. But as the rich see their savings depleted and the poor see their jobs go, ‘we have to do something about the economy”, becomes an excuse to do whatever you want – ‘do something, anything!’
So the Tories cut corporation tax to a record low: ‘We have to do something abut the economy’. They cut spending on universities – the drivers of a knowledge economy: ‘We have to do something about the economy’. They cut the TV license fee and threaten to destroy the pesky BBC: ‘We have to do something about the economy’. They cut jobs and push unemployment rates up – ‘we have to do something about the economy’ – in effect, they take money from the services of the poor and put it into the hands of the rich: “we have to do something about the economy”. And this narrative has become pervasive. As Obama pushes – despite a much higher debt:GDP ratio – for increased public spending to help end the downturn, even many British lefties are accepting parts of the Tories mantra: massive cuts? ‘we have to do something about the economy’.
And so the Tories are winning. To steal another mantra: so it goes.
So what was Labour doing?
Conventional wisdom tells us that, from the early 90’s, New Labour perfected the art of triangulation – that is, of always moving to a centre point between what they truely wanted, and what the Conservatives proposed. The argument for this is understandable, if not one which I tend to believe: by sticking to the centre ground, Labour can do some good, while keeping the Tories out. Moving to the left would allow the Tories in, and so be ultimately be futile. The problem, of course is that the centre ground of public opinion is defined by where the edges lie. If a government doesn’t lead debate, it is forced to follow someone, and that someone is unlikely to inhabit the vacuum the government just left behind. It is in pushing the boundaries of debate that much of the power to make change lies.
But throughout a decade of stability in Government, New Labour became
experts in what we thought was triangulation – they allowed the Tories to pull debate to the right, and scrambled to an ever shifting centre ground. The hidden message for those of us on their left was clear “we are with you really, but we need to do this to keep the Tories out”. Some people believed it. Others did not. But the case was certainly a reasonable one.
Then came the credit crunch. This provided an opportunity for Labour to do whatever they wanted. As the excellent Clifford Singer has pointed out, the left became very fond of quoting White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel in saying “never let a good crisis go to waste”. But while we talked about this principle, the Tories were acting on it. They stated that the solution to our problems was the most radical set of right wing economic reforms seen in a Western country, arguably ever. They made up for a lack of coherent argument with impressive repetition.
So why did Labour fail to do the same? If they had spent a decade moving from their true beliefs to the right – privitising things even Thatcher hadn’t dreamed of – in order to keep the Tories out, then how did they fail to spot the way that the credit crunch changed debate – that they could do anything they wanted so long as it was sold as a ‘solution’? Perhaps more honestly, that, in a crisis created by under-regulated, fleet of foot and monopolistic banks, they had an unprecedented opportunity to radically reform our financial architecture in ways that could not only prevent a future credit crunch, but also lift millions out of poverty.
For me, there is only one answer. New Labour – or, at least, it’s former leadership – have not been triangulating. They have not moved to the right of their own beliefs in order to keep the Tories out. They have moved their party to the right because they are right wing. If the Tories can get away with trashing the welfare state and mass forced unemployment, what could Labour have done? They had the best chance in a generation to sell a whole new vision. It turns out that they didn’t have one.
And so, if triangulation is the art of moving from your true beliefs to the middle ground, then the Labour leadership was not triangulating. They pushed through policies to the right of Thatcher because, in many ways, they were more right wing than Thatcher. And until their members come to terms with this, there is little hope for the Labour Party.