Tory triangulation: their great weakness?
Labour was always accused of spinning. In a sense, this seems to ultimately have contributed much to their downfall – but not in the ways we would expect.
The usual complaint about spin is that it misleads. But this feeling of sleeze didn’t cost Labour any election. Despite the lies of the Iraq War, the 2005 election wasn’t even close. I’ve not heard anyone argue this was a major issue in the 2010 election.
No, for me, the problem is that Labour never made the case for the principles of the left. The idea was famously that by moving their rhetoric to the right, they would be elected, and then could secure broadly progressive aims. Of course the latter part of that sentence is largely flawed – they did as much bad as good – but I often wonder if the first isn’t more flawed.
Because if the main party of the centre left is accepting the language of the right, then the whole of the political debate moves to the right. The foundation on which the party is built begins to slip. There is simple evidence for this. Labour stopped talking about inequality. Fewer people care about it. Labour did talk about gay rights. People are much less homophobic.
And we see the same in the States. What is the enduring legacy left by Ronald Reagan? Is it that he smashed the unions? To a certain extent. But his success in framing American freedom as a right-wing freedom was extraordinary. And by combining the two – not just assaulting the social democratic consensus, but also making the case for its abolition, that he was able to change American political imagination. It wasn’t until Obama’s Yes We Can speech that any Democrat presidential nominee truly attempted to combat the notion of American patriotic freedom as frontier individualism – of the American Dream as one of individual wealth. His images of Americans as collective revolutionaries endure. His success and failure in continuing to command the consciousness of the world with his presidential pulpit will define his legacy as much as his gains and losses in policy. Policy is ephemeral – the next guy can reverse it. Collective conscience is much harder to change. The best way to ensure a policy is protected is to build a populous who will never allow it to be abolished, who will continue to demand more of the same.
And while all of the above is only half true, it is a window through which I sometimes like to look at governments. And I sometimes let myself hope that in learning from the success of Blair, Cameron has failed to learn from his failings. Unlike Blair, he is pushing through seriously radical policies. But unlike Reagan (or Thatcher) he isn’t making the real case for them. Rather than attempting to build a consensus around mass privitisation and the abolition of the welfare state, he is pushing these things through under the smokescreen of the credit crunch. While Thatcher and Reagan fought for and won political territory, and in doing so revolutionised the politics of the country, Cameron seems to me to be revolutionising the structures of the economy and the state, but hasn’t secured the corresponding political territory. And, for me, this is one of their key weaknesses. Let’s hope we can exploit it.