Labour’s Holy Grail
If we do discover ‘the new centre-ground’ it will likely be no bountiful El Dorado but an inhospitable terrain hostile to old-style leftwing politics
In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, published in 1949, Joseph Campbell argues that most stories, legends, and folklore, in every language and culture, can be boiled down to a ‘monomyth’, described thus: ‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.’
It is the pattern, with variants, of stories from the Bible to Star Wars, from Buddha to the bunnies in Watership Down. These stories about the search for the Celestial City, Promised Land or Holy Grail resonate deep within the human psyche, and that is why we lap them up.
There is something of a monomyth about the Labour party’s current quest for the ‘centre-ground’ of modern politics. King Edward and his brave knights Sir Liam, Sir Douglas, and Lady Yvette have set off to discover the magical place where all the potential Labour voters live, to bring home to Camelot the prize of a Labour victory.
The big political questions are whether the ‘centre-ground’ exists, whether it can be found, and whether its promise can be fulfilled. In mythology, the heroes are beset with dangers on every side, from Sirens on the rocks to the Knights that Say Ni. In real life, though, the search is beset with much greater dangers.
The idea of a ‘centre-ground’ is beguiling enough. Under the first-past-the-post system, general elections are decided by a handful of marginal seats. Votes may pile up for the Tories in Surrey and for Labour in Sunderland, but they contribute little to the overall outcome. Elections are decided by a few thousand ‘swing voters’ changing their minds, and switching their votes from one main party to another. These voters are middle class or skilled working class; they live in towns or suburbs; they earn average or above average salaries; they use the NHS and state schools, but seldom claim benefits; their social values are moderate and fair-minded; they are fiercely ambitious for their children, but deeply fearful of the future for their elderly parents.
The problem with the model, as with all political models, is that circumstances change faster than politics can cope with. Labour leftwingers argue that the centre of gravity of the centre-ground shifts during extreme economic weather. They hope the severity of recession, austerity and cuts radicalises sections of the electorate, and makes them more likely to vote Labour to ‘solve’ the economic problems.
For example, the 1983 Labour manifesto, published at a time of mass unemployment and deindustrialisation, had at its heart an ‘emergency programme of action’, including a ‘massive programme for expansion’ which involved a major increase in public investment in transport, housing, and energy conservation, a ‘huge programme of construction’, and a ‘crash programme of employment and training’.
Despite having more programmes than Radio 4, Labour’s vote fell by three million from the defeat in 1979, and Labour did not form a government for another 14 years. Many on Labour’s leftwing, some not even born in 1983, and others old enough to know better, want to repeat the exercise at the next election. That would put Labour back in office sometime around 2030.
If the centre-ground does not shift leftwards in a slump (and it did not in the 1870s, 1920-30s, 1980s or 2010s), where does it go?
The sad truth is that in harsh times, the centre-ground circles the wagons around itself. Social attitudes become more brittle, less altruistic, more receptive of conservative rhetoric about self-reliance. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey shows hardening attitudes towards the unemployed, and a rejection of ‘tax and spend’, or as Professor Stuart Weir describes it: ‘a dispiriting diminution in sympathy for the poor and a shift away from belief in the state … it seems that social solidarity is being replaced by self-interest, or just plain selfishness. Hopes, for example, that the Occupy movement might represent a shift in attitudes among young people towards a more progressive future, or that capitalism itself might [be] under pressure to make a transition towards greater responsibility, look unjustifiable. Worse still, it is among the young that attitudes are harder.’
Some in Labour’s ranks understand this shift, and what it means for Labour – notably Liam Byrne, whose ‘no money left’ note in the desk draw looks increasingly like the most sagacious and honest utterance by a politician in recent times.
Labour must address the concerns of an electorate battening down the hatches in an economic squall: immigration, fair taxes and benefits, the state of the high street, antisocial behaviour and jobs. It will not be about higher taxes to pay for more government programmes. The centre-ground has not just turned down Labour’s plateful of ham and eggs, it has thrown them in our face. Labour’s next move must not be to offer double ham and eggs.
antisocial behaviour, centre ground, Conservatives, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, immigration, jobs, Labour, Liam Byrne, NHS, Occupy Wall Street, Yvette Cooper