False Economy: a change-up for the left

The new False Economy website (building on the success of The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance and the MyDavidCameron sites) marks something of a change-up for the left, not least because it it something of a tribute to the strategic successes of the right over recent years.

Watching the student protests throughout the UK and Northern Ireland, alongside the GPO rally in Dublin last Saturday, it’s hard to see what the political utility of street-protest really is. We may have an answer shortly – the ConDems undoubtedly factored in a fairly ticklish spell of student protest and it remains to be seen if the Lib-Dems have the bottle to back Vince’s own legislation.

But the political right in the UK got a lot of things right in recent years without ever taking to the streets with placards – particularly in its understanding of the gamechanging potential of digital media.

Not being privy to their gameplan, I can only sketch it out the way I saw it. One bit of critical analysis I was recently reminded of came from a now-defunct Marxist blog called Socialism in an Age of Waiting. They noted that the Tories’ outlook was very bleak after the 2005, and that – barring an earthquake – it was unlikely that they’d be able to achieve the kind of swing needed to overturn the Labour majority in 2010. They went on to argue that the Tories needed to come up with a narrative that could make it possible for the centre-left populist Lib-Dems to get into bed with the Tories in the event of a hung parliament (pre-Lehmans and the spectacular personal car-crash of Brown’s leadership, this looked like the only foreseeable electoral scenario that could offer the Tories a glimpse of power). Even with the ‘earthquake’, it turns out that their analysis was accurate.

“…an intelligent and adaptable Tory leadership would give some serious thought to courting the LibDems, with a view to forming a grand anti-Labour alliance around policy positions that both parties could sign up to with only a few adjustments, and, crucially, with the enthusiastic support of much of the media for glib rhetoric about “consensus” and “freedom”:

  • a commitment to proportional representation, presented as a matter of fairness (which it would be), but in the sincere hope that it would prevent Labour from ever having a majority again (which it might well do);
  • wholesale privatisation of education, health care, pensions and social housing, to an extent that would make New Labour’s PFI programmes seem positively Bevanite;
  • a lot of earnest-sounding guff about human rights and civil liberties, coupled with little if any reduction in repressive measures, on the shrewd assumption that most people won’t notice the difference most of the time;
  • a commitment to overhaul the EU in an even more free-market direction, neatly balancing Tory Euroscepticism with LibDem populism, and probably in alignment with the trend in other major member states;
  • hostility both to increased immigration and to any further breaches of the “sovereignty” of nation states, thus combining (overt) right-wing little-Englandism with its (covert) liberal-left counterpart, and usefully blocking off any serious challenge from UKIP, Veritas, the BNP and the like; and,
  • given that New Labour will have been in power for 12 or 13 years by the time of the next election, the usual blether about the need for a new start, new faces, new this and that, of the kind that the media will dutifully lap up and regurgitate.

But of course the Tories are the stupid party, and their leaders are neither intelligent nor adaptable – or are they?” (hat-tip: Will Rubbish, who was impressed enough at the time to take a copy of this)

In fact, we have no idea if The Stupid Party ever did fully grasp the favours that were being done for it by it’s more intelligent and adaptable outriders in the blogosphere. They should be grateful though, because a number of important planks were laid between the Tories and the Lib-Dems online – not least in the way that civil liberties arguments were successfully conflated with free market ones. Labour’s managerialist inflexibility was successfully portrayed as authoritarianism (I argued this at length elsewhere at the time). The liberal-left fell for this one hook-line-and-sinker. That the cult of the methodological individualist was used to remind a Lib-Dem party of the L-word that was really only there as a reminder of the party’s bureaucratic heritage. It created the kind of weather that allowed the Orange Book authors to turf out the left-ish Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell and rise to the top of a traditionally socially liberal party.

What the right-wing blogosphere got right was that it understood the difference between journalism (which wasn’t getting the tories anywhere) and activism. Journalists say creative things once. Activists say banal things repeatedly. And the blogosphere was able to churn up the themes of nanny-state/the moral unsuitability of democratic regulators (the MP’s expenses ‘scandal‘) whenever a journalist needed a bit of ‘research’ doing for them. No organisation calculates it’s work to be more quoteable than the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

In 2005, it would have been unthinkable for the Lib-Dems to offer the Tories what seemed at the time to have been their only route back into office – a coalition based upon a Thatcherite programme. It did this with deniable outriders. The Taxpayers’ Alliance (a transparency campaign that is very reticent about revealing how far it’s funded by actual taxpayers) and a range of highly effective bloggertarians were able to introduce extreme minarchist arguments into the mainstream in a way that no political party could. The Tory right found that it’s most inelegant arguments were being flown as kites for them.

The blogosphere was a perfect vehicle for this in the way that street protest hadn’t been. The Countryside Alliance – another deniable Tory outrider – had done nothing to dent Labour’s electability at the start of the decade.

Today, Labour is in a similar position. As a rational political party, the logic of hotelling means that it straying too far from the coalition’s narrative will not serve the party’s risk-averse electoral strategy. Labour needs a deniable outrider to make it’s arguments for it. And most of the contributors to False Economy are totally deniable (insofar as they’re not really Labour supporters at all). To illustrate this, Dougie Alexander has recently outlined the ‘mistakes’ that Labour made in not embracing the cuts agenda with more brio in the run-up to the election. This is not a situation that will improve for Labour. The Tories know that elections are fought on the centre-ground and the role of governments is to move that centre-ground. No electorally unsuccessful party has done this as well as the Cameroons – with the permission of the Lib-Dems.

The left now need to establish in the public’s mind that the cuts are not a response to irresponsible fiscal management by the Labour government, but to thieving banks. This is something that Labour will not be able to do. It needs to establish that this isn’t a cost that should be borne primarily by the taxpayer. It needs to communicate the arguments that the bizarre faith-based experiment that the coalition are engaged in – that private sector investment will fill the employment gaps created by the downsizing of the public sector – is one that probably won’t work, and one that puts the cost of fixing the holes onto the wrong shoulders. In short, that the cuts are a false economy.

The bloggertarians did what the Tories couldn’t do for themselves. The left seems to be learning this lesson at last.

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