False Economy: a change-up for the left

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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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  • JAH

    Lovely piece which I wouldn’t quibble with.

    However, don’t play the Tory game of dismissing the protests as irrelevant.

    The anti-war movement protests destroyed Labour’s credibility with a large % of its voters. I resigned after nearly 30 years membership and in deepest Kent it do longer functions as a party. The damage in ignoring us came home to roost this year. There were no canvassers left. Or MPs at the end.

    Thatcher’s children from the 80s are anti-union, anti-protest and deeply conservative. But it’s their kids who are protesting. It’s their kids who on the streets getting a whiff of alternative politics and ideas. As we all know, cycles turn and I wonder if we are heading towards Poll Tax riots. And don’t forget that finished Thatcher.

    Maybe street protests can have an impact.

  • http://nicentreright.wordpress.com/ Seymour Major

    I can see why some on the left have embarked on this new strategy and you have explained if very well.

    The left, hitherto, have thrived on moral arguments. Moral arguments are simple and easy to explain. A simple mathematical argument “they have that so we’ll take that and put it there” has usually been sufficient to satisfy its supporters. Hence, there has never been any need for an “outrider” campaign for the left.

    The right has always been in a more difficult position because the rationale for their arguments is and has always been more complex. It factors into arguments things which the left usually fails to comprehend, such as the ambitions of businessmen, their incentive and propensity to take risks. Greed is a dirty word on the left. On the right, it is a factor to be worked around when deciding the best wealth-creating programme for an economy. There is some morality in conservative ideology but most of it is about working around human nature and tolerance.

    An outrider was what the right certainly needed. The right can only win if their arguments are constantly repeated so that eventually, they are thought through.

    The left, in trying to win intellectual argument, is taking a very bold step and I salute it for trying. However, argument has to be credible. A simple slogan will not win an intellectual argument. On this particular campaigning plane, the right have the upper hand.

    Here is a core statement from ‘False economy’ about the plans by the coalition to bring down the deficit and what they think they are doing wrong.

    “Its their political choice to try to close the deficit in 4 years and to do it though cuts in VAT rather than taxing the super rich and the greedy banks who caused this crisis.”

    Notice the use of the word “greedy.” The left will not get anywhere by introducing morals into a political argument. The people who rely on morals for their political beliefs are the already converted left. In fact, this statement is so left wing that it would not have a dog’s chance of appearing credible to most floating voters.

    I hasten to add that I am not against this movement for the sake of it. Tony Blair won 3 elections because he was able to think outside his own ideology. This movement can succeed eventually too but it also needs to come out of its leftist comfort zone and fight the Government on its own territory.

    It is early days yet. So long as there are people in the campaign determined to win, I am sure a lot more thought will be put into it.

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    I honestly don’t think that the anti-war protests destroyed Labour’s *net* credibility. Some people left – others weren’t bothered and *some* who hadn’t voted Labour.

    There is a chance that the protests will rattle the lib-dems but oddly, the weather won’t help. I was there on the day of the poll-tax riot – it was unseasonably hot and plenty of drink was taken.

    I do agree with you that it demoralised the activist base though.

  • Alias

    “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.”

    Good luck with that bit of revisionism. However, it was the Labour government that decided that “thieving banks” should enjoy several hundred billion of workers’ money. That was the wrong decision, and it is ordinary working class people who will have to pat for it.

  • http://www.labourbelfast.blogspot.com DC

    JAH – trouble with Unions is that they are about bettering themselves and their members in *any* capitalist system.

    The debate to be had is about whether this capitalist system we currently have is in need of reform.

    Two different things to me.

    As Mack always likes to highlight to me, the Unions were involved in social contracts and partnerships in the Republic, the Unions didn’t stop the crash from happening or send out messages of concern about the greed attached with property speculation and the associated government tax take which was boosting their members’ bank balances along with it. (Basically, the unions operate a form of wage bargaining – which is of course vital as and when, but are they system changers? No. In my view Unions belong in the same spectrum as social conservatives!)

    Second issue, re protests I agree. Protests do matter because they have media impact and they can turn issues toxic in party politics. Elections can be won and lost in the media, but of course to actually change things – such as tuition fees, legislation and new policy is the only way; but, the two are not separate in the case of democracies. Bit of protest bit of policy change? A lot of protest, new politics and new lawmakers?

    I think after reading the above article the massive elephant in the room to me is the neo-liberal approach to markets, second is the micro policy on the banks and rewards and bonuses.

    Basically, the beauty of the right was that you let market forces run free, but state power does not interfere at all – hence ditching of the Keynesian approach to running the economy prior to 1979, which gave democratically elected politicians a role – a sense of purpose – a form of democratic management over the economy.

    Today politicians seem like incompetent bystanders and impotent to boot, as what’s the point in asking voters to decide who is most qualified to manage a market economy politically whenever there isn’t the policy or legislative tools there to do anything about it. The current political crop go with the flow – they do not intend to change the course of the river itself by changing the direction of it. They helplessly flow down stream and bob up and down, applying a bit of spin to economic and financial events which are beyond their control.

    At least pre-1979 Keynesian, the voters went to the polls and were asked who or which party was best equipped to use the power of the state to advance economic performance. Until very very recently that is.

    Because today State power has been called on, it has been called on to fill bank balance sheets using the taxpayer. This is the disintegration of the once coherent argument of market forces over the state.

    Its decomposition merits a debate. Time to dust down those old arguments that were once had in the Labour movement in Britain in the 60s/70s and try to think of a way that they can be turned into governing ideals in the year 2010 and onwards.

    Some basic debates about money and regulation might be useful. And is the centre ground a place which favours the top 1% over the other 99% – these 1% that earn ridiculous amounts of money and are permitted to do so under the law as conditioned by politics and its lawmakers.

    Is this the real centreground?

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    @alias yep – it is revisionism isn’t it? After all, the centre-left British government was the only one in the world that bailed out the banks, wasn’t it?

  • Alias

    Paul, you don’t quite grasp the concept of sovereign decision making powers or being responsible for the decisions that you make, do you?

    The decision to transfer the debts of private corporations in the UK from large business to poor workers in the UK was made by a Labour government, and not by any other party.

  • Organized Rage

    “it remains to be seen if the Lib-Dems have the bottle to back”

    Paul

    So this is your moral compass, lie and cheat the electorate and in your world, “you have bottle.” Why does that not surprise me and only last week you were telling us you nice middle class people were into reading books. Not one that covered ethics that’s for sure, talk about their morals and ours.

    You’re silly attempt to smear the poll tax demos as being fuelled by drink is unworthy, still I suppose they were to big for you to claim it was ‘rent a mob.’

    Not sure who you mix with but it must be a very narrow circle of orange liberals and blue tories, as down my way very few people are daft enough to believe ‘irresponsible fiscal management by the Labour government’ was what lay behind the coalition cuts. Most are beginning to understand clearly it is a mixture of thieving banks, and an ideological driven coalition government, which is being advised to smash the welfare state by the very bankers who landed us in this mess.(See wikileaks on behaviour of governor of bank of England etc)

    As to the student demonstrators, what folks like you do not get and perhaps never will, is despite the attempts of the MSM to trash them, a majority of people support their struggle. Every time the media attempt to demonise a student or 6th former, their family back home know they are talking crap. By their very behaviour the students, with a little help from the police, are politicing more people daily.

    You are big on advice, but pray tell me what should the students have done, tens of thousands voted Lib dem due to their promise to abolish tuition fees, and then they renegaded on their promise, treating their electorate with contempt.

    There is no other viable avenue open to them, OK cowards would say such is the way of the world, the students should accept defeat, and dress their cowardice in fine words, you know the type Paul. To their credit, these young people are made of stronger stuff and can hold their heads high.

    The students have achieved much already, it is just those with their arse stuck up the Westminster village are in no position to see it.

    By the way Paul, the political right had no need to take to the streets as they controlled both government and opposition during the Blairite years, hence on the really big issues you could not get a cigaret paper between their policies.

    As important they also controlled most of the MSM content wise, in that it refused to challenge the type of neo-liberal economics which led to the crash. (Same in Ireland with Peace Process and economics)

  • Livers

    “Journalists say creative things once. Activists say banal things repeatedly.”

    Fantastic aphorism.

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    @DC

    Mostly fair points, but….

    “As Mack always likes to highlight to me, the Unions were involved in social contracts and partnerships in the Republic, the Unions didn’t stop the crash from happening or send out messages of concern about the greed attached with property speculation and the associated government tax take which was boosting their members’ bank balances along with it. ”

    I think yourself and Mack are being a bit harsh here. Sovereignty isn’t just a legal notion. As you’re saying yourself in relation to elected politicians, you only have it if you have the capacity and permission to do so. I doubt if you’d be able to put up a very good argument saying that global corporations, pressure groups, the media or ‘permanent government’ have granted that permission to politicians – and politicians on their own certainly don’t have the capacity to exercise it in terms of having good-enough data or brain-power.

    Similarly Unions: Most people wouldn’t grant Unions the kind of power that you’re saying that they exercise because they don’t have the capacity either. Nor are they motivated to make decisions in the long-term interest of the general public – they focus on the short-term needs of their members in most cases. Elected politicians have short-ish time horizons (5 years at the very most, but rolling news has shortened that significantly). Unions have shorter ones still.

    No politician who wanted to get re-elected would have been able to shout stop in the way that you seem to be saying they should have done (though from the rest of your comment, I think we broadly agree on this!)

    There’s a bit of a ‘prisoners dilemma’ between elected politicians as well – one that chases out good long-term policymaking.