Joyce McMillan: Tories owe rise to the collapse of a credible opposition

Tony Blair's New Labour may have taken the party to 10 Downing Street, but the project was fatally flawed. Picture: Allan Milligan
Tony Blair's New Labour may have taken the party to 10 Downing Street, but the project was fatally flawed. Picture: Allan Milligan
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Conservatives benefit from demise of the centre-left after the New Labour project went badly wrong writes Joyce McMillan

On Wednesday evening, across both of France’s main television channels, the two remaining candidates for the French presidency, Emanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, confronted one another for two and a half hours, in a final pre-election debate said to be one of the most acrimonious ever seen in France. Le Pen accused Macron of being the candidate of continuity, a child of big finance and the existing political establishment, who would do nothing to help the millions of French citizens who feel exploited and abandoned by the process of globalisation.

Macron, on the other hand, called Le Pen the “queen of fear”, a woman who relentlessly exploits those suffering economic pain in order to promote a politics of xenophobia, hate and closed borders that would threaten the break-up of the European Union, take the country into an economic dead end, and risk encouraging “civil war” between its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. And frankly, both of them had a point. Neither of these candidates comes anywhere near offering the combination of real economic reform and redistribution, and open-hearted, humane internationalism, that western politics now desperately needs. And although European history offers us a strong hint about which of them is the more dangerous, it’s not difficult to see why many voters, faced with this choice, are saying that they may not vote at all, in Sunday’s final round of the election.

It all seems very different, of course, from the battleground on which Britain’s current “snap” general election is being fought. Here, we have an establishment party of the right that, since last summer’s EU referendum, has swallowed at one gulp many of the voters, and almost all the policies and attitudes, of the far-right Ukip. As as a result, this party - already the largest at Westminster - now expects to win perhaps 45 per cent of the UK vote on 8 June; and this despite an appalling record in office.

The electoral triumph of the Tories, though, is due to just one thing - and that is the collapse, over the last decade, of any credible centre-left. In that respect, the differences between the French and British political landscapes are perhaps less than they seem; it’s simply that in France, the dominance of a range of right-wing views is expressed by two different candidates, whereas in Britain, they are all now contained within one party.

And in the week that marks the 20th anniversary of Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the UK general election of 1997 - not to mention the great man’s announcement that he intends to play a comeback role in the current election campaign - it’s perhaps worth searching through the wreckage of the New Labour project once more, in order to work out whether there is any hope of constructing a centre-left movement for the 21st century that might avoid some of those errors.

And it seems to me, with hindsight, that the project’s main flaw - shared with some of its counterparts elsewhere in the west - lay in a fatal lack of rigour in marking out the real and essential limits of social democracy’s compromises with capitalism; and particularly with the kind of triumphalist capitalism that emerged in Europe and America after the end of the Cold War.

You can be a good social democrat while supporting those with high material aspirations for themselves and their families; but you can’t be one if, in the pursuit of that image, you begin - intellectually, culturally and socially - to dump, disown and disappoint the people, communities and industries which are not doing so well, and to spend all your time schmoozing with millionaires.

You can be a good social democrat if you support existing international alliances and structures, as the basic material - however flawed - of a functioning world community; but not if you become the uncritical lieutenant, even in illegal military actions, of a bunch of extreme neo-Conservatives in the White House.

And above all, you can be a good social democrat in a society that still has vigorous capitalist markets; but not if you collude in a situation where markets increasingly cease to respect the law, and instead strive to remake the law, and the governments who make it, to suit themselves.

For a long period between 1997-2002, the Blair government had the mandate and the popularity to stake out those limits, to exclude big capital from some areas of our common life, and to make the public arguments for the protection of the public realm; but for all the good work they did in quietly redistributing wealth and reinvesting in public services, they never fully made those arguments, and therefore did not succeed in changing the underlying political culture of the UK, which continued to drift rightwards, on the course set by Margaret Thatcher.

Any revived centre-left politics in the west, in other words, will need both higher moral standards and a far greater intellectual clarity, in order to lead our societies away from what has become a ruinous and self-defeating neoliberal orthodoxy. Of course, there are still successful examples of social democratic politics here and there, around the world; it is, indeed, one of the great ironies of the Blair legacy that Labour’s hatred of Scottish nationalism blinds them to the UK’s most electorally successful inheritors of the centre-left Blairite tradition, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP. And it’s certainly possible to argue that the SNP now looks, in these more extreme times, like the last survivor of a dying breed of functioning centre-left party.

As French voters saw for themselves on Wednesday night, though, most of the alternatives to moderate social democracy are just so much worse; less credible, less humane, and less rooted in the reality of our daily economic and social lives. And before Scotland begins to throw the SNP out with the electoral bathwater - as the right-wing press is now so gleefully predicting we will - we should perhaps glance across the Channel, take a look at our own home-grown alternatives, and ask ourselves exactly where they are coming from, both socially and ideologically; and whether there is any serious chance that they will, or can, lead us to a better place.