Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Collapsing Star of Political Triangulation
Morning Star, UK

The failings of the Independent Group and Future Britain Group go beyond the members — this is a doomed last attempt to make ’90s centrism work, says CALLUM THOMAS

WE see across the English Channel towards Europe the decline of the once strong social democratic tradition. Its objective since the mid-1970s began to retreat into mere reaction, resigning its efforts to a loose redistribution of wealth by philanthropists of all varieties in the 1990s. Since 2008, this position has been weakened by the inability of the upper echelons of the world economy to guarantee continued growth.

The failure of quantitative easing, then subsequently austerity measures, to prevent a prolonged stagnation only serves to elucidate this point. Capitalism has entered a phase where productivity has slumped in Britain; in the long term, this lack of surplus could not, even with the most philanthropic policies, continue to be expanded.

The Tories utilised this as an excuse to retract the few redistributive policies of New Labour, slowly undoing the work of the last 20 years piece by piece. Yet both The Independent Group (TIG) and Future Britain Group (FBG) seldom accept the gravity of this stagnation, and wish to carry on as before. They are supposedly experts and professionals, many have been in politics for a long time. Yet their belief in the strength of the centre is their ultimate undoing.

TIG believes the present political dichotomy is a straight fight between populists and centrists, dismissing certain ranks of the Labour Party as overtly populist in orientation. The FBG too attempts to define the present political struggle in the same manner. Both exhibit a firm belief in their tendency’s supremacy in this time of significant change — forgetting that any political position is not a free-standing structure, its foundations determine its rigidity – once its foundations crumble, that very structure weakens with it.

TIG and the FBG continue to assert the solutions of the past, failing to engage with the fact that beneath them the world continues to move, leaving their once practical policies and initiatives now reading like tired hymn sheets. But if these policies were successful once, what prevents them from being so again and what can the left learn from these failings?

TIG represents the departure of MPs whose approach to the political was, in the final stages, narrow and highly personal. The party in the 1990s had been reconstructed to perform in an extended electoral game, with corresponding tactics deployed on either side of the benches of Parliament. Even with this third wheel party, the tactics haven’t changed. The FBG too attempts to save this method, bringing together centrists from all corners of the party, proclaiming itself “not a party within a party.”

Both practice political triangulation.

Championed by New Labour, its primary approach sought to match the conservative opponent and maintain a level of tactical parity, where aligning the party to the centre was the most popular and therefore most successful position. This worked when politics was convergent — but at this present moment, with Brexit and austerity, politics is highly divergent in its movement.

During the heyday of the political triangulation approach circa 2003, the individual became the primary agent, guided by good or bad consciousness, and material considerations were, if present at all, secondary. It is a refusal to engage in the structural decay of 2008, to continue the belief that the nature of social problems are a question of individual and collective consciousness gone wrong, that characterises the two groups. Their actions and especially their public statements are a politics which is judged by the perceived moral character of its participants, rather than the success of economic and political systems.

With reference to TIG, their primary impetus seems to be a constant application of the aforementioned formula and deploying it ad nauseam. The Future Britain Group has not yet grappled with the question, yet cannot find a way of individuating themselves beyond a rejection of one set of values for another. Both lack the in-depth analysis required to do the necessary reconnaissance that reveals the mysteries of where the world is going and therefore what policies speed up the process of ushering in the future.

Without policy constructed in this way, they can only fall back on moralistic and oppositionist politics, firm in the belief that the mythical centre still holds the key to develop tangible policy. Nowhere was this point better illustrated than the ironic comments made by Chris Leslie in the conference following the “insignificant seven’s” departure that, “The Labour Party has been taken over by the machine politics of the hard left.”

There is nothing more “machine politics,” more mechanistic, than blindly following a doctrine which is unable to empirically prove its supremacy. As someone who didn’t even contribute to the workings of New Labour and the Third Way, Chris Leslie simply followed and regurgitated its message with little to no critical engagement. Similarly, when interviewed for The Week, Tom Watson could seldom go beyond the same position when asked about the Future Britain Group’s intentions:

“It is to defend those traditions that I’ve invited you here. Not just because it’s critical for the future of the Labour Party but because these traditions are critical to the… nation.”

The belief in the importance of personalities over plans is the logical end of political triangulation: producing small positional victories attained by witty remarks in the mainstream media and now with trending tweets. With these minor “wins” the question always boiled down to who was managing the affairs of the state and whether they themselves where good or bad. Were they of good faith, trustworthy and charismatic? The slow decline of liberalism into despotism starts when such questions take precedence over how effective the foundations of society are in practice, turning individuals into gods.

This is not what the Labour Party and the left should be aiming for, and no temporary embarrassments cooked up by a hostile press should provoke us into reacting in kind: we need to bury the “personalities” with policies. We want and need dynamic and groundbreaking change and we must communicate that, rather than validating the petty point-scoring of centrists.

Political triangulation is inadequate in its approach: groups that wish to exhume its corpse are determined to trade decisive victories for minor changes in the political landscape, re-establishing a stalemate that benefits those in power.

The Third Way applied the division of labour to the art of winning elections, making MPs professional election winners rather than developing skills for the moment when they take the reins of the state, excluding any strategic considerations outside the confines of government. The best our opponents can do is win elections, only to find that once the means to instigate domestic policy ran dry, they could offer nothing but residual moral guidance.

The lesson here is simple: the Labour Party and movement must adopt a wider approach to its politics by engaging with the failings of the structures we find ourselves in, exposing them, and divining how these can be overcome and replaced with effective mechanisms that supersede traditional political economy.

We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by their personalities. Ours is a struggle to remove the barriers to progress, and set in place the structures which will establish the new way of organising.

What brings people to our movement in their thousands is not another hymn sheet but a set of blueprints. All efforts must be set to this.

Callum Thomas is a member of the Labour Party and more of his personal works can be found on his blog

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