May 5, 2008

The Opposite of Triangulation

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 12:49 pm

A final wholly inadequate attempt at post-mortem, before I try to dismiss the election at least temporarily from my thoughts. [You might want to read this or this.] Clearly, Labour is haemorrhaging on two fronts. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ Tory voters – the middle-Englanders that it was Blair’s great ‘achievement’ to bring into the New Labour coalition – are returning to the conservatives with a vengeance. In London, it woz the suburbs wot lost it. On the other hand, Labour’s ‘core’ constituency, the old labour voters, are abandoning the party in repugnance – turning to Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Greens, the Liberals – anyone but Labour. [The liberals, though, are doing calamitously, given that much of Labour’s lost vote should be theirs for the taking. This isn’t just a product of third party irrelevance, I don’t think – it’s also partly a product of their move towards the right, as the Orange book faction take control. This may be wishful thinking.] The Tories are also picking up new votes, from that same repugnance… as are the far right. It’s a horror story – but it’s a consequence of the policy of triangulation that was the foundation of Blair’s whole project. When triangulation goes wrong, it really goes wrong – the double movement of assimilation becomes a pincer movement bearing in on Labour’s non-existent heart.

New Labour’s politics were formed in opposition, and remained oppositional throughout its decade-long dominance. The plan was always to appropriate right-wing policies, so that Labour would be impossible to attack from the right unless its opponents moved ever-further rightward. The inevitable result was to move political discourse in the UK ever further rightward… and in recent years, as Cameron has successfully repositioned the Tories on the centre ground that has moved to meet them, the strategy has collapsed: there’s no further right to appropriate, in many of the most important policy areas. So we have the remarkable spectacle of Labour triangulating against opposition policies that don’t exist – the creation, in the New Labour hive-mind, of a non-existent right wing ‘enemy’ that needs to be appeased. This, surely, is the only explanation for the bizarre insistence on extended detention periods for ‘terrorists’ – an authoritarianism that was, to begin with, an unprincipled political strategy, has become a simple modus operandi, a way of life and thought.

This isn’t to discount (as regards the election catastrophe) the simple weariness or hatred evinced by governments that outstay their welcome… or the cumulative effect of incompetence and dismal policy decisions. But the pendulum swing between rival parties doesn’t touch the same two points with each outward moment of its arc. This swing is also a reconfiguration of the political terrain; and New Labour’s ‘achievement’ was to bring Tory policies into the heart of the leftist project – the abandonment of the leftist project, in other words; the complete capitulation of the party of the welfare state to right-wing dogma.

On the domestic front, the exemplary New Labour policy is bringing private finance, and private companies, into the body and soul of the state. Thatcherism was about selling off the state; Blairism was about reconfiguring the state as a patchwork of corporations. It shouldn’t have to be said that this is a disaster on every level. What’s most remarkable, though, is its incoherence. Just obviously the ‘efficiency’ lauded in free-market ideology bears littlr relation to the efficiency required of an institution designed to serve the public. There’s a fundamental conflict of interest so glaring that a child of four could notice and polemicise against it.

Here’s a factoid that will have to take the place of countless others: in the NHS (or at least in the hospitals with which my spies are acquainted), private cleaning contractors are not permitted, by the companies employing them, to clean up bodily fluids – because it’s a health hazard. There’s nothing NHS employees can do about this, because the contractors are perfectly within their rights, as laid out in the cretinously drafted contracts. So blood, vomit, urine, faeces cannot be touched by NHS cleaning staff. If our hospitals are to be kept clean, actual state employees have to do it: that is, the qualified doctors and nurses who should be tending the sick. This is, of course, the result of simple incompetence in the drafting of contracts. (Contracts drafted, presumably, by New Labour mandarins who know nothing about the health service.) But this kind of calamity is the inevitable result of introducing ‘market’ mechanisms into organisations dedicated to public service. Corporations aim to make as much as they can from doing as little as possible: that’s efficiency. The government wants the health service to be well run: that’s efficiency. Somehow, along the way, efficiency got confused with efficiency… and so after years of massive expenditure on the NHS, it continues to lag behind even far cheaper continental equivalents.

(I say ‘market’ mechanisms – but of course one of the problems is that there’s no market to speak of in the provision of public services. We’re dealing with state guaranteed monopolies – which as even the most basic and ideologically slanted economics textbooks will tell you destroys the market efficiency that market methods are supposed to produce. And this ‘market failure’ is inevitable, in the public service sector – because real market competition works by natural, or social, selection – those who can’t provide the goods and services the marketplace demands are driven from the market: they fail. If a public service fails, a better service isn’t chosen instead, by rational consumers. It just fails. (And is bailed out by the government, or the taxpayer). So the idea that even market efficiency, let alone actual efficiency, could be achieved in the public sector is insane. But that’s only one landmark in the grand panorama of private finance incoherence.)

This post won’t win any awards for nuance. But to continue: it’s extraordinary the tenacity and stupidity with which New Labour has pursued this fundamentally misguided project. The result has been massively increased spending on public services, alongside the complete and justified loss of confidence, across the country, in the left’s ability to administer those public services. When the Tories get in, in 2010, we’re going to see, I think, a short period of continuation of basically New Labour policies – paralleling the ’97 Labour adoption of Tory spending plans – and then the Thatcherite project of the destruction of the welfare state will be renewed. The difference, this time round, is that there’ll be no ideological or practical commitment, in mainstream political discourse, to the kind of public service policy that neoliberalism is dedicated to dismantling. Spending on the welfare state will equal, in political debate, New Labour – a vision of the welfare state that is already right wing at its core.

How much does ideology count? [As Le Colonel Chabert asked the other day.] The answer, I think, is that it counts for a lot. Market ideology is a very crude tool developed to serve the material interests of the already wealthy. But a crude ideological tool, once constructed, takes on a life of its own. New Labour’s corruption – its cosying up to the rich and powerful, its infatuation with the City – these may be products of the way power and wealth are distributed in modern Britain. But the application of free market dogma to leftist political goals cannot be explained away as capitulation to the interests of the powerful. It is largely (though of course not entirely) the product of market ideology untethered from the material interests that gave rise to it. Economic and social doctrines created to justify and engender the redistribution of income towards a business elite came to control even the mechanisms by which income is redistributed away from the elite – towards the poor, the old, the sick. And of course you cannot run progressive public services on principles antithetical to their goals. I don’t think that Blair or Brown are exactly insincere in their claim to be pursuing (supposedly) progressive goals. I think they’re creatures of an economic and political ideology that makes the coherent pursuit of progressive goals impossible.

Death of a party, in other words. Death of a coalition. As New Labour’s big tent collapses, and the clowns come running out screaming, we find a political terrain in which the mainstream left have no sense even of what they’ve lost – or killed.


Keynes always stressed, pithily, the importance of ideas. To be sure, Keynes’ emphasis on the power of thought and writing was based on his own class interests – he wrote for, and assumed, a technocratic elite who could translate his economic insights into action. We don’t have – don’t want – that luxury. Nonetheless, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back“. Our current madmen distil their frenzy from academic scribblers of thirty, fifty, a hundred and fifty years ago. The fight for political change needs to be fought, in part, on this terrain – it is, in part, a battle of ideas. Argument isn’t sufficient, of course, but it’s necessary. And so… get scribbling. This ideology needs to be dismantled, exposed, destroyed. We at least have accuracy on our side. “[S]oon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” (Of course, as Keynes also reminded us – if things get “late” enough… we’re all dead.)

[NB:  Though probably worth bearing this in mind, too. “The division of labour… manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labour, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood), while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. Within this class this cleavage can even develop into a certain opposition and hostility between the two parts, which, however, in the case of a practical collision, in which the class itself is endangered, automatically comes to nothing, in which case there also vanishes the semblance that the ruling ideas were not the ideas of the ruling class and had a power distinct from the power of this class.” (‘The German Ideology’)]


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  3. define the policy of triangulation in the context of detente

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