Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The centre cannot hold

According to the Liberal Democrats, only the Liberal Democrats can save us from mere anarchy being loosed upon the world:
The Conservatives want to lurch dangerously to the right with a plan to cut £50bn more than the Liberal Democrats, while Labour want to lurch to the left and borrow £70bn more than the Liberal Democrats.
This statement has a vaguely reasonable look and feel, but can you see what's wrong with this picture?

To me, it sounds like content-free waffle. I'll explain why, using Lego:
Not to scale - for illustrative purposes only.

So there's your Lego snapshot of the left-right spectrum at two elections, about thirty years either side of the mid-Thatcher period, with the three main parties* represented by appropriately-coloured blocks. In 1966, you've got Labour on the left, the Liberals in the middle and the Conservatives on the right. In 2015, the relative situation is much the same, at least according to the Liberal Democrat's 'clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right' narrative.

The Lib Dems might be right about being in the centre, but where is the centre? Well, as far as the big political parties are concerned, it was generally further to the left** back in the '60s than it is now, which is why the 2015 blocks are all in the same position, relative to one another, but have shifted to the right as a group.

Even if the Lib Dems are, as they claim, slap bang in the centre of the contemporary party political spectrum, the wavelengths included in that spectrum have shifted markedly towards the blue end during my lifetime. The shift is so marked that Ed Miliband's "left-lurching" Labour Party is broadly to the right of that terrifying radical firebrand, Harold Macmillan:
Next time you hear some right wing apologist mouthing off about Neo-Labour being "loony leftists", you should remind them about Harold Macmillan (Tory Prime Minister of the UK between 1957 and 1963). Macmillan was one of the most popular Conservative Prime Ministers of the Twentieth Century, a One Nation Tory and a supporter of the Keynesian inspired Post War Consensus who famously told the British people that they had "never had it so good" as Britain was booming under an economic system based on a mixture of regulated capitalism, state ownership of vital infrastructure and an equitable distribution of the nation's new found prosperity. If the orthodox defenders of the neoliberal status quo insist on characterising Neo-Labour as "loony leftists" then their own SuperMac must have been some kind of "deranged trotskyite ultra-leftist yahoo". 
Maybe I should even have put the blue block for 1966 one block to the left of the red one for 2015. But you get the general picture.

"The centre" isn't a fixed place, but is defined by the range of orthodox political opinions at any given time. But there's no guarantee that one age's political orthodoxy is actually correct. Before 2008, there was a party political consensus that light-touch regulation of  the wealth-creating wizards in the financial services industry was a risk-free way of making everybody happy (and rich) ever after. After 2008, members of the reality-based community had to recalibrate any such opinions.

And the range of policies on offer from the political parties doesn't necesarily reflect the range of views among the population. There's evidence that, in some areas, public opinion is to the left of the big three parties. For example most people seem to want to see the railways back in state ownership. Occasionally, the public are to the right of the Westminster consensus - public support for the death penalty is dropping, but polling evidence suggests that there are still more supporters than opponents, even though reintroducing the death penalty is pretty much off the agenda of the main political parties.

As "the centre" is neither a fixed place, nor a place where the majority of people agree that they want to be, why do the Lib Dems imagine that anybody will be swayed by a meaningless promise to position the party at the dead centre of wherever they imagine the current Overton Window lies?

The message that they seem to be trying to trying to transmit is 'We're not irresponsible extremists.' The one I'm receiving is 'Please don't rock the boat and stop us hanging on to a bit of power.'***

In their attempt to warn us that the worst are full of passionate intensity,**** they've reminded us that the best***** lack all conviction.

* Technically "successor party" in the case of the Liberals/Lib Dems.

** In terms of political economy. Other axes are available...

*** For a given value of 'power.'

**** Or an unconvincing impression of 'passionate intensity.' I believe the phrase is 'pumped', Dave, not 'pumped up', which sounds more like being inflated with hot air (although that would explain your unaturally smooth, plump face). LOL.

***** If the Lib Dems are the best, which is one humongous, super-sized "if" with a large portion of fries.