Last weekend, I went to see “If Only”, a play by David Edgar about the politics surrounding the formation of the coalition and a subdued appeal for the political parties to rediscover their identities; identity destroyed by triangulation.
Triangulation is a political strategy used mainly by social democratic parties and the US Democrats, of moving to the right and forcing your opponents to differentiate themselves by moving further to the right. It’s extremely cynical and extremely dangerous. However, if it’s just about winning, it clearly worked for a number of years for the Labour Party, isolating the Tories under the leadership of Major, Hague, Howard and Duncan-Smith. The danger in this strategy is that many of those who genuinely agree with the policies abandoned have no-one to represent them in the national political debate; the left in society become politically voice-less. A further danger is that neither the acolytes of triangulation nor their supporters believe in what is being said and promised by politicians, it reinforces the slur that all politicians are liars by making it the truth.
The play is in two parts, the first set during the 2010 election and it talks about these political strategies, describing triangulation as looking tough on your own party, quoting the abolition of Clause IV and refusing to be outflanked on the right on crime, although it was probably the public expenditure commitments which neutralised the Tory attack on tax which was more powerful electorally; Blair’s “Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” was history by 1997. This speech in the play, for me is not powerful enough to stick. It’s almost as if Edgar was unsure what the message of the play is and so these preparatory themes don’t last in the memory and it makes the final part weaker where the three politicians consider if it’s too late to begin to tell the truth.
The shared politics of Liberty and individualism that allowed the orange bookers to take the Lib Dems into the Tory coalition is explored while Labour’s loss of its Equality & Fraternity agendum is glossed over. The potential ideological alliance between the Liberal Democrats and Tories is flagged, much to the surprise of the Labour Party representative. He clearly had come to believe the Liberal Democrat propaganda that the LibDems were a party of the left, a delusion he was not alone in. Much of the Guardian’s editorial staff and the most senior players in the 1997 Blair Government were of this view, although the latter’s political analysis and judgement is tainted by triangulation. The LibDem’s dilemma when presented with Scenario 4 is well stated; that they had been campaigning for 70 odd years to get back into Government, asking the electorate to give them a parliamentary balance of power. Government is beyond the living memory of any LibDem activists and so they couldn’t not enter the Government given the result.
The final act confronts the three democrats with triangulation’s end-game and shows what happens when politicians stop persuading the electorate to support their positions and assume that the electors’ votes and opinions are immutable and so only clever positioning will allow them to win; they end up chasing votes. Triangulation legitimises the opposition’s lunacy, the centre recalibrates, and in the case of modern Europe, we are staring a resurgent fascism in the face.
Other reviewers say that it was well acted, but I am not sure I agree. It could be that the play suffers from the Drop the Dead Donkey syndrome in that they are working too hard for contemprary relevance and the author is too interested in both the process of coalition formation and the history. What I see to be the underlying politics, the appeal to return to leadership isn’t actually what Edgar was saying. Maybe I should get a copy of the play as what in retrospect seem to be critical scenes and speeches don’t stick and I assume that I understand what he’s trying to say; it could be that I wasn’t listening carefully enough. It’s certainly taken me long enough to get it down in writing.
However, you can hear Edgar in his own words at the Argus
Triangulation involves letting your opponents define your position, and requires you to give up on persuading people that there is a better way and that your principles have value. It also requires you to take your supporters for granted and assume that they have no-where else to go. Labour lost 5m votes between 1997 and 2010, three million of them between 1997 and 2001. While the right in the Labour Party describe appealing to these lost voters with a more traditional, or truthful programme as I prefer to call it, as “retreating to the core vote”, I’d suggest that it was the actions of the later years of the New Labour Governments that led to a true retreat to the core vote, those that voted Labour in 2010.
Some of the 5m who walked away from New Labour, will have been centrists who were originally attracted by Blair’s 3rd way, but many will be traditional Labour voters disappointed by aspects of the 1st administration. Those leaving after 2001, are more likely to be of the left, objecting to the Iraq War, Foundation Hospitals, RIPA and top up tuition fees. Moving to the right by following the Tories and their right wing outriders to their sewers on welfare and immigration is both morally wrong and arithmetically inept. We need to ask the missing 5m to come back to Labour. To do that we need to talk about what they want and need and tell them the truth. I realise that Labour’s new right think that, “There’s no more money” is telling the truth, but the failure to address income fairness and the need for social solidarity, originally by New Labour, and since the election by the coalition leaves massive room for doing both the right and popular thing . Tories can always find ways to reduce taxes on the rich, reduce income fairness and destroy social solidarity; I accuse Labour’s right wing of a lack of will. Furthermore given the actual substantial achievements of Blair’s 1st term, I can’t see what the neo-Blairites want to do even if they achieve power, there seems nothing beyond triangulation. Labour’s triangulation in the later half of the 1990’s was a response to 15 years of opposition, today it seems to be the tool of careerists.
To my mind, the play made me ask the question as to why people who would articulate the horrible positions that today’s triangulation requires want to join or stay in the Labour Party. This was also exposed by Armando Iannucci in Series 4 of “The Thick of It”. Nicola Murray, the Leader of the Opposition is persuaded to show her moderation and lack of tribalism by adopting two horrible policies proposed by the Government, just in time for the Government to drop the policies because they are too horrible even for them. It’s a savage indictment of engaged opposition, of playing the super-parliamentary game. This is relfected in “If Only” by a line in the play, when the three politicians are asked about their friendship, the reply is that, other party politicians are only our opponents, our enemies are in our own parties. It comes across as funny but underlines the cynical casual careerism of much of today’s political leadership and explains why so many of them in all three parties seem to have so little principle.
I have been struggling with the allegations of careerism in the Labour Party partly because I don’t believe my generation of political activists were fundamentally motivated that way. We were the first generation of Labour’s children to go to University en-masse, we wanted to make society better and fairer; we thought we had won on free health, full employment, decent housing, and education for all. I have been denying that people in their 20’s actually choose their political affiliations on the basis of personal gain, but the positions adopted on Trident, Education and Welfare by Labour’s front benchers and the casual way in which front benchers are making up policy without reference to the National Policy Forum and without reference to the membership in anyway, together with the continued denigration of membership views and legitimacy, leave me with little choice but to assume that a large part of the PLP is just careerist. I am not sure how we got there, it seems a legacy of generations although Alwyn Turner in his article for the New Statesman “Things can only get bitter” argues that Kinnock’s second defeat in 1992 gutted my contemporaries on the Left’s will to win, opening the way for the Labour Party to be won by a new Oxbridge elite whose appetite for change is less than their appetite for power. That’s possibly a bit unfair, since as I argue above the reforms of Blair’s first administration were not insubstantial, and I have not mentioned the constitutional and social reforms, but they got there by rejecting the Left, both their Party comrades and the voters and then using their powers of patronage to parachute in their apparatchiks at the expense of local campaigners. They had hollowed out the Labour Party’s policy making process and now continued to hollow out its local leadership.
This new Labour elite has no roots in the lives that makes today’s & yesterday’s Left, lives which create and drive a visceral agenda for fairness. David Hare in his play, Absence of War, has his Labour Leader, George Jones lamenting the loss of the Trade Union as part of people’s experience since they are, “the Academies of Justice”. A close friend once said to me,
there two types of politician, those that want to do something and those that want to be something
Too many parliamentarians want to be something, and in the Labour Party we have created a leadership with no life experience and no roots and no values. Politics became a game, the continuation of student politics by other means. Triangulation is just a strategy to win.
In his book, “The Wisdom of Crowds” , James Surowiecki explores the game Ultimatum. In this game, a proposer proposes how to share £10,000 and the second player accepts or rejects the offer. If the second player rejects the offer then both players get nothing. People who believe that economic actors, or people as I like to call them, are utility maximisers would expect all offers of a share, even if offering the seconder only £1, or pennies, to be accepted. This is generally not what happens, certainly when the allocation of roles is opaque. Most players have a sense of fairness and will not sell their vote for risable, yet positive offers.
The corollary of triangulation leads you to emulating the 1st player. In Ultimatum, you only have to offer enough to buy acceptance; a triangualting politician aims to offer little better than their opposition and assumes the deal is acceptable. However people are more difficult than that, as shown by Ultimatum; in politics, they may well vote for the conviction not the programme as they did in 1979, when both Parties were offering a monetarist economic policy and the Party that believed in it won. Alternatively they may just give up on voting, or worse they may give up on democracy.
My, late, Dad once said,
Government’s take thousands of decisions every day
And under the Tories every single one of them’ s wrong.
My Dad’s quote has always been something I remember and part of what motivates my political activism, but my ambition has always been to get most of these decisions right, not just one more than the others. We can do better than that, but we need to persuade people that it’ll be better under Labour and perhaps we need to start with ourselves. Edgar’s appeal to politicians to find the courage to tell the truth about their principles and goals is sound and necessary today.
For Labour, we need to recognise that not only have we become too small, representing about 2% of our voters, but our policy making and thus our direction, and leadership selection and thus our commitment has become hollowed out, if we don’t know what we think, we can’t persuade people we have a vision and gives people no reason to follow us nor vote for us.
The play has that right, although suggesting that all parties have the problem, and the limp acceptance by the Labour and LibDem characters certainly has evidence to back it up.