A New-Look Politics

New Statesman (1996), June 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

A New-Look Politics


It might seem strange, perverse even, to talk about the resurgence of radical politics at a time when the ruling party of the centre left is on the slide. The proposition might also be said to play into the hands of those who maintain that the left has never been interested in power. On both counts, critics would be wrong.

Politics is about more than the accretion of power. It is also about pursuing and embedding ideas. Thus Margaret Thatcher established an economic consensus that new Labour felt obliged to accept. In many areas where he might have shown courage, Tony Blair held back, desperate to locate himself in what he thought to be an unchangeable mainstream.

Opinion, however, shifted more quickly than he did, and for some time much of the political settlement created in Blair's name has been out of date. His miserabilist core of supporters, who accuse the left of running out of ideas, fail to see that it is they who have lost their bearings.

The left has regrouped. Issues once deemed peripheral--globalisation, human rights and the environment--are now the focus of popular activism.

Leaving aside the calamity of Iraq, this government has, in some areas, a record to be proud of. It has put down roots that will be hard to tear up. The other parties now accept as immutable the causes of social liberalism and social justice and the need for further constitutional reform.

As they shed unpopular and unrealistic policies, the Conservatives give the impression that they have dropped their view of tax cuts as a panacea. When David Cameron says (see interview, p30) that he embraces the ethos of the public sector and the merits of equality and redistribution, we would be wise to be cautious.

Yet if a Tory leader takes action or uses language that new Labour has recoiled from, and if in so doing he helps shift the political consensus in a favourable direction, he should be praised.

Voters now identify more with causes and issues than with parties. Tribal loyalties are breaking down. …

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