Blair Has Stolen Everyone's Clothes

By Ashley, Jackie | New Statesman (1996), June 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

Blair Has Stolen Everyone's Clothes

Ashley, Jackie, New Statesman (1996)

Dull? We are seeing a sensational realignment. The PM drove the Tories to the extreme right; now he is pushing the Lib Dems way to the left.

Once they would have doubled up with laughter at the very thought. Now, it seems, many high-profile lefties are proud to say: "I'm going to vote Lib Dem." As the small print of the parties' manifestos sinks in (and despite the public ennui, they are all getting their core messages over), it is becoming increasingly clear that if you are looking for old Labour-style policies, and rather suspect that the Socialist Alliance is not going to sweep to power, the Liberal Democrat manifesto is the one for you.

On almost all the major issues, from taxation and public services to the environment and transport, the Lib Dems offer more progressive answers than Labour. Public spending? Yes! Civil liberties? Yes! Tax the rich? Yee-hah! They claim they can become the real opposition, pushing the Tories into third place. This is what the country has been crying out for, according to every leftist analysis.

If so, why aren't we seeing a huge swing in the polling? Why isn't old Labour by passing the party en masse and taking Cheerful Charlie's radical road? A few high-profile people are -- take the New Statesman's own Nick Cohen, the novelist Jenny Diski (see page 16) and Germaine Greer (page 26). But there is no sign of a real shift. Indeed, reports from target seats speak of Labour staying firmer than the Lib Dems. Is it because there is no real yearning for an alternative to the left of Labour? But the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales mop up a fair few votes between them. Is England so different? I doubt it. Is it because of tribalism, old loyalties and the incontrovertible fact that the Lib Dems themselves are just a bit too, well, airy-fairy for old Labour? Yes, certainly, a bit of that.

The fundamental reason, however much the left may dislike it, is Tony Blair. The Lib Dems are a scattered party, which has hitherto appealed to different kinds of people in different areas -- the well-off middle classes here, the anti-Tory radicals there. Blair, having successfully driven the Tories to the right of sensible, is now doing the equivalent, on the left of the spectrum, to the Lib Dems.

Shortly after the 1997 election victory, Blair told Lib Dem leaders, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to have their ground. Yup, that great big scoop of terrain in the middle was going to be his, all his. The Lib Dems, he said, could either relinquish their little plot gracefully or stand with him in the centre. Well, as we all know now, Paddy Ashdown, then the leader of the Lib Dems, tried to join the gang, but was bullied out by the old Labourites (the likes of John Prescott). Ash down's successor, Charles Kennedy, had little choice but to occupy the space to the left of Labour. Yet in large parts of the country, he is appealing to basically right-wing voters. It is uncomfortable. It is not coherent. Voters, I suspect, have noticed. Nationally, the Lib Dems may be the public sector workers' party. Locally, they are often very different.

But if old Labourites are not switching allegiances this time round, this still leaves a big question mark hanging over what will happen at the next election. For behind this rather dull campaign, a sensational shift is taking place in the whole structure of politics in this country. While everyone is yawning, a fundamental realignment of the political parties is happening.

When journalists who are not of a left-wing persuasion start to ask worriedly, "What about the workers?", at a Labour election press conference, you know something is up. It happened on the day that Labour was proclaiming itself the party of business. "Yes," said Tony Blair, "being close to business is a charge to which I plead guilty... "Indeed, Blair's instinctive hostility to the workers' rights agenda articulated by the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, along with scores of businessmen lining up to endorse Labour during this election campaign, are proof, if any were needed, that the party founded by the trade unions is no longer the party of the unions. …

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