Our Crack Tongue & Groove
I once bought an old map marked ‘The Middle Ground of British Politics’ from a man in a tatty cowl. I’d hunted high and low for such an artefact because – as TV and newspaper political commentators never get sick of telling us – general elections are won from this fabled place, and I could never quite figure out exactly where it was. On opening the map however I found that I’d been sold a pup because it just consisted of a picture of Worcestershire and some cursive script (in the typeface ‘New Labour’) that read ‘Here be Umunnas’.
I’ve kept hold of the map as I’m hoping to flog it off to the many gullible MPs in the Labour party, and indeed all major parties, who would like nothing better than to load up their charabancs and head on over to this so-called middle ground. But here’s the rub: the middle ground of British politics is a place you can never arrive at, even with a map, because – rather like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – the bugger keeps moving.
After the Second World War the middle ground (let’s call it the consensus) simply meant: social democracy coupled with Keynesian economics, that is to say, social security was ramped up so that no one was left to fend for themselves, and when the economy hit the buffers, the government would turn on the spending taps to ensure that the general public didn’t take the hit. It made sense: after the deprivation of the early part of the 20th century it was vital government played a role in ensuring that it never happened again. But the pesky middle ground moved in the 1980s and it was Margaret Thatcher who shifted it. She thought the actions of government put a drag on the economy so set about removing its support. When New Labour came into power, they largely bought into this view and the middle ground was now ring-fenced as “neoliberalism”. This was the belief that government should abdicate its responsibilities where possible (remove safety nets, sell off state assets, cut regulation) and make the rich even richer, hoping their wealth would trickle down to the rest.
The results of neoliberalism are what we are living with today: a generation that expects to be poorer than its parents. Labour MPs should be fighting neoliberalism and ending their fruitless pursuit of a middle ground, which, rather like Narnia, Brigadoon and Discworld, simply does not exist.