For Labour, the Centre Cannot Hold

Change, for better or worse, is inevitable. But we can choose how we make that journey. We can be dragged along by the status quo and become a meaner, more divided society, or we can be pulled up by our dreams.

The pledges of allegiance to the political center-ground made by Miliband and Balls in the weeks that followed Tony Blair's New Year's warning against a scenario where a "traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result", are a depressing reminder that the current Labour establishment has failed to escape the deep cynicism which lay at the heart of the New Labour project.

Blair and his successors are a political generation who grew up to believe that history was over. Neoliberalism had won and we were all Thatcherites whether we liked it or not. For better or worse, unfettered free-market capitalism was as inevitable as gravity. And so they did the responsible thing. Abandoned silly socialist fantasies and made grown up choices in a constrained context. Moved to the center-ground and forged a pragmatic compromise with the market.

They stood by as the wealth of the 1% ballooned and the incomes of the bottom half stagnated. Constantly reassuring themselves that neoliberal architecture with a bit of progressive window-dressing was the best deal in town. Over time, this political strategy has fossilized into a brittle and bankrupt philosophy, ill suited to the current reality.

Centre-ground Labour's policy agenda is to be not quite a bad as the Tories, while squatting on the possibility of genuine progressive alternatives. They shrug along to a succession of Tory cuts in order to earn their center-ground credibility, and in doing so ensure that - regardless of who's in charge - by 2017 Britain will be a scrooge state, with the lowest share of public spending of any major capitalist economy.

The left has been lumbered with a class of politicians who have forgotten what it is to dream. And at the most basic level progressive politics is founded on dreams. In 1945, Beverage dreamt of ridding society of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. It was a mad dream, threatening the vested interests of an establishment that poured every ounce of their power and influence into making the status quo seem as inevitable as gravity. But millions of people woke up and saw that this dream had the power to make so many of their ordinary little dreams for their families and communities come true. Once dreamed it was too beautiful to stop.

The danger for Labour is that it has lost touch with a public that hasn't stopped dreaming. On a whole host of issues from taxation to housing and nationalization, polls have shown that since 2008 the majority of the British public has lurched to the left of the Labour party. People dream of a society that invests in real, productive employment for the public-good. A society where workers are paid a wage that allows their families to live in comfort. A society where everyone has a decent home. A society where those who have benefited most are required to contribute a fair share. Where corporations who take advantage of our infrastructure and human capital are made to pay their way. They dream of a kinder, more compassionate nation. A state run for the citizen.

Dreams like these almost caused an earthquake in Scotland, where 1.6 million people were energised by the prospect of a real alternative. Of freeing their economy from the city and making it work for society; driving a green industrial revolution and striving towards full employment. The lasting power of that dream has decimated Labour's standing north of the border.

Similar dreams have led to a surge in Green party's membership; opening up another vote draining front on Labour from the left. Internationally, radical dreamers in Greece and Spain are staging democratic revolutions, which pose an existential threat to neoliberal hegemony in Europe. We are living in interesting times and unless it is careful, the Labour leadership could find a centre-ground propped up by the begrudged votes of an electorate with bigger dreams collapsing beneath its feet.

And on an even more basic level, Blair's cynical assertion that he knows what is to come from what has been before shows that he doesn't really understand how time works. History isn't over. This moment in time isn't 1997. It isn't 1945 either. It's not even 2010. This moment will give way to the next. Change, for better or worse, is inevitable. But we can choose how we make that journey. We can be dragged along by the status quo and become a meaner, more divided society, or we can be pulled up by our dreams.


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