The Only Way is Blair?

Questioning a fundamental tenet of the Tony Blair mythos (and the Bill Clinton mythos).

the-only-way-is-blair

One of the major talking points put forward by Tony Blair allies (and the former Prime Minister himself) in the aftermath of the 2015 election fiasco and again now during the leadership contest with the rise of leftist Jeremy Corbyn has been that Blair’s strain of Labour Party ideology (“New Labour”) was superior to all others because he “won three elections in a row” with it and brought Labour out of its nearly two decades in the opposition wilderness. Blair’s own snide phrasing, which he even dared to utter long before the election loss, was “a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result” implying that a traditional left-wing party can’t win elections (not that Labour ran a particularly or consistently left-wing campaign this year).

Similarly, we sometimes hear roughly the sentiment echoed in the United States with regard to Bill Clinton’s centrist/triangulating Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the “New Democrats.” Blair explicitly modeled his 1997 election campaign on Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns (and Clinton’s wider political philosophies), so there are always comparisons between the two. At minimum, they both ran on highly personality-oriented campaigns that claimed to be bringing a new direction to politics on the whole, not just to their own parties. Something transcending those “tradition” right and left alignments, supposedly.

Let’s examine these dual contentions, though. Did the Democrats re-take the White House in 1992 because of Clinton’s Democratic Party centrism? Did Labour re-take parliament in 1997 because of Blair’s New Labour approach?

Blairites and Clintonites alike fervently believe that centrism is what won them power. I would contend instead that inevitability did. Eventually, the opposing major party returns to power.

Blair going centrist didn’t “save” Labour from itself. Conservatives held power for 18 years. Prime Minister John Major’s net approval rating across the early 1990s was in -60 to -20 range. The Labour leadership had higher net approval before Blair took over as opposition leader in 1994, and Major’s net approval really fell off a cliff even before Blair’s ascent. I would conclude from that that any reasonably competent politician (left or center) could have led Labour back to power in 1997 after a whopping eighteen (bleak) years of Conservative rule. (True, leadership ratings are not wholly predictive at the ballot box, but they’re indicative of strengths or weaknesses in broad terms.)

By comparison, Democrats panicked after losing the White House only 3 times in a row in merely 12 years (1980, 1984, 1988). In all likelihood, rota fortunae (the ever-rotating wheel of fortune), not DLCism, won the White House back for Democrats in 1992. The relatively centrist Democratic Congressional caucus also kept shrinking before and after Clinton’s ascent to power, eventually leading to the loss of its House majority in 1994 for the first time since the 1950s. It’s a little hard to square that fact with the Clinton hype.

Much like Prime Minister Major, of course, President George H.W. Bush was struggling with rather low popularity by 1992. Where the year before his high ratings had deterred every single top-tier Democrat from challenging him (leaving Clinton to emerge startlingly from the third tier), by July 1992 George H.W. Bush had the approval of less than 30% of Americans. Not a ringing endorsement for him, and also not really a function of anything Clinton was doing. I believe a reasonably competent progressive Democrat — anyone who could connect with voters on their top concerns and tap into their frustrations — could have won the White House in 1992.

“Inevitability” is, of course, a loaded word in politics. But I’m speaking in broad, big-picture terms based on historical and structural realities. The odds were very low that, in both the U.S. and the U.K., during the 1990s, the major left-leaning parties (Democrats and Labour respectively) would completely wither away and die out as a major party. Thus, regardless of ideology, they would have remained the only serious voting options for people who had lost patience with the incumbent governments. Eventually, in democratic systems, people always get tired of single party rule and change horses.

That’s why three terms in a row for one party to rule is already relatively unusual, 4 terms is rarer, and 5 almost never happens. At a certain point, how far left/center/right your party runs in a breaking-point election becomes pretty irrelevant in a system dominated by two parties. People get frustrated enough to vote for the opposition party automatically. It doesn’t even take that long, considering just 12 years seems to be a pretty common point for voters to jump ship.

Republicans have learned that fact very well and used it to their advantage to continue winning elections with ever-more conservative platforms. Rather than giving up and moderating, they just wait it out and organize for the next moment of frustration in which to bring extreme candidates into office to enact steadfastly conservative agendas.
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May 13, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 127

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Marco Rubio’s close ties to billionaire Norman Braman; UK election results discussion. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: May 11th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– Has presidential candidate and US Senator Marco Rubio crossed an ethics line with his billionaire patron, Norman Braman?
– What if anything does the 2015 UK election outcome mean for Labour’s future? Should US Democrats take any lessons one way or the other?

Episode 127 (49 min):
AFD 127

Related Links

Guardian: “2015 UK general election results in full”
AFD: “Marco Rubio’s Miami Vice”
NYT: “Billionaire Lifts Marco Rubio, Politically and Personally”

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Exit polls paint bleak picture in UK for anti-Conservative bloc

According to current exit polling from the UK, the Conservatives surged way ahead of pre-election polling and will finish just 10 seats short of a majority. With Lib Dems, far-right UKIP, and conservative unionist Northern Irish parties supporting, they would be able to form a government. The Lib Dems got crushed but still are kingmakers — which is toxic for them since so many LD voters bailed because of their role in the coalition government last time, which would be even less powerful this time around. In fact, the Conservatives seem well positioned to just form a minority government, though I don’t know how long it could last even under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

Labour got all but swept in Scotland by the SNP (i.e. maybe one seat remains) and lost in England to add insult to desperation. They ended up finishing worse than in 2010, contrary to all pre-election polling.

Bottom line from the current exit polling: Conservatives outperformed expectations by quite a lot and will probably lead the next government. Labour screwed up badly on top of their Scotland problems.

The ironclad unkeepable promises of the UK elections

UK party leaders making firm promises about coalition arrangements (or rejected arrangements) that they mathematically can’t possibly keep are one way voters lose all trust in their public officials. I get that they’re trying to discourage splinter/protest voting by taking a hard line without wiggle room before the election, but the math just isn’t there to be saying stuff like this, and at a certain point it’s just pure misrepresentation of reality.

Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in the past couple weeks have been painting themselves into a corner on coalition promises, wherein they’ll either force a 2nd election or have to dynamite the corner to escape the foolish pre-election promises.

If the Labour Party will not make any kind of deal with the SNP (which is their latest position) and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats won’t either, how exactly is anyone supposed to form a government? Excluding the fairly astronomically unlikely possibility of a Conservative-Labour grand coalition, no two parties (or even three!) will have enough seats for a majority without involving the SNP. Everyone will be 20-50 seats short.

Projected number of seats to each party and combinations of various parties via The Guardian.

Projected number of seats to each party and combinations of various parties via The Guardian. Click to enlarge.

Are you going to throw this over to Northern Ireland to pick the PM? (Is that really better than letting Scotland do it?) Are you going to force new elections? What’s the realistic game-plan here?

In UK, everything now rests on the final campaign

The campaign for the May 2015 general elections is officially under way now in the United Kingdom. And barring a huge swing between now and the election, the results are going to be chaos.

Below are the March 30th projections from The Guardian’s election center (updated daily at the link)

https://twitter.com/GdnPolitics/status/582452523950321664

Labour are campaigning hard against the SNP (to try to regain marginally SNP-leaning constituencies in Scotland), but that will make it harder to work together after the election. Which is an important consideration, seeing as they’re basically the only two parties that will collectively have anywhere near a majority.

And the Lib Dems seem pretty averse to working with Labour and the SNP, but they can’t easily go back to the Conservatives either.

The Conservatives may well finish first but (under current polling) have basically no shot of leading a government anyway, even with UKIP and the Lib Dems and the DUP. I mean…unless they’re planning to go into coalition with Labour or the SNP, which is beyond unlikely.

So that means…a big swing in favor of either Labour or the Conservatives is probably the only thing now that can prevent a totally bananas outcome or an irredeemably hung parliament.

“What distinguishes Labour”

Whether it comes from a Democrat or a Labour member, I’m always glad to hear someone vocally explain what distinguishes a mainstream left-leaning party from the alternatives, after so many years of “triangulation” and wishy-washy hedging.

Here’s an excerpt from Glasgow City Council Leader Gordon Matheson’s column in the Daily Record jokingly headlined “The Labour Party is up to its old tricks – standing up for working families”

Have you noticed that the Labour Party is up to its old tricks? I’m delighted to say it’s true. We’re making the wealthiest pay a bit more to help those who need support. And we’re holding the powerful to account to secure a fairer deal for the ordinary citizen and working families. That, after all, is what distinguishes Labour from the other political parties.

 
Policies to help young people and tax wealthier citizens to pay for progressive programs benefiting the working class are described and detailed thereafter. He also questions the leftist credentials of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in light of their tax policies, which he says don’t favor redistribution. (Since they’re independence focused, I think most of the SNP’s funding plans derive from using North Sea oil royalties or tax revenues extracted from England to fund projects in Scotland, which is its own kind of redistribution, I suppose.)

It would be nice to hear more Democrats arguing non-defensively (like Matheson for Labour) about helping “ordinary citizen and working families” get “a fairer deal” via taxes on the wealthiest, i.e. those who can comfortably afford it.

Northern Ireland attracting more notice in UK elections

In a further sign that the typically marginal Northern Ireland members of the United Kingdom parliament might increasingly play a “coalition kingmaker” role after the breakdown of the three-party system in London, the UK Labour Party is relaxing its policy against competing in Northern Ireland constituencies.

That policy was originally adopted back when the party wanted to remain a neutral mediator in the Northern Ireland conflict over British/unionist or Irish/independence alignment (and forcing people to identify with a UK party based in Britain would inherently not be neutral). Now, an official satellite party (like Scottish Labour) will formally open in Northern Ireland, but with the extra wrinkle that it will also be a satellite of the Irish Labour Party, from neighboring Ireland.

The aim of this complex, multi-country fusion is probably eventually to help Labour in overall UK elections while still not demanding unionist allegiance from members. In the past, Labour’s general economic views have been represented in Westminster for Northern Ireland voters most closely by the tiny SDLP, but the SDLP was not part of Labour governments. Membership in UK Labour wasn’t even opened in Northern Ireland until 2004.

Map of UK general election results in Northern Ireland by constituency for 2005 and 2010 (via Wikipedia). NI Sinn Féin does not occupy its seats under current policy, due to opposition to the union's control of Northern Ireland.

Map of UK general election results in Northern Ireland by constituency for 2005 and 2010 (via Wikipedia). NI Sinn Féin does not occupy its seats under current policy, due to opposition to the union’s control of Northern Ireland.

UK Labour’s counterpart party from the Republic of Ireland (a completely independent nation-state, of course), Irish Labour, is a rather small party in the Oireachtas (Ireland’s parliament) but very often serves as a junior coalition partner and is currently actually the second largest by representation.