As we close the decade with Barack Obama licking his wounds after the midterms, it’s perhaps a good moment to take a look at the tectonic plates of Western geopolitics. And, I don’t want to scare you, but it doesn’t look that inviting for us on the left.
First of all, this shift is just one more example of the political centre of gravity moving decisively to the right over the last few years. Now, the Bush administration’s rule over most of the decade has meant that that is not a great surprise, but the recent economic crisis has confirmed a sharp turn rightwards across the West, not just in the US. Canada and Europe’s Big Four - France, Germany, Britain and Italy all have right-wing governments. When was the last time there was so much alignment in global politics? Russia and Japan have their own special, idiosyncratic politics which don’t really relate to ours, but leftist they’re generally not. Obama is emasculated. In short, not much chance of progressive ideas breaking onto the G8 summit agenda any time soon, then.
In short, the left is on the back foot all over the place. That is not, God forbid, to suggest we should be defeatist – but the job of our political strategists is, we hope, to see the realpolitik, as told to us by the people, and position accordingly to fight back.
In a global context – and, God knows, we should try and think in one in the 21st Century – we are, then, in a less welcoming climate for a left government than in 1997. Neither are we the shiny new kids on the block any more, as we were then. All it seems Cameron needs to do is follow the global tide, which is going his way for now, steal a few centrist policies from the last government and add a few swingeing cuts to please the Daily Mail, in order to hold things together. Oh, and a couple of oddball policies to keep the Lib Dems on board.
So, in light of all this, why do many of us, all our union backers and even some on our front benches seem to feel that what the world needs now is for Labour to provide a more sharply left alternative? To put "clear red water", if you will, between us and the Tories? Let's examine the wisdom of that as a potential strategy.
We could start, perhaps, by observing that as a party we still have an instinct to try to fight 21st Century battles with 20th century policies. Globalisation is a fact. Our system of pensions and National Insurance cannot possibly survive in the same form, and neither can the NHS. Some use of private capital has come to be a generally accepted way of funding public investments for all Western nations, although we debate a lot about exactly how it is used. Not all of these things are necessarily good or pleasant, and they make us uncomfortable, but they are here. They have been since Kinnock's time. Global terrorism is another reality which much of the European left, as well as our own, is ignoring, ostrich-like, as it paints itself into a corner about the unacceptability of anti-terrorism measures. Or worse, as Nik Cohen regularly points out, it cuddles up to nasty terrorist apologists. (To be clear, being against the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is a legitimate, honourable position; defending terrorists and their apologists is not.)
As we struggle to redefine our direction, we are filling many column inches with our introspection but constantly defining ourselves in relation to New Labour, either criticising - or failing to criticise enough - that phase of the party (mostly the former – we currently seem to be in full-on self-flagellation mode). Well, perhaps New Labour is dead, perhaps it lives on. Who cares? What all of this debate seems suddenly to have diverted us from focusing on is the principal reason for any serious political party’s existence: securing power. What about positioning ourselves for that?
Historically, when defeated – 1951, 1979 – our instinct is usually to drift to the left – our comfort zone. (And it may not even matter, in this media-obsessed age, whether we really move to the left or we are merely perceived to move to the left. There’s no doubt about which way the right-wing media, and the Tories, will try and paint us as moving.) Having ceded the centre ground, we then spend soul-destroying years trying to get it back.
It’s a trap. We would do well to take heed of the tectonic plates, as well as our own history, quietly calling us to do otherwise.