Of the English-speaking countries, three have what could be broadly called left-of-center governments. Britain is in the death throes of a long and disappointing experiment in New Labourism; Australia and the United States have recently ended long periods of right-wing rule and have elected Kevin Rudd and Barak Obama.
I just got back from a research trip to Australia. It?s my regular bolt-hole from the Scottish winter, and I?m one of those people who like to immerse themselves in the local culture rather than desperately wait for the publication of the Guardian Weekly. So, I think I know a modest amount about Australian politics.
It should have been a good time to visit. Rudd and Labour have been riding high in the polls, not surprising given that the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has said that the Australian economy barely went into recession and that it has come out of the global financial crisis in better shape than its competitors.
But then something weird happened. The right-wing (Liberal) opposition dumped its leader because he wanted to support Labor?s Emission Trading Scheme. When I heard this back in the UK it sounded crazy and a recipe for self-destruction (they?d already replaced the first post-election leader). But with a new face at the top–Tony Abbott, a right-wing bruiser–the opposition have successfully blocked the emission scheme in the Senate; and in the wake of the Copenhagen disappointment, support for the measure has fallen significantly. Though the numbers of people who accept the reality of man-made global warming in polls remains reassuringly high, the Liberals have cleverly linked climate-change skepticism to anti-tax sentiment.
But it?s not really about policy. What has changed and dented Labour?s somewhat complacent optimism is a different “strategy.” The Abbott opposition now stridently opposes everything the government does in right-wing populist tones; and as a result, Labour has suffered setbacks in recent state elections. Sound familiar? Thought it would.
One small qualification is in order. My impressions of these events have been partly filtered through reading the Australian, a virulently ideological rag that in its inability to distinguish between fact and opinion is horribly reminiscent of Fox News. Am I stupid? Possibly. But the Australian is the only national newspaper and the local alternatives in Brisbane are totally pathetic. What has been interesting is the spin that the Australian?s doctors have been putting on this apparent change in political fortunes, because the consistent narrative has involved a triangular dynamic between Australia, the United States, and (to a lesser extent) the UK.
Spurred by the (now postponed) visit of Obama to Australia, regular pieces proclaim the power of resurgent right-wing oppositions against “new leaders from the progressive side.” Now I am no expert on the Tea Party movement and its allies, but observations of events in these two countries have reinforced one lingering feeling: the right does populism a lot better than we do. It is more ideological (see: the culture wars), more ruthless, and certainly more willing to tell outright lies.
Given their hostility to the state, the right is better equipped to attack (big) government even when in office. Conversely, when progressives are in “power,” they seem overly attached to the merits and mechanisms of rational policy making and often forget the message (or as we are all now compelled to call it, the narrative). When combined with the structural constraints of the U.S. system–corporate money, pork barrel politics, and institutional filibuster–this results in a particularly toxic combination. Australia is nowhere near that hard to govern, but it is relatively easy for oppositions to block measures in the Senate and compel governments to seek allies willing to play ball.
So what about the third point in the triangle? England’s political landscape–created by Labour?s length of time in office–makes it different. Under Cameron, the Tories have been determined to shed the “nasty party” tag, and they have, so far, largely eschewed right-wing populism. This has caused some anguish amongst their more hard-line supporters in the party and the commentariat. The Australian carried a piece by Melanie Philips, ex-leftie turned Daily Mail attack dog who would surely be a candidate for a British Sean Hannity role if Cameron?s deal with Rupert Murdoch to allow media deregulation comes to fruition. The “remarkable rise” of Australia’s Liberal Party leader is hailed as “a lesson for Conservatives everywhere.” She snipes at Cameron?s inner circle of liberal modernizers and its “incoherent” and “opportunist” attempts to sound credible on green issues–and she contrast’s British Toryism with Australian conservatism’s principled, faith-based capacity to be a champion of the “voiceless mainstream.”
Yes, I know, this is ridiculous. But Philips’s analysis of Cameron and the Tories is not wholly wrong. After the New Labour landslide of 1997, the Tories elected three deeply unappealing right-wing leaders who made no connection with the electorate. Then along came Cameron, whose advisors decided to follow the New Labour recipe: first you decontaminate the brand, then you demonstrate fitness to govern and when “time for a change” coincides with enough voter?s willingness to change parties–bingo.
It seemed like the right path, and “Dave” was the right choice. But Britain’s conservatives have not succeeded entirely in the decontamination project and the second stage–recreating another positive brand–has not really happened. The electorate is tired and mostly contemptuous of New Labour, but they have not really bought the alternative. Of course, if Cameron followed Melanie Philip?s advice and reverted to right-wing populism, disaster would follow. No matter how appealing the resurgent, populist right appears to be in the United States and Australia, there is simply not enough time to start changing the main story just before a general election.
It?s fortunate for Labour that the Tories have not sealed the deal, because frankly, they do not deserve to be in contention. It?s true that they have done well to steady the economic ship after the financial crisis. But in most other respects they are still in a wretched state. It?s not so much the policies, uninspiring though they are (check out the nebulous waffle of the new five election pledges) or even the lumbering, unloved leadership of Gordon Brown. It?s the moral and political vacuum left by the collapse of the New Labour project.
In Britain, it?s easy to feel disillusioned by the left-of-center government. No doubt such feelings are on the rise in the United States and possibly even Australia. If it?s true that voters expect too much of politicians, it?s even more the case that the left too easily feels its aspirations betrayed by progressive governments. Those on the left often underestimate the obstacles, difficult choices, and the inevitability of compromise.
But when you compare the situation of Obama and New Labour, the difference is stark. Blair was elected by a landslide in 1997, with no constitutional constraints and a completely defunct opposition. They blew it. After the initial (and mostly inherited) landmark policies that constitute a progressive legacy (devolution, the minimum wage), political reform stalled. Economic policy relied largely on the City and public services and were subject to stifling centralization and top-down targets.
There is some belated recognition of damage done, but it?s all too little, too late. In the United States, after the successful health care vote, it looks like the Democrats have the opportunity to put the resurgent right back in its sectarian box. Here?s hoping.