The Third Way Deserved to Die

Tony Blair takes a selfie.

David Cameron secured his 2015 victory with a swing of 0.8% – not even the 3% he mustered in 2010 – which means that the slight blue majority (a mere 331 seats) might only just hold for one more election. It could easily be lost in 2020.

The Labour Party secured a swing of 1.4%, just slightly above the 29% in 2010. Cameron remains the most credible, effective and personable Conservative leader in at least a quarter of a century. But that’s not saying a lot.

The last surprise majority was in 1992 won by John Major. Famously, the pre-election polling data had claimed that the outcome would either be a Labour government or a hung parliament, but in the end, Major won 41.9% of the vote (336 seats). It would be another 23 years before the Conservatives would regain another majority, but they have yet to return to such heights. The majority proved too brittle to withstand the backbench rebellion over European integration.

The ousting of Thatcher in 1990 left a deep void in the Conservative Party, which has never been totally surmounted. The first attempt was to propel John Major into its entry. The first problem was that the Conservatives had to redefine its agenda in time to win another election. At first, the Major government moved to initiate market reforms in the public sector mainly in the form of performance targets. Once this failed, Major turned to ‘back-to-basics’ moralism about single parents and other manifestations of ‘indecency’.

Despite the recession, John Major held strong in 1992, and the Labour Party was once again defeated. Much like Ed Miliband today, Neil Kinnock had attempted to avoid deviation from the acceptable lines of debate. He had capitulated at every turn and hoped to bypass the most pressing political issues of the day. As bad as the Conservative establishment was, in the eyes of most people, at least it was clear where they stood. Likewise, Ed Miliband failed to assert a counter-narrative to the dogma of austerity, thereby disarming the opposition.

The reality of the situation in 1992 was only realised five years later. John Major had won because he was effectively unchallenged, but the silent crisis in the Conservative Party became increasingly vocal. It soon erupted in a rebellion of backbenchers against the leadership and its conditional support for the European project. Major stood little chance against Tony Blair, who easily out-manoeuvred the decrepit government. The void at the core of the Tory Party still remains, even with Cameron at the helm.

The Conservative majority reflects a little more than 24% of the electorate, which is roughly one in five eligible voters. This is out of a turnout of 66%, increased mainly thanks to the SNP, so the proportion of non-voters – 34% of the electorate – is greater than Cameron’s entire base. Even Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher won around 33% of the electorate in their first victories. It’s due to the peculiar inequity of the voting system that the prime minister can herald what he calls “the sweetest victory”. And for some it truly is sweet.

The financial markets were quick to skyrocket in celebration. The Conservative Party received £42 million from the banks between 2005 and 2011. It’s been a good investment for the financial sector. Quantitative easing, first implemented by Gordon Brown, has been used to funnel billions into the banks to inflate a nominal rate of growth. This is the bedrock of the government’s economic policy. Meanwhile, the NHS, education, pensions, and benefits, face being slashed to the bone.

Undeniably the Cameron government is taking care of its prime constituency, but it’s clear it could all go wrong. If the economy suffers another financial crisis, or if the government can’t secure a referendum, or even if the referendum fails to produce a Brexit, David Cameron could well suffer the fallout. He is more vulnerable to the backbenches than John Major, but he was also one of Major’s advisers in those days. So he will probably be thinking back to the infighting of that time and what lessons he can draw from it.

What is clear from these results is that the Labour Party has dug its own grave. Ed Miliband will now be relegated to the history books, alongside such losers as Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The Blairites will pin the blame on the left for backing the SNP in Scotland and the Greens in England and Wales. Fortunately, Blairism has no means of perpetuating itself any further. It’s also true that there is little sign of a means to shift English politics leftwards. The left shouldn’t be depending on Cameron tripping over his own foot, but it’s probably the only bet to make right now.

Fast-forward to 2017

The unelectable socialist Jeremy Corbyn has given the Conservatives the thrashing of a lifetime. Of course, Corbyn would not approve of the word ‘thrashing’. But the point is Corbyn’s Labour Party has deprived Theresa May of the super-majority she craved. Finally, the Labour left has won its legitimacy.

Ordinarily, a prime minister would step down after losing a majority. However, these are not ordinary times. Since the EU referendum put the country on track for Brexit the body politic has been wracked with instability. Theresa May called the snap election looking for a quick way to expand her majority before Brexit it impossible to win an election.

The opposition now faces a rickety minority government with a discredited leader and all of it depends on the support of creationists and other assorted weirdos in Stormont. This is what a real coalition of chaos looks like. May thinks she can use Brexit as a shield as she runs towards her foes. It didn’t secure her victory in the election, and it’s unlikely to save her in the end.

There is a certain amount of irony in the Conservatives falling back on the Ulster Unionists for support. Especially as the UK is heading into Brexit negotiations.  The Unionist settlement in Northern Ireland emerges out of the cycle of settler-colonialism by the British state. It’s the DUP that embodies the reactionary side of oppression in Ireland, particularly the cultivation of an Anglo-Irish Protestant identity, which itself helped to constitute the development of white identity in Britain.

Although May is perfectly happy to court loyalists, Corbyn was regularly slammed for having shaken hands with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (while the British government was doing the same in private). Sinn Fein and its links to the IRA is a step too far, but not the DUP with its ties to Ulster loyalist death squads. But you won’t hear a peep against May for working with such people.

Fortunately, the slanders against Jeremy Corbyn have so far failed. He has been left, largely, with a stronger hand, in fact. No longer can it be said that the left’s agenda is doomed to electoral failure. No longer can Britain’s tabloid media pretend that the people who support Corbyn are just a hard left cabal of Trot sectaries.

That’s not to say that the continuous attempts to paint the Labour leader into a corner aren’t damaging. They are, particularly with core constituencies of the party, such as Jewish voters, who are repeatedly badgered to brand him an anti-Semite. The tragedy of the situation is that such debates misdirect public attention away from the sources of racism in British society, not the fact that prejudices like anti-Semitism persist.

Judeophobia is a handmaiden of Brexit. It is a natural consequence of the populist atmosphere created by UKIP and the Tories, and its anxieties about ‘outsiders’.  Jewish voters are inclined towards Labour because they understand that, even though there are simpleminded elements within the party that can’t distinguish between Jews and Zionism.

Corbyn’s post-Third Way task is to guarantee Labour’s inclusivity and welcome for all minority communities in the UK. After all, that is one the most fundamental failings of the Third Way era, which, in Blair’s embrace of American policy in the Middle East, returned Britain to its old imperial self, and the racisms that once ruled the roost at home.

Photograph courtesy of ANTI.USL. Published under a Creative Commons license. 

Joel Schalit contributed to this article.