The left’s Tea Party politics

David Aaronovitch’s column today on “the Tea Party of the Left” (marooned behind the Times paywall, so no link, alas) is a healthy splash of cold water in the face for Labour supporters.

He begins with “the sense that the great Labour hinterland, largely quiet on the domestic front for half a generation, is now up for a bit of upheaval”:

Up for a bit of indulging in nostalgia for the great Maggie Out years when you knew where you stood, before Labour victory and compromises made things so complicated.

This can be seen in the apologetics from some Labour supporters on the subject of last week’s Millbank rioting – “when you’re really cross, what’s a bit of plate glass?” – not to mention former ministers “unblushingly” ditching “half a decade’s presumed consent” to policies such as student tuition fees. Aaronovitch continues:

Hitherto rational folk are having Get Out of Jail Free fantasies about how the coalition could just raise taxes (“for the rich”, naturally), cancel Trident and then none of these fee hikes, job losses, cuts in benefits, and the zillion other government outrages, need happen. But the Bastards won’t do it.

As Aaronovitch observes, all this is a matter of atmospherics rather than of open argument:

You might describe it as a Tea-Partyism of the Left, in which the idea of what you are against is in the mental and cultural foreground, brightly lit, very specific and deeply felt – whereas the idea of what you yourself would do recesses into the unexplored shadows.

The result is that even those policies which show some promise, such as increased use of mutualisation and social enterprises, are subject to furious attack rather than a desire to see them go further and be improved.

As Aaronovitch points out, we shouldn’t be assuming that anger at the coalition will translate into success for Labour at the next election. People were angry at Tory recklessness and divisiveness in the 1980s, and yet Mrs Thatcher won two successive landslides. Which brings us to the Labour party, where Aaronovitch puts into words the uneasiness I’ve been feeling about Ed Miliband recently:

People have begun wondering whether the word Miliband is Yiddish for “a long gap between things happening”. The period of unexpected contemplation by the new leader is set to end next week with a policy relaunch. This is important, not because Ed M should tell us details of policies that he can’t implement, but because it can set out a rough plan for the foundering, foolish, fond centre-left masses to coalesce around.

Let’s be blunt: if the economy recovers then the Tories (with or without the Lib Dems) will probably win the next election handsomely, however divisive and damaging their policies may be for the bottom 30% or so of households by income, and whatever Ed Miliband and Labour do (or don’t do) between then and now. But unless Labour can begin to establish a coherent narrative to its opposition – a narrative that is currently completely absent, or at least undetectable to the naked eye – then we are looking at a decade or more of Tory devastation.

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