Firstly, a few words about popular political terms (in case you haven’t read the rest of our website).
Once you accept that left and right are merely measures of economic position, the extreme right refers to extremely liberal economics that may be practised by social authoritarians or social libertarians.
Similarly, the extreme left identifies a strong degree of state economic control, which may also be accompanied by liberal or authoritarian social policies. It’s muddled thinking to simply describe the likes of the British National Party as “extreme right”. The truth is that on issues like health, transport, housing, protectionism and globalisation, their economics are left of Labour, let alone the Conservatives. It’s in areas like police power, military power, school discipline, law and order, race and nationalism that the BNP’s real extremism — as authoritarians — is clear. It’s easy to see how the term national socialism came into being. The uncomfortable reality is that much of their support comes from former Labour voters.
This mirrors France’s National Front. In running some local governments, they reinstated certain welfare measures which their Socialist predecessors had abandoned. Like similar authoritarian parties that have sprung up around Europe, they have come to be seen in some quarters as champions of the underdog, as long as the underdog isn’t Black, Arab, gay or Jewish! With mainstream Social Democratic parties adopting — reluctantly or enthusiastically — the new economic libertarian orthodoxy (neo-liberalism), much of their old economic baggage has been pinched by National Socialism. Election debates between mainstream parties are increasingly about managerial competence rather than any clash of vision and fundamental difference in economic direction.
The UK Independence Party might be described as BNP Lite, with a more well-heeled social base of generally older hardline Tories unhappy with their former party’s drift in a more socially liberal, Europe-friendly direction. Like the BNP, UKIP is sympathetic to the reintroduction of capital punishment. UKIP’s economics, however, are well to the right.
The socially liberal Greens by strong contrast, have shifted from the single-issue tendency of their formative years and sprouted a comprehensive left manifesto, appealing to a diametrically different kind of disenchanted Labour voter: strong on civil liberties, social justice, prison reform and the welfare state; passionately opposed to unfettered market forces, foreign invasions and all things nuclear.
This time around the somewhat mercurial Liberal Democrats look like Green Lite beside the Labour and Conservative parties. Their economic pitch is left of Labour’s, with their Treasury spokesman hitting a recent Guardian front page headline Cable attacks ‘nauseating businessmen’. One imagines, though, that he must have worked with a few of them in his previous job as Shell’s chief economist. The LibDems maintain considerable distance from both the main parties on the social scale, with a rehabilitative approach to crime, a far greater concern for civil liberties ie curbs on CCTV, expansion of the Freedom of Information Act and the reduction of pre-charge detention to a maximum of 14 days. The only one of the big three parties to have opposed the invasion of Iraq, the LibDems have been astonishingly coy about where they stand on the UK’s Trident nuclear arsenal. Their candidates somewhat self-consciously rattle off Trident as one of many expenditures that should be looked at in these difficult economic times. Presumably afraid of being labelled soft on defence, the LibDems haven’t dared to argue robustly against Britain’s “independent deterrent”, which is actually linked to the US nuclear command system. Labour and the Conservatives are committed to its replacement at a cost of a more than £80 billion, including maintenance and running expenditure. Given that an impressive group of senior military officers deemed Trident “irrelevant” in a letter to The Times on 16 January 2009, the LibDems have missed a chance to do the public and the party a favour by giving the issue real prominence. Labour and the Conservatives won’t, since they are in agreement on this colossal expenditure.
With its commitment to scrap ID cards and the National Identity Register, reduce pre-charge detention to 28 days and other civil libertarian concerns, the Conservative Party seems willing to accept some haemorrhage of support from the old tweed and twinset guard. As they shuffle off to UKIP, the often tieless David Cameron can appeal to more socially liberal voters with an appetite for the full-throttle neoliberal economic policies that would inevitably follow their election. The new “progressive” Tory party, as revealed in a recent Financial Times survey, remains one with a large number of climate change deniers. Despite recent history, most in the party are opposed to all but the lightest fiscal regulation, and don’t want to see any cap at all on corporate bonuses.
There’s considerable truth in the assertion that it’s easier to be socially liberal in opposition than in office. Nevertheless Labour — or is it still New Labour? — has moved markedly towards a more authoritarian position than the circumstances justify. Along with the indefinite retention of DNA profiles of people arrested but not convicted and the 42-day pre-charge detention, the party also continues to champion ID cards, an identity database and much else that has upset civil libertarians. While fiscally there are hints that the party is now reaching back to its core values, under Blair and Brown Labour has gone to extraordinary lengths to privatise the economy and nationalise the public.
What post-1980s elections demonstrate is passionate debate — but only within constantly narrowing parameters. The big clashes of vision are regrettably absent. Economic power has transcended political power, to the detriment of democracy. Between the big three, there’s no ideological argument about whether the prevailing economic orthodoxy is best for Britain, but simply which of them can make market forces work best. Afghanistan might be mentioned, but only in terms of funding: not whether the UK should be there. Climate change crops up, but not whether a deregulated growth economy is compatible with the ecological imperative. Saving the NHS is an important campaign issue, but not the fundamental question of whether public funds should be turned into private profit. The “big issues” are things like the national insurance rise which, as The Observer’s economics editor has pointed out, would cost M&S only two thirds of what the company shelled out for its new chief executive’s hello package.
Underlining the absence of substantial differences on the economic scale in particular, the public – and even the commentators – refer more than ever before to the three main leaders rather than to their parties. We know more about their personal lives; less about concrete policy. The tv debates, as welcome as they might be on some levels, have helped bring about a more presidential approach to politics. A presidential political campaign tends to highlight the style of the candidates rather than the substance of their policies. It’s a handy diversion in the absence of profound ideological distinctions.