Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Old Labour, New Labour, and Federalist #10

The last few weeks have seen "liberal hawks" such as Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen all writing election articles imploring the anti-war left not to abandon the Labour Party. It's all a return to the lovey-dovey Labour values, and asking the question - will the Tories really be a better alternative? In so doing, they are signifying the threat New Labour really feels scared of - the apathy of the core vote.

It's amazing, but this is explainable by looking back at James Madison's superb essay in the Federalist. The real contribution of the Founding Fathers to political philosophy didn't come so much through the document of the constitution itself. It was far too much of a "compromise document" to contribute to constitutional thought, but in the ratification debate afterwards, Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote a series of essays that in many ways redefined republicanism.

Opponents of the constitution argued that the new government was doomed to fail because republican government could only work if there was a broad unity of interest among the political community. In Federalist number 10, Madison turned this on its head. A broad community with a vast number of interests was actually preferable, because no single interest could then act as a controlling influence, pernicious to wider liberty. Instead, a whole host of interests would have to compromise, and this process would make sure government served the wider community as far as was possible under any frame of government.

The Old Labour - New Labour marriage always seemed to be pretty tenuous. But after 18 years of Tory (Thatcherite Tory!) rule, the left were sufficiently hungry for power that Blair and pals were able to convince them that without appealing to the centre ground, the dream of power was to remain just that. The unremittingly Blairite tone of government is now seeing this collapse. Previously, it was considered worth supporting Blair to keep the Tories out. Now, with PFI in hospitals, war in Iraq, the introduction of ID cards, massive increases to tuition fees, the old left are getting restless and increasingly vocal in their rebellion.

None of this is new, of course. But the coalition of interests needed to give Labour its huge majorities is looking increasingly fragile - indeed, it will survive largely because the opposition parties have been unable to form similar coalitions of their own (if I get prodded to do so, I will blog about why the Tories seem so unelectable in the near future). The arguments of Hari, Aaronovitch and co, therefore, are a last ditch attempt to try and prove that if they compromise to work on their common ground, they can keep power and achieve something.

So never mind the trust, or the private money ploughing into public services, or the development of the internal market - let's look at the achievements made for the poor. The minimum wage, the minimum income guarantee, SureStart programmes etc, etc. Surely the Tories would reverse these?

My guess is that a marriage based on keeping another party out will not last long. If Blair is voted in with a reduced majority, the spectre of backbench rebellion becomes genuinely potent. If rebellion is consistent enough to paralyse the government, Brown may well have many more problems when he comes in to take power than he may envisage now. And this could allow modernising Tories to reclaim the centre ground and finally return to power. All hypothesising, of course. But it is amazing to see just how prescient Madison's arguments remain when one turns to analyse the bedrock of political support.