THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CENTRIST LEFT
Today we will be examining that problematical group of politicians located further towards the Centre than the Corbynites, although still belonging to nominally left wing parties. For ease of reference let’s call them “the Moderates” (the name they often like to give themselves). These politicians generally harbour a deep hostility to, and mistrust of, their more radical counterparts. That being so, we might ask if in their case they are any different at all to Politicians of the Free Market Right.
In terms of general outlook they are in fact no different, and their policy differences are technical rather than ideological. They not only accept the Capitalist system but accept it as currently constituted and are openly hostile to attempts to reform it.
Nevertheless, in doing so they have to perform a difficult balancing act. For although their ideology is right wing they have a need to convince their supporters, and in most cases themselves, that they are progressive. This is partly tactical (ensuring that the party’s natural supporters continue to vote for it) but also psychological. For while these politicians and many of their supporters actually favour right wing policies, culturally they very much do belong within the Parties of the Centre Left. For party loyalty amounts to far more than questions of policy and ideology. There are at least equally strong ties of cuture, class, family tradition and deeply subconscious tribal preferences. In short, the party loyalties of many people are in much the same vein as their loyalties towards a sports team. More on this in a subsequent article. The point here is to use it to resolve the apparent contradiction of politicians supporting right wing policies from within a left wing tradition, and opposing other politicians who have the same policies but are in different parties.
These Politicians and their supporters, however, do not recognise that their loyalties are driven by emotion rather than policy — they see themselves as progressive even while pursuing or maintaining reactionary policies.
There are a number of psychological tricks they play on themselves and their supporters to convince themselves of their progressivism.
Firstly, they disguise their purely practical objections to government policy as ideological objections. Naturally, as the opposition their job is to scrutinise what the government is doing, and while the criticisms they make are in fact purely about competence they can make out that they are ideological and that they are being radical in making them. For example if the Ministry of Defence provides insufficient or low quality equipment to the army, the Opposition can make an angry fuss about it and in the process come across as radical. But in fact this is a purely technical criticism. A conservative party could easily make the same criticism if the situation was reversed and they were the ones in opposition. In fact, sometimes the “progressive” opposition party can actually end up criticising the government from the right, and some supporters will still think it radical, purely because it is the other tribe that is being criticised. An example from the UK would be when the Conservative led Coalition government abolished Control Orders (a system of house detention without trial) and Labour attacked this as “endangering national security”
Secondly, they can fudge the issue of what they are complaining about. When a conservative government enacts a right wing policy, the opposition will feel an obligation to oppose it, because they are the opposition and because their supporters will expect them to. The problem for them is that this policy is in line with their own ideological preferences, and to commit to really overturn it would put them way too firmly inside that distasteful radical camp. The way they get round this is to criticise a technical aspect of the way the policy has been implemented. For example when the Coalition Government in the UK privatized the Post Office, right wing Labour politicians such as Chuka Ummuna complained that they had done so at the wrong time, or that they had set the initial share price too low. Or when the Coalition government raised Tuition Fees for university students, Labour complained that they had raised them by too much, or again at the wrong time. Such an approach enables the opposition to claim that they opposed the policy, and gain radical kudos for doing so, without actually committing to reverse it, and without going on record opposing it as ideologically wrong. This approach also has the advantage of being so vague that the “Moderate” politicians can never be held to it if they reach office themselves. If asked when in office why they have not reversed the policy they can simply say “it wasn’t the right time then but now it is necessary!”
The third psychological trick they can employ is simply to use vaguely progressive language without following it through to any conclusion and without suggesting any policies off the back of it. Talk of “equality of opportunity”, “caring for the most vulnerable”, “helping those least able to help themselves”,”striving for a free, fair and equal society” and so on falls into this category. This has the effect of keeping core voters happy, and in most cases reassuring the politicians themselves that they are nice, progressive people, without the need for policies to match.
Another one is to give supposedly left wing rationales for their right wing opinions. They might say it helps the working class, for example, to be “Pro-Business” because if businesses are boosted this will create more jobs. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of that argument it is in fact exactly the same argument used by conservatives.
Finally, and in similar vein, they can criticise the opposite party in tribal terms, or on grounds of social class rather than policy. This tactic plays more directly to the tribal instincts of their supporters, and can sound very radical. Again, if they can keep their supporters satisfied in this way it negates the need to have any radical policies. At a rally in Manchester last year, for example, Moderate Labour politicain Andy Burnham described the Tories as “ a bunch of thieving, toffee-nosed Tory bastards”. But when the Tories introduced the “Snoopers’ Charter”, which greatly increases governmental control over electronic communications, Burnham as Shadow Home Secretary actually supported it! All the talk in the UK of “the Bullingdon Club”, Eton, calling George Osborne by his given name of Gideon and so on also falls into this category.
These, then, are the means by which these Politicians with Thatcherite policies convince themselves and other people that they are on the Progressive side of the political divide. In some cases this is a cynical tactic to keep their core voters, but I think in most cases they actually fool themselves as well. They see themselves as nice, progressive people. Maybe even radical people — just their own safe, clean, sanitised version of radical. This allows them to go happily about their business with a clean conscience — entertaining lobbyists and Press Barons, claiming huge expenses, taking jobs with Consultancies, bashing lefties, accepting peerages and generally behaving like the fully paid up members of the establishment that they are.
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- Further Reading: Gordon Brown was a Blairite