SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon

The significance of this election will be greater than any since Margaret Thatcher came to power argues John Rees

The slogan coined by Bill Clinton’s campaign team in 1992, ‘Its the economy, stupid’, was meant to encapsulate the key issue on which Clinton planned to beat incumbent President George Bush senior.

The current election campaign in the UK can be similarly briefly summarised: ‘It’s Scotland, stupid’.

The televised leaders debate this week settled this beyond doubt. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon performed best according to some post-debate polls, another 2,000 people joined the SNP, Sturgeon was welcomed home to Edinburgh in triumph…and the Telegraph and the Mail are near to hysteria about the SNP holding the balance of power in the next Parliament.

But its not just the Tory press that is beside itself about the SNP. The entire English political establishment is terrified that the popular mobilisation that fuelled the Yes campaign is now running so strongly in the SNP channel that not only will they hold the balance of power in the next parliament but will also be able to reopen the question of Scottish Independence, possibly with another referendum.

Thus the very existence of the Union is again at stake just at the moment when the establishment thought it had been saved by the No vote in the referendum.

The Labour and Unionist Party

The immediate cause of this crisis is not the Conservative and Unionist Party, now all but extinct in Scotland, but the Labour Party leadership’s decision to destroy its own base in defence of the Union. The Yes vote in the referendum was more strongly represented in Labour heartlands than it was in SNP areas.

The truth is that when Labour voters see a chance to vote for a party they take to be to the left of Labour on austerity and war they grasp it with both hands.

Scottish Labour still can’t come to terms with this. The disastrous support for the No campaign has been exacerbated by the Scottish Labour Party’s choice of arch Blairite and doyen of the ultra-right Henry Jackson Society, Jim Murphy, as their new leader. New mines have had to be opened to replace the amount of salt that this decision has rubbed into the wounds of Yes voting Labour supporters.

Even if the polls are half right the SNP will reduce Labour to a shadow of its former self north of the border. If the polls are better than half right then Gordon Brown’s old seat will fall to the SNP, so will Alastair Darling’s.

But the really interesting thing about this election is not the effect that the Scottish question has had in Scotland, but the effect it has had in England.

The power of the curse is waning

The rise of the SNP in Scotland has begun to destroy the curse that has been with us ever since the 1980s, the curse of ‘triangulation’. Triangulation, also originally a Bill Clinton invention, was the idea that if you wanted to win an election you had to win the middle ground. To do so you should ignore or downplay the importance of your own core supporters because they have no one else for which to vote. Thus you can concentrate on moving right to win over some of the middle ground.

Every Labour leader since Kinnock has been in thrall to this notion. It has been repeated as law by political commentators and the media. It was never true. If you inspired and motivated your core support, created momentum around popular demands, this could pull elements of the middle ground in your direction, rather than you moving in theirs.

In any case for nearly 20 years triangulation has been counter-productive because mass consciousness stands to the left of the mainstream political spectrum on most questions, as repeated British Social Attitudes surveys have shown. The rise of the SNP has now shown this in practice.

South of the border this has thrown normal politics into the melting pot. Now all the political parties are pitching to mobilise their core support rather than to win the elusive middle ground.

This was made very clear by the leaders’ debate. Farage deliberately crafted what his aides called a ‘shock and awful’ strategy designed to polarise the discussion and shore up his support following weeks of disastrous headlines. After the debate one poll saw him voted simultaneously the best and the worst performer with about 25 percent of respondents in both categories.

Cameron adopted a defensive strategy of not engaging in debate any more than absolutely necessary in the hope that this would preserve the aura of his office and thus not risk his support base.

Both Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru and the Greens’ Natalie Bennett have, rightly, to stick with their core message if they are to make headway. Any small party appearing for one of the first times on a national TV platform will have a potential base larger than its current base simply because it has been previously underexposed.

More surprisingly, Labour too is now running a more left-leaning campaign than at any time since Kinnock. Of course its economic programme has not broken with austerity, of course it won’t break with the Washington consensus in foreign policy, nor will it contradict the Tories virulent Islamophobia or anti-immigrant rhetoric. The anti-immigration mug that Labour produced, and Ed Balls pledge to toast a Labour victory with it, are a particularly disgusting reminder of where the Labour leadership’s priorities lie.

So all change is cosmetic, but that does not mean it is unimportant.

Miliband’s pitch and Labour’s local election material is focussed on the NHS, including opposition to privatisation. Labour is playing up its policy of opposition to zero hours contracts. Its answer to Tory claims of economic success is to point to declining living standards. And when challenged by Tory big business supporters it replied with a letter by 100 ordinary people. However weak this maybe, it is not the response that would have come from a Blair-Mandelson leadership obsessed with out big businessing the Tories at their own game.

What all this shows is that triangulation may not be dead yet, but it is dying.

The Left and the election

One possible conclusion from all this might be to bolster those like Owen Jones and the left in the unions who argue that Labour is rescuable for an effective left project. But this is not the case. To the extent that Labour’s leadership are abandoning triangulation it is more at the level of presentation than substance, more from necessity than principle. Labour will not regain even its old social democratic configuration because this would mean breaking with neoliberalism and that, in turn, requires the kind of guts and organisation that Syriza represents…and even that is being tested to destruction. Labour is not close to this kind of trajectory.

But, equally, the various left of Labour formations are not an effective alternative. The Green surge is fading the closer the election looms as many traditional Labour voters realise that the only effective way of getting rid of the Tories is to vote Labour. The return of a modicum of attenuated class language to Labour’s lexicon will further squeeze the Greens, as will the possibility of the SNP holding Labour to a more radical course after the election. There are good Green candidates, as well as some not so good ones, and no doubt in these cases the Left should support them. But its not a convincing overall strategy.

No other credible Left challenge exists, unless some Tower Hamlets First candidates throw their hats in the ring as has been rumoured. Other left formations will remain stuck in lost deposit territory.

Neither are the various horizontalist rejections of electoral politics very attractive. To protest that we should ignore elections when millions of working people are engaging in a process that countless generations of their forebears fought to win the right to participate in has always looked like colossal  arrogance.

And although elections are a secondary form of struggle, they do nevertheless have an importance. Especially when not only the government but the very structure of the state may be at stake, as is the case this May. The intellectually lazy and politically counterproductive ‘they are all the same’ has rarely been more misplaced.

So what would be a sensible approach for the Left?

First, engage in debate. The left analysis is strong. We said that the system was broken and it is. We said that mass mobilisation could produce new alternatives and in Scotland it did. We said that Labour will destroy itself if it doesn’t break with austerity and war and that is happening. We said that there is life beyond triangulation and there is.

Second, organise. The break up of the old Westminster system creates a greater space for the left. This is not yet an electoral space, although that may come faster after the elections. But it is definitely already existing outside the electoral field. The very fact that there are anti-austerity and anti-war parties articulating alternative views, and that one of them may be necessary to keep Labour in power, is affecting the whole of politics and making the task of building extra-parliamentary movements of resistance on these issues easier. The anti-Trident demonstration in Glasgow over Easter, at which Nicola Sturgeon spoke, is an important case in point.

And it is, in any case, from these movements that any really effective electoral challenge must come.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.