There was a grim symmetry to May Day celebrations this year: on International Worker's Day 20 years ago, Tony Blair led the Labour Party to its greatest-ever victory and the beginning of its longest-ever reign at Number 10, by shuffling the party to the right. Perversely enough - he did just as Bill Clinton had done to the Democrats in America, to such success. Now, as we find ourselves staring down the barrel of another general election, still reeling from the cataclysm of Brexit, we've come to realise that Tony's third-way centrism wasn't so much astute political nous but the most spectacular dead cat bounce ever seen. As we're acutely aware now, that hat trick of electoral victories in 97, 01 and 05 actually sowed the seeds of Labour's current malaise and, arguably, Brexit, by sidelining the working classes and ignoring the gluttonous excesses of the financial industry.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader marked an explicit rejection of the New Labour legacy, but under his direction, rather some sort of revival, this leftwards swerve has divided much of the party and lead to its almost certain defeat in the upcoming general election. In fact, victory for Corbyn now it would seem, would be to not lose as badly as we once expected.
Corbyn has his own personal-political shortcomings, but that doesn't tell the entire story. Indeed, during the election, he's steadily made up ground on the Tories. But is he fighting a battle that's now impossible to win? Corbyn of course isn't alone; all across the West, parties of the centre-left find themselves in a similar quagmire.
Decimated in the recent elections in the Netherlands and France, barely functioning in the US, as tempting as it is to blame Jeremy for not romping home with all the votes and strolling into Number 10, it would totally miss the point. This regressive trend goes far beyond him and I'm unconvinced that it can be stemmed by policy or personality. It's not only Labour that drifted to the right in the 90s -- we all did -- and the likely Tory victory is a reminder of that.
According to many on the modern left, this recent explosion of right wing populism is a direct result of left-of-centre parties turning their backs on their blue collar bases.
According to many on the modern left, this recent explosion of populism is a direct result of left-of-centre parties turning their backs on their blue collar bases, but they conveniently ignore the fact that much of the electorate abandoned socialism long before Blair or Clinton did.
In 1979, Labour's leftward fringes locked the party out of power for 18 years. In the six elections between 1968 and 1992, the Democrats in the US barely won a single presidential term and were promptly thrown out of power when blue collar "Reagan Democrats" in the rust belt rallied around the GOP in 1980. When Thatcher went for her third mandate in 1987, only 45% of manual workers cast their vote for Labour - down from 69% in 1966. Right-to-buy had elevated many -- if not in practice, at least in their heads -- from working class to petit bourgeois. The greedy individualism of neoliberal doctrine resonated with so many that it dragged the entire political landscape rightwards, leaving the centre-left to play catch up.
New Labour didn't catalyse this shift, it reflected it. According to data in the British Social Attitudes Survey, the electorate have grown increasingly economically right wing since 1985. Support for the redistribution of wealth fell from 45 percent in 1987 to 36 percent in 2009. Support for benefits plummeted from 55 to 27 percent in the same period. This latter statistic is reinforced by research that suggests that the welfare state can't survive growing cultural and ethnic diversity because a sizeable chunk of the electorate that benefit from it oppose their taxes being spent on people that don't look, act, or sound like they do. Social liberalism has grown so consistently over the years that even the Tories were forced into modernising themselves under David Cameron, but that social progress was inextricably wedded to free market economics.
Most of us might be increasingly tolerant of who people have sex with, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we want to subsidise their housing so they can afford to live in a London postcode. We embrace the cultural exchange offered by a borderless EU, but do our best to ignore the inherent financial imperialism of the Euro. Despite living in an age of austerity, failing social services and vulgar wealth disparity, the debate is dominated by identity politics rather than economic issues. Many of us ponder whether the Oscars should go gender neutral, but accept extortionate university tuition fees and the crippling social immobility that they foster as an unfortunate fact of life.
Although many Corbyn's supporters have a tendency to blame his bad rep on media bias or Blairite sabotage, the real explanation may be that the British electorate are a lot more right wing than most of them would like to admit.
This acceptance of the economic status quo can be seen all around us. Look at the dominant youth tribe of our era: the hipster. Unlike the punks or the skins of the past, hipsterdom has no guiding ideology, just common tastes. It might have all the outward signifiers of a subculture, but none of the collectivism that used to define those of the past. The hipsters don't contradict the dominant values of our age, like entrepreneurialism and solipsistic individualism, they embody them. Obama is the political icon of our time and a perfect avatar for it: America's first black president fought for transgender bathroom access, but meekly refused to reprimand Wall Street for ruining the lives of many thousands through their avarice. Yet, he was still celebrated as a progressive darling.
Over the past quarter-century this laissez-faire "leftism" has clearly trickled down from our leaders into society, affecting us all. This goes some way towards explaining Labour's struggles under Jeremy Corbyn: you'd think that the current economic climate would lead to some sort of socialist revival, but yet we're faced with an impending Tory bloodbath that should hand Theresa May a majority come 9 June, despite recent polls putting Corbyn only 5 points behind Theresa. We could even put Corbyn's (relative) rise down to the fact that, as the election's gone on, and more people have heard his ideas, they've realised he's made not quite the commie the Daily Mail painted him to be.
Although many Corbyn supporters have a tendency to blame his bad rep on media bias or Blairite sabotage, the real explanation may be that the British electorate are a lot more right wing than most of them would like to admit, especially in the privacy of their own thoughts, as the "Shy Tory" phenomenon suggests.
This election may move the centre ground back a little towards the left, with May's manifesto cribbing elements from the Labour Party circa 2010-2015, but that still only reinforces how far to the right we've drifted since the 80s.
Back in 1981, Margaret Thatcher told The Times that "economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul" and it seems that she has succeeded in that. How Labour and, more broadly, the left, move forward from this uncomfortable realisation remains to be seen.
Text Aleks Eror