Peter Mandelson weighed into a long-standing debate on Monday. Photo: Getty
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Have we become more left-wing?

Where is the centre ground in British politics? A recent comment from Peter Mandelson, a once powerful and still perennial political figure, has sparked another round of answers to this eternal question.

Yesterday Peter Mandelson suggested the Labour Party are tacking too far to the left under Ed Miliband.

They must “not simply keep driving an agenda of our own regardless of the electorate’s views”, he declared. The electorate has not “moved to the left”, as Ed Miliband’s team have been credited with thinking.

A long-time Labour lieutenant, Mandelson was a minor secretary of state but central consigliere under Tony Blair in the 1990s. After a stint as European Commissioner in the mid-2000s following one scandal too many, he returned to frontline politics before the last election as once-nemesis Gordon Brown’s First Secretary of State and supposed saviour.

He has effectively been involved in every general election since 1987. If any political operative has a sense of the political centre, Mandelson may.

But, unsatisfied by his employment history, some noted bloggers today called for Mandelson to substantiate his claims. As one put it, “If winning the centre ground is so important I assume Mr Mandelson can measure it.....or locate it.....or identify it?”

He may not be able to, but recent research provides some insight into the issue – and dates back all the way to the 1950s.

The data substantiates the notion of a great ideological divide throughout the 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher took the Tory party away from something of a post-war consensus. 

Equally, the Labour Party remained far to the left of the electorate until 1997, when Tony Blair – and Mandelson – dragged the party towards the centre.

The chart also shows that we as voters move, albeit less than parties. In 1950 the electorate were more left-wing than in the late 1970s, when a decade of disruption allowed Thatcher to rise to power. By 1997 voters had swung back to the left as they soured on the right after nearly two decades of Conservative rule.

The academics behind this data go so far as to suggest the electorate move in precisely the opposite direction to the government. In other words, we begin to move away from the party we elected as soon as they start to do the things we elected them to do.

To return to Mandelson’s contention, there is some indication this has happened under the coalition. The electorate does appear to have moved slightly to the left.

This data shows that is exactly what we should expect. Politics – or at least the political mood – does appear to move in cycles.

 

[1] Party positions are calculated using their election manifestos. The electorate’s stance is determined from responses to a series of questions on issues such as taxes, unemployment, inequality and Europe.

 

This is a preview of May2015.com, an affiliated site launching later this year. You can find us on Twitter.

 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage