Tony Blair said his Third Way’s world view was "shaped by reality not ideology". Photo: Getty
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Why politicians should stop dismissing the importance of ideology

We need ideas and idealism as well as processes and action; our problem is not too much politics, but not enough.

I’m having an identity crisis. I am one of a growing number of youngish people who are looking for political alternatives beyond the Westminster bubble. Russell Brand’s Newsnight performance struck a chord. We’re excited by grassroots democracy and collaborative decision-making. But what do we call ourselves? Left wing? No, left and right are over. Progressive? Too woolly. Democratic? Too general. The only term that seems to work is anti-neoliberalism. And that is a hideously inelegant label to rally around.

What does it even mean? Despite admirable attempts to define the term, by cultural theorists Jeremy Gilbert and Will Davies among others, it’s stubbornly hard to pin down. Is it a specific market-fundamentalist programme, or a diffuse set of strategies designed to protect elite power? Why don’t neoliberals themselves ever use the word? It’s also not clear to me whether neoliberalism favours centralised state power or whether this power is only designed to prepare individuals to fend for themselves. Amongst the general public, neoliberalism has little or no currency.

It’s not only those who I’ll call the new left that find themselves at a crossroads of political nomenclature. All the main parties have got their linguistic knickers in a twist, coming up with ever more mangled policy statements and slogans. "Hardworking Britain Better Off". "An economy that delivers for people who want to work hard and get on in life". And so on. Ed Miliband shrinks from uttering the words "labour" or "the left". David Cameron steers clear of terms such as "right wing" or "conservative". The only markets he associates himself with explicitly are in Portugal selling fish. As the conference party season and the long general election campaign loom into view, this impasse will become ever more apparent.

David Cameron’s announcement this week that domestic policies will now be "tested" for their "impact" on families was a clear illustration of how politics has been reduced to morality and "evidence". The bit that is missing is ideology.

According to the OED, ideology is "a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy". In a paper I’ve written for the New Economics Foundation (NEF), I ask the question: why is that so terrible? Why has ideology become so toxic? In a speech last month marking the 20th anniversary of his becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair said the Third Way’s analysis of the world was "shaped by reality not ideology, not by delusional thoughts based on how we want the world to be", and warned Miliband to avoid "playing to the gallery of our ideological ghosts". Miliband denounces  George Osborne’s cuts as "ideologically driven", as though it was the fact that they are ideological that’s the problem, rather than their direction of travel. Even Jon Cruddas – himself arguably the most "ideological" of Labour backbenchers – has cited Tory strategy on rail ownership as an illustration of their tendency to "put ideology before common sense".

The truism that ideology is a dinosaur, no longer relevant to a complex, pragmatic, supple new political culture, doesn’t explain the vehemence with which politicians and commentators reject it. The point is, ideology is not dead: it’s just buried.

It’s no accident that the consignment of ideology to the dustbin of history has coincided with the growing dominance of the right in Western politics over the last three decades. When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of ideological debate 25 years ago, he was a neocon. We should raise an eyebrow when Nigel Farage, who supports a flat tax and the abolition of worker rights, says right and left don’t exist any more. The "death of ideology" thesis is a highly ideological confidence trick designed to render the tools of democratic challenge obsolete.

Politics is broken, we are constantly told. Yes it is, but how? It’s true that politicians have become professionalised and "out of touch". But they are pursuing the wrong remedy, dismissing idealism as highfalutin and producing increasingly mangled impressions of the vernacular and the concrete: Cameron and Osborne posing in hard hats; Cameron tackling a bacon sandwich; all this down-to-earth talk of money in your pocket and food on the table. The "problem with politics" is identified as its tribal, confrontational style: politicians are told to stop fighting each other and "get on with the job".

Yet this common-sense, bipartisan technocracy, underpinned by a moralistic work-culture of duty and shame, is a kind of soft totalitarianism. It chimes too readily with the reduction of political choices to economic optimisation, with claims that the need to "make efficiencies" is an apolitical matter of fact. Anyone who suggests otherwise needs a "reality check". Populism is no cure for the professionalisation of politics: the demotic posturing of Farage and BoJo is determinedly right-wing ideology in anti-political disguise.

Meanwhile, to the left of Labour, there’s a danger that the click-your-own, grow-your-own revolution unwittingly mirrors the tendencies of its opponents. Grassroots and community action is hugely inspiring, but without coordination and a coherent ideology it’s difficult to scale it all up into a concerted, enduring alternative to austerity and – for the want of a better word – neoliberalism.

The new left is, like the Tea Party in the US, eschewing the big state in favour of single-issue, local and horizontalist forms of organisation. But the state not only provides a safety net: it’s the only theatre for political contestation we currently have. 

New theatres may emerge, but what is clear to me is that we need ideas and idealism as well as processes and action. In a sense our problem is not too much politics, but not enough. It may be unfashionable in these crowdsourced times, but I’d like to see politicians give up trying to impersonate ordinary people, and embrace their role as leaders who set out their vision for the future. The recent explosion of interest in "framing" amongst NGOs and think tanks is a symptom of the glaring absence of blueprints and articulation. It’s time to get it all out on the table, to declare agendas and reclaim politics. But it may be that our existing language is irrevocably tainted and that, to borrow the title of NoViolet Bulawayo’s 2013 novel, We Need New Names.

Eliane Glaser is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. She tweets @ElianeGlaser

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.