"We might think that what happens in Chile is merely a small earth quake of no significance for us but perhaps it tells us a lot more than we might think about the end of New Labour..."We seem to be in the twilight moments of the dominance of the Third Way in British Politics with Labour running consistently third in election polls.
Explanations for this decline largely focus on the weaknesses of Gordon Brown’s leadership and the impact of the recession. But look elsewhere, and you see that New Labour’s problems are echoed across the globe.
It might have escaped many people’s notice in this country, but the paradigmatic Latin American Third Way Government of the Concertación in Chile recently came to an end. It had been in power for 20 years. A look at its experience can give us some clues about why New Labour’s electoral success was always likely to be ultimately self-defeating.
The Concertación Government was a coalition of the Centre Left. During the Pinochet Dictatorship (1973-1989) the party leaderships went through a process they called ideological ‘modernisation’, premised upon an embrace of liberal democracy and the liberal market and a rejection of structural alternatives of the social democratic and socialist kind. This it is argued by the party leadership resulted in their electoral success.
But as I have demonstrated in relation to the Chilean Socialist Party (PSCh), the party of the popular classes of the Concertación, modernisation brought about a closing of ideological and political space: alternatives to neoliberalism were dismissed as outdated. Thus when unions protested about the privatisation of pensions or the introduction of fees in University they were labelled irrational. There was an individualisation of social ills; social problems such as unemployment and crime were re-framed as due to a lack of skills and/or civility. Crime and insecurity became key features in political debate. Party elites focused on governing as opposed to maintaining their relationships with their party base with parties becoming activated only at election time and internal elections an affair between elites behind closed doors. Sound familiar?
For the parties of the Concertación this resulted in a hollowing out of internal democracy, decline in membership, disillusionment between activists and leaderships and the increasing disenchantment of their union allies. For the Government of the Concertación their relationship with society moved from the mediation of collective interests to a televised relationship with individuals in the electorate. Socially there was a move to the right in sections of the working and under-classes in relation to questions of crime and insecurity accompanied by an erosion of past left-wing political identities and loyalties. Again, it is striking how much of the Chilean experience echoes that of the UK.
For the Concertación their process of modernisation ultimately undermined their political identity and unity leading to the election of a coalition of the political right ‘La Alianza por el Cambio’ (Alliance for Change) who argued that Chilean politics needed change, to reconstruct 'Chileaness' and to combat insecurity and crime
We might think that what happens in Chile is merely a small earth quake of no significance for us but perhaps it tells us a lot more than we might think about the end of New Labour and the rise of the political right in British politics.
Dr Sara Motta