The Rescue Parties

Far from handing elections to the right, protest votes galvanise the major players into action

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 12th November 2002

How many political parties can dance on the head of a pin? The answer, it seems, is one. In Britain and the United States, the opposition parties are beginning to discover that there simply isn’t room for both them and their rivals on the narrow political platforms they have chosen to contest. Without enough space to shift their feet, they are being pushed ever closer to the edge of oblivion.

While the Tories are left with no choice but to steal back the clothes New Labour stole from them, the Democrats’ refusal to step off the pinhead and find another platform is, at first sight, mysterious. It is plainly not a response to the demands of the electorate: indeed, they seem to be wildly out of touch with some of its main concerns. The tens of millions of US voters opposed to a war with Iraq were, until he died in a mysterious plane crash two weeks ago, represented by just one senator, Paul Wellstone. A survey in July suggested that 76% of American voters would like to see corporations forced to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, while another poll, in June, found that 67% of the electorate believed that energy conservation, fuel efficiency and the development of solar technology were the best means of solving the impending US energy crisis. Yet Democratic congressmen have helped the Republicans to obstruct global efforts to tackle climate change. The Democrats have failed to respond decisively to the widespread public anger about tax cuts for the super rich, corporate corruption and the privatisation of state pensions.

It is true that Bush was assisted by the voters’ tendency, when faced with an external threat, to cling to their government. But the Democrats, as even they now acknowledge, are largely to blame for their own destruction in last week’s mid-term elections. As the party strategist James Carville lamented, “We’ve got to just stand for something. No one made the case.”

Faced with a choice between two ugly parties, the electorate, quite rationally, stayed at home. In the US, as in Britain, young voters have all but abandoned party politics. Even in the presidential elections two years ago, only 17% of 18-29 year olds turned out. Yet young people, as the crowds gathering in Florence last week reminded us, are perhaps more politically active today than they have ever been. It’s just that very few mainstream political parties, anywhere on earth, are appealing to them. So why, when a low turn-out hurts the Democrats, and they desperately need to recapture the youth vote, have they continued to follow the Republicans towards the right?

While political choice in many other nations is restricted by the threat of capital flight, the US (because the dollar is both the global reserve currency and the haven of last resort for speculative capital) has little to fear from the markets. Indeed, as America slips into recession, a policy of social spending and radical interventionism would probably be supported by the banks.

Campaign finance and the power of the media are more plausible explanations. The big money and the big media conglomerates are always much further to the right than the people, for the simple reason that what is good for billionaires and corporations tends to be bad for everyone else. In last week’s elections, the Republicans and Democrats spent, between them, a record $1bn. Without money, you can’t advertise, and without advertising you can’t contest the increasingly vituperative attacks by your opponents.

But, by itself, this is an inadequate account of the Democrats’ disengagement with the voters. It does not explain, for example, why – despite deep public concern about corporate corruption — the party has become even more pro-corporate than it was before the presidential elections two years ago. There is another factor at work, whose impact has been either disregarded or comprehensively misunderstood.

What the Democrats lacked in last week’s elections was the danger of a countervailing force. There was no threat to their left flank grave enough to distract them from their obsessive pursuit of the corporate buck. There was, in other words, no sufficiently-focussed fear of the electorate. The Democrats lost the mid-term elections because the Greens did not rattle their cage.

The Green Party, led by Ralph Nader, is widely reviled by liberals in the United States for “handing the presidency to Bush”. The 2.7% it won in the presidential election is said to have deprived the Democrats of power. Nader, as a result, is now held responsible for everything from the bombing of Afghanistan to the logging of old-growth forest. But his critics are wrong, on two counts.

The first is that Bush did not win the presidential election. Al Gore did, though as we know he lost the subsequent power struggle. The second is that the Democrats won only because Nader forced them to win.

In the last few weeks before the presidential election, Gore, alarmed by Nader’s popularity, turned sharply to the left, promoting a series of green and progressive policies which had previously been ignored. The result was that the Democrats rose significantly in the opinion polls. Had Nader not frightened them, Gore may well have lost. Had Nader frightened them a little more, Gore may have won with sufficient conviction to prevent George Bush’s bureaucratic coup. Nader dragged the Democrats back to the electorate.

In last week’s elections, by contrast, the Greens were not perceived to be a major threat, partly because they have become the scapegoats for the presidential election. The Democrats, unmolested by the prospect of political choice, remained free to engage in their deadly dance with the Republicans around the corporate dollar. The result – as they now acknowledge – is that they lost touch with their core vote.

If you doubt that third parties force their bigger rivals to give the voters what they want, take a look at the Barnett formula. This is the arrangement, devised by the Labour government in 1978, for distributing money to the different parts of Britain. As even Joel Barnett, who invented it, now concedes, the formula is “grossly unfair”. Scotland and Wales are given far more public money than the poorest English regions. The people of the north-east, for example, are on average 13% poorer than the people of Scotland, but they receive 20% less government spending. The reason is straightforward: in Scotland and Wales, Labour’s vote is threatened by the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, while the voters of north-east England love their party not wisely but too well. Their failure to extend their own political options permits the government to walk all over them.

A vote for a third political party, even one which has no chance of being elected, could, far from being wasted, be the most powerful vote you can cast. It is arguably the only force which could drag the bigger parties apart, oblige “progressive” politicians to implement progressive policies and enhance the scope of mainstream democratic choice. Ralph Nader, as the mid-term elections show, did not sink the Democrats; he rescued them. The tragedy of American politics is that they were too blinkered to see it.