Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 15 March 2019

Triangulation or bipartisanship does not work when one side goes off the scale

Brad DeLong describes himself as a Rubin Democrat, which he defines as “largely neoliberal, market-oriented, and market-regulation and tuning aimed at social democratic ends.” It is a natural position for an economist to be: it is generally more efficient to tweek markets than destroy them. But he thinks the time has come for this kind of Democrat to pass the baton over to the left. “We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.”

That is an unusual thing to say, on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK the left under Corbyn is in the lead, but you see few of the people who used to run the Labour party saying anything similar. Instead some have conducted a relentless campaign to undermine him. Not only is DeLong unusual, I also think he is probably right, so I want to examine the reasons he gives.

The key point he makes is that the political right has torn up the normal rules of the game, by both moving further to the right and becoming totally partisan. This was very clear in the Obama years. Obama pursued Romney’s health care policy and John McCain’s climate policy and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. “And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years? No, they fucking did not.”

There is much less bipartisan cooperation in the UK compared to the US, but I think there is a clear analogy with triangulation. The lesson Brown and Blair drew from the defeats of the 1980s was that Labour needed to win the middle class, and that meant moving policy to the centre ground. There was little attempt to reverse the neoliberalism of Thatcher, but instead to mitigate its social effects.

But the problem is that the political right in both countries were not playing by the same rules. They had a quite different strategy, which was to shift policy on issues like taxation and the size of the state to the right, and instead try and win elections by pushing a socially conservative agenda. (Here is a formalisation.) There is no triangulation here, but instead an attempt to hide a right wing agenda by starting a culture war. [1] As the right has control over a section of the media, they can also misrepresent their own and their opponents position. That control, together with ineffective scrutiny by the non-partisan media, allows politicians to lie to an extent that would have been thought inconceivable a couple of decades earlier.

When the right adopts this strategy (what I have called elsewhere neoliberal overreach), attempts by the left to get bipartisan agreement or triangulate policies moves what most political commentators call the centre ground of policy to the right. This has two effects. The first is that policies that would be popular among a majority of the population don’t happen. It is often noted that Corbyn’s policies are popular, and the same seems to be true in the US. Second, those supporting the left wing party become dissatisfied with it, and try and move it back to where it once was.

A vivid illustration from the UK of how triangulation fails is immigration. The Conservatives, together with their allies in the media, decided to use immigration as a major weapon against the Labour government. Gradually the increase in the number of stories about immigrants living on welfare and ‘taking our jobs’ began to move immigration up the list of issues voters were concerned about. Immigration numbers were increasing because the government knew this was good for both the economy and public services, but newspapers used words like “mass”, “vast”, “large scale”, “floods”,“waves”“army”, or “hordes”. With a few exceptions it was not voters in areas where migration was increasing that were reacting, and the best predictor of voter concern was which newspapers voters read.

Eventually Labour decided they had to try and triangulate, by talking tough on immigration. The case for immigration was no longer made. The false belief that immigrants made access to public services worse became ingrained. This allowed the Conservative government to deflect a lot of anger over austerity on to immigrants, and it eventually led to Brexit. The strategy of triangulation was a disaster. It is interesting that since the negative impact of reduced immigration on the economy has become clear with Brexit, views on immigration in the UK have shifted to become positive rather than negative.

Another consequence of the right not playing by the old rules is a lack of proportionality. I remember reading Paul Krugman during the Clinton vs Sanders primaries. I think Paul mainly favoured Clinton because Sanders was too populist, which naturally grates for someone who knows and cares about the detail and the difficulties involved in populist policies. But I also remember him writing that the Republicans might be hard on Clinton but that would be nothing compared to what the right would do if Sanders was the Democratic candidate. I’m not sure that was correct, because the right were not playing by the old rules where you had to stick to facts.

As a result, Clinton was accused of all kinds of imagined crimes by Trump, and the non-partisan media played along by obsessing about her email server. Much the same happened in the UK if we look at the 2015 and 2017 elections. The right wing press relentlessly attacked Corbyn in 2017 with wild charges about what he would do as PM, but what they did to centre-left Ed Miliband (‘red Ed’) in 2015 was not that different. Their attacks were not proportionate to how left wing their opponent was.

I think you need to add in one additional point here, and that is a public that is looking for radical solutions, by which I means solutions that move away from the status quo. The reason for this is not hard to understand: the worst recession since WWII following the financial crisis, stagnant and declining real wages, and geographical areas (rural, towns) that seem to be falling behind more dynamic cities.

The lesson of Brexit and Trump is if you fight a culture war and lies with just well researched and targeted policy proposals, you lose. It is better to fight a culture war with an alternative vision and popular policy proposals, and a bit of class war too. I am not suggesting that you don’t have well researched and targeted policy proposals behind that: as DeLong says “we are still here”. But this is the time for radicals on both sides. I suspect Sanders would have been more effective than Clinton at taking on Trump, just as Corbyn was very effective at taking on Theresa May.

You might have noticed that I have said very little about policy divisions between the left and centre-left, and that is because in practice I don’t think they are very important. In both countries the left cannot implement much that the centre-left disagrees with, and much of what the left want to do the centre-left are prepared to accept. [2] (Maybe not rich Democrat or Labour donors, but crowdfunding means that is unfortunate rather than fatal.) The key question is whether the centre-left allows the left to lead when it needs to lead, or instead fights against the left and keeps the right in power.

Let me end with Brad again.
“Our current bunch of leftists are wonderful people, as far as leftists in the past are concerned. They’re social democrats, they’re very strong believers in democracy. They’re very strong believers in fair distribution of wealth. They could use a little more education about what is likely to work and what is not. But they’re people who we’re very, very lucky to have on our side.”

Some in the UK may feel that statement just does not apply here, but they need to ask whether DeLong is right and it is the left’s time to lead, because what he says about the political right in the US applies equally to the UK.

[1] Cameron talked the talk of centre triangulation, but that did not happen in practice (with the exception of one or two issues like Gay marriage and the aid budget). With austerity he pursued an attempt to shrink the state that Thatcher could only dream of, and the degree to which the Tories wanted to shift policy to the right was masked by the Coalition’s other partner.

[2] One of the problems we have in the UK is supporters of the left who do not understand this, and act as if the centre-left is the enemy and it can win without them. But the centre-left also needs to recognise that on some big issues like financialisation they have been wrong and the left has been right. Some discussion on US issues here from Paul Krugman.


  1. "Eventually Labour decided they had to try and triangulate, but talking tough on immigration."
    Is this a typo and you meant?
    "Eventually Labour decided they had to try and triangulate, by talking tough on immigration."

  2. Just speaking as an individual Corbyn supporter, my perspective isn't so much that the left views the centre-left as the enemy and thinks it can win without them - the attitude is more "with you if possible, without you if necessary, and if you're against us we'll be against you". Sort of a Tit for Tat prisoner's dilemma strategy.

    Admittedly, how the left *sees* the centre-left and how the left acts towards them - which was what you referred to - aren't necessarily the same thing.

    1. Being with you politically, it's very much this! I would love nothing more than to work with centrists, but centrists have never Corbyn and his supporters for winning. Remember that at the start of Corbyn's time as leader, many of the people who had been critical of him were allowed in cabinet, and immediately used that status as a vessel with which to use political stunts. It strikes me that for a segment of Labour so vocally worried about being deselected, centrists could do with shutting up and sitting down a bit more.

  3. The retirement of a fake scientist and real agenda pusher

    Comment on Simon Wren-Lewis on ‘Triangulation or bipartisanship does not work when one side goes off the scale’

    Simon Wren-Lewis cites Brad DeLong approvingly: “Brad DeLong describes himself as a Rubin Democrat, which he defines as ‘largely neoliberal, market-oriented, and market-regulation and tuning aimed at social democratic ends.’ It is a natural position for an economist to be: it is generally more efficient to tweek markets than destroy them. But he thinks the time has come for this kind of Democrat to pass the baton over to the left. ‘We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.’”

    It is an unnoticed absurdity that economists introduce themselves by waving a political flag. However, the general public and economists themselves have become accustomed to the idea that economics is just another act in the political Circus Maximus.

    This impression is correct but there is a problem. There is the political sphere and the scientific sphere and both cannot go together. Economics claims to be science from Adam Smith/Karl Marx onward to the ‘Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’. The task of economics as a science is to figure out how the monetary economy works. Did economists make a good job? No! This is where we stand today: provably false

    • profit theory, for 200+ years,
    • microfoundations, for 140+ years,
    • macrofoundations, for 80+ years,
    • the application of elementary logic and mathematics since the founding fathers.

    Economics is a failed science. And economists like Brad DeLong and Simon Wren-Lewis are public representatives of the worst scientific performance since the Flat-Earth-Theory. Economics is dead as science but alive as political agenda pushing. As Brad DeLong proudly remarks: “We are still here.”

    Unfortunately, this is all too true. There are always excellent employment opportunities in the political sphere for failed/fake scientists. Lenin called them useful idiots, economists prefer to describe themselves as experts ‘who know and care about the detail and the difficulties involved in populist policies.’#1, #2 Too bad that they do not know how the economy works.

    “In order to tell the politicians and practitioners something about causes and best means, the economist needs the true theory or else he has not much more to offer than educated common sense or his personal opinion.” (Stigum)

    Economists lack true theory. The four major approaches ― Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism ― are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent and all got the pivotal concept of the subject matter ― profit ― wrong. There is NO scientific truth in economics.#3

    But this does not matter much for an agenda pusher. What matters is to wave a political flag: “Our current bunch of leftists are wonderful people, as far as leftists in the past are concerned. They’re social democrats, they’re very strong believers in democracy. They’re very strong believers in fair distribution of wealth. They could use a little more education about what is likely to work and what is not. But they’re people who we’re very, very lucky to have on our side.”

    After having passed the baton over to the next generation of useful idiots it is time for the old guard of political economics to bury themselves at the Flat-Earth-Cemetery in the large section reserved for economists.#4 Adam Smith and Karl Marx are already there.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    #1 A political stench is in the air

    #2 Economics as a cover for agenda pushing

    #3 Links on capital-T Truth, stupidity, corruption

    #4 For details see cross-references Political Economics

  4. You're advocating a more radical left to take on an increasingly radical right? What could possibly go wrong? The consequences will be nasty if a leftist party that is socially conservative emerges to take on the right.

  5. I've been watching the Brexit votes on BBC parliament this week. I prefer BBC parliament to BBC News or Sky News because you don't get all the 'expert' talking heads.

    One thing that struck me was the time taken for a vote in the house of commons. It takes 10 or 15 minutes to count the MPs through the lobbies. If there are 3 or 4 amendments to a motion or bill then an hour has been wasted with the MPs just shuffling in an out of the chamber. This despite MPs always complaining they don't have enough time for debate e.t.c.

    The irony here is while the MPs are waiting for the vote results most of them seem to be engrossed in smart phones or tablets. Would it be possible for GCHQ to rig up a smart phone app to handle the votes? With smart phone or more likely a secure hand held terminal (HHT) the amendments and main vote could be tallied in a few minutes instead of an hour.
    occasions the chamber is packed there are more MPs than there are seats. Some then sit on steps or stand at the back. Most of the time even when 600 plus MPs are voting the chamber isn't rammed. Where are the other MPs? My suspicion here is that there are a fair few in the bar. Do they go straight from the bar through the lobbies then back to the bar? Apparently there are 8 bars in Westminster. We need live TV coverage of the bars. Also if you can't drink and drive should an MP be allowed to drink and vote? Some of them look permanently half cut on the TV. (Eg Speaker Bercow).

    All I'm asking for here is for Westminster to be updated to the tech level of a Tescos warehouse, nothing special. Improved tech could also soup up the TV coverage, but it would still be well below the tech used in sky sports premier leauge football coverage. Improved tech would make the TV coverage more entertaining which is surely the main purpose of
    The other thing I would do is insert an RFID tag in the buttock of each MP. I would then put RF detectors in the green benches. Using this technology the name of the MP and constituency could be displayed over the TV coverage. There are hundreds of MPs it's hard to see who's who.

    Using some tech it would also be possible to track which way your local MP voted in real time. Currently I try to do this through Hansard but it's not real time. By the time Hansard has updated the division record I've sobered up or lost interest.

    Another thing that I don't understand is on very rare the place.

    1. Hey Anon were you drinking when you wrote this comment?

      The thrust of your argument above is that the purpose of parliament is entertainment. No it's not those poor MPs have to try and run the country. There is no way any MP is going to allow an RFID tag to be physically inserted into them just to enhance the TV coverage of the House of commons.

      Show some respect. Sober up.

    2. Anonymous18 March 2019 at 12:19

      I'm sorry you didn't appreciate my contribution. I may have had a couple of halves when writing my piece on 15th March. The problem for me is that with my current medication regime the correct ammount of alcohol to have is zero. Still I believe the piece makes some valid points. No doubt many MP's are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. However modernisation of the House of Commons seems to be always under discussion, but nothing much happens. The HoC seems to be a very small c conservative institution. Because of the first past the post electoral system most MPs are in safe seats and will be returned at the next general election. For many MPs what they do in the HoC is largely recreational.

    3. Parliament could use a different method, it chooses not to. One reason is that divisions provide an opportunity for backbenchers to interact with senior government figures.

  6. I very much agree with this as regards the media and . But I think there is a policy problem too. As well as adopting a different media strategy, the right formulates its policies strategically: undermine social democracy, and as far as possible give the middle class a stake in that undermining:

    - Favouring property owners, increasing property ownership
    - Starving services but giving the middle class 'choices' which allow them to obtain the non-starved parts
    - Selling off public property and giving shares cheaply to the middle class.

    Whereas the centre left, which has done a lot of good, has not countered these strategic moves.

    The problem is, though, that I'm not sure we have a counter. I'm worried that the Corbyn project, while alive to this, is fighting the last war. Nationalising things worked once, but now we know that the right will flog them off cheaply next time they're in. How many times can we afford that?

    And that is why I an so glad you have written this. Because we need the policy-making capacity of the centre-left to get behind the search for radical, strategic solutions

  7. In the 2017 election every age from 18 to 47 had a majority voting Labour compared to Conservative, and every age cohort from 18 to 69 moved to Labour from the Conservatives.

    1. Quite. The problem with politics is the strangehold of a cohort who won't live to see the effect their greed has on their grandchildren.

  8. Anonymous (one of you, can't you be bothered to invent a pseudonym?): "we need live TV coverage of the [Parliament] bars". The brewers and distillers should get behind this plan, as it would drive the rest of the adult population to take refuge in their local.


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