In defence of triangulation - and why it should not be the dirtiest word in politics

In defence of triangulation - and why it should not be the dirtiest word in politics

Catherine Neilan

19:36 3rd February 2021

Triangulation has long been the dirtiest word in politics. Since New Labour collapsed into itself, the third way that was used to unprecedented success by Tony Blair has been as out of fashion as the era’s bandanas and hair jewels. But could it offer a route out of our current democratic malaise?

The term was first used by political consultant Dick Morris while working on the re-election campaign of President Bill Clinton in 1996. Morris urged Clinton to adopt a set of policies that were different from the traditional policies of the Democratic Party in order to get a jump on the opposition.

He later described the process as taking “the best from each party’s agenda, and come to a solution somewhere above the positions of each party”. That means adopting policies that make sense - benefits for those who can’t work, while pushing for people to work where possible - while ditching “the nonsense” values of both right and left. “Get rid of the garbage of each position that the people didn’t believe in,” Morris explained. “take the best from each position; and move up to a third way. And that became a triangle, which was triangulation.”

Arguably we have already seen some of this. As we have had drummed into us, as well as the promise to “Get Brexit Done”, the Conservatives’ manifesto of 2019 was dedicated to “levelling up”: more quality jobs, a new way of thinking about education, more frontline workers such as police and nurses. These are well-established ideas that have broad appeal with the electorate. And, as many commentators have pointed out, they borrowed more than a few ideas from Ed MIliband’s 2015 manifesto.

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign tanked in part because Labour didn’t have a clear position on Brexit, but it was clear from what I saw on the doorstep that he was more than a little toxic. Centrist Remainers wrestled with their conscience for who to back: the man who arguably did most to secure the success of Vote Leave or the man who would nationalise vast swathes of the economy while palling up with the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba, while failing to condemn Russia over the Salisbury poisoning.

It is particularly among Corbyn’s supporters that triangulation gets a bad rep. To those on the left of Labour, it is far too reminiscent of Blair, forever tarnished because of his blinkered support for the Iraq War as well as his centrism. Ironically, of course, Corbyn’s inability to take a stance on Brexit could be viewed in terms of triangulation. It failed not because of a fundamental problem with the approach but because it cannot be applied to all things. Brexit was one of those issues where you just have to pick a side, and the public had no appetite for another vote.

But what his supporters never could seem to understand is that while Corbyn could command real depth of support, he lacked the wider appeal that would see him win an election - no matter what they say about 2017.

I remember speaking to one ardent Corbynite not long after he won the Labour leadership. When I asked him if he really thought he could win an election, the campaigner shrugged it off. Probably not, he thought. But a strong and authentic opposition can force change just as much as a Government.

That sense echoes through the claims that they “won the argument”, something which is trotted out whenever Boris Johnson announces some new measure in response to Covid. The fact that it took a global pandemic to do this is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Even then it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that Corbyn is the person responsible for a preoccupation with the NHS, education or poverty.

A year into his leadership, Sir Keir Starmer is still in reset mode, trying to right the ship that so nearly sank. He has made little tangible progress, perhaps because he has so many bridges to rebuild: the Jewish community, Scottish voters, the Red Wall which turned Blue and centrists.

The referendum has forced a change in our politics which might stick around for some time. Labour is no longer the obvious party of the workers, but it cannot win by appealing to well-educated lefties alone With the question of Brexit dealt with for now, at least as far as the British electorate are concerned, both parties need to work out what exactly is replacing the old right-left split. Cynical or not, Johnson's levelling up agenda is putting the Tories ahead in that race.

Patriotic gestures such as proclaiming a love of the monarchy or having the Union Jack in the background of an interview will help to recover some of the ground lost in Corbyn’s weakest moments. But if Labour has any chance of winning an election in the next decade, it will need to re-engage with voters by ditching some of the “nonsense” values that put so many people off in 2019, and find sensible policies that appeal to a broad base.

This should not be done on a top-down basis, or through focus groups alone, but speaking to the people who have changed allegiances in the last 15 years and finding out why. Corbynites argue that triangulation is not authentic. But what could be more authentic than actually finding out what people want improved about their lives and finding a way to give it to them?

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Tags: Jeremy Corbyn Democracy Open dialogue Boris Johnson Tony Blair