John Rentoul: Rewriting the laws of particle politics

Labour has moved left faster than the speed of light. But on debt, the electorate is an immovable object

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Political scientists were excited and puzzled by an astonishing new discovery at the European accelerator last week, which seemed to defy all the laws of party-political physics. The discovery that Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy are about to disappear into a black hole of debt has turned our assumption about how the universe works on its head.

Ever since Einstein Blair discovered the theory of relatively small differences, which holds that all particles that win electrons – I mean parties that win elections – move to the centre, it has been assumed that any that move away from the centre will become highly unstable. They may turn into anti-matter, and may even appear in two places at the same time. Then they disappear.

"We arrived in Liverpool before we set off from London," explained one of the delegates to this weekend's conference of specialists.

Another scientist said: "It is an understatement that these are unexpected results. My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing – then I would be relieved."

He went on: "We have always wanted to live in an alternate universe and now it seems possible. We have always wanted to go on spending money we don't have and now that seems a sensible thing to do. It goes against all the laws of political economy to solve a debt crisis by borrowing more, and it is true that it will slow down growth for decades and impoverish our children, but now our experiments have discovered that not doing so could be even worse: 1930s-style depression, double dip, plague of boils, breaches in the space-time continuum, that sort of thing."

So the Labour Party meets at a time when it can at last throw off all that boring stuff about having to do things it doesn't really believe in to get elected. Last week's discovery has shown that Einstein Blair's theory was not wrong, exactly, but that the centre is not where the great electron-winner thought it was. It has moved to the left faster than the speed of light.

It had long been assumed that, if we looked back from the future – from, say, 2015 – the experiment being conducted by George Osborne would have been vindicated and the Labour Party would have nothing useful to say at the next election. Now it turns out that being as left wing as you like is a possible vote-winner. Pump up public spending, borrow like there is no tomorrow, and bash the bankers. Just as long as the party throws in a few tactical right-wing things on the social policy side – that part of Einstein Blair's law still seems to hold good – victory is assured. So we expect to hear this week that immigration must be taken very seriously and so must crime.

We think that was what Ed Miliband was getting at in his New Statesman interview last week, although it was difficult to tell, because some of the higher concepts of special relativity can be hard for the lay person to grasp. While it may sound like meaningless waffle to the rest of us, no doubt the white-coated spin-doctors of Neutrino Labour can explain what "ripping up the rule book", "a political consensus that needs to be challenged" and "an economic and political settlement of some decades [that's] got to change" actually mean. Miliband tried to tell us what "it's about", namely "a very clear and different direction of travel", which I think means that the particles are going that way, not the way we thought they were going.

But then, as is often the way, along comes a diffident and apparently junior member of the scientific research team to point to a possible flaw in the data. It is the political blogger Hopi Sen (yes, really, as he often says), "the one who went to Sainsbury's in Victoria Street to buy special-offer cava" for the Gordon Brown leadership campaign team, to celebrate when its candidate was elected unopposed in 2007.

Sen is one of the best Labour minds and he has written the outstanding essay on the party's fluctuating state of this conference season, for the online journal Renewal. He says: "We talk about anything but the failure of the last Labour prime minister." Yet, harsh on Brown as his analysis is, he rejects the idea that Brown's was simply a personal failure. As someone who "did my bit to keep him as leader", he asks: "Isn't it more likely that Brown faced a resurfacing of a political problem that has tormented leaders of the Labour Party for nearly 50 years? The problem, simply put, is this. What is a progressive social democratic party actually for, if it is not able to spend more money than in the past?"

New Labour started by promising not to spend more than the Tories, then it changed tack in the good economic times and, when that went bad, it carried on because there were good reasons of Keynesian stimulus to do so. "New Labour as a project was kept afloat by a tide of cash. Now the flow is the other way, and we seem to want to talk about anything but that." Sen's argument is that Labour has to decide what its purpose is when the voters won't accept higher public spending, which is a really difficult Big History kind of question, one that Blair was able to slide around and into which Brown crashed.

The puzzle now is whether the euro crisis and the threat of another recession changes that basic question. I suspect it does not. Attempts to shift the centre ground from opposition are a fool's gold. No matter how bad the economy gets, I do not believe that the voters will vote for more debt.

Last week's unexpected result in the world of party-political physics will no doubt fall victim to Twyman's Law, best applied to opinion polls: "Whenever a result looks unusual or interesting, it is probably wrong."