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Gary Younge
Somewhere else to go

The N-word should not be spoken in polite liberal company. Once his name has been uttered all camaraderie and bonhomie evaporate as readily as if the miscreant had confessed to relieving himself in the host's sink. There is a ready-made vocabulary Democrats use to describe how they feel about George Bush. When it comes to Nader, and by association those who voted for him, words fail them.

Nader is the man whose third-party candidacy many Democrats blame for handing victory to the Republicans in the 2000 election - a contest that at another moment they will remind you, quite rightly, the Democrats actually won.

Backing Nader in 2000 was to them not just a poor electoral choice: it represented a moral flaw. But to bottle up all that bile for four years does not just make for bad karma - it is bad politics. To repeat the arguments for and against Nader's candidacy in 2000 is not the point here. Not just because it has been exhaustively examined in this column and elsewhere, but because to do so would simply compound the Democrats' fundamental problem: they have not moved on. And if they don't find closure soon, they could end up making the same mistakes they made last time.

Because Nader plans to stand again this year as an anti-war candidate. Given his absence from the anti-war campaigns, this is a mistake. But it is also a fact. And there is every chance that he could, once again, make a crucial difference. The most recent polls in the 17 battleground states that will decide the election show Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, each with a clear lead in three. In the remaining 11 they are in a statistical dead heat - and in each one Nader could be decisive.

The Democratic party's strategy to deal with this thus far has been simple. Along with "independent" organisations like StopNader.com, it is doing everything legally possible to keep him off the ballot in different states. "Nader must be nowhere near the ballot," wrote a Texas Democratic official in an email seen by the Guardian.

The trouble with this plan is not just that it employs purely bureaucratic means to prevent a legitimate, if misguided, political expression. It is also that it reveals the extent to which Democrats believe they are entitled to Nader's votes even if they make no appeal to the concerns of those who cast them. The source of their anger is that they believe his votes are rightfully theirs. The logic of their campaign is that if Nader is removed from the equation the votes will automatically return to their rightful owner - John Kerry.

If they want to see where this sense of entitlement could lead they need only look over the Atlantic, where the Labour party leadership has stretched the loyalty of its core supporters until, last week, it finally snapped. The only thing that was surprising about Labour's drubbing last week was that it was such a long time coming.

Iraq was not the only source of the collapse (if it had been, the Tories would also have done far worse). But it was the most blatant symbol of the distance Tony Blair has put between his government and the aspirations of those who put it in office. The war gave this dislocation a moral dimension and a clear focus. But the original exclusion of Ken Livingstone, private-public partnerships, tuition fees and meagre pension increases all chipped away at the faithful and primed them for their flight.

The problem was not that Blair misjudged his base. It is that he judged it and then ignored it in the belief that it had nowhere else to go. Last week showed us that, if pushed far enough, it could go anywhere - including the Lib Dems, Greens and Respect - or nowhere at all and simply sit on its hands.

Indeed one of the criticisms levelled at the Labour left during the late 70s and 80s is now more accurately addressed to Blair. A prisoner of his own, homespun dogmas, he is acting like the "latter-day public schoolboys" Neil Kinnock once famously condemned the left for resembling: "It does not matter if the game is won or lost but how you play the game".

Having lectured the party on the need for pragmatism, he now blames the public for not falling in behind his principles. "These people who think they get a free hit will find themselves with a rude shock and a Tory MP," said Peter Hain, the leader of the House of Commons, following the local election results. "They could deprive us of our majority." In other words, it's not Labour that has to change, but the electorate.

"This is a protest, a big protest, but it is not a desertion," said Peter Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool. Let's hope he is right. Few people on the left want to see "Con Gain" flashing on their screen into the wee hours, like some awful rerun of the 80s. But big protests become desertion by a series of increments, courtesy of a mixture of disaffection and arrogance. And, as the Tories are still finding out, 12 years after their last general election victory, once those bonds of trust are broken it is a struggle to re-establish them.

To reverse the trend Labour and the Democrats will have to revise the orthodoxy that has guided both parties for the past two decades. For just as conventional electoral wisdom now dictates that taxes can only come down, so the tenet of the centre-left has become that it must always move to the right if it is to win. But this process has clearly run its course.

Both parties are way out of kilter not just with the base of core support they must motivate in order to be viable, but also with those who could expand that base to ensure victory. Take London. Five years ago the Labour leadership refused to let Livingstone stand, claiming he was a liability to the party because he was too leftwing. Now he has been readmitted to the party, Labour is a liability to Livingstone because it is too rightwing. In the US, 84% of Kerry supporters believe the war in Iraq was not justified yet only 15% of all voters believe he has a plan to handle the situation.

Elections are rarely won by fear and rage alone. Threatening voters with Bush and Howard gives people something to vote against. Defeating Bush and Howard demands an agenda they can also vote for.

g.young@theguardian.com

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