Saturday, May 01, 2010

Liberals taking Labour's place?

Nick Clegg, undoubtedly flushed from having secured The Guardian's backing, is seeking to woo Labour voters by claiming that the Liberal Democrats have taken the place of Labour in UK politics. He explains: "I have always accepted the first part of Roy Jenkins's analysis which says that historically Labour and Liberal Democrats are two wings of a progressive tradition in British politics." But now the Liberals are ahead of Labour in the polls (though the electoral system is unlikely to translate that into seats), he believes that his party can take Labour's place as the main opponent of the Tories. He states that, to this purpose, he is now going all out for a Liberal Democrat majority, and rejects the call for tactical voting that soft left groups like Compass are backing.

Now, I think this is more than mere hubris on Clegg's part, but not much more than hubris. It is true that Labourism was always an electoral pact between liberals and socialists. It is true that the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party are organisations resulting from a factional split by the liberals. It is true that hundreds of thousands, and perhaps a million or so, Labour voters could now defect to the Liberal Democrats in 2010. I would not be surprised. Nor would I be displeased to the Liberals take out a few of the Blairites - eg, Luciana Berger in Liverpool Wavertree, a dimwitted careerist who made an arse of herself upon resigning from the NUS a few years ago, and whose handlers won't even let her pop out for a jar of coffee in case she commits a pratfall. But to say that this would signify the Liberals taking Labour's place in politics would be to forget how and why the Liberals re-emerged as a serious political force in the late twentieth century. The abridged narrative that we usually get is that Labour responded to the 1979 defeat by moving to the radical Left, apparently oblivious to the fact that the population was moving to the right. In despair, sensible liberals like Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams left the sinking ship and formed a new party to realign British politics - a party which would no longer be based on the old fixed class identities. That new party formed a natural alliance with the Liberals in the 1983 and 1987 elections, made powerful advances into Labour territory, then took the logical and long overdue step of merging with them.

In fact, the Labour coalition had been experiencing trouble for some time. Liberalism had started to make serious headway electorally from the late 1960s, at just the same time as the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. Labour voters, disaffected by the experience of Labour governments, were searching for an alternative kind of reformism. Some of this was because of the experience of trade unionists under Labour, which had consistently ended up in pitch battles with organised labour. The radicalisation of the 1970s therefore, did not actually have the effect of increasing support for the Labour Party, as had been the case in the past. In fact, Labour's membership fell, as did its total vote, between 1970 and 1974, and in the February 1974 general elections, the Liberals gained almost 20% of the vote for the first time since 1929. This did not come exclusively from the growing 'new middle class' of managers and supervisors, but increasingly from trade unionists. In 1964, 73% of trade unionists voted for the Labour Party. In 1974, only 55% did. By the time of the 1983 election, it was down to 39%.

When the post-war consensus that had underpinned the Labourist electoral coalition started to crumble, so did the coalition. Most of the working class base moved to the Left, and a sort of germinal grassroots democracy started to emerge. There was unprecedented levels of debate, a flourishing of ideas, in the movement. The Labour Party left drew the conclusion from the failure of Heath's incomes policies, the 1973 crisis and the rising arc of industrial militancy, that it was necessary to move beyond the consensus, effecting a radical shift in the balance of wealth and power in society. This meant higher taxation, an attack on inherited wealth, and the creation of cooperatives in failing industries to give workers a share of power (as an alternative to older models of nationalisation that simply reproduced the hierarchies prevalent in the private sector). That they found themselves unable to deliver these changes, they said, was due to an undemocratic and hostile state bureaucracy - confirming the diagnosis of Ralph Miliband, without sharing his recommended solution.

The Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe offered themselves as a party of the "radical centre". They pledged to save Britain from a see-saw between the "Party of Management" and the "Party of Trade Unions", to overcome the old class divisions. As good liberal pluralists, they maintained that managers and workers were merely two of many special interest groups in society, whose disputes could be arbitrated and resolved by a benevolent government. Labour could not do this because, dependent as it was on the unions it could not operate an efficient incomes policy. (Quite the reverse, as it transpired: Labour's relationship with the trade union bureaucracy left it in a better position to negotiate the Social Contract). By the same token, a Tory party dependent on big business for its funding could not constrain prices. The old class-based parties had failed. The Liberals did not deny that there was a material basis for class divisions, and said they would attenuate this with a radical redistribution of wealth. But the basis of Liberal policy would be the individual, not masses and classes. Despite the particular ideological inflections I have mentioned here, the Liberals were merely upholding the consensus, which had failed. Their plea for some sort of class compromise was a plea for precisely the sort of arrangement that was no longer working.

The Tories, of course, responded to the crisis of the post-war order by moving toward the radical free market right: first with Heath's 'Selsdon Man', which fell to pieces, and then with the Hayekians, Friedmanites, and Pinochistas who took control of the party in 1975. Like the Liberals, they believed it was possible to move beyond class, and that individuals were what mattered. Unlike the Liberals, they weren't interested in incomes policies or price controls to achieve sovereignty of the individual. They believed that you had to take on the trade unions as the single biggest impediment on the rights of individuals to dispose of property and the profits of that property as they saw fit. The specific dogmas they espoused in this respect were not indispensable. When monetarism was seen not to be working as a policy, they dropped it. But even that was not a simple intellectual error. Hayek, Thatcher's court philosopher, understood that the point of monetarism was to put countering inflation at the centre of the agenda, and to recognise that inflation was not merely the result of macro-economic mismanagement but of the balance of political power between the unions and the employers. An attack on inflation was therefore an attack on full employment, collective bargaining and union strength.

So, you had a crisis in the post-war system; a Labour Party whose left wanted to move beyond the consensus and radically level the wealth and political power in society; a Conservative Party which wanted to move beyond the consensus and introduce radical new modes of class power; and a Liberal Party which was sticking doggedly to Butskellism. The SDP were effectively of the same opinion as the Liberals on this basic question. And in 1983, the Liberal/SDP Alliance assembled the broadest possible cross-class vote in favour of the post-war consensus. And they were indeed successful in mobilising a sizeable vote from all classes. While Labour still relied disproportionately on the support of manual workers, and the Tories found their bedrock in the lower middle class, the Liberals were not overly reliant on a single class bloc, though they tended to aim for the relatively more affluent workers. If Tory voters were mobilised by their party's stance on privatization (82%), and Labour voters by unemployment (84%), there was no single issue on which Alliance voters were galvanised. It was the general ideological outlook, centrist on class issues, radical on issues of crime and defence, that appealed to their voters.

So, a majority rejected Thatcherism, voting either for the post-war consensus or a radical alternative to it. But, and this is why the Lib and Lab factions of the "progressive tradition" needed each other, the first-past-the-post system did not translate this into an anti-Thatcherite majority in parliament. The seats system in the UK had always been rotten, from before the First Reform Act of 1832 until after the Fifth Reform Act of 1928, and it had usually worked to the advantage of the right. The Liberals, anxious to escape an alliance with the trade unions, have long proposed proportional representation. Labour, determined to maintain a monopoly on all social forces left-of-centre, have only fitfully assented to this idea. Instead, they moved farther and farther to the right, desperate to recapitulate the old electoral coalition, ultimately unsuccessful in doing so. The Tories were able to force through neoliberal reforms with all the appearance of a real mandate, and both Labour and the Liberals have adapted to that situation. Now the Liberals are run by their 'Orange Book' faction, Labour is run by the Blairites, and the Tories... well, there's a book on that topic coming out soon.

If the Liberals overtake Labour in the polls, therefore, it will not be a case of the Liberals taking the place once occupied by Labour. As in 1974, as much of their new support is coming from Tories as from Labour supporters. They are effective at outflanking Labour to the Left when they want to, which is what they're trying to do in the campaign literature I have received through my door. But their basic stance in this crisis is that they are beholden neither to the unions nor to the bankers. It's the same formula as in their 1974 manifestos, the same goal of building a centrist bloc. The difference now is that there has been no sustained radicalisation in the working class, and Labour is not standing on a left-wing manifesto; nor has there been a generalised move to the right in the population, and the Tories are doing everything they possibly can not to appear to be too right-wing. Given the prevailing ideological disorientation, the absence of mass resistance to the recession, the hatred for the bankers, the contempt for the MPs who like big expense accounts and are on sale to American lobbyists, and the utter alienation from the main parties - well, given all this, a space is naturally opening for an 'honest broker' who can appear to transcend the "special interests" and efficiently manage our way through the present crisis. The trouble is, whoever governs for the next five years is about to watch that space disappear.