Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Not saving the Liberals

Dan Hind makes some astute observations here, on the need to break the coalition before the next election. He argues for a strategy designed to split the Liberals, and in so doing save them from historical oblivion. A few observations, then.

I would guess he rightly judges Labour's position, which is that the last thing they want at this point is political power. The Blairites are convinced that they would have to implement the same cuts as the Tories are doing, (ex-chairman Peter Watts has even bizarrely claimed that opposing cuts is hurting Labour), and that it would be much easier to allow them to get on with it. The Labour soft left doesn't yet have a coherent alternative, or at least not one they're able to articulate or willing to fight for. Neither side really wants to re-open an old civil war, though the Right are better placed to wage it if it comes. So, they are sitting it out, passively awaiting the Tory meltdown and their dream ticket in 2015. Their strategy would involve striking the correct poses in the face of catastrophe, while nonetheless doing little to prevent it. (Dan does not say, but we should note, that this has significant consequences for the conduct of the labour movement's resistance to austerity. If the trade union leadership subordinates its actions to the objective of getting 'their' party in government, then that most certainly entails an attempt to keep the lid on militancy).

Where I think Hind is wrong is in assuming that the Sage of Twickenham is some sort of radical liberal, a Yellow Booker rather than an Orange Booker, who could reconstitute the Lib Dems as some sort of progressive force. The source of this bafflingly, stunningly ridiculous idea is probably Vince Cable himself. Cable has been laundering himself as the 'left' conscience of the coalition for some time, though he has always been a continental 'economic liberal', a privatizing free marketeer, and a primary founder of the 'Orange Book' tendency. He has recently described himself as a 'social democrat', in an interview in which he seemed to vaguely rebuke the finance-led cuts strategy that he has participated in, with some qualms. But by his own account you can't believe a word the man says. More fundamentally, to attempt a rescue of the Liberals as a potentially reformist agency is to miss what is happening here. Dan fears that if the Liberals are wiped out, there will be some horrible stalemate, in which the Tories and Labour compete over an ever diminishing space in the middle ground, prosecuting the same basic neoliberal policies while the balance shifts periodically between social liberalism and authoritarianism. But if enough Liberal MPs can be tempted to break from the Orange Book freaks, then Liberalism can be reconstituted along '1908' lines, and electoral competitive pressures could still force the major parties to adopt beneficial reforms. Hence, save the Liberals.

The problems with this are various - we shall leave aside the disparity between ambitious ends and inauspicious means - but perhaps a good starting point is to look at the current electoral realignments. The haemhorrage of the Liberal vote in England, and the surge for the SNP in Scotland should be considered as parallel elements of the same process. This is not the first time we've seen such sudden, sharp alterations in political composition - consider the rise of the SDP after 1981 and the concomitant contraction of Labourism. It is the sort of realignment that Gramsci spoke of, regarding a period of 'organic crisis': "At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression ... [this] occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity." (Emphasis added) A logical result is "the passage of the troop of many different parties under the banner of a single party, which better represents and resumes the needs of the entire class" at a speed "almost like lightning in comparison with periods of calm". ('Hegemony, The State & Civil Society').

The point here would be that the current recomposition of the electorate looks epochal rather than merely conjunctural to me. This does not mean it is irreversible, but that political solutions based on reversing such trends are conservative and perhaps oriented toward situations that are no longer pertinent. The Liberals' capacity to operate as a sort of surrogate social democracy reached its high point (and what a thrilling zenith that was) in 2005, oweing to the war, Blair's unpopularity, and a load of festering discontents over 'New Labour'. The war isn't over, but it's ceased to be foregrounded at the ballot-box; Blair is gone; and 'New Labour' has lost control of the Labour Party to a union-backed candidate. In the meantime, the Liberals had experienced an internal putsch against the mildly social democratic Charles Kennedy by the Orange Bookers. This process was mandated by the party faithful. In 2011, the Liberals are part of a privatizing, cutting, war cabinet, and show no signs of wishing to be anything but the Whigs to Cameron's Peelites. Beg their MPs, send them letters, petition and doortep them... but with their polling average at 10%, their leader a national hate figure unable to visit a daycare centre without being picketed, and their party mauled in local elections, is there any sign of anyone listening? The great majority of them have already voted for the cuts; they made their decision, knowing what to expect. And it isn't because they're masochistic - it's because they believe that if they hold on until 2015, growth will have resumed, people will feel prosperous, and the electorate will duly reward them.

This brings me to my next point, which bears on the sort of pressure that would be required to compel MPs to shift their position. Parliamentarians, as we have come to know, are effectively insulated from popular pressure by the institutions they work in. The ancient caricature of politicians chasing every vote, greasily promising all things to all people, vacillating to appease a mercurial popular will, doesn't even raise a smirk these days. Political careerism in this era means, above all, clinging doggedly to unpopular orthodoxy ('principle') and representing it as the only game in town ('realism'). Yes, they still worry about losing their seats, but as long as the general wipeout isn't too severe, then the effective ones can always be looked after. Since the Liberals are betting on a revival by the end of this five-year term, and since they almost all accept the argument in favour of cuts, they will calculate that pissing off millions of voters is a short-term risk they can afford to take. They certainly won't be inclined to take seriously the threat that the local anti-cuts committee will turf them out of office. Unless.

The only kind of pressure that could, for example, turn 38 cuts-supporting Liberals into anti-cuts radicals is the kind of disruption that would worry their bosses, and their bosses' bosses. We're not talking about protests, riots, occupying public or commercial facilities, or even big one day strikes. They've planned for that. They're ready to police it. We're talking about a fundamental, enduring and self-perpetuating realignment of leftist, labour and oppositional forces, their emergence as a militant political alliance such that capital began to worry for its ability to maintain control without making serious concessions, and such that the long-term viability of the parties making up the coalition was under threat. The coalition is, yes, highly unstable, fragile, comprising antagonistic components... but its breakdown would not have to work to the benefit of the anti-cuts Left. It could just as easily permit a re-polarisation of the Tory bloc, with perhaps some new Liberal allies incorporated, to the Right. Only if there were an anti-cuts campaign whose 'message' is being communicated with compelling force, and that campaign had something to do with the breakdown, would it benefit the Left. Yet, it is precisely such mobilisation that would hasten the contraction of the centre ground and thus help reduce the popular basis for Liberalism. It seems to me that at this moment in history, the destruction of the Liberals would be an aspect of our advance; and that to attempt to rescue them, even on a radical basis, even through threats and protest, would be a detour down an historical cul de sac.