Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Liberal Danger

Nick Clegg's pamphlet had some very interesting things to say about the economy, but are there more nuggets tucked away in The Liberal Moment's pages?

Unsurprisingly Clegg is scathing about the electoral set up in this country (which, if memory serves has, as a model of liberal democracy proven so successful that only ourselves and Barbados have stuck with it). He argues the widespread alienation from politics is partially down to the iniquities and illiberalism of our system. For example like all before it the coming election will be decided by what happens in comparatively few key marginals. In a system that doesn't count votes this can only depress turn out and engagement and widen the gap between parliament and the electorate.

To add insult to injury, centralisation under New Labour has proceeded apace. With the partial exceptions of emasculated devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales power has been concentrated on the hands of central government. Where dispersal has taken place it has fallen to the unelected English regional assemblies and the army of unaccountable quangos.

What follows are measures no socialist would have a problem advocating - a written constitution, caps on funding, and recalls that would force by-elections. All fair enough, but Clegg skirts around the supremely illiberal House of Lords and constitutional monarchy. It seems his liberalism is only prepared to go so far.

The rest of the pamphlet sets out the LibDem's prescriptions for dealing with three other crises - the environmental, the security, and the social. But I want to return to the first part of the pamphlet.

There is this notion of 'progressiveness' that has been bandied about the media a lot recently. Despite being virtually meaningless all the main parties have been scrambling about laying claim to the word - as if the electorate can be hoodwinked by a few nice-sounding phrases. But unlike the Tories, at least progressiveness has some pedigree in liberal thought. For Clegg the core elements of progressive politics are fairness, social mobility, sustainability, civil rights and internationalism. In this regard he believes the LibDems are more progressive than Labour as well. He argues "its starting point is central state activism, its defining characteristic is the hoarding of power at the centre, and its method of delivery is top down government" (p.9). This may have once been necessary about a century ago but the contemporary atomisation of society is compounded globalising processes that have stripped away the sovereignty of states and limited their powers.

For this reason Clegg is not interested in a
rapprochement with Labour. While recognising the two parties belong to the broader progressive tradition, its petty authoritarianism (civil liberties) and warmongering (Afghanistan, Iraq) count for fundamental betrayals of that tradition. But had Labour not made these departures there remain crucial differences. He argues classical liberalism is more than just for putting checks on state power, it is about expanding the sphere of freedom by increasing people's capacities and resources. Collective (i.e. state-backed) action is sometimes necessary to increase freedom but because of liberalism's focus on the individual it is more alive to the dangers than other traditions. Therefore a LibDem government would use the state to counterveil existing concentrations of power and redistribute it because it believes individuals know best. Unlike Labour, liberals do not harbour a distrust of people or think the state knows best. A LibDem government would also shift power upwards to supranational organisations to enable cross border collaboration on issues like finance regulation and climate change.

Where Clegg gets really interesting is what he forecasts for the LibDems. He argues the collectivism underpinning Labour is no longer appropriate to contemporary politics. In an argument reminiscent of
New Times debates of 20 years ago, the world of instantaneous communication and complex identities is alien to Labourism. Their current flailing about could lead to the sorts of splits Labour were able to take advantage of in the Liberals in the 1920s. Where the Liberals were weak then Labour were able to take advantage. Whole swathes of the country became Liberal-free zones. But now the reverse is true. There are 94 local councils without a single Labour councillor, and just as Liberals once banded with Tories to keep Labour out now it is Labour who are entering into alliances of convenience to exclude the LibDems. Furthermore the era of two party politics are over - at the 1951 general election only two per cent voted outside the main two parties. In the 2009 local elections that number had leaped to 40 per cent! Because Labour is so out of step, this is the moment the LibDems can become the dominant progressive party again.

Superficially Clegg's argument appears sound. The LibDems are not that far behind Labour in the polls (see
this one in the Mail on Sunday). The social solidarities that gave rise to Labour are weakened and undergoing a process of recomposition, and Labour is paralysed beyond business-as-usual politics. But does this mean the liberal moment has returned?

Probably not. Clegg's analysis of the LibDem's prospects is handicapped by a faulty philosophical assumption. He writes the dividing line running down the middle of politics is progressivism vs conservatism, and these are rooted in the essentialised and ahistorical human condition. In other words politics and political arguments are driven by ideas. In fact Clegg further clarifies this assumption by refusing to argue a "determinist line" for the fall of the Liberals because "nothing is inevitable in politics". Indeed not, but politics is not a free floating field of action. Parties are expressions of class and class fraction interests. For example it's no accident the Tories are popularly seen as the party of privilege - it's because they are. The Labour party and its counterparts on the continent came into being because workers were excluded from the political process. The only way the Liberals could have avoided being eclipsed by Labour would have to become a workers' party and head them off at the pass. But it was incapable of doing so because of its deep roots in the ruling class and professional middle class. It was not a matter of taking collectivist ideas seriously enough or because of infighting as Clegg thinks. The Liberals had become an object of history whose fate was decided by the actions of others.

The situation now is slightly different - hence the 'probably'. Labour is unravelling and has triangulated a seemingly inevitable electoral defeat. Vast swathes of its base in the working class and the 'progressive' middle class have been turned off by policy agendas inimical to their interests. There is a space here for parties espousing left or left-sounding policies, which helps explain why the liberalism on offer in
The Liberal Moment is of the leftish variety (and why Clegg was daft to promise "savage cuts"). But again the LibDems are constrained by their own base. They could tease over disgruntled labour voters, but they cannot move too far left for fear of alienating the party's right, who compete with the Tories for support in more affluent parts of the country.

Furthermore the left window of opportunity for the LibDems is short. Politics abhors a vacuum. So far the big battalions of the labour movement remain committed to Labour. As long as this remains the case left political space, from the centre to the fringes is tightly circumscribed. Should that become unstuck after the election, either through the move of several unions to found a new organisation and a split with Labour or a vicious internal battle in the party, the LibDems have an opportunity to take ground as it did with the Alliance in the 80s - probably as some of the more Blairite elements depart. If the LibDems respond skillfully and energetically to the situation they could successfully marginalise Labour and other left formations (if they exist by this time) and regain its position at the front rank of British politics. Effectively this will leave the labour movement and the working class without a political voice.

A LibDem triumph would be a disaster for us. The project begun by Blair of exorcising the labour movement's meaningful influence over the political process will be complete.


Arthur Bough said...


It won't happen. Even if the Liberals win more votes than Labour they will still only get half the seats. As consistent democrats we shouldn't be happy about that, but that's the way it is.

The Liberals have in fact been moving Right since the publication of their Orange Book a few years ago. Moreover, I think its one thing for some disgruntled Labour supporters to vote Liberal in local elections, but another in a General Election. In fact, Labour's problem remains not voters switiching to the Tories or Libs, but simply not voting. Recent analysis on the BNP actually also shows that their membership remains dominated by the petit-bourgeoisie, though like all fascist organisations they also rely on a core of thugs. But, again, although they have had success at Local Government level its largely on the basis of Labour voters not voting. The same was actually true of the Euro elections, where the vote for Griffin went down!

Moreover, even if the Tories win the next election and the Libs do well, thre reality is likely to be heightened class struggle, and the natural Party for workers to turn to udner those conditions will be Labour.

SamG said...

Clegg is correct about the degenerated form of democracy we have but almost entirely wrong about everything else! Basically, we elect others to carry out decisions on ‘our’ behalf. That is the last involvement we get in the process, until the next set of elections. Nothing Clegg proposes changes this fact.

I really don’t understand this centralisation argument. The overall democratic process works in pretty much the same way it did 20 years ago, government gives money to local authorities with certain strings attached. Civil servants make the day to day decisions, as politicians have to delegate work.
The only major differences are that targets, benchmarking and the like have significantly increased. This seems like a step forward to me.

Clegg’s philosophical musings are all very nice but what policy proposals does he have to ‘empower’ individuals?

It is also true that ‘social mobility’ is markedly higher in nations with more government control (such as Sweden) than in ‘liberal’ ‘small government’ nations such as the US. I outright reject the idea that individualism leads to liberalism and collectivism leads to authoritarianism, I would make the opposite argument.

Basically Clegg is saying what he has to say.

I don’t buy the following, “Labour is unravelling and has triangulated a seemingly inevitable electoral defeat. Vast swathes of its base in the working class and the 'progressive' middle class have been turned off by policy agendas inimical to their interests.”

Labour was doing well in the polls until the Tories announced their inheritance cut proposals, this signalled a turning point from which New Labour has not recovered. This popular Tory policy is directly against the interests of the vast majority of people.

SimonH said...

Tony Blair said ‘Never underestimate the Tories and never overestimate the Liberal democrats’. On that he was 100% correct.

I would label myself as a communist but is there no one on the far left who thinks Labour have done some good things?
They introduced the minimum wage, paternity leave, better maternity pay, increased benefits for children and the elderly, among many other things.

It is a concern that Labour’s traditional voters seem to be abandoning them but they will return and if a few middle class ‘progressives’ leave the party, good!

The next election is a choice between Labour and the Tories, the left have to start campaigning for Labour now, because those idiots that think there is no difference between the parties will get a very rude awakening.

Arthur Bough said...

Yes, Labour have done some good things. I'm in the process of writing a blog about why the sectarian left really hate Labour, and it coems down to them taking the toys away - that is the opportunity for what that left does well carp, and making grand gestures.

From Brown's speech today it looks to me like they are going to make an approach for an alliance with the Lib Dems, hence the Alternative Vote, and Browns reference to "progressive forces like Labour" as a contrast to the Tories.

Phil BC said...

Simon, I think most of the left will be adopting a 'vote as left as you can' approach at the next elections. I'll certainly be advocating positive votes for son of No2EU, Respect, individual Greens (depending on their record and relationship to the labour movement), other socialists, and Labour lefts. Everywhere else it will have to be Labour - see the latest post on Brown's speech.

Phil BC said...

Arthur, this assumes there will be a Labour party left after the next election. Whatever the case things will be in a state of flux afterwards and I still think there's an outside chance the LibDems could push Labour aside and become the B team of British capitalism - if only for a short time.

Neither is it inevitable workers - especially young people - will turn to Labour under the impact of a Tory government. It depends on their programme and whether a Die Linke-style alternative is in the offing, which is not beyond the realms of possibility. We will see.

Arthur Bough said...

Come on Phil this is fantasy on many levels. The latest polls show the Tories lead has halved during this week. Even if the liberals DID poll one per cent more than Labour FPTP means they would still only get half the seats of Labour.

It does look like Brown is trying to set the ground, however, for doing a deal with the Liberals hence the talk of introducing the alternative vote, and the part of his speech where he spoke of "progressive forces like Labour" to distinguish between the Tories and everyone else.

And, of course there is not going to be some Die Linke alternative to Labour at or after the elections. There is absolutely no sign that UNITE or other big unions are going to split from Labour, which would be a precondition for that. Its likely that the CWU will now pull back closer to Labour.

And, the fact is that on the ground when ordinary workers have a problem they need addressing they go to their local Councillor - and even in my experience to ex Labour Councillors who've lsot their seat. At that level and the level of the workplace it will be Labour that workers turn to. After all even when there have been such alternatives in the past with much greater forces than son of No2EU is likely to have - i.e. the CP at its height, the ILP at its height, worekrs did not turn to these organisations, nor to the SWP at its height, nor the WRP for all its money provided by various sources.