Thursday 11 June 2015

Should Labour and the Liberal Democrats Merge?

One question that comes up time and again from punters to far left activists is 'why can't you all just unite?' And it's a question that hasn't gone away for these comrades, seeing as Left Unity, ironically, has ruled out unity with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition for next year's London Assembly elections. Of course, there are Very Important Reasons why myriad groups in the revolutionary socialist tradition can't unite. But one question I've not heard from the mouth of any voter ever is "why can't Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge?" Yet it is being asked now, and the man putting his head above the parapet is Jamie Reed.

Writing for The New Statesman, Jamie argues it's time we rethink progressive politics in this country, and suggests that the "next leaders" of Labour and the LibDems seriously mull over a merger, seeing as "business as usual will likely result in permanent irrelevance." Besides, citing some work done comparing the two sets of party policy, there's apparently very little between them.

First off, Jamie deserves credit for not just thinking the unthinkable but going public with his thoughts. As radical narcissism is blighting the left inside and out the Labour Party, doing what Jamie's done will see him get some stick. Yet being honest about our differences and stating them plainly is the only way we can come to grips with our defeat and the tough challenge politics presents us with. So if you're of the 'fuck off, you're a Tory' tendency, a period of calm reflection about why you're in politics would be most welcome. A bit of listening and reading may assist too.

Nevertheless, Jamie is wrong. Very wrong. It appears he has fallen into the empiricist's trap. He sees the Labour manifesto sharing some ground with the yellow party, and has undoubtedly noted one of the three frontrunners in the Labour leadership contest is, essentially, running on a liberal platform. He may also have observed that between us, the parties mustered circa 11.7m votes - a bare 400K in front of the Tories but enough to tip the votes against them in dozens of constituencies. So a merger makes sense - few political differences plus a common enemy. The problem is the LibDems, despite the best positioning of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, are not a progressive party.

What are progressive politics about? It's not about being nice to each other and having fluffy policies. Progress in technology is usually understood as the development of increasingly complex machines that, ultimately, make life easier for human beings. Progress in the sweep of social development is something roughly similar. It's a broad but by no means inevitable historical movement from relatively simple human communities ruled by the tender mercies of nature to complex and sophisticated societies that increasingly allow us to master our own fate. 21st century global capitalism has given us the means and know how to provide a decent standard of living for everyone, everywhere. And yet, because it is a class system in which a vanishingly tiny minority of people own and control the means of producing a better life, economics is instead about pursuing profits. Needs are only satisfied in as far someone profits from it.

What does progressive politics mean in this context? I would suggest it, among other things, means a levering out of the monopolisation of the means of life by private individuals and institutions and tackling the awful consequences that result. One cannot live freely and fully if one is forced to give over a portion of their life each week under the pain of economic necessity to an employer who directs their physical and mental activity as they see fit. The same pertains to the millions of small business people who have to run themselves ragged to make ends meet. That is no life. Things can be better than this, to half-inch a phrase.

Progressive politics is more than a nice idea. It's a real movement rooted in untold numbers of workplaces, a long and sometimes heartrending story of working people fighting for better wages, control over their work, the length of the work day, for the right not to be treated like a piece of shit. It's a struggle that has touched everyone living today and has profoundly shaped our societies. And the numbers of those who club together, be it formally or informally, condition the patterns of inequalities and, crucially, the capacity of governments to undo and/or strengthen the reforms and institutions thrown up during the course of our messy development that make life easier for the majority by protecting them from the full blast of the market's elements.

This is where the Labour Party comes from, though sometimes our leading parliamentarians affect amnesia about it. Labour is a progressive party because its very existence poses a latent threat to the established order. A politics rooted in the wrong side of the antagonisms that riddle every society, its trajectory ultimately points in the direction of the socialisation of the means of life. Of course, when the movement of working people and their allies are weak, as has been the case for the last 30 years, so Labour reflects this in the dominance by it of the right wing commonsense of the day. When the movement is strong, things are slightly different.

Where do the LibDems sit in relation to these politics? As liberals, they - like Labour - accept the freedom of the individual. They are progressive in as far as discriminatory barriers need to come down. On equality of opportunity, against bigotry, against fascism and tyranny, yes. But on the essential question, on the unavoidable divide that cuts across every society, liberalism either pretends it doesn't exist or, as is usually the case, line up on the other side of the progressive fence. Take Tim Farron's appearance n Question Time last week. Known as one of the "lefty" LibDems and successor to the path broken by Ashdown and Kennedy, he argued that trade unions - the very organisations our people have used to better themselves and, yes, realised their aspirations - should butt out of politics. In Farron's view, it's legitimate for private individuals and businesses (as extensions of private individuals) to be involved in politics. Yet collectives of democratically-organised working people? Absolutely not. Their sphere is and should be confined to private relations between employer and employee. Getting involved here is infringing individual liberty, even if that liberty stands on a distinctly illiberal set of circumstances foisted on people out of economic compulsion.

To answer the question, Labour and the Liberal Democrats should not merge. The former is a progressive party and the latter is not. It's not a question of philosophical differences, it comes back again to interest. Labour is a movement for prosecuting them, or it is nothing. Jamie Reed and his friends would do well to remember that.


Boffy said...

What is left of the Liberals may as well merge with the Tories. It is the rational move. The social democratic wing of the Liberals left them five years ago, along with that constituency of their voter base. Many of them found their way to Labour - which indicates why Labour's refusal to allow Derek Hatton back is ridiculous.

What remained of the Liberals were essentially Tories. In fact, people like Danny Alexander and David laws were more Tory than the Tories.

I have been surprised to find in recent days that some of the most sensible comments from inside the Labour Party has come from the Prescott dynasty. They have been right to say that Miliband should not have resigned - similarly nor should Brown have gone in 2010.

Labour leaders never did that in the past, but continued in office to allow the party to go through a rational period of reflection and reorganisation. As they point out, and as I said at the time, when Brown left in 2010, it meant the Party did not defend what was right about its record, and allowed the Tories to create the narrative that Labour had overspent - which is an outright lie. Just compare with the record of Thatcher and Major in the previous 18 years.

In effect, Labour lost the 2015 election back in 2010, when it failed to nail that lie, and it is in danger of losing the 2020 election, by doing the same thing now.

Gary Elsby said...

If Boffy is correct, then the electorate weeded out leftish Liberals and chose only to keep Thatcher's children.
I believe the point is that labour should unite with Liberalism regardless of any beauty contests.
This isn't new and Blair courted the possibility dropping the name Labour to the 'Democrats'.
Considering that it's going to take an earthquake to move Scotland, anything which enriches the political debate should be put onto the table.

BCFG said...

On New Labour defending its record (we ignore the mass war crimes here but as internationalists we really shouldn't) the media have played a very savvy game here. For years they have pumped out hours of coverage telling us New Labour profligacy caused the economic 'crisis' but as soon as New Labour lost the election they suddenly claimed New Labour hadn't countered the lies they had consciously been pumping out. One example was the staged managed Peter Mandelson interview on state broadcaster the BBC where Mandelson was scratching his head why New Labour had failed to counter the arguments. Arguments the media had been peddling!

The point is if Ed Miliband had countered the lies the media would have crucified him even more as being out of touch with reality and in denial! But they wheel out Mandelson and claim if only Ed had countered the claims things could have been different.

That abysmal triumvirate of the BBC, the Mail and the Sun would always dictate this election.

On the liberals, we should be minded that since the Tories lost their austerity enablers we have seen a raft of obscene Tory policies aimed at immigrants and civil liberties. So while the liberals did deliver a rise in food banks they were preventing the uglier elements coming through. Though I guess in the end they delivered Cameron his victory.

We are too quick to write of the Liberals, far too high in pour opinion of the reasoning capabilities of the British public, that is a mistake the right wing never make!

Anonymous said...

'far too high in our opinion of the reasoning capabilities of the British public,' Does this mean that progressive/left politics cannot be democratic politics?

BCFG said...

"Does this mean that progressive/left politics cannot be democratic politics?"

I wouldn't go that far but I would say to arrive at a democratic society you need to rid it of class interest. While ever you have class interest you have a battle over hearts and minds.

In Britain at this stage of history the right wing have all the resources to win that battle over hearts and minds and use it without mercy. I am tempted to think the left, tactically, need to concentrate on the weakest links in the advanced world chain, which right now appears to be Greece and Spain (in Europe at least). So don't waste your money/efforts on left movements in Britain, direct it to Podemos and Syriza.

Then again, maybe having faith that the British public will arrive at socialism through sheer rationality and sober thought may pay dividends in the end, but from my vantage point that seems a rather quaint idea.

davidjc said...

Boffy - not sure about this Labour tradition of "rational and reflective reorganisation" with election defeat/change of leader. They've all seemed pretty messy to me and most leader switches have been sudden. The main exception is maybe when Sunny Jim stayed on, but that's not exactly an advert for hanging around, given what followed. Which transitions did you have in mind? What would Miliband have done different to Harman? Wouldn't the Blairites have mounted their ambush whoever held the temporary title?

Boffy said...


I was thinking more of the fact that Wilson didn't resign in 1964, and then went on to win a majority in 1966, and then didn't resign having lost in 1970, but went on to win twice in 1974, before handing over to Callaghan.

Its not just Labour that had that tradition. The Tories too. My point is partly that this reflects a change of culture, to where political leaders are just another celebrity, like this month's flavour of pop star, or here more closely a football manager, who must be held responsible immediately, if the team is not at the top of the league, or winning the cup. It focusses success and defeat purely upon the celebrity leader, and, therefore, removes the need for any more rational analysis.

My main point is that, because of this, it means that automatically the opposition is able to seize the day and determine the narrative, because if you've ditched the leader who lost the election, by definition, you also have to trash everything they stood for, and in the case of 2010, it also meant trashing even the good bits of what was done, or avoiding like the plague defending anything that the opposition and media decide was the reason for you losing.

Having Alistair Darling promoting the idea of austerity measures to reduce the deficit in 2010, didn't help Labour's narrative, but the reality was that at the time Labour was continuing to promote measures of fiscal stimulus, not austerity, similar to those that were being implemented by Obama in the US.

I remember attending meetings with Phil at the time, where I was discussing with some of his then SP comrades what shape of recovery there was likely to be. At the time it was a "V" shape and I suggested it was likely to be like a square root sign. It was only when the Tories got elected that things turned downwards.

There really was a difference between what Darling was proposing - and my guess is that had Labour been re-elected, Brown would have pushed through further fiscal stimulus whatever darling had wanted - but with Brown going immediately, no one was even going to defend the record, or suggest that things could have been different with further stimulus.

It meant the Tories and media were able to establish the narrative - that even 6 months earlier no one was even close to presenting, as the Tories and Liberals were themselves proposing the need for further fiscal stimulus - that the economy was wrecked, when it clearly wasn't, all the nonsense comparisons with Greece, and so on, that Labour had overspent, which it clearly hadn't and so on.

I'm not suggesting that you come up with the rational response by the leader staying on, I am suggesting that if they don't, it puts you in a position where you more or less automatically are led to ditch or fail to defend even what might have been defensible, and thereby to allow your opponents to set the agenda.

Boffy said...

By the way, I would also introduce new measures for the election of Labour leaders, similar to those the CLPD proposed many years ago. There should be an annual, automatic leadership election, for leader and Deputy Leader - in government or not - and I would allow nominations to come from outside the PLP. We might also want to think about whether like the SNP, or Greens, we might have a leader who is not a Westminster MP, or even an MP at all.

Chris said...

The new party should be called ...the democrats