Monday 18 September 2017

Can Vince Cable Become Prime Minister?

Not a chance.

With Liberal Democrats rolling into Bournemouth for their annual gathering, Uncle Vince had to grab the headlines. As we live in an age of outrageous claims and lies I suppose they needed something - their electoral endeavours and polling aren't redolent of that magic term, 'LibDem revival'. With 12 MPs and their rapid advances on the local council by-election scene a distant memory, when pressed on his ludicrous ambition all Vince can offer is the observation that politics is in flux and therefore anything can happen. Le sigh.

His favourite soundbite at the moment is how the Tories are engulfed by civil war and that Labour is in the midst of now simmering, now suppressed internal strife. Yes, just as a broken clock is right twice a day so a Liberal Democrat leader occasionally tells the truth. However, understanding why this is the case explains why Vince's hopes are among the most forlorn ever harboured by a leading politician.

The Tories are having a hard time ostensibly because of that general election, but their result only brought long-term problems to a head. For the last five years this blog has banged on about the declining fortunes of the Conservative Party. This is expressed in an overall tendency for their membership to shrink and their vote consolidating around declining demographics. Theresa May's achievement, and in normal times she would have been lauded, was to firm up that support. UKIP were destroyed, inroads made in "old" working class, Labour-loyal areas, and mobilising unionist voters gave the SNP a bloody nose. These constituencies, however, are not getting any larger and hitherto the Tories have relied on their greater propensity to turn out. Tory divisions, which have always mapped on to different configurations of business interests and their allies in the classes beneath them, are exacerbated by a sense of creeping doom, of having zero handle on what's coming next. As declinism set in its leading politicians have grown ever more preoccupied with short-term party interests, of any old wheeze and gimmick to turn around its fortunes. It's why we are where we are.

As the pace of political change has quickened, we know we're normal times. A combination of fear of the Tories and the programme Jeremy Corbyn's Labour offered unexpectedly powered it to the party's highest vote for 20 years. It rode the wave of a new, reconfigured class politics and cemented an alliance between increasingly dominant immaterial labourers. Labour's difficulties arise from being the de facto party of the new working class, of responding to them, mobilising them, and encouraging them to move into politics in large numbers. Labour is ascending because the forces powering the party are on the rise. And likewise, the conflict in the party is a direct consequence of the new colliding with the bureaucracy, habits, and politics of the old.

This is the story of British politics. After years of fraying loyalties and mass abstention, the direction of travel is in the opposite direction. It also looks like this situation is going to persist, and not just because fear of the other has stiffened support for the two main parties. Not only do they map on to two class coalitions with opposed existences, but seven years of Tory austerity - aided at every turn by Uncle Vince - have sharpened the contradictions. May's government doesn't offer anything apart from more of the same, Britain's political economy is going to stay largely the same, and so politics looks as though it's going to retain its polarising aspect.

What room for the Liberal Democrats? Well, there isn't much of one. They can carry on eking out an existence on the margins, but the famous liberal allergy to anything resembling a structural analysis of how societies work not only makes the LibDem leader sound deluded, but it marks him and his party out as singularly and willfully stupid.


Dialectician1 said...

A brief visit to Britain Elects will show you all you need to know about the seismic changes that are going on in British politics. There has been (whisper) an emphatic return to class-based politics. Despite your accurate analysis of the tendency towards decline in the Tories, its vote has remained pretty resolute (even staunch). It looks like that for the foreseeable future Cable and his party will reside on the margins. This has less to do with his/their history of collaborating with the Tories on austerity and more to do with a paucity of theory. Like the Democrats and New Labour, their narrative is stale, vacuous and unconvincing.

Boffy said...

Its time to let the Liberals, the Greens, and Plaid rest in peace. They have really little more significance than other sects like the SWP. I just await the SNP following them into that night.

David Lindsay said...

The Conservative Party has won an overall majority at only one of the last six General Elections. Yet its only ideology remains as it has always been, that it is the natural party of government. It will bear any burden and pay any price in order to fulfil that Manifest Destiny. Knowing that, Lloyd George insisted on being Prime Minister, Nick Clegg could have insisted on being Prime Minister, and Vince Cable would insist on being Prime Minister.

Anonymous said...

The Liberal Democrats (or their successors) won't go away for a long, long time, if ever. There will always be a sizeable minority on the supposed "Left" who are faintly embarrassed of the left's traditional terrain, and who pride themselves on their sophistication and broadmindedness.

It's true that this tradition gave us Lord Claret of Smoothiechops, of sainted memory, but figures like Jenkins are rare. The average Lib Dem is the sort of person who doesn't care what happens to the NHS just so long as it stays "free at the point of use" (an argument I have genuinely heard).

Which is probably why part of Blair's grand vision (huh!) was to reabsorb the Lib Dems into the Labour Party if he didn't win a commanding majority in 1997. According to Andrew Rawnsley, Blair was still burbling anxiously about "the real story of the night" being the LD performance, even as the deluge of Labour wins became overwhelming during the early hours of 2 May 1997.

A shame, then, that Blair didn't implement his secret plan for "Operation Hoover" (sic). We might have been able to throw the Lib Dems onto the Bonfire of Insanities along with him when the Third Way inevitably went to ratshit.

Lidl_Janus said...

Of course the Lib Dems are still going; someone's buying The Economist, after all. Not me, I skim-read it in the supermarket because I'm poor/a cheapskate (delete according to what you believe).

Could Vince Cable ever be PM? I'd say no, because all I ever hear about from online commenters regarding him is Royal Mail privatisation, and I reckon that'll follow him around the same way Tim Farron's views about gay rights proved unshakeable. I hear talk about Jo Swinson succeeding him, but she was also in the coalition government and I'm sure something will stick to her too.

(Note how few people talk about Jeremy Corbyn's personal qualities anymore, but plenty of the post-election conversation around Theresa May is about her worth as a leader. You're basically fucked as a politician if people are talking about you, as opposed to your actions and agenda).

George Carty said...

About a third of Tory voters in 2015 voted Remain in the EU referendum: why haven't the Lib Dems done better at attracting this voter bloc now that the Brexiteers have taken over the Conservative party?

Phil said...

Indeed - in fact, I've argued that winning them over is what the LibDems have to do to beat a path back to half-relevance.

George Carty said...

It's obvious that Tory remainers are the best bet for conversion to the LibDem cause, but why have the LibDems done so poorly at winning them over?