Wednesday, 26 May 2010

At Last. The Liberals Commit Hari Kiri

In the “Communist Manifesto”, Marx and Engels wrote that society was increasingly dividing into two great camps – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Like much of the manifesto, written as a piece of propaganda, it was an exaggeration. In their more analytical writings, such as on the events in France, both Marx and Engels dealt with the more nuanced realities of class society, and the existence of a myriad of strata, and corresponding political ideas and forces.

Yet, in fact, for most of the 20th Century, Britain, the country where Engels complained that even the proletariat was bourgeois, has, almost more than anywhere else, mirrored, in its two-party system, that model of a society divided into two great classes, confronting each other. In many ways, the Liberals have represented a kind of political schizophrenic. Historically, it was they that represented the Manchester School and the Free Trade ideology of the industrial bourgeoisie. The Tories were the representatives of the Landlords and Financial Aristocracy. When working men eventually did get the vote, the Liberals sought to persuade workers to vote for them on the basis that Free Trade would provide them with cheap food. The Tories “One Nation” politics was based on the idea that British workers had an interest in defending the Empire, and protectionism against the rising economies of the US and Germany. The working-class gravitated towards its old allies within the bourgeoisie against its old enemies within the aristocracy, despite the fact that, as Marx pointed out in the Manifesto, it was the Tories who most frequently put forward measures to limit the excesses of the industrial bourgeoisie, as they attempted to turn the clock back through things like Disraeli’s “Young England” movement, even up to the end of the 19th Century. In part, that also shaped the ideas on which the Labour Movement developed, and on which the LP was created.

Once the Labour Party was created, and became the natural party to which workers gravitated, the basic dichotomy for the Liberals was exacerbated. In order to survive they could only exist within the interstices of political life, and as a localist rather than a National Party. In each area, they accommodated their political approach to what would win them votes and Council seats. In the North, that meant appearing as a Labour clone, but, perhaps, with a more radical edge, particularly on social issues, where their natural Liberalism facilitated Libertarian rather than statist ideas. Indeed, from my own limited experience, I would say this is reflected in the make-up of the Party’s membership, in the North, which appears to be drawn far more from free thinking workers than in the South, where the Party, in competition with the Tories, has been far more based on traditional, “Orange-Book”, free market, Liberalism, and, therefore, made up of the traditional petit-bourgeoisie.

The idea that the Liberals were a “party of the radical Left, disguised by the fact that its MP’s are such reasonable looking people”, is a ridiculous concept that could only be put forward by a former Liberal, and current representative of New Labour’s extreme Right, as Lord Adonis. It was no surprise to me that the Liberals formed a coalition with the Tories, even if it came as a surprise to some of the Liberals own misguided rank and file. As I said before the election, pointing to the fact that, up and down the country, Liberals were in coalition, in numerous Councils, with backwoods Tories, they would do anything to get their grubby hands on power.

In a strange way, what we have seen is an unravelling of the political realignment of the 1980’s, in which the SDP split from Labour. In he 1980’s, Thatcher choked off the support of those to her Right, such as the NF, by adopting some of their agenda. Today, it is no secret that Cameron seeks to define the Tories more in “Liberal” terms. There is a natural affinity between Cameron’s Libertarian politics and Clegg’s Orange Book Liberalism. But, it excludes all of those many misguided Liberal activists, many of whom, as teachers and intellectuals, saw a natural home in the Party, as opposed to the “vulgar”, “uneducated”, workers that make up the bulk of LP Branches in the North, who really believed that their Party represented something radical. I even know of some former SWP members who are Liberals who hold that view.

But, the genie is out of the bottle, the hymen is broken. The attempt to portray themselves as political virgins, unblemished by the realities of political life has been lost forever – or at least probably for another 65 years! The likelihood now is that the Tories will lose some of their members – and fewer voters – to UKIP, or even the BNP. But, the extreme Right is dead for the foreseeable future. In time, the Tories will incorporate the best elements of the Liberals free market wing. Already, it appears that many at a rank and file level have drawn the appropriate conclusions and joined the LP. The Guardian has produced a poll, which shows considerable disillusion, and 20% of Liberal voters saying they will switch their vote. When the sound of gunfire erupts, then the inevitable frictions between the Liberal and Tory politicians will sharpen. Some might baulk, but the experience of Liberals, over the last few decades, is that their degree of opportunism shows no bounds when it comes to clinging to office. Vince Cable, who was the media’s poster child over the last couple of years, has lost all credibility, as Paxman’s questioning on “Newsnight” brought out that degree of that opportunism over his switching position overnight to supporting immediate cuts.

We now have a clearer two-party politics than for many decades. For a while, there were irrelevant sects on the Right and left of the main parties, and the Liberals represented the only real distraction. Now, they too have committed hari kiri, and left the two main parties, representing the two main classes in society to battle it out. Marxists should be in the LP working in its Branches alongside ordinary workers to rebuild the structures and ideas we need to win that battle.

1 comment:

Jacob Richter said...

I still prefer the work done by Socialist Leftist Bärbel Beuermann and Anti-Capitalist Leftist Wolfgang Zimmermann as a precedent for British left politics.

[Damn there are no wink smilies provided by blogs!]