Thursday, 6 January 2011

Liberal Hangover

The Liberals are a bit like someone who has been binge drinking. Having had a very short period when they have enjoyed an alcohol induced high, they then have to pay the price of hours spent puking their guts up, followed by several more hours feeling awful as a result of the dehydration. If they are unlucky they face the possibility of dying by choking on their own vomit, or from alcohol poisoning.
In any case they will have done irreparable damage to themselves. Its no wonder that the TV pictures of Nick Clegg yesterday, as his Party faces defeat at the Oldham and Saddleworth By-Election, had that typical grey look, and whose demeanour was that of someone coming to terms with the consequences of their previous actions.

Before the election I had predicted that, in the event of a hung Parliament, the Liberals would cosy up to the Tories. A look at the real ideological content of the Liberals, and their many alliances with backwoods Tories in Council Chambers around the country, always made it more likely that they would do a deal with the Tories rather than Labour, however much some wanted to believe that they represented some kind of radical Left alternative. The other thing that made that inevitable is the fact that the Liberals have always been the arch-opportunists.
Far more even than Blair, the Liberals are prepared to ditch any principle, perform any number of contortions to justify a position, so long as it enables them to get their grubby hands on a bit of political power. If a coalition was to be established, then it was, a as I argued from the beginning better that it should be with the Tories. It is nearly always the case that in bourgeois politics, it is the more right-wing partner that acts as the magnetic pole of attraction. Had the Liberals formed a coalition with Labour, then the Liberals would have performed that function, providing the Blairites with a pole to rally around, and using the Liberals as cover for a move to the Right. That would not have destroyed Labour, but it would have ensured an outright Tory victory at the next election, which probably would have been not that far away.

By contrast, as I argued in my blog Liberals Commit Hari Kiri, the decision almost certainly means that the Liberals will cease to exist as any kind of significant political force. The right-wing, Orange Book Liberals, who dominate the Parliamentary Leadership, have achieved their ambition, of getting into Government.
Recognising the opportunist, and careerist nature of their own MP's, and Councillors, that leadership have felt confident that they could drag the rest of the party with them. But, more than that, whatever the Liberals and Tories say, the logic of the present arrangement is that the two parties will at least fight future elections on a shared ticket. There is some evidence that the Tory leadership have back-pedalled in supporting their own candidate in Oldham, in order to give the Liberals a better chance.

The problem for the Liberals is that large numbers of their activists, especially those who were prepared to swallow the idea that they were some kind of radical party, have abandoned them; many have joined Labour. Worse still, they have gone from visions of being a credible large third Party before the election, to a standing in the polls now of less than 10%, the lowest since the Party was created, and still on a rapid descent. In Oldham, given the background to the by-election, and having been only a few votes behind Labour, they would have been expected to have walked in. Instead, there is a chance they might come third, despite the Tories running a low level campaign. There is a strong possibility that in many Northern and Midland areas, Liberal Councillors seeing the writing on the wall, will jump ship and join Labour. If they do not before the election, then the rump of Liberal Councillors likely to be left standing after May, will be highly likely to do so.

Paul Mason in his blog, Ten Things That Are probably Going To Happen in 2011, is probably correct when he writes,
“The Coalition will fall. Not because of protest, not because of unpopularity but because everytime it tries to do something serious a bit falls off the machine. If they don't get AV and Vince Cable does not get radical banking reform, then by the time the public sector job losses are eating into their popularity, around party conference time, the Libdems will call it a day. Even more audaciously I will predict the outcome: no election but a Second Coalition to be formed between the Conservatives, an inner core of Orange Book Libdem leaders and various Unionists, with a slim majority. One or two Labour rightwingers, disgruntled by Ed Miliband, may also be tempted to join. Cameron will face down the Conservative right and embrace Coalition government as a modus operandi until 2015. Labour, locked in a policy review process and possibly still reeling from (8) above, will avoid an election.”

I'm not sure about all this. The evidence so far from the student demos, and the support they have amongst the Public, suggests to me that this is not a similar period to the early 1980's, and certainly not the late 1980's. In the 1980's, we were at the height of a global crisis of Capitalism, as the effects of the Long Wave downturn took hold. Coming after years, during which Labour had been able to first raise living standards, and strengthen organisation, and then to frustrate the attacks of Capital as the Boom began to end, Capital needed to restructure, and facing a long term decline, it needed to force that through over the backs of workers and their organisations. Even then, not all sections of British Capital were four square behind Thatcher. But, there was sufficient unity within the ruling class to force through that agenda. That is not the case today. The world is in the midst of a powerful economic boom, and although the main beneficiaries of that are the new dynamic economies in Asia, Latin America, and increasingly in Africa, that rapid growth means that there are significant opportunities for Capital in Europe and North America, for growth. That puts workers in a much stronger position than they were in the 1980's.

But, this is only to add nuances to the basic idea put forward by Paul Mason. The extent of protest by workers and students will act to exacerbate the pressure on the Coalition, increasing the centrifugal forces upon it. Under those conditions, I'm not sure that the Coalition will survive in any form, or that it will be left up to Labour as to whether a new election is called. But, the general idea of the Liberals essentially self-destructing, I think is inevitable.
Before a new election is called, it is likely that it will pass through a stage of attempts by Cameron to patch together a Government, even a Minority Government.

The question for Labour is what attitude it should take to the Liberals, or at least those Liberal MP's who want to cross the floor. It is clear from the strategy that Labour's leadership have been adopting that they want to split away Liberal MP's from the Coalition. But, getting Liberal MP's to switch sides is not the same as taking in Liberal activists, many of whom were deluded about the real nature of the party they belonged to. With ordinary activists, many of whom are ordinary working-class people with good intentions and instincts, a Labour Party that turns itself outwards to working-class communities, can deal effectively, demonstrating in practice to them, that the kinds of social and political changes they seek can only be achieved on a socialist basis. That may even be true with some of the less careerist Liberal Councillors, but it is almost certainly not true with Liberal MP's. We should argue for these Liberal MP's to be left twisting in the wind. Certainly, they should not be given any free run at selection meetings for Labour candidates in their existing Constituencies, and ensuring that will mean that Labour's rank and file will have to redouble its efforts at pushing forward democratic and organisational renewal from the base upwards, to prevent the Party organisation imposing such candidates openly or covertly.

For nearly a century, socialists have been waiting for the Liberals to disappear as a political force. Without them, the SDP would probably have been an impossible venture, and the history of the 1983 Election would have been different. The Liberals have committed suicide. Like a binge drinker they are now paying the price of a short period of euphoria. The convulsions they have faced over Tuition Fees are only the first expression of the consequences. We should allow them to choke on their own vomit rather than provide them with a sick bag.

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