Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Liberal Death Rattle

The noises, out of the Liberal Conference, this week, sound like its death rattle. The Party is, to all intents and purposes, already dead, maintained only by the life support system, provided to it by the Tories, and by a compliant press and media that continues to treat the Liberals as though they were a separate party from the Tories, to allow them representatives alongside Tories and Labour in interviews etc. But, in reality the Liberals and Tories are now one party. Liberal spokesmen this week have even proclaimed that it has been Liberal manifesto commitments that have been implemented by the Liberal-Tory Government, more than Tory commitments. So, it is clear who is to blame then for all of the austerity and misery, and incompetence of the last two years – it is the Liberals to a greater degree than the Tories!

Two years ago, when the Liberals entered the coalition with the Tories, I said that it was like them committing Hari Kiri. So it has been. I said it was long overdue, and would benefit Labour. So it has been. Very quickly, the facade of Liberal opportunism, which allowed them to face both ways, at the same time, in order to pick up votes, was exposed. The true nature of the Liberals was exposed along with it, as they scrambled for ministerial posts and limousines. Their opposition to austerity, held to even into the coalition negotiations, was quickly dropped, and the Orange Book Liberals, like David Laws, were distinguished from their Tory partners only by their even more overt free market positions. What few principles the Liberals might have had were quickly dropped, as was their almost sworn in blood pledge to vote against any increase in Tuition Fees. They have conceded position after position on everything that mattered to the Tories, whilst acting as loyal foot soldiers for the Tories on everything that did matter.

Not surprisingly, as I predicted, all those middle class radical votes, they had picked up on the back of their social liberal faced politics, disappeared, either to Labour, or to abstention. The opportunist politics of the Liberals had led them to adopt the persona of a radical alternative to Labour, where Labour was strong. On the back of that, they not only picked up votes from middle -class radicals, but a lot of their members came from this milieu too, not infrequently from ex-members of far left organisations. Those members disappeared just as quickly. Labour picked up many of these activists.

Liberals return To Benthamite
So, the dichotomy within the Liberals, which was the material foundation of that opportunism, the division between traditional Free Market Liberalism, and Social Democratic, Social Liberalism, was resolved in the only way it could be in a coalition with the Tories; in favour of the former. The dichotomy only now exists in a shadow form, largely for the purposes of trying to provide some kind of distinction from the Tories for the sake of appearances. So, for example, Liberal spokesmen like Vince Cable, and even Clegg have come out over the weekend with calls for increased taxes on the rich. In fact, there is nothing particularly radical about such proposals. As Marx pointed out, arguing against the Lassalleans in his, Critique Of The Gotha Programme,

Taxes are the economic basis of the government machinery and of nothing else. In the state of the future, existing in Switzerland, this demand has been pretty well fulfilled. Income tax presupposes various sources of income of the various social classes, and hence capitalist society. It is, therefore, nothing remarkable that the Liverpool financial reformers — bourgeois headed by Gladstone's brother — are putting forward the same demand as the program.”

Its not radical for the reason Marx was alluding to here. The distribution of income and wealth is a function of the mode of production, and so long as the means of production are in the hands of a tiny few, the majority of income and wealth will continue to flow to them, whatever measures are taken in regards to tax. As Marx put it in the above,

Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution.”

Whether it is by tax avoidance, or other means any attempt to redistribute wealth via the tax system under capitalism is doomed, which is why in more than a century of trying to do it, the gap between rich and poor, affluent and deprived in Britain has widened rather than shrunk. But, Clegg and Cable know that the chance of getting this Cabinet of millionaires and Public School toffs, who see the rest of society merely as a bunch of plebs, to introduce any measures that seriously tax their kind are none existent. On the contrary, it is the Tories who persuaded the Liberals to vote through the cut in the top rate of tax, and at the same time to impose a massive increase in the tax burden on the rest of society via the more than 10% increase in VAT!

And, when questioned, the Liberal-Tories like Laws, have admitted that what they are really saying is not that they want the tax on the rich to be increased rather than further attacks on the welfare benefits of the poorest in society, but that they want some increased taxes on the rich as a condition for voting for even more cuts on welfare benefits! In other words, what they are after is not some relief for the poorest in society, but some relief for their electoral fortunes, by being able to claim that they won some minor concession from the Tories!

But, this just shows what a hopeless position the Liberals are now in. They have lost the votes of the radical middle class won by virtue of their duplicitous behaviour over the years in pretending that they were some kind of radical alternative to Labour. Those votes, and most of those members are not coming back. So, logically, the Liberals should then concentrate on securing the votes of the real Liberal supporters, the traditional free market Liberals, and Libertarians. But, they cannot do that, because the Tories have already shot that fox. The only way the Liberals can differentiate themselves from the Tories is by harking back to the social Liberalism, which they abandoned in going into coalition with the Tories in the first place! That is the meaning of Cable and Clegg's calls for taxes on the rich. It is meaningless chatter.

Moreover, the fact that it is meaningless chatter was exposed in the Conference itself. The extent to which the party has been denuded of its radical, social Liberal base was illustrated in the debate and vote over the motion attacking the Government's economic policy and calling for a Plan B. The party leaders opposed it, and the vote against it was crushing. The Orange Book, Free Market Liberals whose traditions hark back to all the worst aspects of the 19th Century, are clearly in the ascendancy in the Liberal Party, and necessarily so. It could have been no other way, once they went into coalition with the Tories, and sent themselves on an inevitable course either to oblivion, or else to simply being absorbed into the Tories themselves. Either way, it means the Liberals are dead as an independent party.

But, as I also pointed out in my post Time For Labour To Euthenise The Liberals the last thing that Labour should be doing is to provide the Liberals with any kind of lifeline. The establishment of the SDP in the 1980's, and their alliance with the Liberals tore the Labour Party in two. It did so because it split the Labour vote, and provided the right inside the LP with an opportunity to argue the need for moving to the centre so as not to lose votes. If the Liberals are destroyed, the potential for that happening again is destroyed with it. Instead, today it is the Tories that have that problem. On the one hand, for now, they need to keep the Liberal leaders as part of the coalition, because if it breaks, they will lose an election. On the other, any sign that they are making concessions to the Liberals angers the Tory Right, some of whom are already dallying with UKIP, who have moved above the Liberals in the opinion polls.

In fact, rather than holding out any olive branch to the Liberals, Labour should tack to the Left in order to heighten the problems for the Tories. If Labour makes a tactical shift slightly to the Left, it will put pressure on the Liberals to do likewise for their own opportunist, electoral reasons. That will put further strain on Cameron, and his relations with the Tory Right. If Labour are lucky it might even cause a split from the Tories towards UKIP, which would seriously split the right of centre vote, and provide Labour with a shoe in at the next election. Labour are already way ahead in the polls, so there is no reason for them to provide any kind of concessions to the Liberals, just to pick up a few MP's support. In any case, the Liberals are now so toxic in politics, that were Labour to in any way associate with them, they would poison themselves.

The Liberals chatter this week, from Cable about British voters only voting for Coalitions in future is nonsense. On present standings Labour should win an outright majority. Cable's pronouncements are merely a last gasp hope, and an attempt to suggest that he would be prepared to form a coalition with Labour after the next election, were he Liberal leader. Just as Boris Johnson is the Crapulinski in the wings of the Tory Party, waiting for the demise of Cameron, so Cable is waiting in the wings for the demise of Clegg. Such is the nature of bourgeois electoral politics, which revolves around the personal interests and fortunes of a few elected politicians rather than the fate of the millions of others of us plebs.


David Timoney said...

Ironically, the LibDems impending doom may cause their future rump to accentuate the Orange Book tendencies and try and outflank the Tories on the right, presenting themselves as classical liberals, much as the FDP has done in Germany.

Without PR, there is little likelihood of a centre party holding the balance of power any time soon. This might present an interesting choice for the Tories in future: they could ally with either the LibDems or UKIP, but probably not both.

Boffy said...


Possibly, as I said the rational thing for them to do would be to do something like that i.e. to appeal to the traditional Libertarian Right. There may be some hope for them there. The Tea Party in the US, began after a rant (I've posted it somewhere) by CNBC's Rick Santelli from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He appealed to these kinds of Misean/Hayeckian principles that Thatcher adopted early on, before she switched to Friedmanite Monetarism as a means of inflating the economy in the late 80's.

The problem is that the US has a long tradition of that kind of individualism, which Britain does not have. I doubt there is much room to the Right of the Tories apart from what is already taken by UKIP and the BNP.

So, as I've written before, I see the Liberal base continuing to erode if not collapsing, with many of the MP's and Councillors (where they still exist) just being merged with the Tories. But, i think even those Libertairian principles will cause the Tories problems. The Libertarian Free Market ideas, which also lead the Liberals towards being Europhiles, is anathema to the Nationalistic, protectionist wing of the Tories, who could indeed be pushed more rapidly towards UKIP.

On present showing it looks like a Labour majority government to me, with the Liberals devastated, and merged in with the Tories. Unless there is a sizeable split of the Tories to UKIP, my guess is that despite their poll rating they will be as much a busted flush as the BNP come the next election.

I see all this as a reflection of the material reality of an intra class struggle between Money Capital and Productive Industrial Capital. The former has had dominance for the last 30 years, the latter is seeking to overturn it.