Friday, 30 April 2010

A Third Way?

There is something both exhilarating and sad about watching a once great party fall apart. Sad because Labour has much of the history of the British left in its bones and its passing, at least in its present form, means that this history will be interred. As someone who spent 15 years as a member it is hard not to regret this. (This is what is known as tribalism). On the other hand, it is exhilarating to see a generational chance to reform British politics in a way which has been delayed for several decades.

The Labour leadership who have run their party in the past few much as Stalin ruled the CPSU are clearly deeply and terminally divided as to how to approach the election. There is a group which resists any talk of coalition and insists that the campaign is still theirs to win. I suspect that this group thinks that this really might be a good election to lose and that to sit out a period in opposition watching Cameron trying to work with Clegg whilst starting the savage public sector cuts that are now inevitable is a good recipe for another long period in power. It is clearly impossible for Labour to keep to its campaign promises about public spending so why, the argument might go, try? Of course this is a line which has to be deeply buried under protestations about still hoping to win and so on but it has the merit of strategic thinking. It also has the merit from their viewpoint of allowing a period of time to complete the transformation of the Labour Party from a membership body to a supporter-based organisation in which registered supporters have no say in policy or leadership but raise money and work as foot-soldiers in elections. The model is the US Democratic Party and David Miliband has already set out the agenda for such a move.

The second group is hoping to use the hung parliament as the springboard for some kind of new progressive alliance with the LibDems in the course of which, thanks of course to their superior political skills, Labour would effectively take over leadership of that part of the LibDems which they feel unreasonably fled from Labour over Iraq. This is most overtly expressed by Neal Lawson ( in a pre-election briefing in which as he puts it “the game has to be building a progressive alliance” which, he seems to claim, would represent up to 60% of the electorate, a number obtained by adding together recent poll figures for the two parties. This group is also the one which clings, against all the evidence of recent history, to the belief that the Labour party can be saved, that is brought back to its halcyon days of membership democracy and free debate.

The problem for this group is that this progressive alliance is supposed to include all the elements in the Labour Party which have fostered the neo-liberal policies they so dislike plus all the similar elements in the LibDems. There may be some kind of ‘progressive’ alliance out the there but, at least at the moment, it is smaller and much more complex than is revealed by simple addition of some polling statistics.
So what is the likely outcome once the voting dust has settled and the bargaining commences in what are now the smoke-free backrooms? Let me speculate on a third scenario.

Both Tories and the present Labour leadership are beset by similar problems. Both have an ideological wing which is a nuisance and which they would like to see banished. Both know that Mervyn King’s warning about the fate of the next government is soundly based. Both know that some re-constitution of British governance is necessary to head off public dissent and both know that the LibDem demands for reform of the electoral system have got to be accommodated. And both know that their policy differences are much smaller than the differences they have with their own irritant wings. So how can these problems be resolved?

The wildest speculation would be this: that Cameron agrees to form a National Unity Government which would contain, let’s say, Mandelson, Miliband (probably D) et al plus Clegg and possibly Cable (whose views on most matters are far from radical). The price to be paid would be dumping Brown (of course) and accepting a moderate form of electoral reform. This government would, quite deliberately, adopt policies designed to drive out their respective unwanted wings, including the radical part of the LibDems, and to reduce the national debt by a significant but not devastating amount. They would call an election under the new rules and fight it under the banner of a centre-right alliance called something like National Unity. UKIP would form the core of a right-wing grouping whilst the left, unable to agree, would form two left groups which would spend most of the time attacking each other. The National Unity alliance would get a comfortable majority and spend five years and beyond cutting public services and taxes.

Sound familiar? Well it would have strong similarities with 1931 but, hey, what’s so bad about a good revival? It would of course require political and presentational skills of the highest order but then where else can we look for these except in the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of New Labour, Lord Peter. Would I put money on this? Well, I would need odds but not big ones. Say five to two. Possibly seven to four. Any takers?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Is a Revolution on the Way?

Someone (I forget who) once said that there are only two kinds of election campaign: Throw the Rascals Out and Steady as She Goes. British elections have for over a hundred years followed this basic principle with, normally, Labour wanting to throw out the rascals and the Conservatives asking to keep a steady course. In this, as in so many ways, it was Thatcher who broke this tradition when she was given her (minority) mandate to throw out the ‘rascals’ who had collectively conspired to build up the post-war consensus of a mixed economy. She was right of course; the three decades of post-war solidity was foundering on its internal contradictions. Her political genius was to recognise that the rascals, as she saw them, were as much embedded in her own party as in the opposition and needed to be as resolutely thrown out. The current election is the long-delayed explosion of the political fuse which she laid. Effectively, what she did was to turn the old order on to its head with the Labour Party cast as the old-fashioned bunch and the Tories as the modernisers with consequences that are only now surfacing after long gestation.

There are three main strands to this story. The first and most obvious is that although the challenge of Thatcherism did not, quite, destroy Labour it came close and set up a long-term rival, the Liberal Democrats. The division of the British centre-left into two parts from 1981 onwards enabled Thatcher and, subsequently, Major to win three successive elections despite never coming close to a majority of the votes. In particular, the staggering confidence trick of the 1983 election (with the centre-left vote split 29%/24%) enabled Thatcher to carry through the key parts of her neo-liberal agenda and to complete the purging of her own party with the ‘mandate’ of a huge majority. The political consequence inside Labour was to ensure that to achieve an election victory it had to both subdue the rival LibDem vote and recover part of the votes lost to the Tories, something which after 1987 came, probably correctly when judged purely in electoral terms, to mean that it could never again offer any kind of radical agenda. It became, instead, the Steady as She Goes party offering Thatcherism with a human face.

The success of this strategy in 1997 marked for life those who pushed through this agenda, not just the old guard of Brown and Mandelson et al but also the younger group whose politics were formed almost entirely as aides and advisers to these men. It has been obvious for some time now that a policy of reforming the British political system would prove a vote-winner. In another vein, it is also quite plain that any proposal to change the banking system and reduce the power of bankers would get widespread support. Yet on both issues there has been agonised periods of wavering followed by small shifts whose very obvious limitations have served only to highlight missed opportunities. The result has been the quite staggering shift in public opinion following last week’s televised debate — the Clegg phenomenon.

It is as though people have suddenly decided that Kick the Rascals Out is best realised not by Cameron (always a doubtful herald for this line) but Clegg. Suddenly, the old nightmare of 1983 has been revived for Labour; the emergence of another centre-left group untouched by previous scandals and able to present a new, modernising face however illusory. And Labour does not have the slightest idea how to respond as the historical response to move to the right has already been worked through. Like hard-rock miners, they have followed a vein of gold deeper and deeper so that when it peters out they have nowhere to go.

The second story is a national one for it was the rule by an English tyrant lacking any kind of national mandate which really sparked nationalist sentiment in Scotland and Wales into serious life after two decades when its flame had flickered into occasional life but then faded. The two-party first-past-the-post system has retained its dominance in the U.K. for so long partly as a result of the absence of any serious regional or confessional parties outside of Northern Ireland. The imposition by Thatcher of what seemed almost like foreign and colonial rule ended that. The actual impact of this change has been slow but, inevitably, it has taken its toll on the viability of the old system.

Finally, Thatcher wrecked the old Conservative Party. The divisions within the Tories have been evident ever since Major fulminated about the “bastards” who were plotting against him after 1992. The divisions have been exemplified over Europe but they cover other, perhaps more fundamental issues which go back to Heath’s sullen refusal to accept Thatcher’s leadership. UKIP remains Cameron’s bad dream; one which has so far been largely contained but which could yet bleed away Tory support if it ever manages to get a leadership which is not quite barking mad. Meanwhile, Cameron has tried to adopt the necessary Kick Out the Rascals strategy without ever sounding remotely convincing. He is patently a Steady as She Goes man which is why debates between Brown and him never sound remotely convincing as both stand, essentially, on the same ground.

So is there any chance that the venerable British political system will fall apart after 6 May under the obvious unfairness of a voting system that fails to reflect the wishes of most of the electorate? The core problem is that any kind of fundamental change requires either a strong reforming leader inside the system or a massive popular upsurge on the streets and preferably both. Both are lacking. Clegg and Cable are not going to lead revolution and the general disillusion with politics is not going to lead to riots. This is not a Poll Tax or an Iraq war issue even though it is more fundamental. The Green Party hovers around as a genuine radical alternative but its relentless ‘focus to win’ electoral strategy has failed to give it any national presence. Plaid Cymru does offer a national alternative in Wales but has little overall presence. Northern Ireland politicians can always be bribed.

There are going to be all kinds of odd results on 6 May. A good local campaign can, for once, produce real local swings so one may see a number of oddball independents and small party representation. And in the overlooked council elections which will also happen on 6 May, a massive LibDem swing may wipe out Labour in many councils and effectively end its already much reduced campaigning ability. But some kind of fundamental shift? The most that can be hoped for is a referendum on a reasonably proportional electoral system and that has to be an outside chance. Whether there will be any impetus after the election to form the kind of left coalition that could offer a genuine challenge remains to be seen. The words ‘coalition’ and ‘alliance’ have been much used on the left in the past few months but with precious little flesh put on these bare bones. As always, we have to live in hope but with subdued expectations.