Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Lib/Lab; neither secterianism nor compromise

. Very interesting article on Liberal Democrat Voice by Alisdair Murray suggesting that Nick Clegg's leadership and Labour's impending wipeout means greater co-operation between the two parties and even merger possible. Meanwhile, in another place, on Charlotte Gore's blog a very vigorous debate about Labour and the left in general.

I won't bore the reader by repeating myself here; suffice it to say we can debate the merits and histories of the socialist and liberal tradition ad infinitum the real question is what it means in the here and now. I have never hidden my past in Labour and on what we shall gently call the wider left; peoples politics evolve with experience and my experience of those traditions convinced me something was wrong with both; however, something being wrong doesn't make it totally so and if I am being big and brave in admitting my mistakes I will also say there is an awful lot about those traditions that is worth fighting for and preserving. It is also worth saying that there are aspects of the liberal tradition which are problematic from a progressive point of view; I have no time for the 'unbroken thread' no matter whose it is; so, we all have problems.

The reason that the left is constantly seeking to reinvent itself is this; the left has traditionally meant and been about a challenge to the established social order. The terms left-wing and right-wing have their origins in the French Revolution. They originally referred to the seating arrangements in the various legislative bodies of France, specifically in the French Legislative Assembly of 1791, when the king was still the formal head of state, and the moderate royalist Feuillants sat on the right side of the chamber, while the radical Montagnards sat on the left. So, the challengers to the established social order sat on the left, it's defenders on the right. Since the collapse of communism the left has had no clear vision of what an alternative society might look like and has largely given up bothering with the notion of producing one.

This is wrong in my eyes. As communism turned out it wasn't a acceptable alternative but that doesn't mean we should accept there is none. Losing that vision, that clarity of purpose has crippled the left. A narrative is needed to string together politics; to provide people with hope there is something better and ultimately to drive humanity forward. It is the essence of progressive politics and despite what Charlotte may say or feel none of this automatically leads to gulags and collective farms.

Specifically with regards to how we view and approach the Labour Party we need to regard it as something of an awkward cousin. As a party we are agreed on targeting 50 Labour seats; to win those seats we are going to have to speak to and win people who would describe themselves as socialist or social democrats. They won't give up those labels because we shut them out; tell them they are historically wrong, they wont drop the labels but they may well support our programme for government and they may well give us their vote.

Hard facts tell us that progressive support in Britain is pretty much split between our two parties. Good people exist in the Labour Party because they see it as the best place to be to advance progressive politics and logistically they are right; Labour has the opportunity to govern and we don't. We need to convince them that given critical mass it is now our party that is leading the progressive charge. Our party has the great strength it can bridge the divide between free marketeers and people who would see themselves as socialists. It is a great asset that we should make the most of; if we do then we will broaden our appeal across the political spectrum.

A merger of the two parties based on numerical weakness would be bad politics. After all, haven't we been here before?? It would be messy and produce little discernible benefit to either party. A split from Labour that we could absorb would be a different matter because that could be affected by them broadly accepting our programme. The electoral map of Britain will make look radically different and most likely alot bluer soon; how we meet the challenges that presents is entirely down to how much we are prepared to be flexible while standing our ground.


thomas said...

I'm gonna take you up on a point of disagreement.

'Left' and 'right' do refer to seating arrangements, but they have their origins in a much earlier period than revolutionary France.

French culture assumed Christian form and carried over the religious iconography associated with it, so read where each of the archangels sat in relation to the Almighty and what narrative role each fell into (this also feeds into trinitarian theology).

Of course Christian sentiment is based on much more ancient traditions too, so we can't blame them either.

Nevertheless remembering only the modern incarnation of this structural form neglects the connections with and continuity from pre-industrial society.

So where's your unbroken thread here? I prefer to envision a sort of plaited rope of history where each thread takes up the tension according to the pressures being exerted...

Joe Otten said... it was left-wing of Thatcher to smash the unions, and right-wing of Labour not to bother? (Yes, "In place of strife", etc.)


I suppose my point would be that both Labour and the Tories, and us, for that matter, cling to some aspects of the existing order and want to challenge others. And so even the term 'progressive' is problematic.

Charlotte Gore said...

Well I'm not sure people outside of politics geekery actually consider themselves to be 'socialists', 'social democrats' or whatever. The trick in those places is to appeal to swing and floating voters, squeeze the life out of Tory voters, seem as non-threatening and hopefully attractive as possible to Labour supporters and then hope that most of Labour's supporters actually stay at home.

I worry about what sort of future Government the Liberal Democrats could form if we do not have a consistent and logical policy platform?

I'm really keen to see us ditch policies that appear contraditory or that work against each other in some way. Nick Clegg's speech went a long way towards sounding more based on /something/ rather than a mish mash of everything and anything.

I do agree that outwardly bashing labour is probably counter productive, but then we have people like you that *can* talk to lefties and that's a good thing :)

Darrell G said...

Charlotte :),

Nice to see you over here. On your first point I totally disagree, hardened trade unionists for example while not being political figures would call themselves socialist as might non political union members.

Ok, but who are the swing voters in the next election? The voters in motion? They will be Labour not Tory. Tory voters are not going to be swinging anywhere.

I agree that coherence is good. That is something the differing trends of thought within the party will no doubt contest but I think that is a good thing. My point was more that the Liberal Democrats are a pretty unique coaltion of trends I think and that gives us a really grand opportunity to draw broad support electorally.

thomas said...

Joe, that's something you could argue forever because the definition is separated from its root origin, so there is no way of knowing.

Whether it is an important distinction to make will only be adjudged after any future election and so is doubly irrelevant at the current time.

I think this flexibility of understanding is something the LibDems should and should be able to use to your advantage over the next two(?) elections, so long as you don't get distracted by questions of ideology...

Darrell G said...

I tend to agree with Thomas, there is no need to get overly hung up with these questions. Different people will feel that progressive means different things and those differences will play out naturally in the flow of debate within the party over policy.