Labours problem and the Lib-Dem opportunity.

Conventional wisdom says that the Lib-Dem’s are done as a third-force in British politics, opinion polls have them down to single digits, they are vilified for back-tracking on their manifesto commitment to student top-up fees (ironically the result of the consensual coalition carve-up style of politics they advocate), and they are beginning to realise that for all the ministerial positions the thrust of the policy narrative is blue in hue. Surely the end is nigh?

This blog takes the view that things are not so bad as they appear.

How so?

Q – Have they not alienated one of their core support demographics; the students?

A – No, a core demographic is depended upon to give a party an opportunity to be in government. The hormonal enthusiasm for the Lib-Dem’s as witnessed during the leaders debates depends on their outsider status, they are not tarnished with having to make unpleasant decisions as is the case with Labour & the Tories. If this groups support for the Lib-Dem’s evaporates once they get into power then they are hardly a core electorate to rely upon.

Q – Will their credibility not be in tatters come 2015 when yet more of their core emotional planks are exposed as having been sacrificed on the alter of ‘compromise’?

A – No, because the Lib-Dem manifesto has long been a schizophrenic collection of opposing ideas from planned economy to market economy, and from libertarianism to authoritarianism. As above the matters of student fees, the deterrent, and control orders are elements outside of a compelling ideological narrative that are principally important to an ‘undependable’ part of the electorate. Again, it is easy to appeal to everybody when you will never have power, for you are not taken seriously and the conflict of your stated ambitions is not exposed to public scrutiny. The thing that terrifies the Social  Democratic end of the Lib-Dem spectrum is that the election of Clegg and his merry band of Orange Bookers is no longer a mere inconvenience, the coalition with the Tories will make them an irresistible force as the party moves in the direction of power.

Q – Will not Labour hoover up disaffected left-wing and swing votes in 2015?

A – Sure they will, but only those who were committed to Social Democratic element of their manifesto, and most of those are voters who were comfortable voting Labour………… were Labour not at the unpopular end of three terms in office. As for what this blog terms the ‘student’ vote, well, one easy prediction is an increase in votes for the Green Party in 2015, Labour will get some but it remains an establishment power.

The problem with predicting the Lib-Dem’s demise is that it rests on the false premise that Clegg and his Orange Bookers are content to be the eternal bridesmaid of left-wing politics. This is not the case, and the formation of a coalition with the Tories should have provided all the clues that were necessary, most recently by the commitment of the Lib-Dem’s to fight an independent election campaign in 2015.

The less introspective elements of the Labour party are beginning to wake up to the Lib-Dem and Tory ambition; namely that of replacing Labour as the natural home of the progressive-left.

Jon Cruddas has begun this process by calling for a re-invention of what Labour’s purpose and appeal must be:

Labour’s future in England is conservative. The country’s radical traditions are rooted in the political struggle for the liberty that Edmund Burke describes as “social freedom”. There is a powerful strain of rebellious individualism in English socialism that helped to create a politics of liberty, virtue and democracy and a vast popular movement of voluntary collectivism, co-operatism and mutual self-improvement. English socialism shares antecedents with Toryism, but differs from it in one significant way. It was a militant defence of a common life, and of individual labour and creativity against the unaccountable power of capital and against the usurpation of the state. The struggle for liberty was one for democracy, not for paternalism and an organic society where each knew his place.

In short, Labour has become recognised as an authoritarian party and that this public perception is enhanced by the libertarian bent of the coalition, with the Lib-Dem’s returning to their classical-liberal roots and the Tories discarding the the interfering social conservatism that created Section 28.

Meanwhile Douglas Alexander and John McTernan spell out the threat explicitly:

But Douglas is doing much more than that for his leader. He is providing the strategic frame within which the Labour high command is operating. Alexander lucidly exposed the Coalition’s hidden strategy to reshape British politics. Over time, he argued, Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem colleagues will prosecute the argument that they are the only effective vehicle to deliver Centre-left policies. The wins they have over the Tories will be the evidence. At the same time David Cameron will aim to cement his hold on the Centre-right vote. Their shared objective? Marginalising the Labour Party.

It must be galling for the Blairite element of the Labour party to perceive the problem so acutely, and yet to be eclipsed so thoroughly from leadership of the party by Brownites such as the two Ed’s.

This strategy will not necessarily succeed, and it certainly will not bear fruit at the next election, but as stated some months ago:

With real power for the first time in a century the Liberal Democrats will be obliged to adopt the pragmatism of government, whose lack thus far permitted their zanier policies, and they will be seen by the electorate as a genuine party of power rather than a wasted vote. If the coalition survives and the recovery happens as per the schedule then Cameron has an opportunity to initially split the progressive-left vote, and eventually to create a new progressive-left opposition which is both further to the right and absent the tribal hatred of the Tories.

Labour have only made this easier by electing Milliband “E” and then allowing Balls to become Chancellor. We have a potential premier who is locked into the ideological left of politics, and a potential chancellor who is locked into the narrative of Brown’s high spending legacy. Unless they are right and a cruel and enduring double-dip recession results from Osborne’s austerity Britain (and not an external shock), then they will be fighting the next election against a Zeitgeist that accepts that Labour’s high spending in Government was deeply irresponsible, and demand an answer as to why Britain went into a recession with vast debt and deficit after the longest period of sustained GDP growth in modern history. Middle England will say; “Yes, we accept that investment was needed, but tell us why we will be paying for this profligacy for the rest of their lives?” Labour were in part elected in 1997 on Brown’s platform of fiscal-conservatism and his ‘golden’ rules; they could be trusted with the economy once more…….. How does it look now when the golden rules lie shattered and we find tens of billions in off-the-book spending via PFI’s and unfunded pension commitments?

Labour needs to recognise and repudiate the authoritarianism that marked their last decade in power and do so before the next election, a 21st century Clause 4 moment if you will, because failure risks the permanent loss of chunks of their core electorate to a ‘nicer’ brand of left-wing politics. 2015 won’t be pretty for the Lib-Dem’s, but it may mark the start of a long decline for Labour as the standard-bearer of the Left, and the Tories will help their erstwhile allies because the future will provide a less toxic opposing ideology to compete with. Ironically, the two Ed’s appear happy to act as mid-wife to this Liberal rebirth.

Update – 2nd Feb 2011 – Interesting quote here:

As a senior member of the shadow cabinet said to me recently: “George Osborne has taken a huge gamble with the economy but if it pays off we haven’t a chance in 2015.”

Question – Blairite or Brownite?
Update – 9th March – Mili (D) gets it:

Where once right of centre parties seemed anti deluvian on social issues, they embraced a new world of equal gay and women’s rights. Since the 1920s, there have been three constants in every successful social democratic programme: greater protection from the dangers of life, more power over your own life, and stronger communities in which to live your life. All three promises have come under strain in the last decade under the pressure of economic and social change. The very success of social democrats in arguing for an extended role for government means that the understanding people had of the market – that it was a “good servant but a bad master” – is now applied to government.

7 responses to “Labours problem and the Lib-Dem opportunity.

  1. Have a look at the graphic.
    The rate of technological progress (a macro-ecoonomic aggregate variable) is about 1.5-2% for developed nations. The UK’s working age population is stagnating (another macro-economic variable).

    Now combine the graph with this info and you’ll see that the UK is probably even falling behind economically because its growth isn’t even as much as the mere rate of technological progress in comparable countries.
    This has obviously been the case since about 1990, following a rather stagnant 1980s.

    A whole generation of substandard economic progress! BOTH major parties had enough opportunities to solve this issue, both failed (labour even worse, but that may be circumstantial).

    • hi Sven,

      cheers for the analysis, just wondering if you have a comparative dataset for the rate of technological progress, it would be interesting to contrast it against GDP growth as you suggest?

      many thanks


  2. This may help:

    In a strict sense, technological progress is a residual variable that’s country-specific. I used what I recalled as TP from comparable countries.
    Germany’s TP rate dropped slowly from about 2.2. to 1.6 over decades, for example.

    An actual economic analysis on the topic of my comment would take a multi-page article, of course. It was just a quick shot from the hip.

  3. Seriously the entire thing with the student fees increase isn’t so bad (i’m a student) all it means is we get more money from the student loans company and spend longer repaying it.

    The thing is though that you don’t have to repay it till you’re earning £15000+ a year and even then the repayments are so small you’re highly unlikely to notice it.

    Still the libdems have lost my vote for being completely spineless. Refusing to vote because you’re too scared to say no shouldn’t be an option.

    • Hi,

      Yes I tend to agree with you on the student fees matter, but it is certainly the case that a lot of other ‘yoofs’ now feel disillusioned and betrayed.

      There is likewise going to be a fall-out when the impact of coalition politics on manifesto mandates becomes apparent.

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