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Monday, August 23, 2010

The nasty party

In yesterday's Observer, Jackie Ashley points out the downside of Labour's continued onslaught on the Liberal Democrats:

Labour is playing bad politics. The leadership campaign is turning into a tin-ear, foot-in-mouth competition about who can be nastiest to the Liberal Democrats. As candidates desperately try to prove themselves more true Labour, more tribal than the next guy, they are in danger of missing the big picture about our changing politics. They could end up wrecking their party's position for the next generation, which is their own.

Part of this is about an underestimated and under-discussed quality in politics: tone

It is a fair point only spoilt by further evidence that she, like many other journalists, is herself stuck in a commentariat-rut, failing to understand what the Liberal Democrats are about. Her assertion that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are natural allies both fails to appreciate the repulsion within my party at the illiberal nature of Labour and the fact that when it comes down to it, Liberal Democrat voters split fairly evenly between the two old parties on their second preference.

It is an attempt to reinvent two party politics on her terms, without realising that such an alignment has been bust for decade or more. The fact is that for the most part, Liberal Democrats do not define themselves in terms of left and right, or even in terms of Labour or Conservative. We are liberals who believe in an enabling state and the supremacy of the individual. For all their preening neither Labour or Conservatives come even close to delivering on that agenda.

Jackie Ashley though, is not the only one living this fantasy. Many Labour politicians make the same mistake in thinking that they can split the party with talk of ideological cuts and by placing the Liberal Democrats on the wrong side of a fanciful class war.

Stephen Pollard in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph tries to make amends for the gullibility of his fellow professionals in accepting at face value Labour mischief-making rumours of a Charles Kennedy defection, by suggesting that it did not matter if it was true or not.

He claims that whether most Liberal Democrats choose at some point to stay in their own party or move elsewhere, their natural home in politics is alongside Labour in opposition to the Conservatives. Really? I think not.

Based on only a partial reading and understanding of the Orange Book, Mr. Pollard is convinced that the future of the Liberal Democrats is to split in half, one section joining Labour, the other the Tories.

No doubt the media's whole agenda next month at our Liverpool Conference will be to play up such splits, to try and undermine the Government and the Liberal Democrat leadership and to support Labour in seeking to isolate key figures and encourage them to defect. However, as Jackie Ashley says, what they are actually doing is uniting us rather than dividing us.

They are causing the party to coalesce not around Clegg or the act of being in power but around Liberalism itself. Whatever the unpalatable realities of power, we are not innocent political virgins. As a party we have been on this merry-go-round before, in Wales, in Scotland and in local Councils up and down the country. We know that our job is to act on and deliver on our core beliefs and that in the coalition agreement, we have the commitment to civil liberties, the environment, radical constitutional reform, education and health that makes all of this worthwhile.

The government agenda is not a pure Liberal one but it has enough of our own distinctive beliefs in it to make it worth our while to see this project through. At stake is our being able to show that we are not poor clones of another party, nor are we just the recipient of protest votes. The Liberal Democrats are now a party of government and in our policies and our values we reflect the views of the vast majority of the electorate. Our job is to break through the siren voices and noises-off to prove that to them.
Peter not to be too pedantic but Jackie Ashley writes in the Guardian. I know that you are fond of quoting from newspaper articles. Perhaps you might produce a new post based on an interesting article in today's FT entitled "Doubt cast on Osborne's fair budget pledge." What is interesting is that in all the countries praised by leading figures in the Coalition for their deficit cutting income inequality increased. I admire your defence of the UK Coalition but I have a feeling that it could all end in tears. What did Marx once say baout history repeating itself first as tragedy then as farce. We've been here before in the 1930s when right wing Liberals supported the orthodox Treasury view and eventually ended up as fully fledged members of the Tory Party. It will be interesting to see how many former members of the SDP in particular will be there this time next next year when the cuts have really began to bite. Clegg, Laws and co could easily have joined the Tories if it was not for the social attitudes of Thatcher's Conservatives in the 1980s. It is true as Martin Pugh points out in his new history of the Labour party that there is also an authoritaian illiberal wing of the Labour party. But the majority of Labour activists in terms of civil liberties come from the same radical traditions as Liberal Democrats. At the beginning of the 20th century the failure of the Liberals to accommodate the political aspirations of the working class led to the rest of the century being dominated by the Tories. It would be a tragedy for all progressives if the ambitions of the few for power led to the same mistake being made in the 21st century.
I said the Observer Jeff as I did not read either paper but the article is dated on-line as Sunday.

You are making the same mistake as Jackie Ashley and many other commentators. From our perspective the Labour Party is an authoritarian illiberal movement. I write that not just from my observation of the Blair years but also from 20 plus years of observing them at grass roots level. There are honourable exceptions of course of which I number you as one.

Also interesting was my and many other Liberals reactions in the 1980s when confronted first with the SDP to find them to be more right wing and more centralist than the Liberals. Most of those went with Owen, leaving the remaining Liberals to join the new merged party in 1988.

I don't accept your characterisation of Laws and Clegg as Tories. I have worked closely with both of them and consider them mainstream Liberals.
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