I doubt I will make many friends here by linking with some measured approval to this Matthew Parris column, which may be partly wishful, but surely contains some true insights.  Discussing Brown’s ‘moronic’ remark about Clegg being ‘Anti American’, Parris writes:

The expression that briefly stalked the Liberal Democrat leader’s normally bland face, however, betrayed a loathing that went beyond the routine attitude-striking of a British election campaign. It was deep and it was personal. . . Mr Clegg, I speculated, is a man on a mission. He wants to kill the Labour Party and he wants to kill Gordon Brown. The Tories couldn’t be more mistaken about his strategy. There is no way that in a hung Parliament the Liberal Democrats would prop up a Labour Government in office . . .

Over the years I’ve tried to follow the remarks, guarded or unguarded, of the Lib Dem leader; and the body language too. Ideologically, Mr Clegg is not far from the Conservative centre-left, but he has a distaste (more Dutch than it is left wing) for the Tory association with class and privilege; he thinks that culturally the party lacks instincts of fairness. I doubt he particularly admires Mr Cameron or feels much personal warmth towards him, but his overall attitudes towards the Tories are better described as irritable than murderous.

I am not going to come near attempting to answer the question: “should Lib Dems be closer to Tories than to Labour”.  I know just what the blogosphere would serve up – a ferocious battle of the straw men: “So you think liberalism is about crushing the hopes of millions of people? Favouring privilege?” or “so soggy lefties always end up the same”, and so on.

But given a predominantly them’nus webosphere, with ‘them’ being Conservatives, it is worth remembering how differently liberal progressives and Labour progressives see the world*.  An example: how positive I tend to feel towards the school reform ideas supported by David Laws and Michael Gove (read this Economist piece); while Labour launched the Academies, it has been against the most basic statist instincts of that party.   Parris tries to put some thoughts into Clegg’s head:

He thinks Labour has traduced and betrayed progressive politics and that there are strands in its DNA — the old Left, the trade union links, the inborn, knee-jerk collectivism, the State-authoritarianism and the suspicion of individual liberty — that condemn it for ever to lead Britain’s centre-left astray. Ideologically, Mr Brown embodies that genetic inheritance.

I have no idea how all this will play out.  Even the Times Leader today concedes that its traditional support for FPTP is weakened if we really do have a three party system.  This election will be the first that ever produces a greater return for “neither of those two” than “either of those two”, I reckon.

I have not even heard of this polling company that puts Labour on 23%.  But way too much emphasis has been put on how the Clegg surge has provided an alternative home to the anti-Labour vote, than the realisation that people who don’t like the Conservatives now realise they don’t have to vote Labour.  ( Are those people who are waking up to that realisation following a similar path to that taken by the Liberal Democrat leadership in their political journey?

UPDATE: to those  (tiny number of) undecided voters out there, reading this, who also want to send a powerful message against the Labour party, ask yourself this: what is the most important ‘result’ that would do this: Labour being beaten by the Conservatives (almost a cert); or Labour being pushed into Third?  Use your vote wisely …

(*update: read Anthony Painter here on the same topic:  “Just out of curiosity, I engaged with a few Liberal Democrats on Twitter this morning to market test my hunch that Liberal Democrats see themselves as an alternative to Labour not an ally, a contender not a collaborator.”)

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23 thoughts on “‘Killing the Labour party’

  1. …it is worth remembering how differently liberal progressives and Labour progressives see the world.

    Indeed. In fact, I would question the idea that the term “progressive” has any political or ideological meaning beyond “not Tory” (or “left of the Tories”).* I have yet to see a definition. How would you define “progressive politics”?

    *Of course I’m referring to UK/European politics; in the USA Progressivism was a historical and ideological movement that bore a striking similarity to contemporary British liberalism: anti-monopoly, for devolved government and direct democracy, supporting the expansion of public education for example.

      1. David, great to have you back. Where have you been?

        Depends on what they are conserving. An overly charitable interpretation of the Labservative duopoly has been: Labour introducing innovations, Conservatives trying to make them work better. Tax credits, min wages, higher NHS spending being the latest version.

        I ALMOST joined the Labour party in 2007, and was repelled myself by the idea that if I wanted a career in policy I would have to tie myself into a party that had what felt like such an anachronistic class based structure, in which I would feel rather alien …

  2. Ah, the answer to the question ‘Who is more annoying than professional body language experts?’ I believe Parris also has a degree in made-up psychoanalysis.

    I haven’t had the chance to examine Nick Clegg’s handwriting or feel the bumps on his skull, but I would be surprised if he falls for it. I imagine – based on observing the flights of swallows – he might also ask why the Conservative centre-left (who they?) don’t just join him. Y’know, once they realise that they don’t have to vote Conservative to keep the statists out.

  3. Given that many of the Lib Dems tried to kill the Labour Party in the eighties – should we be surprised?

    And quite what is liberal about letting Christian fundamentalists take over schools from the Local Education Authority, I do not know…

      1. Seriously, though, the education policies of the Lib-Dems are confusing. Not just over tuition fees, the pupil premium would surely require an increase in spending so that central government could implement the scheme?

      2. Yes, that is true: there is a redistribution and some other savings/ removals of credits/etc to pay for that one.

  4. I’d venture the ‘Conservative centre-left’ includes people like Ken Clarke, Chris Patten and in an earlier age people like Ian Macleod – people who tended to be pro-market but also committed to the basic tenets of the welfare state, usually but always pro-European, often relatively liberal on social matters and believers in the ‘small platoons’ (or ‘big society’ in the Cameron formulation).

    I agree with Matthew Parris that Clegg has quite a lot in common with this strand of Conservatism, although he likes to think of himself as a more anti-Establishment figure.

    I think he is by instinct the least statist Liberal/Lib Dem leader since Jo Grimond, even if populist impulses sometimes drag him in a statist direction. But the Tories’ euroscepticism is anathema to him, as is its defence of vested interests – again, Parris hits the nail on the head here.

  5. Sorry, I mis-spelt Macleod’s first name – it should be Iain with a second ‘i’. An intelligent liberal-minded Tory. Had he not died of a heart attack in 1970, the Heath government might not have made quite such a disastrous mess of the economy which was only surpassed by Labour’s performance during 1974.

    1. Yes – I get the feeling that the rather bad Heath government could have been rather good, were it not for a few accidents

  6. The problem I find with Parris’s post is the assumption or argument that the Tory centre-left (or right) is less statist/more liberal than the Labour Party. I remember the last few years of Thatcher and all of Major well, and liberal is not the word that comes to mind. They’ve made great efforts to rewrite history in this direction, but it won’t wash. I suppose it’s possible the new Tory party is a very different beast, but Cameron doesn’t seem to be.

    Parris’s mind-reading trick also slightly grates – if Nick Clegg, someone who I think even his opponents would admit can spot a fool, wanted to kill someone that night my mind-reading suggests it might be the man who leaked to the newspapers that Nick Clegg was a Nazi. Unless we think that was Gordon Brown too?

  7. How’s this for statism – the Tories implemented legislation that made trade unions the most tightly regulated organisations in British society – Cameron wants to go even further, and some Lib-Dems appear to agree with him….

  8. More seriously, back in 1951 – my first election – I wondered what each party was for. The only answers that I could come up with for the Labour Party were that it was for the interests of the trades unions and offered an alternative to the Conservatives (who were for the other established interests). Sadly, that analysis still seems to hold.

    Is there any reason to keep the Labour Party alive?

  9. James – You could argue that the trade union legislation of the 1980s and 1990s was ‘statist’ in that it brought the law into industrial relations.

    Another way of putting it might be that it stripped the unions of their quite unique exemption from the rule of law that had been steadily building and was outrageously wide by the 1970s. From an anarchist perspective to do this might be considered statist, but I don’t see how it’s a charge anyone who supports the rule of law can really sustain.

    Admittedly some of the later Tory legislation was highly prescriptive about how trade unions should organise their internal affairs, supposedly in the interests of empowering/protecting individual union members.

    Whatever the motive, it is no different from the argument that is used for employment legislation that seeks to protect workers’ interests, and is part of a general trend away from reliance on trade union power to advance these aims in favour of individual rights.

    Supporting the key trade union legislation of the 1980s meant challenging a huge state-supported vested interest (since the unions relied for their power on the special privileges granted to them by law, which by that time were excessive and widely abused).

  10. We all know that the 70s saw a crisis in profitability – to secure it’s system, the ruling class needed to destroy organised labour to end the post-war consensus of a mixed economy and the maintenance of full employment.

    I have no opposition to using the state – my argument is that the law should secure the rights of the working majority, whom the trade union movement represents, and who in a democratic society should be the ruling class.

    Let us not forget that the unions were originally banned outright by the ruling class – the state has always acted to secure the vested interests of the capitalist class.

    That so-called liberals should cheer on the assault on working many for the enrichment of the wealthy few is not surprising, but always makes me feel a little sad.

    1. From my reading of the early 1970s crisis years, the reason for the profit problems is best encapsulated by this quote from Burke and Cairncross

      “By the end of 1974,business was in the middle of a liquidity crisis, the deficit in the balance of payments was formidable, investment was falling off, the rise in unemployment was accelerating, and so also was the rise in wages and prices. yet real wages had been rising faster than at any time in the past. It has been estimated that in the first fifteen months of Labour government average earnings in the public sector rose 12 per cent faster than the consumer prices in the public sector and 4.5 per cent faster in the private sector

      so much for capitalistclass vested interests.This situation was screwing up everyone, and storing up the problems that eventually burst out all in one go in 1979-82. That recession was a long time brewing, and the unions were partly to blame for it.

      1. But wait a minute – was there not the social contract?

        Did the capitalist class through its organisations make such concessions? No, the CBI was drawing up plans to subvert the law, and there was even serious talk of a Chilean option.

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