Thursday 17 September 2009

Clegg's realignment bid

A new pamphlet, The Liberal Moment, by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has been published by Demos. The pamphlet can be read in full on the think-tank's website.

Clegg places the LibDems firmly on the centre-left of the progressive spectrum, acknowledging that they share this space with Labour, and arguing that the 'progressive conservatism' will be revealed to be a contradiction in terms. However, this sets up an argument not for cooperation between progressive forces, but for the LibDems supplanting Labour as the dominant progressive party, reversing Labour's eclipse of the Liberal Party in the inter-war years in the last century.

James Graham has an interesting reading of the political strategy behind the pamphlet, arguing that it re-reverses the LibDem policy of "equidistance" between the major parties, which was ditched by Paddy Ashdown then readopted when the Blair-Ashdown 'project' of realignment by mutual cooperation fell through. I suspect the LibDem leadership would not quite agree with Grahams claim the pamphlet "has ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament", but the intention will have been to make the prospect more distant. Tonally, the barriers to working with Labour are stressed more.

Clegg's reading of political history is an interesting one, though I think it is rather debatable.

On the ideological underpinnings of Labour and the LibDems, he is more interesting on his own party than in his description of Labour. Though this is asking a lot (and almost certainly too much of a party leader), the success of this type of intellectual exercise depends on a willingness to describe your opponents in terms which they would accept, and use themselves, and then explain why you disagree with them. Clegg instead offers a caricature of Labour, though one which would be widely shared among his own party.

Indeed his critique of Labour is somewhat Blairesque in style and perhaps rather too Cameroonian in content: it is essentially that Labour was right (and the Liberals wrong) about the importance of collectivism in the 20th century, but that the LibDems are right (and Labour wrong) about the failures of collectivism and the state in the 21st. So the central challenge to the Conservatives is often their allergy to multilateral cooperation.

As contemporary politics, this seems to me to be driven by a large dose of rhetoric and positioning. But I am not sure that this works as history either (though I don't claim to be an expert on developments in the academic debate, and would be interested to hear from those who might differ).

Firstly, the Attlee post-war settlement was in large part an achievement of Labour men and New Liberal as well as Fabian ideas, with the central role played particularly by Beveridge and Keynes. (It was the Liberals who had earlier pressed hardest for the interventionist state in Lloyd George and Keynes' campaigns on unemployment against economic orthodoxy in the 1920s and 1930s). Secondly, the Labour party did not have any official ideology before Sidney Webb's 1918 constitution. It could certainly be argued that ideology remained something of a minority pursuit in a primarily Labourist party afterwards.

So perhaps Liberalism's defeat was political, rather than ideological. The Liberal failure was perhaps less an aversion to collectivism (which the New Liberals had some response to) than their difficulty in representing rising political constituencies in the age of universal suffrage. In particular, the question of working-class representation rather than political ideology proved the most difficult hurdle.

By contrast, the eclipse of Liberalism to a fringe party between 1935 and 1975 saw middle-class progressive opinion play a significant role in the Labour alliance. So, perhaps counter-intuitively, the party which had been founded on a class ticket in fact proved a rather more enduring vehicle than the Liberals had for the cross-class progressive alliances which underpinned the 1945 landslide (as they had in 1906 albeit in a narrower electorate, and were to do so again to some extent in 1966 and 1997). The greatest liberal political and social advances after 1945 were overseen by Roy Jenkins as a Labour home secretary. Clegg charges Labour with "betrayal" over Iraq and civil liberties, yet it remains the case that New Labour's constitutional half-revolution with devolution and freedom of information amount to the deepest shift in British governance since 1911 too.

In 2009, it is rather difficult to find much evidence for a wholesale realignment of the type Clegg anticipates, though this may be very sensible positioning for a third party in an election year. James Graham's post also makes some cogent points about the barriers to this.

Do the LibDems today increasingly represent rising social movements and constituencies that Labour can not reach? Do their local government advances in the cities relly provide a base to leapfrog Labour by capturing the larger part of its core support? The Spring elections of 2008 and 2009 might well prove Labour's lowest ebb; the LibDems will have wanted to do better than 4th in the European elections. The party has had a good crisis with elite opinion; it has reaped little reward yet with the broader public. Nor is there much evidence for the 'swing left and civil war' return of the 1980s thesis, as Phillip Cowley's analysis of the political geography of the PLP suggests.

So both Labour and the LibDems have a political problem with the politics of support, building broad enough coalitions to govern. In response, Clegg proposes a death match for supremacy on the centre-left.

His aspiration to realignment is somewhat in the tradition familiar to activists in both parties, of wishing the distraction of the 'other lot' would disappear. But both parties will be with us for the foreseeable future: Labour's persistent levels of voter identification and its trade union and working-class base give it ballast which is underestimated; the expanded LibDem presence in local government and Parliament too is not going to evaporate too.

Clegg is right that the parties share, and contest, progressive space.

He is no doubt right as a matter of political reality that the politics of progressive cooperation are too difficult now.

We don't know how we might work together - and most, on both sides, would prefer not to. Still, it is an argument which will, and which should, return.

PS: Clegg is at least the second major politician to offer a detailed reading of Lab-Lib history in the last month. An alternative reading was offered in Jon Cruddas' Keir Hardie lecture, extracted in the New Statesman. Cruddas is now promoting cross-party dialogue between Labour, LibDems, Greens and others - and perhaps this might explain the sharpness of his comments on history, in a piece which mostly traces the complex interaction of liberal and socialist ideas.

Implied in the move to uncover and reconnect liberal traditions in our party is the view that the foundation of an independent Labour Party with a distinctively socialist outlook was a historic wrong turning, and that the progressive left would have been better off devoting its energies to building an enduring electoral base for a strong and reformed Liberal Party. This conclusion is not stated openly, but is implicit in much contemporary discussion. Hardie, however, would have been appalled. And so should we today.

On reading that a couple of weeks back, I couldn't help thinking that Dr Cruddas was rather massively overstating the interest within New Labour in history and historiography. But perhaps Nick Clegg's new pamphlet is a sign that history might be the new political rock and roll after all.


Unknown said...

The great big hulk of an elephant hiding in the corner for both the LibDems and Labour when it comes to being 'progressive' with regard to the empowerment of the citizen is quite simply the EU. Whether or not those two parties like it, or even accept it, the electorate tends to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the EU is an illiberal institution leaching away sovereignty and imposing laws and institutions without consultation and against which citizens feel they have little, if any, power to challenge. This is precisely why the Conservatives have stolen a march upon the issue of civil liberties, which I know somewhat irks certain members of the left; it is because they have brought together a coherent critique of the role of the state and the empowerment of the citizen, and then applied this logic to the EU accordingly.

CoffeeHouse replicates part of Mr Clegg's speech this morning which I think perfectly demonstrates the square-peg-round-hole position the two parties are in when it comes to civil liberties: 'liberals believe that power must be dispersed away from government - downwards to individuals and communities, and upwards to the international institutions needed to tackle our collective problems'.

The problem is, most people simply do not identify the EU as compatible with power being pushed downwards toward the citizen, and the perception remains (again, rightly or wrongly) that a bossy and somewhat untouchable institution is interferring unwarrantably with the minutiae of people's lives.

If Labour and LibDem wish to lance the conservatives on the issue of civil liberties, then they need to find a way of tying these two seemingly disparate threads together. Or else, perhaps, they need to give a more passionate defence of the EU and challenge those perceived misconceptions where they find them. I suspect the latter might well be an unachievable goal for the time being.

Anonymous said...

Some maps of recent local elections in two cities with LibDem controlled councils:

Notice anything?

Parties are not really creatures of ideology, so much as they are of society. And the social bases of the two parties in question are totally different - there's some overlap, but less than is commonly assumed.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I suspect the LibDem leadership would not quite agree with Grahams claim the pamphlet "has ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament", but the intention will have been to make the prospect more distant. Tonally, the barriers to working with Labour are stressed more.
Tone is one thing, but the rhetorical logic of this document is inescapable. You simply cannot argue that Labour and the Lib Dems are rivals while the Tories are our enemies, and then jump in bed with the latter six months later.

As I wrote yesterday, that is most definitely NOT the same thing as arguing we should jump in bed with Labour (we certainly shouldn't) but by definition it is not equidistant. If as you suggest Clegg hasn't actually realised the logic of his argument (I doubt this), then he will find this document thrown back in his face repeatedly in May.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the comment. I thought yours was a v.interesting post and thanks for flagging up the publication too.

I wasn't challenging your argument that this is not equidistant, so I agree with you about that. I am sure it makes sense to the LibDems should define as centre-left, though it is also a slightly different twist on not being equidistant by stressing it as an anti-Labour and challenging Labour argument from Labour's side of the fence

I did suggest that it would make sense for Clegg to want to try to close down the discussion of coalition strategies as far as he can, and not letting it dominate a campaign build-up or campaign.

But does it "rule out" having a discussion with to the Cons, should the arithmetic arise? I thought that put it quite strongly, especially as there would not in most hung parliament scenarios probably be two alternative coalition options possible.

I am not an expert but I imagine the LibDem party would talk to other parties as relevant in a hung parliament scenario, even if a coalition or any less formal kind of arrangement might well not result from that. It seems to me that in a hung parliament itself, LibDem voters and members would expect the party to set out what it wants to see, even if that proves not attainable, and to some extent I think it could be argued there is some democratic responsibility on the parties to at least discuss the outcome at that time. But I accept you would know more about LibDem thinking on this.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Whoa, don't be laying that bogus "responsibility" argument on us. If it's responsibility you want then you should start campaigning for Labour to enter into talks for a Blue-Red alliance (after Germany). Don't tell the Lib Dems to behave "responsibly" by putting ourselves in the position of personal whipping boy for two years if Labour would not be prepared to do the same. You're starting to sound like David Marquand.

I can conceive of the party offering the Tories a year of supply and confidence if certain basic things are NOT done, but what have they got to offer in a coalition? In a hung parliament situation the most likely scenario is another election a few months later and until we have a different electoral system it will ever be thus.

Sunder Katwala said...


I just don't think there is much substantive disagreement here at all. Your position seems to be that a coalition is not on/ruled out, but that some other deal is just possible.I was only saying, in passing, that some "deal" might be conceivable, and would anyway naturally be discussed if it were a live option. Which doesn't mean that Clegg isn't sensible to not want to talk about it.

I am indeed something of a Marquandite, so shall take that not as intended, though I fear Marquand is becoming less so himself, judging by his pro-Marx and anti-Keynes post on OD.

There would be no special responsibility on the LibDems: I think the major parties would think it in their interests to at least have a discussion; it would be sensible to do so; and voters might reasonably expect that once a hung parliament happened. I don't see voters should have any right to expect that the discussion leads to a deal. That is a political choice any party has every right to make or not depending on what it would achieve.

That might then lead to nothing and a second election, to agreements about electoral reform, to other arrangements about supply/confidence, etc. I don't think parties doing that at the time is the same

I am not campaigning for a red-blue coalition. Nor, outside 1940-style circumstances, do I think this likely or a good idea, particularly given the depth of disagreement on modern economies in recession. I would campaign for a red-yellow deal including electoral reform and an agreed manifesto, were it possible, both now and (perhaps more realistically) in the event of a hung parliament, and for Labour to have a manifesto which did not contain coalition red lines for the LibDems, as that would. All of these things are very much odds against, of course.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

"I am indeed something of a Marquandite"

I thought I was too until this afternoon. :)