For the second time in 40 years, scores of Labour members are jumping ship to join a phantom party of the centre – the Liberal Democrats. Their reasons vary, but one common theme pervades – they’re not thinking long-term.
Whether it’s dissatisfaction with the current Labour leadership, anger over the incoherence of Labour’s position on Brexit, or forgetfulness about quite how recently the Lib Dems ushered in Austerity, Labour’s departing liberals will sooner or later be taught a painful lesson about life and politics – in the end, people take you at your word.
I know that things are moving fast in politics, but it seems some among our number have short memories indeed. There was nothing ignoble about a liberal party entering into coalition with the Tories in 2010 – the numbers for a Lib-Lab coalition didn’t add up. What was ignoble, however, was what the Lib Dems did next…
The list of terrible things the Lib Dems willingly voted for between 2010 and 2015 is too long to recount here. The Bedroom Tax, the rise in Tuition Fees and the disastrous reorganisation of the NHS – traded for little or no liberal legacy – were totems of an intellectually and morally shallow party finding itself unexpectedly in government with a far more serious party of government.
The truth about the Lib Dems in coalition, though, is far simpler than that they sold out. No, the truth is that they bought in. They bought into the Tories’ anti-state, pro-Austerity message with zeal. They did so because there has never been anything genuinely progressive about the Lib Dems. Despite their feigned move to the left when Labour was busy being responsible in government, the Lib Dems showed who they really were when the ministerial cars pulled up outside.
“But that was then, and this is now”, I can hear Labour’s leavers say. Yet the the Lib Dems’ latest incarnation as the anti-Brexit party is not a brave, new principled dawn. It is a reversion to type, whereby this rootless party of political opportunists takes up a policy position it knows it could never deliver in practice in order to take votes off the parties around it.
Perhaps this is just good politics. It’s tactically sensible, is it not, to hit your opponents where they are weakest? Except that the Lib Dems seem not to have learnt the lesson that short-term tactics without a long-term strategy mean that if you do accidentally find yourselves in government, you’ll end up abandoning most of what you’ve promised your voters. Funnily enough, the main reason governments win re-election is that they deliver most of what they promised they would.
If, somehow, the Lib Dems found their way back in government on the basis of their anti-Brexit stance, they would have to u-turn far more spectacularly than they did on Tuition Fees. Tim Farron, however, knows very well that the Lib Dems will never be able to block Brexit – event if they were in government – which is what makes their inane posturing on this seminal issue so despicably underhand.
While Labour’s position on Brexit is incoherent in places – and Sir Keir Starmer is currently fighting an admirable, though difficult, battle to communicate it – it should comfort those who have totally lost faith in Labour’s character as a party of government that Labour is at least being honest with voters that we cannot and should not block Brexit. We can, however, try and negotiate the best possible divorce settlement so that the future of our nation is secure.
Those Labour leavers who have recently switched to the Lib Dems in the belief that their new party will be far more civilised and sensible than the one they have just left are in for a shock on that score, too. True, the Lib Dems are united behind their deeply unimpressive leader, Tim Farron, but no party has a monopoly on decency, as the Lib Dems’ own recent anti-semitism scandal showed.
In reality, there’s never been anything particularly progressive about liberal England. The Lib Dems are the ideological descendants of the Liberal Party that betrayed the working classes in the 1920s and the SDP that betrayed them in the 1980s. As the protest singer, Phil Ochs, once scathingly remarked: “Liberals are ten degrees to the left of centre in good times. Ten degrees to the right of centre if it affects them personally.”
As for the reasons to stay in Labour – that’s why this blog has been set up and why, in the months and years to come, it will be deployed in the fight for the revival of a party of organised labour equipped to deal with this deeply disorgaised age. The road ahead will be long and nobody should underestimate the existential challenges facing UK social democracy.
The solution to the centre-left’s many dilemmas, however, is not to walk away from Labour – the greatest force for social justice in our country’s history – but to stay in and rebuild it. As Denis Healey remarked to the departing Shirley Williams when she left Labour to found the SDP in the 1980s, “If you are strong enough to build a new party of the left, you are strong enough to rebuild Labour.”
And rebuild Labour we shall.