January 21, 2011


The Lib Dems’ troubles are a result not only of coalition and foolish promises, but of a resurgence of the old left-right division (Nick Cohen, 1/15/11, The Spectator)

If Clegg falls, the watchful Huhne is well-placed to succeed him and, if it were merely a question of changing personnel, one could see the Lib Dems pulling through. The clash between Asquith and Lloyd George did not destroy the old Liberal party, after all. The tide of history rather than the rivalry of leaders washed away that great Victorian edifice, and brought the new division between left and right. I know that to suggest that same tide is threatening to swamp today’s Liberals is to invite ridicule. For what does it mean to be left- or right-wing in the 21st century? Is a working-class Labour voter suspicious of immigrants more left-wing than a metrosexual Tory from Notting Hill? As I write half the think tanks and political academics in Britain are producing papers which state that Labour and the Conservatives secured only 65 per cent of the vote between them in 2010 (against 97 per cent in 1951) as proof that the binary division of 20th-century politics is gone for good.

For all their erudition, they fail to see that the two-party system is beginning to reassert itself. The great recession of 2008 is transforming politics in Britain, squeezing the middle ground on which the Liberals stand. Now you believe either that George Osborne’s deflationary policy to reduce the deficit is a disaster falling on those least able to bear it or that it is a necessary response to a national emergency. You believe that the recession was caused either by the folly of the bankers or the extravagance of Gordon Brown. In short, you are either left-wing or right-wing. You must choose, for you cannot be both.

Liberals have spent their whole careers arguing that left and right are illusory concepts, and have been rewarded with the support of millions of voters who agreed. Naturally, they recoil at talk of the old divisions opening up again; for in its implications they sense their own demise. They point to the success of their civil liberties agenda in office, but in their hearts they understand that advances in freedom, worthy though they may be, count for little when set against the great economic arguments of the age. They know they chose the right-wing path when they signed up to Osborne’s budget, although the closest they come to admitting it is when they tell me ‘if the economy goes wrong we’re sunk’, or ‘we couldn’t survive a double dip recession’.

The party’s base, as it turned out, was more ideological than its leaders imagined. Swathes of supporters have realised that they were a part of the centre-left after all, and defected. Labour has had an extraordinary and undeserved stroke of good fortune. It is intellectually exhausted, all but bankrupt, and was until recently led by the most unpopular prime minister in living memory, but the behaviour of Liberal politicians and the despair of Liberal supporters has pushed it into an eight-point lead in this week’s polls. Ed Miliband’s much derided strategy of keeping a low profile does not seem so risible now that protest voters are flocking to the only available opposition.

Douglas Alexander, Labour’s campaign co-ordinator in the 2010 election, told me he saw nothing strange about the Liberals’ death throes. ‘Their voters feel disoriented ideologically by the familiar right-wing agenda the government is pursuing, and genuinely angry about the betrayal of the promise of a new politics done differently.’ Yet Alexander emphasises that however gratifying it is for Labour to receive their support, ‘the demise of the Liberal Democrats will probably be influential but not decisive to the next general election’. If you glance at the seats the Liberals hold, you will see why. Yeovil, Lewes, Kingston and Surbiton, Mid Dorset and North Poole, St Austell and Newquay, Somerton and Frome… these are not constituencies Labour has a prayer of ever winning. The only realistic challenger is the Conservative party. If it stays strong, if the coalition teaches right-leaning liberals that their fears about a nasty Tory government were misplaced and brings them into the Conservative camp, then David Cameron will be the true beneficiary.

I said earlier that the strange death of Liberal England inaugurated an era when the British were either Labour or Conservative. That was true as far it went, but missed the big point — that the Tories took the greater part of the spoils. Labour had only one great reforming administration in 1945 and did not win two consecutive full terms until after Tony Blair took charge in 1997. The 20th century was a conservative century. Labour must win arguments that expand its appeal beyond the disillusioned centre-left voters who once agreed with Nick — or the 21st century will be the same.

The next Labour government will once again be to the right of the Tory party at that moment.

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Posted by at January 21, 2011 6:02 AM
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