Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Politics Evolving

Where's it going politically? Prime Minister David Cameron keeps doing his meet the (invited) people, who bowl a range of questions, and some overarm. He is clearly skilled at answering and presenting. He must be worried that when the cuts start to bite he starts to lose popularity, a popularity actually raised since the election.

The problem with his 'people sould work' agenda is simple. Over the last decade and more a public economy has been privatised by Labour so that these days the State is a major purchaser. The State does add value: it buys things that are for the public good. As the State purchases less, the private sector shrinks and people are unemployed. We could indeed be entering a period of mass unemployment, and that does not sit with a 'get back to work' approach that depends on having jobs to get into. All these middle class people who would slash benefits may themselves join the dole queue. It does not follow that supply led measures, such as tax breaks, leads to new private firms taking up the slack. There is also inadequate potential for an export led recovery.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats are already in severe poll trouble. The Conservatives have not simply been the dominant partner, but they are regarded as the overwhelming partner. It's as if the Liberal Democrats have thrown in the left wing progressive reputation they had built since Paddy Ashdown.

The Liberal Democrats need to rapidly build a narrative of their contribution to this government. They need to explain and export the ideology of civic and social liberalism before people think they have simply handed over any principles. Failure to achieve the Alternative Vote could be devastating, because it is the one big test, and people may vote pervasively in a referendum just to give one in the eye to the Liberal Democrats.

People forget that the government from 1931 to 1940 was a coalition government. King George V then took an active role so that on 24 August 1931 Ramsey MacDonald formed a National Government in the wake of that economic crisis. A few called National Labour joined him and there were some National Liberals under Sir John Simon who were somewhat prepared to accept an emergency trade protection policy against their economic liberalism. In 1932-33 the Samuelite Liberals left government and rejoined the few opposing Independent Liberals (Lloyd George), merging in 1935, and left the National Liberals as a distinct and separate group in government who were prepared to ditch free trade. This government then became one led by Stanley Baldwin, and he brought that coalition to victory in 1935. Baldwin didn't last long, and with George VI came Neville Chamberlain (of the Unitarian dynasty) and his National Government. The Conservatives did not need coalition partners, but it served them to have them, rather as it does now.

The Norway debate of May 1940 brought other Labour and Liberal MPs into government, and this coalition was different. The non-appeaser and outsider Winston Churchill ran the government, with a General Election missed, when National Liberals had some who went Conservative, and some who went back to the independents, and a kind of Labour opposition functioning with Manny Shinwell and Aneurin Bevan, yet with others of Labour understandably in government. So this time when there was Victory in Europe, the opposition parties got out quick. This was thus a very different coalition from the 1930s. In fact only one Liberal National was in that government.

Both Liberal parties continued on in a much weakened condition after 1945. In effect Liberal Nationals were absorbed by the Conservatives, first in a semi-independent existence, the last traces gone as late as 1968 into the Conservatives and the Liberals getting their room back in parliament in 1974. The Liberals were building themselves up again from a very weak condition.

Now the argument goes that there was weak leadership in all those decades, and this time it could be different. This time there is time - a proper agreement and a five year stint - and there is so far a Liberal Democrat Party that is staying united while feeding what is the discontent through Simon Hughes. But many members on the left have gone, perhaps those who misunderstood Liberalism across its breadth. There is the sense that Labour is waiting simply to pick up government again once the election comes: at five years or earlier.

Even I received a mailing weeks ago telling me Labour is the only progressive party now in existence. It's as if I have a short memory of a month or so and cannot see the progressive input of the Liberal Democrats. But it is getting harder to see that progressive input, and the danger is that the dog and the owner start to look like each other. The danger is that the 'Orange' Liberal Democrats won't carry the rest, and the 1930s on could just repeat themselves.

The Liberal Democrats need a narrative and achievement, and the party conference will be the time to begin to display both. There has been a need to restore liberties, to simplify taxes, benefits, government, and to diversify power. At least now it is a serious party again with hands dirty in government, and that it did what it said it would do. Labour was too divided about its future and had conked out regarding staying in government, with either Brown there or no one was sure who would take over, and they approached the Liberal Democrats with the arrogance of office and the methodology of cliques. At least now government is run formally, as it must with a coalition.

But if the coming future is all about removing benefits, not instituting an anti-poverty trap welfare system but saving money, and attacking the weakest, then the progressive nature of the Liberal Democrats will be shot through. Then Labour will stand ready, but it is a Labour Party that once missed its chance to build the 'progressive left' - a libertarian element it badly missed - because it was then too bloated for its own good.

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