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UK Local Elections 2011: Goodbye Compromise

Why did the Lib Dems do so bad­ly yes­ter­day? The short answer is “prob­a­bly not what you think.”

The com­mon­est eval­u­a­tion that seems to be float­ing around cur­rent­ly, the day after the elec­tion took place and now the results have become clear, is that, exact­ly a year after the Gen­er­al Elec­tion that brought the Lib Dem/ Tory coali­tion, the vot­ing pop­u­la­tion expressed the view that it did­n’t like the cuts and oth­er dis­as­trous poli­cies pro­posed by the coali­tion. As a result the Labour vote rose; but in addi­tion, the Lib­er­al Democ­rats took a par­tic­u­lar beat­ing while the Con­ser­v­a­tives got off more or less scot free (with a slight increase in seats in fact). There seems to be some mys­tery in many minds as to why the Lib Dems should have borne the brunt of the nation’s dis­plea­sure while the Tories remained unscathed.

In my mind, there’s no mys­tery at all. Imag­ine a con­sci­en­tious Labour vot­er on the Left, per­haps quite far to the Left, who over the peri­od since 1997 (actu­al­ly before that in fact), saw the par­ty drift­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly right­wards until it was more cen­trist than any­thing else. That was a cause for con­cern, but even more dis­turb­ing was the behav­iour of Blair, over Iraq and the imag­i­nary Weapons of Mass Destruc­tion which nev­er were, and of course that many believe he knew all along nev­er were.

The only sig­nif­i­cant par­ty to oppose the Iraq involve­ment was the Lib­er­al Democ­rats. And as time went by, and Labour nev­er repealed the excess­es of Thatch­erism (just as Clin­ton nev­er reversed Rea­gan and Bush senior, inci­den­tal­ly*) nev­er reined in the finan­cial insti­tu­tions (that were to bring ruin upon us as an inevitable result of the com­bined efforts of Rea­gan and Thatch­er), nev­er in fact took any moves to the left at all to any great extent while at the same time increas­ing­ly threat­en­ing civ­il lib­er­ties, kow-tow­ing to big media com­pa­nies over inter­net use, media own­er­ship and behav­iour, the Lib Dems came to look more and more attractive.

Trou­ble was, the Lib Dems were by and large from two back­grounds. There were those who were orig­i­nal­ly Lib­er­als, many of whom were of course quite remark­able and pro­gres­sive peo­ple — my par­tic­u­lar favourite being Bev­eridge, who con­ceived a mod­el of the Wel­fare State before the end of the Sec­ond World War which, imple­ment­ed as much as was prac­ti­cal by the 1945 Labour gov­ern­ment, worked pret­ty well on the whole until Thatch­er start­ed attack­ing it.

But the oth­ers were for­mer­ly mem­bers of the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, a spin­off of what was essen­tial­ly the right wing of the Labour Par­ty when the lat­ter was rather clos­er to being (though not actu­al­ly being) a Social­ist par­ty than it was today. They were cer­tain­ly to the Right of the Labour Par­ty at the time of the Gang of Four, but where they stood with respect to “New Labour’ was pos­si­bly a dif­fer­ent matter.

Those of us firm­ly on the Left, dis­sat­is­fied and betrayed by the Chris­t­ian Demo­c­rat-style New Labour edi­fice (whose poli­cies, using tech­niques learned from Clin­ton, had been craft­ed by focus group and mar­ket research and not by fer­vent belief in the need for rep­re­sen­ta­tion of work­ing peo­ple; and who were fund­ed, like the Tories, by big busi­ness and oth­ers inim­i­cal to their needs) want­ed some­where to go. Some­where where we might actu­al­ly have a chance of the par­ty we vot­ed for actu­al­ly win­ning some seats (ie not Respect or some oth­er fringe Left­ist par­ty). The Lib Dems said enough of the right things for us to be inter­est­ed in sup­port­ing them, espe­cial­ly when every­one else in the coun­try seemed to be on the right.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, of course, the Lib Dems were on the right too — or at least part of them was. Many of us were dis­mayed last year that the Lib Dems formed a coali­tion with the Tories, even if we knew full well that a part­ner­ship with Labour would not have been work­able. How­ev­er we con­soled our­selves with the thought that at least “our lads” were mak­ing the Tories less tox­ic than they would oth­er­wise have been. With hind­sight, this seems debatable.

What has hap­pened in the past year is that we have seen threats from the Gov­ern­ment  to many things we hold dear, from Coun­cil ser­vices to the NHS to the BBC, and cuts that are very evi­dent­ly ide­o­log­i­cal rather than fis­cal­ly nec­es­sary. It’s Thatch­erism in a skin. In the mean­time the Labour Par­ty under Miliband has sought to dis­tance itself some­what from New Labour and even appear to move left­wards a lit­tle and behave a lit­tle more at least like a Social Demo­c­rat, rather than a Chris­t­ian Demo­c­rat,  par­ty. No doubt many of us would like it to move fur­ther to the Left, but we’re also con­scious that a right-wing press would per­suade the major­i­ty that a hard Left par­ty was une­lec­table and dan­ger­ous. It will take a lot of effort to depose the influ­ence of the Right in the media, and mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy is only part of the answer — one of the most pop­u­lar web sites in the UK is, I gath­er, that of the Dai­ly Mail, for exam­ple. That’s one rea­son why the unbi­ased nature of the BBC , though we may com­plain about it from time to time, is so important.

So what we did yes­ter­day is we went back home. Tory vot­ers remained Tory vot­ers – and why should­n’t they. We bol­stered the Labour vote, even in areas where only the Tories were in with a chance — like where I live in the East of Eng­land. Here, there has­n’t been a Lib­er­al (let alone a Labour) MP for 60 years, and if I was­n’t vot­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive it did­n’t mat­ter one lit­tle bit who I vot­ed for, thanks to First Past the Post (which we are now stuck with indef­i­nite­ly… I won­der if we could pro­pose the Scot­tish sys­tem of FPTP plus Lists to ensure pro­por­tion­al­i­ty?). Last time I looked, my vote here was actu­al­ly worth 0.01 votes in terms of how like­ly it was to change things. So I vot­ed Labour, and I hope the pun­dits look at the pop­u­lar vote, some­thing that was always ignored before the Infor­ma­tion Age, and note the num­bers well.

We post-Social­ists and friends of like enough mind with­drew our sup­port from the Lib Dems, and with­out us, their vote went, in most places, back to much ear­li­er, pri­mae­val­ly low levels.

We with­drew our sup­port because we dis­agreed with the state­ment that “com­pro­mise is not betray­al”; because we don’t believe the com­pro­mis­es should be being made. You can­not make accept­able com­pro­mis­es with the Right when the cor­rect answers are to the Left of both your posi­tions — some­thing I wish Oba­ma had grasped in the US, incidentally.

And because we sud­den­ly realised that of those two wings of the Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat par­ty, the Cen­tre Right one was very much in con­trol. And we did not come all this way to vote for yet anoth­er par­ty of the Right. We had already made our com­pro­mis­es by sup­port­ing a par­ty with a known right-lean­ing ten­den­cy, which hith­er­to had been ame­lio­rat­ed by a small num­ber of Lib Dem fig­ures who shared our views, for exam­ple, on the environment.

We did­n’t like dis­cov­er­ing that we had been sup­port­ing a par­ty of the Right for some time. So we went home.

So what hap­pens now? Well, the atro­cious behav­iour of Cameron with regard to the antics of the No to AV mob – about which I am absolute­ly cer­tain that absolute­ly noth­ing will be done – will no doubt sour rela­tions in the Cab­i­net. But Blair and Brown hat­ed each oth­er for years and man­aged to run the coun­try. So there is no rea­son the coali­tion should fall apart for that rea­son. And falling apart now is any­way too soon.

The impor­tant thing in my view is to ensure that Tory poli­cies are stopped. My expec­ta­tion is that as time goes by, Labour sup­port will con­tin­ue to rise. It’s already jumped in a year: as the cuts bite and pub­lic sec­tor work­ers are turned out of their jobs across the coun­try, that can only increase. At a point in the future, a stand by Lib Dem MPs on some issue they feel pas­sion­ate­ly about would bring about a vote of no con­fi­dence in the Gov­ern­ment, or some oth­er route to a col­lapse of the coali­tion, and we’ll have a Gen­er­al Elec­tion – one that Labour will win.

OK, the Labour Par­ty still needs to demon­strate that it real­ly is a par­ty of the Left, for exam­ple a man­i­festo com­mit­ment to re-nation­al­is­ing the rail net­work and undo­ing some of the rav­ages of Thatch­er might be a good start, but hey, we are so used to vot­ing for the “least worst” we can prob­a­bly live with that as long as it keeps a slide back to Thatch­erism off the table.

Image cour­tesy of secretlondon123 via Wiki­Me­dia Commons