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Where will voters on the Left go?

I think there are quite a few clos­et Social­ists in this coun­try. They are peo­ple, whether they were alive or of vot­ing age or not at the time, round­ly endorsed the 1942 Report on Social Insur­ance and Allied Ser­vices by Lib­er­al peer Lord Bev­eridge (shown above) that laid out the struc­ture of the Wel­fare State, and the Labour gov­ern­ment elect­ed via land­slide in 1945 that man­aged, despite incred­i­ble odds, to imple­ment much of it in the suc­ceed­ing years.

The view at the end of the Sec­ond World War was an opti­mistic one: that Britain need­ed a new approach in which the old ways of priv­i­lege were cast aside and in their place was built a new soci­ety in which every­one helped each oth­er, ensur­ing that Bev­eridge’s “Five Giants” – Want, Dis­ease, Squalor, Igno­rance, and Idle­ness – were ban­ished from the land. Peo­ple had seen the way things worked dur­ing the war when things were large­ly cen­tral­ly con­trolled, and they had become used to hav­ing to work togeth­er for the com­mon good, and they want­ed peace­time gov­ern­ment to enshrine those same values.

The result­ing “social con­sen­sus” last­ed from that point through to the elec­tion of the gov­ern­ment of Mar­garet Thatch­er in 1979. Thatch­er delib­er­ate­ly and care­ful­ly took advan­tage of arro­gance on the part of some labour unions to dis­mem­ber that con­sen­sus and throw Britain deci­sive­ly to the Right, helped by the pop­u­lar right-wing press.

Quite a few ordi­nary peo­ple did very well out of the Thatch­er years, for exam­ple being able to buy their coun­cil hous­es at knock-down prices, a pol­i­cy that only more recent­ly has been shown to have a dis­as­trous impact on social housing.

To appear capa­ble of re-elec­tion once again, the Labour Par­ty had to move to the right too. As a result “New Labour” aban­doned tra­di­tion­al Social­ist val­ues and, under Blair, suc­ceed­ed in get­ting back into pow­er with the aid of press barons like Rupert Mur­doch. It arguably sold its soul to focus groups and those who craft­ed pol­i­cy based not on prin­ci­ple but on mar­ket­ing. The result was a gov­ern­ment that failed to redress the imbal­ance caused by Thatch­er, refused to remove the regres­sive and repres­sive leg­is­la­tion that had been put in place over the pre­vi­ous twen­ty years, and end­ed up fur­ther to the Right than Edward Heath’s ear­li­er Tory government.

“Social­ism” had become a dirty word. But plen­ty of peo­ple still held to those old val­ues. Where did those vot­ers go? Some went to the var­i­ous small Social­ist par­ties that remained, like George Gal­loway’s Respect. But quite a few moved to the Lib­er­al Democ­rats. The old Lib­er­al Par­ty, they believed, had come up with the idea of the Wel­fare State back in the days of Lloyd George, and then the Bev­eridge Report dur­ing the war. The Social Democ­rats had left the Labour Par­ty and even­tu­al­ly joined forces with the Lib­er­als to form the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems had prob­lems, in that some in the par­ty were quite con­ser­v­a­tive. But there was also a tra­di­tion­al Lib­er­al­ism that was fur­ther to the Left – far enough to feel like home to many.

Today, we have a coali­tion gov­ern­ment which is large­ly Tory with a hint of Lib­Dem. Arguably it is more “Lib­er­al” than it would have been if it was a Tory minor­i­ty Gov­ern­ment. But to a lot of peo­ple it is in many ways worse than the pre­vi­ous cen­tre-Right “New Labour” admin­is­tra­tion. Quite a few of those left-wing Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat sup­port­ers are dis­sat­is­fied. As a result, they are mov­ing else­where. I think some votes we see today mov­ing from Lib­Dem to Labour are not so much “soft” votes as Left votes. If Labour real­ly moves to the Left (high­ly unlike­ly in my view), then we will see more of this.

As Johann Hari has point­ed out, the actu­al views of vot­ers are on aver­age sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the Left of all three main par­ties. Arguably, pres­sures, notably from the pop­u­lar Press, how­ev­er, have tend­ed to keep those par­ties well to the Right of what used to be the Cen­tre in the days before Thatcher.

A size­able num­ber of left-wing vot­ers grav­i­tat­ed to the Lib Dems as a result, mak­ing the par­ty, de fac­to, a rather broad church. That breadth is prob­a­bly not sus­tain­able in the longer term, espe­cial­ly if the Lib­Dems are seen as sup­port­ing “ide­o­log­i­cal” rather than nec­es­sary Tory cuts, and if the lead­er­ship of the Labour Par­ty moves its stance Leftwards.

Cer­tain­ly a par­ty with a com­mit­ment to tra­di­tion­al Liberal/Left co-oper­a­tive val­ues of the Beveridge/Labour 1945 vari­ety would appeal to a great many vot­ers who feel that British soci­ety, whichev­er main par­ty is in pow­er, favours the rich and priv­i­lege, that the gap between rich and poor is widen­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly (the lat­ter being an accu­rate assess­ment), and that this is a Bad Thing.

It’s a real ques­tion as to where those vot­ers will go, espe­cial­ly if they feel the Lib­Dems have let them down and the Labour Par­ty remains cen­tre-right. The Green Par­ty will prob­a­bly not be in a posi­tion to pick them up for var­i­ous rea­sons. It may be that they will sim­ply, ulti­mate­ly, take to the streets. Indeed, they may already be doing so.

This is a process that cur­rent Gov­ern­ment aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, which many see as ide­o­log­i­cal and favour­ing the rich rather than being nec­es­sary and fair­ly applied, will encour­age, and we may well see an increas­ing amount of civ­il unrest over the next few years unless the Lib­Dems in Gov­ern­ment can suc­cess­ful­ly ensure that cuts and oth­er mea­sures are imposed fair­ly. For exam­ple, many peo­ple want to see more empha­sis placed on lim­it­ing tax evasion/avoidance than on ben­e­fit cuts. Such suc­cess, to me, seems unlikely.

Mean­while, the Five Giants are return­ing. They have, indeed, been return­ing for thir­ty years.

For a rather more pos­i­tive view of the future for the Lib Dems, see this arti­cle in the Inde­pen­dent by Mary Ann Sieghart.