Sunday, 20 September 2009

Leftish rhetoric: out of fashion with Lib Dems

It seems Nick Clegg is seriously thinking of dropping his party's opposition to tuition fees. The Lib Dems have previously gained from having the popular policy of wanting student fees scrapped. This was especially true in the 2005 general election.

At the time the party tacked left - well, relatively speaking - and was widely perceived as being to the left of the Labour government (not, admittedly, a huge achievement). The Lib Dems took votes from some traditional Labour supporters disillusioned with the Blairite regime, though plenty others either stayed at home or reluctantly backed Labour.

Probably the two biggest issues in their favour were Iraq and student fees. However cautiously, the party had opposed the drive to war in Iraq and leader Charles Kennedy spoke in Hyde Park on 15 February 2003. Here in Tyneside we witnessed one of the biggest swings of the 2005 election: a huge shift from Labour to Lib Dems in Newcastle Central. Jim Cousins MP held his seat - it's traditionally as rock solid Labour as you get, so even a massive swing wasn't enough - but the very high concentration of students living in the constituency helped ensure the fees-bashing, anti-war Lib Dems made headlines.

In the last couple of years, however, we've seen the party nationally changing its approach. It has adopted more right-wing positions on a series of issues and curtailed the left-ish rhetoric. New Liberal Democrats largely buy into the notion that rising support for the Tories illustrates at least a slight move rightwards in the poltical culture - a shifting of the centre of gravity, so that positioning themselves to the left of Labour is seen as less useful. Clegg and his associates are, in any case, committed neoliberals.

There will be a number of places where their rightward trajectory opens up space to the left of Labour and Lib Dems alike. Newcastle Central is an interesting case. Cousins is standing down and the selection process for Labour candidate is drawing to a close. The Lib Dems may no longer be able to pose as an alternative - this is certainly true if the fees policy is dropped. Together with the party's support for war in Afghanistan, this makes it impossible for them to tap the sympathies of many -students and others - who voted Lib Dem in 2005.

If Labour opts for a rightwinger, the field will be open for some kind of independent socialist challenge in a largely working class Labour heatland seat which has thousands of students. This is certainly one of a range of options local socialists and campaigners will be discussing, as part of the on-going process of increasing the left's co-operation, unity and influence.

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