Friday, 30 April 2010

The liberal moment has come - or has it?

The Guardian has just published its major 'who we think you should vote for' editorial online (I assume it will be in tomorrow's paper). Its endorsement of the Lib Dems will generate intense debate: over 400 comments posted in the first 2 hours after it was posted points in that direction.

The paper is traditionally pro-Labour and no doubt Gordon Brown and other senior Labour figures will be dismayed by the paper's rejection of them. With most of the papers we know who they will declare support for - in the overwhelming majority of cases the Tories - but this is one of the very few where nobody could (until now) be sure. It reflects something deeper that's currently happening.

The editorial states: 'if the Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats'. It goes on to explain the paper's 'one great reason of principle above all' is the Lib Dems' support for electoral reform. It also praises Nick Clegg's role during the election campaign and suggests the Lib Dems 'reflect and lead an overwhelming national mood for real change'.

The Guardian isn't really advocating a vote for the party on the basis that it can form the next government: 'The conjuncture in 2010 of a Labour party that has lost so much public confidence and a Conservative party that has not yet won it has enabled Mr Clegg to take his party close to the threshold of real influence for the first time in nearly 90 years.' Note the word 'influence' - not power.

The editorial is essentially pushing for a hung parliament, but one in which the Lib Dems have a far greater share of the seats (on the back of a much-increased vote). In this context the party would have plenty of leverage to bring about proportional representation for future elections.

The Guardian goes on to make it clear that keeping the Tories out is the top priority. It therefore calls for tactical voting in some seats, acknowledging that 'switching to the Liberal Democrats in Labour-Conservative marginal constituencies might let in an anti-reform Tory party'. In these seats, it implies, the main thing is to vote Labour to keep the Tory candidate at bay.

It goes on to argue (in breathless, comma-free, fashion): 'the cause of reform is overwhelmingly more likely to be achieved by a Lib Dem partnership of principle with Labour than by a Lib Dem marriage of convenience with a Tory party which is explicitly hostile to the cause and which currently plans to redraw the political map for its own advantage.' The main objective, then, is to ensure a Lib-Lab coalition government in which the Lib Dems are very influential.

This editorial no doubt chimes with the feelings and instincts of a large swathe of those who, broadly speaking, are on the left. Everyone from right-wing Labourites to people like me can agree the most important thing next Thursday is to halt a Tory government. The Guardian articulates that mood and the consequent interest in voting tactically to prevent a Tory majority.

However, it also reflects the substantial swing to the Lib Dems that polls have shown since the first televised leaders' debate, which has made the party vastly more credible at least as partners in a coalition government.

That swing has been possible (and it looks likely that it will be sustained until election day) because of a simple combination of two factors: large numbers of voters are fed up with this Labour government, and at the same time aren't persuaded by an aggressively right-wing Tory party. They are disillusioned after 13 years of New Labour, but don't want a return to the Tories.

Nick Clegg has shrewdly positioned himself as an alternative to the 'old parties' - conveniently forgetting the Liberals pre-date Labour - who leads a party apparently untainted by either the MPs expenses scandal or over three decades (since Thatcher) of neoliberal Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

But Clegg offers no alternative. His party is as committed to cuts and austerity as the others.

The Guardian, incapable of seeing further than the narrow strip of ideological 'centre ground' the three mainstream parties huddle in, falls for the 'Clegg is an alternative' myth. Its political judgement is poor in other ways, most obviously when the editorial claims 'Mr Cameron offers a new and welcome Toryism, quite different from what Michael Howard offered five years ago'. Yes, and I also hear they've taken 'gullible' out of the dictionary.

The Guardian praises a number of Lib Dem policies, but fails to spot the contradictions. Trident and Iraq get favourable mentions, but in fact Clegg has been equivocal on whether he wants to completely scrap Trident - and, though the party opposed the invasion of Iraq, it was largely supportive of UK foreign policy once the troops went in. And don't forget Afghanistan - the Lib Dems' anti-war stance doesn't quite extend that far east.

I have no objection to people voting Labour or Lib Dem where it helps keep the Tories out, but let's have no illusions about the Liberal Democrats. Whatever the outcome of the general election - a hung parliament is a near certainty, but the balance is all to play for - the priority is building extra-parliamentary campaigns to pile on the pressure for the changes Brown, Cameron and Clegg are all set against.

We need to mobilise for the troops to be brought home from Afghanistan and the scrapping of Trident. The big parties will only pay lip service to action on climate change - we must fight for the radical reforms needed to confront the globe's great emergency.

It is our job to articulate a principled defence of immigrants against the lies and distortions of press and politicans alike. We will have to step up the defence of Muslims against often hysterical Islamophobia.

Above all, we can't allow the political class to make us pay for a crisis created by its subservience to bankers and corporate bosses. We need to champion a campaigning alternative to the wave of cuts ahead, and shape politics in a very different direction to any of the mainstream parties.

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