Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

Labour can't be written out of the progressive script | David Clark

No party has a monopoly on virtue, and both the Lib Dems and Labour have much to contribute to liberal-left politics

Among the countless mistakes made by Labour in its election campaign, the failure to understand the nature of the Liberal Democrat challenge is perhaps the most damaging. David Miliband attributes the party's unexpected surge to a mindless "anti-political" reflex, while Gordon Brown dismisses Nick Clegg as little more than a "gameshow presenter" – all style and no substance. All this does is make Labour seem clueless and out of touch.

As it happens, Clegg's progress owes a great deal to substance and the fact that in the leaders' debates he gave the most sensible and thoughtful answers to questions about political reform, the environment, defence, wealth redistribution and how to clean up the City. His appeal is based on a positive and healthy desire to reject old taboos and make a break with the prevailing order of British politics. Instead of insulting the intelligence of those minded to give the Liberal Democrats a try, Labour would do far better to understand the frustrations of disillusioned progressives and respond accordingly.

I agree with those who argue that a breakthrough for the Liberal Democrats and a hung parliament could be a "progressive moment" opening the way to badly needed reforms blocked by the other two parties. I hope they end up with a share of power, partly as earned reward for having been right on the two most important issues of the last decade – Iraq and the dangers of a financialised economy – when Labour and the Conservatives were so culpably wrong, but mostly because they have some of the best ideas about how Britain needs to change. I would like to see those ideas implemented by Liberal Democrat ministers sitting in the next cabinet.

And yet, when I was approached to sign the letter of writers and intellectuals supporting Nick Clegg in the Guardian, I found myself unable to do so. In their enthusiasm for change, it seemed that something important had been missed. I felt similar unease at the Guardian's editorial in support of the Liberal Democrats. It's not that I dispute the thrust of the argument in favour of a realignment of progressive politics and a bigger role for the Liberal Democrats. It just seems to me that the absolutist terms in which the case has been stated mirrors the error Labour partisans have always made in the past of believing that their party has a monopoly on virtue. Much as some people may wish it, Labour cannot simply be written out of the script. For a mixture of electoral and ideological reasons, it will remain central to the hopes and prospects of liberal-left politics in Britain.

The letter from John Kampfner, Richard Reeves and others makes the undeniable point that during the last 13 years of majority government Labour has often proved to be an obstacle to progressive change. There are, sadly, too few reasons for thinking that the next 13 years would be very much different if Labour continued to govern on its own. But since we can safely discount that as a possibility, the range of effective choice is between a Conservative government and a coalition involving the Liberal Democrats and one of the other major parties. In any honest assessment, the only formation capable of turning the next parliament into the great reforming moment envisaged by the letter's signatories is a Lib-Lab coalition. So why leave that elementary political truth unacknowledged?

The Guardian editorial at times reads like a rush of blood to the head, as if a repeat of the 1906 Liberal landslide might be on the cards. The possibility of a tactical vote for Labour in some constituencies – grudgingly conceded as a "pragmatic caveat" – is the only hint that things might be a bit more complicated. But far from being an exception to the general rule that voting Liberal Democrat is the best way to realise the "progressive moment", Labour remains the only serious challenger to the Conservatives in the clear majority of constituencies across the country. Cleggmania has not changed that fundamental electoral fact. To pretend otherwise lacks seriousness and candour, and risks putting into office a Conservative government that would do none of the things on the Guardian's liberal wish-list.

One thing is clear from this election; the future of progressive politics will have to be very different from its past. The culture of Labourism, old and new, with its machine approach to political change and its neuralgic aversion to sharing power, will have to give way to a new and more open style of politics. These could well turn out to be the last days of majority Labour government that Britain ever sees, but they cannot be the end of Labour as a party of government if the hopes of progressive voters are to be realised. This isn't merely a question of electoral necessity. The reasons why Labour was called into being more than a century ago remain just as valid today, even if the party itself has half forgotten them. We cannot turn the clock back and pretend that Labour was never invented; nor should we wish to.

The liberal tradition – with its principled commitment to human rights at home and abroad, its suspicion of the central state and its attention to constitutional reform – is an essential and too long neglected part of the progressive mix. But the good society cannot be built on liberalism alone. It also needs a party committed to establishing the material foundations of human freedom and the wider distribution of wealth needed to make it real – a party rooted in the democratic socialist tradition. For all its sins and errors, Labour is still best placed to perform that role. One of the major challenges for progressives in the next parliament must be to turn it once again into a vehicle for social and political change, instead of what it has become – an instrument for disciplining the left into accepting the status quo.

Tomorrow is a moment that calls for progressive realism, not wishful thinking. That goes for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters alike. Now that I have the approval of Ed Balls and Peter Hain, among others, I feel able to say publicly that I will be voting tactically to re-elect a very decent Liberal Democrat MP in my home constituency. I hope that Liberal Democrats elsewhere will feel able to set partisan impulses aside and cast their votes for the very many decent Labour candidates without whom the progressive moment will become another missed opportunity. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Get rid of the ads (sfw)

Don't be the product, buy the product!

YES, I want to SOUP ●UP for ...