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Liberalism and Politics

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By Emma | No comments yet.

Last night I had a fascinating discussion with an old friend about the current tensions between classical and social  liberalism. We weren’t discussing this in the context of the crisis of the Lib Dems which is different but related, but the implications for policy implementation. It was an interesting discussion about the kind of liberalism we would both want to see a Labour government implement and what the tensions were between freedoms, protections and responsibilities – both of individuals and of the state towards its citizens.

We discussed topics as diverse as the prevalence and necessity of CCTV, ID cards, mental heath provision and intervention, state education and healthcare. We didn’t always agree on where the limits of the state should or shouldn’t be, but it was an interesting and illuminating discussion.

The problem with our discussion – as we both acknowledged – is that it existed entirely on the Authoritarian/Libertarian axis and frankly that’s not where most people live. We are both women with a relatively comfortable lifestyle, but both of us raised financial concerns throughout the other conversations we had that evening. We both voted labour in the election based on economic factors. My friend is far less tribal than I am, and weighed up voting Lib Dem, but didn’t.

Most people don’t care about or vote on issues on the Libertarian/Authoritarian spectrum. We vote on economic issues. We vote according to our understanding and interpretation of the world and its daily influence on our lives and those of the people we care about. Unless you are at a point where the level of your wealth does not affect your daily life, these are the issues that are going to affect you. Are you and your family safe? Are you all warm and well fed? Are you protected in case of harm? Do you have work? These are the real electoral battlegrounds, and only one of these areas areas (safety) would be affected by policies on the lib/auth scale (though there are arguments to be had about which way threats to safety lie).

There are excellent arguments to be had about the balance between security and civil liberties. I don’t believe any of those reasons are about electoral advantage or democratic representation. We can see this in the fact that The Lib Dems core vote has proved to be so small as have seen their collapse in the polls and authoritarian parties have had even less success. Their contributions to the coalition – such as they are – have nearly all been on Lib/Auth issues, and on economic issues, the classical liberalism that gels their right wing with the Tories has held sway. If the oft cited argument of Lib Dems that they are above the Left/Right axis were true, their support would not have failed to anything liek the extent that it is doing. It also would not have been a financial issue that became the emblematic token of that failure, but a failure on their own axis.

I regularly advocate for Labour to be more liberal on issues around crime and justice and related issues like terror laws and drug laws. I believe this is a matter of values and that Labour should be socially liberal while rejecting classical liberalism as largely anathema to equality which must be our highest value. I am frequently shouted down by those who believe that authoritarianism is a better reflection of the value of protection of communities that is also a part of our core beliefs. I accept those arguments and that tension. Those debates need to be had to find the right balance.

I believe that a more liberal Labour party would not lose votes. I don’t believe it would gain us many (we could probably gain a few disaffected Lib Dems but might lose a few soft Tories), but it wouldn’t lose us votes either. I also believe that the corollary is true. Very few people really vote for parties on civil liberties/security issues unless they genuinely feel at threat. While this has been a factor in recent elections, it was only when people felt economically threatened that they changed their voting patterns in meaningful ways. So when Labour talk about this issue, we need to do so in the reality that we neither side are raising electoral advantage but competing visions of state activism. If we can do so, we would have a much better and more productive debate.

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What’s Next?

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By Emma | 2 comments

Let me be very clear, as I said in my post about why we should vote Labour, I don’t look forward to a stint out of office because vulnerable people are going to suffer under this Government. But we are where we are, and now we have to take this situation and run with it.

Long term, this situation has tremendous strategic advantages. We have a chance to renew the Labour Party and we can once again be the natural home of Left of Centre voters, who now know that in most places (more on the Green Vote at a later date) Labour really is the only alternative to Tory Government.

The Liberal Democrats will have a hard time for a very, very long time – possibly ever again – making the case that they are to the left of Labour. They aren’t, and never have been. Their version “fairness” was always a raising of the middle at the expense of the Top leaving the poor ever further behind. They have agreed to early, damaging cuts in areas like the Child Trust Fund and Tax Credits. There will  be tax cuts for the middle, paid for at the expense of the services on which the most vulnerable in our society rely.

Another meme the Lib Dems ran with, was that they aren’t “politics as usual”. Well it’s true that this is an unusual set up, but I don’t think that’s going to be enough to detract from the fact that they are in Government – with ministers in every department – and so will be held to account for all the decisions of that Government, whether they be ones they actively vote for, or those they just facilitate by abstaining on (a very cowardly deal indeed on the insidious – and deeply illiberal Marriage Tax Allowance).

Frankly, for the next few years Labour’s campaign materials write themselves. And the Lib Dems will never again be able to use the line “only the Lib Dems can stop the Tories in XXX”. God alone knows what they’ll put on their leaflets now. Certainly the one I got through my door during this election has proved to be a laughable lie.

The Lib Dems seem to have gained so much from this coalition. As they did from the debates. As with the debates, I think these gains will be fleeting. Unlike the debates I think they will do serious long term damage to their prospects. The Lib Dems have to make this work – the Tories do not. The Tories can push their agenda far, far harder than the Lib Dems currently realise, and – particularly this side of any referendum on AV – the Lib Dems will have to go along with them. They need to prove that coalition government works, the Tories – who will campaign against voting reform  – do not. Look at how close the Tories are hugging the Lib Dems – full coalition and a seat in every department. The Lib Dems underperformed in the election (as did the Tories) and weren’t in a strong enough position to earn all that, and their obvious bluff of “talks” with Labour wouldn’t have earned them alone. The Tories aren’t unastute politically, and must realise that the closer they tie the Lib Dems into this Government, the harder it will be to break that stranglehold, or that image int eh minds of the electorate.

So how do Labour respond? Well one fo the reasons I have focused more on the Lib Dems in this post than the Tories, is because I believe this election has shown Labour the way forward, and the gift of the Lib Dems going in with the Tories make this easier. Our future is not in fighting the Tories for third of the electorate who support them no matter how bad, but attracting progressive voters from all constituencies.

Labour must keep fighting for it’s poverty reduction policies. They are the best of all that we have done. We must continue to fight for union and workers rights – they are a part of what defines us . But we need to completely revisit our attitude to civil liberties. We should not oppose any attempt to remove compulsory ID cards, extended detention etc. and should attack the ConDem Government on their vicious and arbitrary immigration cap and their Marriage Tax .

We need to not just rely on those who left Labour for the Lib Dems over issues like Iraq to come back because they have no other place to go, but give them a positive reason to come back to Labour. We also need to attract Lib Dem voters who never voted Labour before, but who are dismayed at the direction their party has taken. We can do this by stopping trying to woo floating Tory voters with misguided post 9/11 security measures and playing a weak hand on regulation. We are no longer in a post 9/11 world – or a post 1992 world for that matter, but a Post Credit Crunch world where regulation is no longer seen by a majority of the public as intrusive.We have the opportunity to be “New Labour” no longer, but become the progressive liberal Labour movement some foolishly dreamed would be possible with Clegg and his Liberal Tories. If we do so, we can create the strong progressive movement the 21st Century deserves.

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Why We Must Vote Labour

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By Emma | 2 comments

Every thing I ever have  read before every election I can remember tells you that this is the most important election ever. So I’m not going to do that here. I do however, see that this is the most unknowable election of my voting life. There really is all to play for and with a landslide majority unlikely for anyone, what happens at this election could affect our democracy and elections for years to come.

Labour aren’t perfect. I know that. I’ve been an internal critic of some decisions for years, ranging from Iraq to ID cards. We’re tired, and we sometimes forget how to do what we are here to do. If re-electing Labour were all about the party alone, I’m sure some activists would welcome a break and a chance to regroup.

I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t because I know that that would let down the people Labour is here to serve. Individual MPs may have let them down before, but we, Labour, must not and will not let them down. If we are at our best when we are at our boldness, we are at our boldest when tilting at the windmills of poverty. Dreaming what once seemed an impossible dream of it’s eradication, now brought so much closer to reality by our actions here and abroad.

The narrative of this election has been that of mending our broken politics. I celebrate that narrative and agree that and end to the first-past-the-post system would be a laudable achievement. But I ask us not to forget that democracy is not just about how we vote, but what we vote for.  At this time of economic crisis, when cuts will have to be made, I – much as I may personally benefit – don’t want to be rewarded for my middle class life, but pay fair taxes to help those who will be worst hit – first and deepest – to stop those cuts taking us backwards in poverty reduction.

I could use this post to lay out how bad I think a Tory government would be, but far better writers than me – Particularly Johann Hari  - have already done so with breathtaking clarity. But I’d rather talk about why, at this time and in this election, we should vote Labour. Int he Guardian endorsement of the Lib Dems, their analysis included this line: “Labour’s record on poverty remains unmatched “. Now I understand the seduction of the “Liberal moment”, I too want a shift back on civil liberties and reform of the voting system. But not at the expense of the party “umbilically linked to the poor” at a time when both other main parties are offering deep and swingeing cuts, and routinely attacking the kind of public sector services, tax credits and benefits that the poorest in society rely on. It is too high a price for me. I hope – as I have outlined previously - that Labour take from the rise of the Lib Dems lessons on these issues and a greater understanding of their electoral significance for a core part of their electorate. I can’t however, offer up deep and devastating cuts by an unconcerned government as a price worth paying. 

So I will fight for Labour to be in Government – protecting their core principles and fighting for the poor. In coalition if it comes to it – alone if we need to, we must never forget what Labour is for and why we fight. Our poverty reduction measures may be unfinished, but they remain – undiminished – a beacon of hope and a vision for a better world.

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In 1992 the Labour Party lost an election we had expected to win. This was over  half my lifetime ago, and the repercussions are still being felt even now.

“New Labour” can be an amorphous phrase, and everyone who uses it does so with their own, very different, definition in mind, so I’ll try to expand on what I mean when I say “New Labour” and why I know that the time has come (and is overdue) to move beyond it.

In 1992, when we lost the election, we didn’t lose because we were too confident (the Sheffield rally analysis) but because the public didn’t share our confidence. They didn’t think we could be trusted to keep the best of what had come out of the entrepreneurial boom in the 1980s and they didn’t trust us not to lose our nerve against what were seen as over-demanding unions. 1992 was also only just post-Cold War, and no one had really worked out what that meant yet. Certainly the majority were still wedded to Cold War ideas on national security, and Labour – with our anti-Trident stance (and remember that there was at the 1992 election a Bush in the White house whose reelection was expected) was seen as naive and damaging to our relationship with our strongest ally.

New Labour was a sensible reaction to the 1992 loss (apart from calling it “New” Labour – one of the worst and most short-sighted branding decisions in history). The proponents of New Labour asked the party to have a conversation, and make a choice based on the grown up electoral understanding that the majority of voters in the UK did not agree with some of our flagship policies even if they did agree with our general policy gist. It was time to examine what we were willing to sacrifice in order to be elected to do the good that we could. New Labour was about an abandonment of outdated dogma, and an understanding that our attitude to this dogma defines us just as much as our actions.

So the party gave up it’s historical commitment to renationalisation and opposition to Trident in to elect a party that would bring in a minimum wage and would rebuild and protect public services. That they did so at a time where the Conservative Government did its utmost to lose the election has made analysis of the 1997 victory harder and  less clear cut, but certainly the number of seats that Labour won in the South East must be a strong indicator that this strategy worked and that Labour had been seen to change enough for people to give them a chance. Crucially though, Labour didn’t lose it’s own vote either, and had promises for the whole alliance of middle class Fabiansocialists, unions and the working class that has been the make up of the Labour party since it’s birth just over 100 years ago.

Labour’s first term really delivered. The New Deal, the minimum wage, child tax credits, statutory four weeks holiday pay, banning handguns and landmines, starting the ball rolling on dropping Third World debt and gay equalities legislation; there was something in Labour’s first term for everyone. Of course there were complaints that it wasn’t enough – there always will be – but the fact is Labour did all this, and pumped money into our ailing public services, starting the turn around that we enjoy today- while convincing the public that  of its case in doing so. So to my mind the 1997 – 2001 Government will go down in history as the most radical and reforming government since Attlee.

It didn’t sound like it though. Labour talked tough, and Tony Blair led from the right, continuing to prefer to pick his fights with the left of the party. PPP/PFI were anathema to the more traditional left who saw these funding models as undermining the role of the state, and instead of making the argument that the private sector was being used to augment the public sector – and continue the fight for a strong government role – Blair continued to use these fights to define himself and the Labour leadership long after it was necessary to redefine Labour in the public imagination. A phrase I heard often in those times was “I’d rather have a leader who talks right and acts left than the other way round”. While I agree that is preferable to the Cameron’s attempt a progressive Toryism that we are seeing now, it was actually – in the same way that our failure to restore full regulation to the banking sector was doing for the economy – storing up trouble for the future.

If we don’t make an argument we’ll never win an argument. The argument for better redistribution was never made while the actions were being taken. It was all “talk right and act left” , which was OK in the years of plenty, but has set us up for a bad fall in the leaner years. We don’t have the foundations that we could have been building during that time. We don’t have a general understanding of what Socialism can be and can achieve when it states it’s case proudly.

Labour’s second term was ruined by September 11th and the reaction of the Blair government. I’m not going to rehash all the arguments over Iraq, that’s a long post for another day, suffice it to say I thought it was a mistake before we went in and I know it was now. The arguments about the international fall out from Iraq have been endlessly rehearsed by better writers than me, more knowledgeable on international matters than me. But, here I am interested in the effect the war and the various civil liberties issues that have also arisen out of the ashes of September 11th  had on the Labour Party.

Essentially it’s been devastating to our coalition. The 1992 based fear that Labour would not be seen as able to as an ally to a Republican US Government (and apparently advice from Clinton) led to Blair backing Bush to the hilt. Unlike many who were against the war, I don’t doubt that Blair thought it was the right thing to do, but I think this 1992 fear played into it, and into the overly macho stance on issues like 42 day detention, curtailing of protest, ID cards and other civil liberties issues. Now don’t get me wrong, Labour has always had an authoritarian streak, but that was usually tempered by the liberal side of the party. However, after September 11th, it seemed that the Labour leadership took their most tried and tested tactic – arguing with the left of their own parties, and moved on from issues of funding and the boundaries of the public and private sectors and changed this to a supposed populism over issues of counter-terrorism. This lost huge swaths of the party that had fought so many civil rights issues in the 80s and joined the Labour Party over these issues in the first place. The coalition started to crumble as members despaired over a step too far. Those who were disquieted over the funding models were viscerally disgusted over civil rights issues, and weren’t willing to stay to fight for what remained good (and I believe that so much of what we have done – a vast majority is good). While I have my personal issues with those who have abandoned the party in this way, politically I realise that the coalition is essential to maintaining a vibrant, electable Labour Party.

I think the Lib Dem bounce shows what I have been arguing for a while. That the Labour Party doesn’t have to be authoritarian on these issues. It’s another clear sign that we’re not in 1992 anymore Toto. It’s a sign that if Labour is to win back the voters it needs, it is going to have to win bank it’s whole coalition, which means understanding the success the Lib Dem have had is neither in spite nor because of it’s liberal policies on crime and drugs. It’s because people don’t think those policies are enough of an issue to be a deciding factor in their votes. We don’t need to over-compensate anymore,and we shouldn’t because it is damaging our electoral chances with all those who once voted for us. It’s time to once again be the party of the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act, while retaining what separates us from the Lib Dems, and continuing to be the party of workers rights and Child Tax Credits.

New Labour had it’s time and place. But it’s current adherents have taken what was once a smart electoral strategy and in an Orwellian twist  turned it into a dogma of their own. Refusing to understand or acknowledge the passing of New Labour’s usefulness will only result in the continued tarnishing of a legacy I want to continue to be proud of. It’s time for a new conversation and quickly so people can see we have got the message. So no more championing our – clearly not very New Labour manifesto – as New Labour. Labour must make the argument and the policy now for a coherent Left of Centre party for all the coalition or risk it failing for generations.

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