Following the Liberal Democrat conference last weekend was fascinating for what I guess many Liberal Democrats would regard as the wrong reasons. Votes on the Coalition’s Health Bill have revealed not only a deeply divided party, but one whose members and leaders are working from completely different assumptions about leadership, policy and democracy.
On the one hand, we have the party membership. Many – though by no means all – are progressive people of what might be labelled as leftish inclinations. Not necessarily on economics – Liberal Democrat politics have been notable for a real lack of any economic grip – but on issues like the balance of the state and the individual, individual liberties and so on. Against them is ranged a Parliamentary leadership that takes its ideological cue from the Orange Book, and is part of a governing coalition that has adopted crudely neoliberal economic and social policies – the politics of shrinking the welfare state, of privatisation and of redistribution of wealth and power in the direction of those who already hold it. The resulitng clash over the Health Bill – which is very much the front line between these two conflicting traditions – has inevitably been messy and confused.
It is a battle, however, of a sort that has been fought many times in centrist and centre-left parties throughout the world, with much the same outcome – a Faustian pact in which party memberships are induced to rubber-stamp a neoliberal agenda because they are told that it’s the way to achieve the things they believe in. No doubt many of those making the argument are sincere – but it’s a process that has a long track-record – going right back to the neoliberal seizure of the New Zealand Labour Party in the 1990s and with a powerful precedent in the New Labour experience.
It is of course a profoundly anti-democratic doctrine; neoliberals believe – in theory at least - that change and progress are driven by iron economic laws that democratic mandates are powerless to change, and thus democracy is an obstacle to their objectives, even though those objectives are often expressed in terms of personal liberty. Moreover, no neoliberal has ever won a clear, unambiguous mandate at an election – it is either imposed (as in the case of the conditions for bailing out indebted economies, most recently with the imposition of “technocratic” governments in Italy and Greece) or enacted by governments who ditch their election rhetoric in the name of crisis management.
Of course it happened to Labour long ago – and ironically enough, it was the botched entryism of the largely harmless Militant Tendency that helped Labour party managers to ensure that the left was neutered (when I was briefly a member of the Brighton Pavilion Labour party in the 1990s its officers seemed far more interested in expelling socialists than fighting the Tories). It’s striking that nearly all the really (in my view) obnoxious things that the Coalition has done – huge spending cuts, privatisation of the NHS, tuition fees, cuts in benefits for disabled people, workfare – are all really the continuation to their logical conclusion of things Labour did in office.
And yet for parties of the centre and centre-left it’s imperative to maintain the appearance of party democracy, because party memberships remain what keeps political parties alive. The kiddies are still allowed to play in the sandpit and pass the odd radical motion – but the real decisions will always be taken elsewhere, by grown-ups in suits meeting away from the public gaze. Which is why you can pass as many conference motions as you like – the essence of the Health Bill, with its privatisation and its powers to charge for healthcare – will continue, even in the unlikely event that Liberal Democrats discover the guts needed to mount political opposition to this particular Bill
To Liberal Democrat members who seem genuinely shocked by these events, I’m afraid there is no comforting answer. Where have you been these last twenty years? Have you been so busy delivering Focus and campaigning to fix pavements that you have completely missed what has been happening in the world? Neoliberalism has been able to get its foot in the door, manage your party processes, and to use the language of economic emergency to trash all the things you claim you really believe in. You can read – look at the Orange Book and you’ll see that it’s all there in black and white. (On which subject I once had a revealing exchange with a Liberal Democrat activist on Twitter – when I pointed out that the Orange Book made it clear that private sector healthcare was at the core of Liberal Democrat policy, the activist replied that the Orange Book was not policy as Conference had not voted for it. It is that sort of naivety that demonstrates that the Liberal Democrats, a party without a theory and notoriously weak on economics, were ripe for the slaughter)
Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander no longer (to the extent that they ever did) owe their loyalty to you – they owe it to David Cameron and George Osborne, to the CEOs of the private healthcare companies who have poured funds into the party, and to the financial and political elite who, under the pretext of economic emergency, are currently engaged on a wealth-grab of epic proportions.
There are decent progressive people in the Liberal Democrats. For the sake of your self-respect, there is a way out. It only takes a moment or two to tear up a membership card.