Elections last Thursday saw conflicting fortunes for political parties across Britain – an SNP landslide in Scotland, annihilation for the Liberal Democrats in many parts of the country, Labour gains but the Tories taking enough seats from the Liberal Democrats for them to claim (with help from the supine media) they’re holding their ground, and a resounding defeat for AV in the referendum.
So, for progressives, where does this leave us?
On the face of it, the really big winners from this have been the Tories. They’ve got the election system they wanted, the one which gives the political establishment the smoothest ride and ensures the narrowest representation. This, combined with the reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons, the mass appointment of Peers and the what appear to be strong hints that they will block House of Lords reform, means that they have consolidated their grip on power. Moreover, the balance of power within the ruling coalition has been made clear. The Liberal Democrats have been skewered – Vince Cable’s complaints about the Tories being ruthless and tribal (he’s only just noticed?) are no more than distant warblings from the bottom of the dustbin of history.
The position of the Liberal Democrats bears some examination. The question that they must answer is whether they have driven the Coalition in a progressive direction; essentially, whether life would have been substantially different under a majority Conservative government. In most of the essentials, the answer is no. Massive public expenditure cuts and NHS privatisation have not been prevented; the Liberal Democrat agenda on constitutional reform and civil liberties has been brushed aside; university tuition fees will be £9000 per year. All they have done is provided the means for the Tories to enact the shock doctrine, and been wasted in the process; a text-book model of useful idiocy.
The important thing to grasp about the Liberal Democrats, though, is that none of this is a sell-out. This is an Orange Book government – cuts and NHS privatisation were Lib Dem themes long before they got into government. The real betrayal is that Clegg managed to convince electors that his party was progressive. The lies were told during, not after, last year’s election campaign.
Labour did well – better than you would think from reading the mainstream media – but this was not a breakthrough performance. And, as I’ve argued before, Labour’s progressive credentials are weak. If you believe that the Tories’ cuts agenda is economically illiterate, then Labour’s policy of slower, fluffier cuts equally fails to deal with the causes and effects of economic crisis. And Labour remains the party of Iraq, Afghanistan, the party that introduced tuition fees, demonised those claiming benefits and rammed through legislation increasing police powers which criminalised dissent (the pre-emptive arrests of “known subversives” before the Royal Wedding – so reminiscent of how Eastern European states handled dissidents before the fall of Communism – took place under Labour powers). There are progressive people in the Labour Party but collectively it is a party that defends, rather than challenges the status quo, one eye always focussed on the Daily Mail. To adopt Tawney’s language, it has not yet got up of its knees.
But it wasn’t all bad news for progressives. The SNP landslide in Scotland is at one level a rejection of the shock doctrine, as Scots had the option of voting for a party that could claim to have defended Scotland from its worst excesses. More interesting was the steady advance of the Green Party – it still (outside Brighton and Norwich) has no more than a handful of councillors, but becoming the largest party in Brighton on an agenda that explicitly refuses to accept the arguments for cuts and privatisation. In Brighton there is no doubt that Caroline Lucas’ almost lone advocacy of economic and political alternatives at Westminster struck a chord, but here the Greens have built up their position over a number of elections, indulging in what looks like old-fashioned Liberal community politics (before it degenerated into the mindless activism that fuelled the Liberal Democrats’ reputation as the dirtiest fighters in British politics).
It’s an illustration, though, that the best hope for progressives now appears to lie outside the main party system, building a radical analysis within which to tackle individual issues. The student protests, the campaigns against corporate tax evasion and local opposition to cuts have had some success in driving the political agenda. It looks as if we’re in for a long haul – and there are some signs that the future of progressive politics will depend on building structures that will challenge the values of mainstream politicians, and break open the market consensus.