This post is a political one, and discusses party strategies, but I think it has more applicability than just to Lib Dem partisans (which means that unlike the internal-fighting posts of last week, I’m going to charge for this on Patreon).
One thing last week’s Liberal Democrat conference showed was that, to the leadership of the Lib Dems at least, being in the moderate centre seems to be an idea that has a great appeal. It doesn’t appeal to me, and so I have an instinctive dislike of the idea, but I also think that right now it’s the wrong idea from a purely strategic point of view, and I think the other parties are starting to realise this.
The problem is that right now there is no centre of British politics, at least in any way that we would have talked about the centre a decade ago. And what centrist politicians of all parties have to realise is that, in the long term at least, and while we have the system that we do, that is the case more often than not.
British politics has had, in the last hundred and twenty years or so, roughly three stable periods in which it was sensible to talk about a political centre. In the period up until World War I, all the parties were, roughly speaking, in agreement on ideology — they were for imperialism, for a franchise limited to adult males, and for a hierarchical world-view in which white English rich men were the apex of the human pyramid. There were, of course, differences in ideology between the Liberals and the Tories (and the new Liberal Nationals and the tiny Labour party that was just starting to become known), but to anyone from outside that paradigm the differences look non-existent.
The same thing happened again in the period from roughly the end of World War II to the late 60s/early 70s. There, both the Tories and Labour were agreed on the philosophy known as Butskellism. This involved a mixed economy with high levels of taxation on higher incomes, most major industries nationalised, a strong welfare state, and the country run by what amounted to a three-legged stool — government, capital, and the unions all having roughly equal decision-making power, and government being by consensus among those three powers. Civil liberties, in this period, were slowly increased, though with a rather paternalistic aspect to this in which the lower classes needed to be educated in the responsibilities that came along with extra rights.
And then from about 1990 until very recently there was neoliberalism — the policies put forward by Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband. With some differences in nuance, all of these believed in low levels of taxation of income, even lower levels of wealth taxation, and that the role of the government in the economy should be that of a contractor, with all implementation to be done by private organisations paid by the government. There was also a rough consensus that international movement of capital and goods was a good thing, and that immigrants should be made into the scapegoats for any problems caused by other problems. All parties with any kind of power were also agreed that civil liberties were completely unimportant, and that universal rights could be abolished (though rights could still be granted to particular groups, so in this time life became immeasurably better for gay men, for example, than it had been pre-1990). In general, more even than the previous periods of time, those things which led to corporate profit were valued, and those things that didn’t were considered anathema to the political consensus.
All those periods of consensus definitely created losers, but they all sort-of worked for enough people (in Britain — they all caused a great deal of harm to other countries), and on the whole even though they harmed some people, most people in the UK were OK with them for a reasonable period.
However, all those periods of consensus came to an end in gigantic crises — first came the ongoing crisis that was World War I, the Depression, and World War II, during which time the Liberal Party fractured and almost died, the Labour Party rose, fell, and then rose again, and everything about British society changed irrevocably.
The second crisis period lasted, again, about twenty-five years — from roughly the time of the devaluation of the pound in 1967, through the three-day week, the OPEC crisis, the Winter of Discontent, and the Miners’ Strike, and probably coming to an end around the time of the Poll Tax riots. Again the major progressive party of the time (Labour) fragmented and almost died, again everything about British society was irrevocably changed. By the 1992 election — and certainly by the 1997 one — there was a new consensus, a new reality tunnel through which anyone with pretensions to political respectability would look at the world.
And this pattern — a shake-up that involves the two main parties going to wide extremes, and then slowly converging on a “new normal” that lasts about twenty years or so — is built into the biggest-loser electoral system. The system incentivises false binaries and clustering when something seems to be working, and it also incentivises getting as far away from “the other lot” as possible when something stops working. It *also* means that when things stop working, it takes so long for the electoral system to respond to them that only catastrophe will cause a response.
And the introduction of referendums into the system, which managerialist centrists who think that everyone “really” agrees with them and that the system is really OK thought would be a sticking plaster that would fix this problem, only makes it much, much worse. The Brexit referendum accelerated the latest catastrophic shake-up, which had already been coming since the crash of 2007, which had proved that the neoliberal system was broken just as effectively as the OPEC crisis did with Butskellism.
The elections of 2010 and 2015 saw all three main parties led by people who were fervent believers in the old system, but we haven’t had an election with a decisive result since 2005, and don’t look likely to have one again any time soon. We’re in the part of the cycle that happened in the early thirties or the early seventies, with parties fragmenting and reforming, and with ambiguous election results and Prime Ministers relying on other parties to get their agendas through Parliament.
Now, for all progressives of whatever party, this isn’t a good thing even were the current government not doing everything they can to exacerbate the current crisis. Conservatives tend to dominate these periods of uncertainty, partly because they tend to prize party discipline over everything else, and partly because they’re willing to throw away any principles at all for power so adapt better to new electoral landscapes.
But the problem at the moment is that no-one is even putting forward a workable idea of what the next paradigm might be, and we can’t even begin to move on from this catastrophic system until someone does. Theresa May’s Conservatives are rapidly heading towards full-on fascism and becoming a party of the ethnonationalist right. It’s my worry that the whole country will end up going for that by default, but I don’t think we will so long as there is at least a semblance of Parliamentary democracy, because fascism offers easy pseudo-answers, but it doesn’t actually work.
Labour at least seem to have settled on a strategy, give or take some argument about whether they should also be incredibly racist or not. The problem is that the strategy they’ve settled on is basically to return to the Butskellite system. This is a less bad strategy than many in my own party would like to think — that system *did* work, and work well, for a time, and there are plenty of lessons that can be learned for it for whatever new consensus is reached. Just because a system eventually failed doesn’t mean everything about it was bad.
But it’s still, ultimately, a retrograde step. That system was designed for an economy based on heavy industry, two-parent families in which only one person worked, a demographically young population, and pre-existing strong unions, and a world in which most of Asia was still pre-industrial so couldn’t compete. There are lessons to be learned from it, but it won’t work without those conditions, and much of the Labour leadership seems to me to be too intellectually incurious and inflexible to adapt it to the world as it is today.
They do, though, have a decent (though incomplete) analysis of what’s wrong. They’ve pointed to some of the problems, even though they haven’t yet suggested good solutions.
And this is the problem for centrists, whether those be Tory centrists like Anna Soubry, Labour centrists like Owen Smith, or the centrists in charge of my own party. In times of crisis, centrism is a reactionary position to be taking. It’s defending an old, broken-down system, not looking for a new, better, one.
Of course, this is sometimes necessary, because there are things about the old order that definitely need to be retained. The EU would be a prime example, in my view. But if centrism at its best is something like the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, “Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you”, at a time of crisis it seems to centre the former, when the latter is more necessary.
This is something that, for all his faults as a leader, Tim Farron realised — he gave a great speech to conference in, I think, 2014, in which he outlined most of this and said the Lib Dems should be in the forefront of developing new political thought. And while his reaction to the EU referendum was, ultimately, the cowardly one of favouring a second referendum (which is basically just the “denial” stage of the stages of grieving, hoping that maybe everyone will come to their senses), he did prioritise trying to come up with radical new ideas.
Unfortunately, the snap election put paid to that, and we are now once again pivoting back to centrist defence of existing institutions, rather than radical rebuilding of them. The criticism the Lib Dems made of the other parties’ leaders during the election was the largely accurate one that “Theresa May wants to take us back to the 1950s, Jeremy Corbyn to the 1970s”. Unfortunately, we too have succumbed to the Boomer-led gerontocracy fad, and we have a leadership that wants to take us back to the 1990s.
Personally, I’d rather go back to the 1990s than the 1970s, and rather the 70s than the 50s, but if I had a choice I’d rather get into the 2030s. I’d quite like us to cut out the decade-plus of flailing around making bad choices and harming everyone that political history suggests lies ahead (optimistically taking 2007 rather than last year as the start of the crisis period). And we will only do that by accurately diagnosing the problems that led us to this place. We should not accept the false solutions of Brexit, austerity, and racism, and nor should we lazily push for ever more binary referendums based on false premises.
The Lib Dems were the last party to accept the neoliberal consensus (cleverly doing so right at the point it broke) and have historically always been the party of constitutional radicalism. And one of the few bright points of a fairly depressing conference was hearing Vince Cable say what the current Boomer gerontocracy deems most unsayable — that house prices need to fall.
One of the things I’m hoping to do as my Prometheans series progresses is to come up with some very precise definitions of the problems we’re facing (albeit from the unusual angle of looking at old science fiction books). I’m also pushing within the Lib Dems for more radical solutions to problems, through things like working with the Radical Association (join us!) But for everyone on the side of greater equality, greater freedom, and less conformity — whether in the Lib Dems, Greens, Labour, SNP, or Unaffiliated Other — there’s a task ahead, to try to define and shape a new political reality. We should not be shirking the task by pretending the problem has already been solved.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?