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Commentary 344 – February 2011
10 March 2011 (01:15:04)

ONCE BITTEN

Given the coalition’s economic record to date, it is little wonder that some Liberal Democrats are thinking about how, when and to what extent they should build bridges with Labour, as two articles in this Liberator discuss.

Spending cuts are about to make both coalition parties extremely unpopular, while statements by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg in January to the effect that they should also have a policy on promoting economic growth made the coalition look remiss. It should have had such a policy from the start.

Another change, signalled in January by a steady run of press stories, was that Clegg has realised the Lib Dems need a profile and purpose separate from that of the coalition, to replace his previous strategy of the party ‘owning’ the whole coalition and taking responsibility for all its works.

Labour’s manifesto in 1983 might have been history’s longest suicide note, but Clegg’s strategy of aligning the Lib Dems exactly with the coalition would surely have been the longest-term planned suicide in politics.

So it’s no huge shock that some Lib Dems will want to talk to Labour either as a potential coalition partner after the next general election, or to encourage those within Labour who support voting reform, or even as part of a possible alignment by those who hope to bring down the coalition in this parliament.

They would be wise to keep communication with Labour open – not least as success in the AV referendum would make future coalitions almost inevitable – but they would be even wiser to look behind Ed Miliband’s smiling facade and remember what they are dealing with.

There is a good reason why past attempts to realign Labour and Liberals have foundered. It is because, when anyone tried to form a ‘progressive coalition’, they found that Labour’s progressivism rarely extended beyond the economic sphere.

Hatred of liberty and reverence for the state run deep in Labour’s DNA, and a few encouraging statements from its new leader will not change that quickly.

Labour was the party that lied to the country because it wanted to start a war, centralised on a scale undreamed of even by the Thatcher government, did its best to turn the UK into an American colony and launched an assault on civil liberty on a scale unmatched by any peacetime British government.

And, as any Lib Dems who have tangled with Labour in its urban strongholds will know, it is mostly not the well-meaning vaguely progressive vehicle that some find it to be elsewhere.

What is more, Labour has form here. The last Lib Dem to trust and work with Labour was Paddy Ashdown, who was used, betrayed and humiliated by Tony Blair exactly as many warned he would be.

If Labour really is moving on from the Blair and Brown eras, well and good, and let us judge what it says and does.

But Lib Dems would be right to wonder whether the Labour Party grasps that it was a Labour government’s efforts to destroy civil liberty that made it unexpectedly easy for even left-wing Lib Dems to endorse working with the Tories last May.

That shameful part of Labour’s record, in particular, ought to make Lib Dems wary and remind them that they should look for proof of changes in the party’s thinking, not just some warm words from its leader.

DON’T FEAR DEMOCRACY

At the time of writing, it is unclear how the unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle East countries will play out.

But if any political space does open up, it will be important for liberal parties in Europe to try to help their counterparts in the Arab world to organise effectively.

It might surprise some to learn that there are organised liberals in Arab countries at all. However, some of these countries have been dictatorships but not totalitarian and have allowed a measure of pluralism within circumscribed limits.

Thus Morocco has two liberal parties, which have shared power, though the king retains the last word. Egypt has three (Liberator 337) and Tunisia the Social Liberal Party. Some other countries where parties cannot function have liberal-aligned think tanks.

This is at least something to build on and the widely-voiced demand for democracy in those countries ought to silence those who have argued that Arab countries – uniquely in the world – are somehow ‘not ready’ for it.

The danger is that western politicians who laud Arab democracy in theory will seek to undermine it in practice through fear of religious parties and/or of relations with Israel. The best way to keep the religious parties from power is not to rely on indefinite repression but to bolster secular opposition parties, to move such parties from their present, necessarily elitist, fringe into the mainstream.

As for the argument over the peace process with Israel, lasting peace is made between countries, not between one country and a transient dictator.

Democracies do sometimes fight each other but nothing like as often as dictatorships do, and a peace that wins popular consent in the countries concerned is far more likely to last.

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