The future of the left since 1884

Achieving a progressive majority

Labour’s route back to power lies in coalition with other parties that share our values. This piece was first published in Spring 2012 edition of the Fabian Review An alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats; who on earth, after their treachery,...


Labour’s route back to power lies in coalition with other parties that share our values.

This piece was first published in Spring 2012 edition of the Fabian Review

An alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats; who on earth, after their treachery, would want that? Surely Labour should just secure a majority and with it our historic mission?

But just before we consign such a progressive alliance to the dustbin of history, it might be worth unpacking that first paragraph; separating out raw emotion to see if delivering a good society that is more equal, democratic and sustainable could take on new forms.

Let’s start with the treachery bit. Surely this is uncontestable? The Lib Dems went into coalition with the Tories, backed the cuts and broke their promise on tuition fees. But back in May 2010 it wasn’t so simple. Then the greatest fear was that the Tories would go to the country again with a huge war chest and win outright, meaning no-one holding the right in check. It was a real fear. And in a voting system in which the electoral odds are stacked against you, what is the point of being the third party if you don’t take a chance influencing government when it so rarely comes along? And with Labour looking tired, seemingly longing for the opposition benches, no real counter offer was made. Of course it’s a case of be careful what you wish for, but you can at least understand why they made the choice they did.

And remember this in our fury against the Lib Dems. It was Labour that started the commercialization of the NHS and education and tried to privatise the Post Office.  It was Labour that pioneered welfare-to-work schemes and brought in A4e. And it was Labour that gave knighthoods to out of control bankers and promised cuts deeper than Thatcher. Oh and it was Labour that reneged on tuition fees and today backs them at £6000 per year. We should be careful about our fury just in case it smacks of hypocrisy.

But surely all that is redundant, as the Liberal Democrats are finished as a political force? Well maybe. But there is still a strong chance they could hold the balance of power – and anyway, if their vote collapses too far it is the Tories that stand to benefit electorally the most. Labour is not making anywhere near enough of a breakthrough. And that is before boundary changes and referendums north of the border. Is there any downside to ensuring that if there is another hung parliament, ideas and relationships tilt the balance to the left and not again to the right? Many in Labour would have much in common with Simon Hughes, Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams and Tim Farron. The growing Social Liberal Forum and the new Liberal Left provide fertile ground for talks. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have their David Laws-like neo-liberals. I bet they talk. Indeed most Labour members should have some sympathy for a party takeover by a clever elite who put office before principles. Sound familiar? Even if your only hope is to persuade as many Lib Dems as possible to vote Labour, then is that best achieved by attacking them remorselessly and relentlessly?

But any talk of a progressive alliance has to be about more than just electoral opportunism – crucial as that might be. Which takes us to the last part of the opening paragraph that’s worth unpacking – what is our historic mission?

Here we have to go back to political philosophy and recognize that social democracy and indeed socialism sprang from the wide breadth of thinking that is liberalism. Liberalism starts with people and their ability to lead rich and fulfilling lives. It then split into two distinct forms: neo-liberalism heads aggressively to the market to fulfill these needs; social liberalism recognises and welcomes the role of the state in protecting people from the ‘brute luck’ of birth or accident, and in helping people fulfill their potential. As such it is pretty close to social democracy, which broke off in a party political sense for largely historic reasons, as the weight of the newly industrialised working class and the emerging big state gave rise to Labour.

Today we live in a very different world. Not least one in which environmental concerns are pre-eminent: it’s not just Liberal Democrats that Labour should open out to but Greens as well. Intellectually and organisationally Labour will never again be the hegemonic force it was in the mid-decades of the last century. We know that state is essential but we know too that its power needs to be curbed – think 90 day detention or the centralisation taking place in the education department. Labour in government became too remote from people and places. We offered only technical solutions to problems and stopped seeing human beings with hopes, fears and emotions. We need a rich mix of state and non-state vehicles. The state itself needs to be democratised and localised to make it ‘our state’ – so it can do its essential job of equalising out resources and opportunities but do so with our participation. We need mutuals, co-operatives, trade unions, the radical extension of economic democracy and a vast array of civil society organisations and entities to build a good society.

Labour is going to have to finesse its electoral strategy, not to talk about pacts but to have a dialogue around ideas and polices that create common ground with Lib Dems and Greens. Otherwise the common ground will be between the Tories and Lib Dems, and Labour will be isolated. A wealth tax, economic democracy and the green new deal would be good starting points.

Even if Labour gets an outright majority it should reach out to Lib Dems and Greens. If Tony Blair had done this more effectively after 1997 then we might have been better in government and not so far out of it now. The scale of the economic, social and environmental problems the nation faces demands a broad alliance that could help transform our country. It will not be done alone.

Labourism needs a good dose of liberalism and vice versa. This is the rich terrain to rethink what it is to be on the centre-left. Given a choice, the vast bulk of the Liberal Democrats would prefer an alliance with a reformed Labour Party. Like David Lloyd George in 1931 they would “rather die fighting on the left”. And it would make sense if the vast bulk of Labour’s ranks preferred not to marginalise themselves by refusing to talk to other parties while Cameron goes on making big bold offers.

Social democracy was once described as organised liberalism. That’s about it.  The recognition that everything starts with us as individuals but we only understand ourselves as people and citizens in relation to others. “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” wrote Marx and Engels. We are liberal and we are social. We need a progressive alliance of minds, ideas, policies and political organisation. Just think how good the right is at making alliances across classes, business sectors and moral groups  – think of that and go and do the mirror image. We live in an age of political fragmentation. Labour is a necessary but insufficient vehicle for the creation of a good society. Only a progressive alliance can deliver that.
Neal Lawson is chair of Compass

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