18 August 2012

Nick Clegg - Labour secret agent?

(Note: this post is running a couple of weeks late because I was so busy that I only got it half-finished, but when I realised it was a month since we'd posted anything on the blog at all, I realised it had to go out, even as was. So "this week's announcement" actually means "the announcement a few weeks ago..." etc.

This week's announcement by Nick Clegg that the Lib Dems will vote against the boundary changes introduced by the Tories is further support for my view that Clegg has, in a strange way, done the country a huge service by uniting the left, and making Labour the natural party of government.

To explain this claim it's necessary to dig back into British electoral history. In the 1980s the great question in British politics was: how can the left vote be united in such a way as to stop permanent Tory government? The Labour/SDP split of 1981 led to a situation where the Tories were able to secure huge majorities with a little over 40% of the vote because the anti-Tory vote was badly split between Labour (on about 30%) and the SDP-Liberal Alliance (on about 25%).

At the time the Guardian was full of articles lamenting the problem of the split left (I know because I started reading the Guardian every day in 1987 and I used to read this stuff every day.) The Labour hope at the time was that the SDP/Liberal Alliance's electoral challenge would gradually fizzle out and we'd see a return to the 'normal' two-party politics of the post-war period. The Liberals and SDP tried their best to destroy themselves in 1988 with the formation of the Liberal Democrats, but the Lib Dems recovered to a vote share of 23% in the 1992 election - still large enough to ensure another split in the anti-Tory vote, and a 4th term for the Tories. 

Tony Blair took the different tack of moving Labour so far to the right that he hoovered up a good proportion of natural Tory voters, even though the Lib Dems still managed 18% in the 1997 election. But the split left remained a problem in the UK - masked by the Blairite centre-right thrusts in 1997 and 2001, but very obvious in 2005 where the collapse in the Labour vote to 35%, coupled with the Lib Dems increasing their share of the vote to 22% by Charles Kennedy's positioning of them to the left of Labour on many issues, meant that it was only a ludicrously unfair electoral system that gave Labour a working overall majority despite finishing only 2% ahead of the Tories. 

With the re-emergence of the Tories as an electoral force (of sorts) under Michael Howard and then David Cameron it seemed inevitable that the split in the UK's "progressive" electoral forces would help the Tories regain power - and this did indeed happen in 2010 (helped by the crapness of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister and as election campaigner), but something weird was happening to the Liberal Democrats. Under Clegg's leadership since the end of 2007, they had begun to morph  - almost unnoticeably at first - into a second right-wing party. Although with a very different stance from the Tories on Europe, constitutional reform and some social issues (most notably support for marriage in the tax system), on most other issues - particularly economic policy and public service "reform" - there was very little to choose between the Lib Dems and the Tories by 2010. This made the Lib Dems potentially a more natural coalition partner with the Tories than with Labour for the first time in decades. The electoral arithmetic - which would have made a Labour-Lib Dem coalition very difficult - and the personal animosity between Clegg and Brown also helped drive the Lib Dems into the Tory camp.

In retrospect, May-June 2010 was the high point for centre-right wingers looking for "regressive realignment" of UK politics along the lines of permanent Tory/Lib Dem majority government. Some Tory cabinet ministers like Mickey Gove were seriously thinking about backing a Yes vote in the AV referendum, which had potential to deliver a right-wing parliamentary majority parliamentary presence even if Labour recovered to between 35 and 40% in the polls in subsequent elections - as well as marginalising the threat of UKIP to the Tories from the right. But this idea of permanent coalition fell apart within a few months. The AV referendum led to huge animosities surfacing between the Tories and Lib Dems; and, even more seriously for Clegg, the Lib Dems' popular support - collapsed from over 20% to less than 10 - while Clegg found himself as the most unpopular party leader since records began.

The reason for this was that millions of people who voted Lib Dem in good faith in 2010 - wanting a "new politics" and a more attractive centre-left alternative to the increasing authoritarianism of Labour - found that they had in fact voting in an enabling mechanism for a particularly nasty and reactionary strain of Tory government.

My feeling is that those people are going to be very hard to get back, and it's not clear where the new Lib Dem voters are coming from to replace them. Why would centre-right Tories abandon David Cameron to vote for Nick Clegg next time round? We can probably assume that the 8% or so of people still in the Lib Dem camp are the "orange bookers" who are pro-Europe and keen on civil liberties but basically Tories on the economy and public services. There doesn't seem to be any huge constituency of non-Tory centre-right wingers out there - if there were, the Lib Dems would have probably won the last election (at least on vote share).

So, with Clegg having permanently alienated the centre left, as long as Clegg  remains Lib Dem leader all Ed Miliband has to do to win the 2015 election is turn up, really. This is good news on the face of it, but also carries the huge danger that Labour could win next time without any coherently defined policies and be a disaster. More on this in another post (hopefully in less than 2 months time) shortly.

Reading back on this, I'm not sure it's saying anything I haven't done already, but I was just desperate to get something into the blog domain during August. And so here it is. 

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