Can we predict the failure of the Liberal Democrats?

Sir Vince Cable could not afford to strike a pessimistic note at his party’s conference. He must hope that Brexit is an unmitigated disaster and that his proposals for wealth taxes receive a fair hearing. Further, he has to rely on the volatility of the public mood.

However, the Liberal Democrats have damaged their appeal with three key social groups.  The poor were alienated by the austerity of the 2010-2015 coalition government. The young resented the Liberal Democrat betrayal over tuition fees. And the affluent are unlikely to support wealth taxes. Supporting another referendum on Brexit is unlikely to be sufficient to mend these broken fences.

It should be remembered that there is nothing certain in politics. A significant Liberal Democrat revival is improbable before the next general election. But it cannot be ruled out a priori. This is because political science has not got the predictive capacity of a ‘genuine’ science. Labour Party supporters cannot afford to be complacent. Professor Colin Hay confirmed:

“the predictions… [political] science is capable of generating are likely to have a limited shelf-life…Yet for critical political analysts in particular, this is a wonderfully liberating thought. Things, in the end, can be different.”

 

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Speak for Britain! by Martin Pugh

This text argues that Tony Blair is a Tory. It situates him in a tradition of conservative figures who have joined the Labour Party. As a revisionist history of the party, it makes the reader question some of their core assumptions. However, the book loses some credibility with its uncharitable judgements on Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee, Michael Foot, John Smith, and Gordon Brown. This is largely because it tends to downplay the difficulty of the political and economic circumstances in which Labour leaders usually operate.

The real strength of the book is in its close attention to geographical detail. This permits it to show how the Labour Party emerged from local political cultures. The approach means that the reader becomes conscious of the complexities associated with building and maintaining effective alliances in diverse constituencies.  The weakness of the research is that it lacks a solid theoretical base. This means that its judgements can be sweeping and misleading. Putting the capitalist state back into the equation would enable people to see how Blair is not simply a Tory. His Third Way fuses economic liberalism with some unpleasant authoritarian values, but his soft brand of neo-liberalism does diverge from the harsh individualism of Thatcherism in several respects. For example, Blair’s National Minimum Wage attracted a deluge of inaccurate criticism as a ‘job destroyer’ from the right prior to its timely introduction.

Histories of the Labour Party tend to be written by people trying to make a strong point about the present. Blair is discredited enough without claiming that he is something he is not. Pugh worked really hard to produce a colourful narrative, but (like those of Robert Clough) his efforts are slightly damaged by the intensity of his emotions. Pugh’s crude dismissal of the intellectual Foot is typical in its arrogance:

“In  particular he never acquired an interest in economics and championed a vague moralistic socialism redolent of an earlier era that did not show up well in the scrutiny of the television age. In effect Foot was a throwback to Keir Hardie and George Lansbury.”

 

Brexit: an instrument of class division

One problem for the project of austerity is that it threatens to create massive social opposition to its economic (il)logic. Classes which lose benefits or which suffer from low wages could coalesce in victorious anti-austerity alliances. Organized labour or political parties might decisively challenge the ‘common sense’ of environmental destruction, public sector cuts and privatization. Of course, austerity in the UK has had political and economic critics, but the working class has not yet come together to reject its cruelty.

It is important to recall that people can be situated in contradictory class positions. Other social cleavages may be seen to weaken class unity further. Differences within the working class clearly have a really long history. However, Brexit can be viewed as a button which can be repeatedly pressed. The working class and the labour movement are not always closely connected and every single stage of the Brexit process permits nationalism to raise its ugly head.

Working class Tories may be much more common in some regions than others, but the reactionary appeal of Brexit transcends the Conservative vote. The implementation of austerity is now being made easier by the tribalism created by the anti-European agenda. Those opposed to austerity must not forget the wisdom of E.P. Thompson who argued:

“we cannot understand class unless we see it as a social and cultural formation, arising from processes which can only be studied as they work themselves out over a considerable historical period.”

Brexit as a late capitalist show

Back in the 1970s, the Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel came up with the concept of late capitalism. In recent years, the controversial term has come back into fashion. While Mandel was making his economic argument during the Cold War, the revival of late capitalist thinking has much to do with environmental issues. Although Mandel was a critic of Stalinist thought, the presence of ‘actually existing socialism’ gave a solidity to his theory which postmodern philosophers might envy.

Nevertheless, the dialectical approach of Mandel lent excess certainty to his views. Postmodern thinking on late capitalism would share his reluctance to admit to a purely chronological mindset. However, it may question ‘late’ and ‘capitalism.’ Mandel reasoned late capitalism was distinctive because of efforts:

“”to bridge over, at least partially, the contradiction between the anarchy of capitalist production inherent in the private ownership of the means of production and the growing objective pressure to plan.”

Varieties of economic liberalism have burned down these bridging efforts. Nor is economic nationalism likely to lead to satisfactory planning. As a result, capitalism has evolved into something of a pageant in several nations. While the environmental crises worsen, a huge push is being made to keep the show on the road. As low interest rates prevent economic stagnation from arriving prematurely, the cultural conflicts triggered by Trump and Brexit cement elite hegemony by bringing fresh fears to the fore. Although the lateness of different types of capitalism can be debated, the distracting political debates that blaze across the United States and the UK are clearly about kicking the most serious issues into touch.

Sylvia Pankhurst by Mary Davis

This brilliant text illuminates a life of struggle. Lenin treated Sylvia Pankhurst with respect, while the campaigner spent decades in the fight against sexism, imperialism and racism. Pankhurst was eccentric and prone to alienate others, but her sincerity, vision and passion cannot be questioned. While the Pankhurst name is commonly associated with the suffragettes, Mary Davis reveals how one of the family retained her radicalism after the franchise victory had been attained.

Pankhurst may be attacked for inconsistency. However, in such turbulent economic times sticking to a party line would have brought its own difficulties. Those who adhered to the principles of the Labour Party were betrayed by Ramsay MacDonald and others, while those enthused by the Russian revolution were swept into compromising positions by the complexities of international socialism. For a feminist, the political problems of the period were compounded by patriarchy.

Pankhurst was quick to warn people about the terrible dangers of fascism. An early critic of Mussolini, she did not think the new type of dictatorship was similar to other forms of undemocratic rule. She wrote:

“Fascism…is essentially a manifestation of capitalism having felt danger and revenging itself for having been made to fear for its existence.”

Drugs and socialism

“Our fundamental delusion today is not believing in what is only a fiction, to take fictions too seriously – on the contrary, it is not taking fictions seriously enough.”

Ever since Slavoj Žižek demanded his third pill, the potential link between modern socialism and drugs has been emerging from the haze. With Acid Corbynism now a live debate within Momentum, the minds of the people are going to be expanded once more. As has been noted by Jeremy Gilbert, the New Left dabbled in mysticism back in the day. Now, nobody is suggesting that day tripping is going to be the start of a Great Leap Forward, but it is fascinating that the discourse of drugs is being pushed at the present time.

While Russell Brand has recently penned a book on how to deal with addiction, he may well be swimming against the colourful tide. Without sufficient socially useful work, the generation betrayed by Brexit may be about to party like there is no future. So what should socialists do in this moment of peak alienation?

Austerity has forced many people to reduce their discretionary spending. More affluent types have been tempted into conspicuous consumption. It seems that people should refrain from making easy judgements. If others want to escape from the paranoia of reality, the least that one can say is good luck.

Labour can’t lose Momentum over Brexit

Brexit is continuing to be awkward for the Labour Party. This is not because of the leadership or the trade unions. Both of these groups recognise the economic benefits of the single market, whilst acknowledging the result of the referendum. Problems have been coming from discontented MPs who have used the summer to deviate from the party line. Neoliberals are reluctant to accept the referendum result, while there are Blue Labour figures who want to clamp down on immigration swiftly. Members of Momentum should probably remember the delicacy of the European issue and focus on campaigning against austerity.

The liberal media likes to depict the Shadow Chancellor as profoundly sceptical of the European Union. The truth is that John McDonnell MP is pragmatic. He wants to preserve the living standards of the working class and is prepared to compromise to achieve his goals. He knows that many young people are pro-European and respects the pluralism within the socialist tradition.

Vowing to remain in the single market for an unspecified time could have a negative impact on the poll ratings of Labour. Nevertheless, it is essential to have a dividing line from the Tory policy. Leaving the European Union hurriedly or clumsily may have serious economic consequences. It was a Conservative referendum and the Conservative Party should be made to pay an electoral price for their juvenile nationalism. Hence Labour would do well to be as pro-European as its leadership desires. Socialists should recall the opinion of  Rosa Luxemburg:

“Strength lies not in numbers, but in the spirit, in the clarity, in the energy that inspires us.”