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.”
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.”
Interest rates have been kept at historically low levels for years by the Bank of England. Monetary policy has been used to keep the engine of the UK economy from stalling while austerity has impacted significantly on demand. If the Bank of England wants to fight inflation it may now nudge interest rates up. The new policy will affect different parts of the UK in various ways.
In the lagging regions, a hike in interest rates may not be welcome. It could be too soon for struggling regional economies. It may widen regional disparities and undermine initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse. If Brexit talks go badly, the economic chill may be hard for people in these regions to cope with. The type of jobs created in these peripheral areas has not facilitated saving among the young.
The resilience of prosperous parts of the country should put them in an enviable position. Overheating tendencies may be dampened and many households will find that a gradual rise in interest rates is appropriate for them. Savers could be cheered and interest in tax-free saving accounts might revive.
If you are trying to suggest the re-creation of the National Health Service would be a great idea for public health, all kinds of negative arguments may be mobilized against you. Questions of affordability and the ageing population may be dealt with easily. However, awkwardness arises when people raise unrelated issues.
For example, some individuals object with vehemence to the amount of money the UK allocates to foreign aid. The sums of money involved are not huge and significant efforts have been made to ensure that the resources go to worthwhile projects. Politicians may also view the aid budget in terms of enhancing ‘soft power’ or facilitating trade. Nevertheless, the main issue is that all affluent countries should meet basic humanitarian obligations.
The trouble is that austerity has exacerbated irrational responses to the ordinary injustices of British capitalism. The sentiment that “we should take care of our own” can appear. The idea that a government which reduced the foreign aid budget would necessarily channel extra funds to the health service is implausible. Furthermore, there is no need for it to become an either/or situation.
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.”
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.
Lord Hailsham suggested the UK was an elective dictatorship in 1976. While the concept might have seemed unusual in that decade of working class assertiveness, it now seems to fit with reality more closely. The Brexit referendum has allowed the executive to debate the use of ‘Henry VIII powers’ in Parliament and a small coalition majority may facilitate the use of this authority. This could diminish future democratic scrutiny and would underline precisely who has gained from the ‘take back control’ slogan.
The experience of the United States shows that voters who want to kick the status quo can end up with an alarming outcome. The fuzziness of Brexit is enabling the Conservative Party to take the country into a dangerous place. The idea that low skilled British workers will benefit from restricting immigration from the European Union is risible. Limiting immigration excessively is likely to undermine the efficiency of British capitalism, while departing from the single market could have other negative consequences.
It would appear that a general election is more democratic than a referendum in the British context. This is primarily because the public is accustomed to regular general elections. As the UK lacks a proper written constitution, holding a referendum on a constitutional matter can be highly problematic. The elite set the terms of the debate and then interpret the outcome. In the case of the EU referendum, the failure of successive governments to clarify the economic importance of immigration was disastrous. For the Conservative Party to continue to put authoritarian populism ahead of economic prudence is irresponsible.