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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Not So Strange Death of Liberal England

Stephen Bush, who is perhaps the only reason to bother reading the New Statesman these days, has written a typically thoughtful piece on the non-appearance of the Liberal Democrat electoral surge. I say thoughtful, but I don't say right, because I think he makes a fundamental error in his analysis, specifically claiming that the fates of Labour and the Lib Dems are intertwined. He sets the scene thus: "On the right, there is a Conservative Party that has abandoned many of the liberal shibboleths it embraced under David Cameron and is fully committed to a hard exit from the European Union. And on the left there is a bitterly divided Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Yet the long-awaited 'Lib Dem revival' has stalled". Bush offers two reasons. First, many remainers have become reconciled to leaving the EU (the "re-leavers") and are thus minded to place their faith in Theresa May, perhaps hoping she will push for a softer Brexit post-election. Second, swing voters will only risk a vote for the Lib Dems if they think a possible left-of-centre coalition would be with a moderate Labour Party, so the leftward shift under Corbyn has paradoxically eroded support for Farron & co.

Both explanations strike me as weak. A quarter of Lib Dem voters nationally opted for leave in the EU referendum and this figure is likely to have been proportionately higher in those areas where the party held seats after 2010, which tended to be rural and suburban constituencies with otherwise conservative characteristics. When these seats turned blue in 2015, it was an indication that much of the Lib Dems' core support was made up of small-c conservatives whose historic antipathy to the Tories had weakened. While the media is fascinated by the idea of UKIP as a "gateway drug" for Labour voters migrating to the Tories, little has been made of the way that coalition acted as a vector for Lib Dems moving to the right. The idea that the party's voters are now temporarily on leave until Brexit is accomplished is the hopeful flip-side of this relative silence. Bush's second point requires us to believe that potential Lib Dem voters today think that an anti-Tory coalition is a real possibility, despite the polls strongly suggesting otherwise. It also fails to explain why Lib Dem support fell from 23% in 2010 to 8% in 2015, despite Labour under Ed Milliband taking only the most tentative steps away from Blairite centrism. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Lib Dem vote is primarily determined by the party's relationship with the Conservatives, not with Labour.

Bush's analysis reflects the "triangulation" or centripetal theory of British politics in which the Lib Dems are positioned mid-point on the ideological spectrum between the two main parties. In practice, they are just a species of conservative, with most of their support coming from traditional bourgeois fractions averse to the Tories for essentially historic and cultural reasons: non-conformists, petty-capitalists, urban professionals, civil servants etc. As a minor party, many of its signature policies on the national stage have been emblematic commitments intended to expand support rather than consolidate or reward its actual base (their local council practice being another matter and sometimes even at odds with national policies). For example, their "yoof" policies were directed at catching the middle-class young before voting habits set in (decriminalising cannabis is as much of a class identifier as free tuition), while their fiscal policies (raising the tax-free allowance but adding a penny to income tax for the NHS) were directed at the respectable working class ("hardworking families", in modern parlance). In the language of retail politics, the Lib Dems tried to position themselves as an impulse buy rather than a lifelong subscription.

Though the trope of political neglect has largely been used in reference to Labour, the Liberal Democrats have been just as guilty of taking their electoral base for granted over the years. The sudden realisation on the part of many of their voters in the 2010-15 period that they were actually conservatives all along has been a more profound shock to the established voting paradigm than the inroads of UKIP into Labour's base. In this light, it is worth noting that Theresa May's gestures towards a more pro-social state are as likely to reassure ex-Lib Dem voters as attract wavering Labour supporters. While classical liberalism emphasised free trade and the restraint of the state, hence the contemporary commitment to the EU (despite its hyper-statism) and high-profile civil liberties, the Lib Dem's voting bloc has shown itself to be equally open to the siren calls of patriotic protectionism and the coercive state. With its cultural roots attenuated, the party lacks the resilience of Labour. Though it may continue to pick up seats in low-turnout local elections, the Lib Dems may be facing near wipeout as a Parliamentary party. Having fallen from 57 to 8 seats in 2015, I wouldn't be surprised if they end up with fewer than 5 in June.


In recent years, the citing of George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) has been almost exclusively used as a warning from history of the sudden evaporation of a party's support and therefore a prediction of the imminent demise of Labour. Less attention has been paid to its actual subject: the disappearance of the Liberal Party as an electoral force. Dangerfield attributed its early twentieth century decline to a combination of the struggle with the Conservatives over the Parliament Act of 1911 (restricting the power of the Lords), the challenge of unionism to Irish Home Rule, and the demands of suffragettes and militant trade unions for accelerated reform. It was a conventional history seen through the prism of a parliamentary politics under pressure from "extremists", and one that gained fame largely because of its striking title rather than its insights or forensic analysis. Its modern resonance owes much to the image of a beleaguered centre and the way that democracy can be hijacked by class-inflected populism (liberals have always been fearful of majoritarianism, hence the preference for proportional representation was about more than addressing their disadvantages under first-past-the-post).

Dangerfield failed to understand the dynamic of politics in an era marked by the novelty of universal suffrage and the persistence of material deprivation. Namely, that once most working people had the vote there would be an inevitable opposition between a collectivist left and a right defending private property and privilege. This division would coalesce around class interests: the bulk of the working class plus progressive fractions of the middle class arrayed against the bourgeoisie and reactionary fractions of the working class. Through the 19th century, liberalism had prospered as both a progressive movement responding to the challenges of industrial society and a gradually-retreating bulwark against democracy. Once the latter was fully conceded, liberalism lost its electoral power as a class compromise: progressives garvitated to the left and the bourgeoisie to the right. However, it did not lose its ideological power. What happened after World War One was that liberalism became hegemonic, colonising both the Tories (consider the trajectory of Churchill) and Labour (consider the Fabians). England (sic) has never stopped being a liberal country.

One of the dimensions of Liberal Party support that Dangerfield downplayed was religious affiliation. As the franchise expanded over the course of the nineteenth century, the Liberal's core electoral support (outside Ireland) was increasingly centred on non-conformist communities, notably in Wales, the South West, the North and Scotland outside the Central Belt, a trend that was accentuated in the early twentieth century as Catholic voters in the cities peeled off to the new Labour Party. This distribution persisted, despite the weakening of religion as the century progressed, and despite it being temporarily obscured by the fresh inroads made into cities like Liverpool and Birmingham in the 1970s through "pavement politics". As the latter dissipated, essentially because the Thatcherite assault on local government created a straight fight in town halls between Labour and the Tories, the old geography was once more revealed and could be seen as recently as the 2015 results. Ironically, Tim Farron's evangelical Christianity is one of the more traditional Liberal features of the contemporary formation. The fact that he is out of step with many Lib Dem supporters on issues such as abortion is another indicator of the weak institutional base of the party. 2017 is likely to see this political geography reduced to a historic curiosity.

The failure of the Liberal Democrats to arise from the ashes of 2015, despite the supposedly propitious division of the country into two tribes following the EU referendum, should come as no surprise. The party lost its raison d'etre a century ago. Its 1970s revival was merely an epiphenomenon of the neoliberal revolution, reflecting a general ideological confusion rather than its own historical salience. Once Thatcherism curtailed the space for its community politics, which it had never managed to translate into a meaningful national programme, and once New Labour seized the neoliberal baton along with the banner of progressive internationalism, the party's retail offer was reduced to being Tony Blair's conscience. It was preserved from electoral decline by a combination of voter habit, the liberal media's guilt over New Labour's illiberalism, and its own nature as an organisation that lives for national elections and pretty much hibernates in between. Given these dynamics, it's success in 2010 was always going to be fragile, requiring the cunning of an Asquith and the ruthlessness of a Lloyd George to preserve. Instead it got the vanity of Nick Clegg and a supporting cast lacking backbone, skill or even simple honesty. The coalition finally broke the spell. This was a death long foretold.

3 comments:

  1. Ben Philliskirk18 May 2017 at 21:28

    One notable feature of their decline is that it has also paralleled something of a shift in their electoral politics from opportunism to principle, of a certain kind. Clegg's decision to commit to the coalition and its inevitable disappointment of many policies the party had advocated over the previous 20 years might have seemed like a mere hankering for a place in government, but I feel there was more of a determination that the party had to demonstrate the coalition politics they had long advocated, as well as the 'Orange Bookers' desire to mark themselves out as a serious bourgeois liberal party. Similarly, their current project seems to be an attempt to heroically defend their position as proponents of the EU, despite the fact that it is not an appealing enough single issue to attract mass electoral support.

    I think their continued existence as a political party could well depend upon whether they can find a place for an indiscriminate protest politics in the future. Otherwise they will become as much of a fringe party as the Liberal Party that broke away after the Liberal-SDP merger.

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  2. On excellent form, David.

    While reading, I couldn't help thinking, whatever became of "The End of History". Whatever became of the "Orange Book".

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  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment21 May 2017 at 10:13

    The Tories make a certain kind of sense if you accept the planet wrecking, nature destroying, human spirit destroying Capitalist system and cannot see beyond it.

    The Tories are positioning themselves as the champions of the ‘hard working’ and ‘patriotic’ ‘working classes’, and when you drill into what that means it is the same trickle down policies they have always believed in! So in summary the Tories believe the best way to help the slaves is to give the master a bigger whip.

    This seems absurd at first because why would a slave stand for such a thing. But what the Tories say is this, there are slaves who want to run away, there are unruly slaves, there are slaves who are unfit for work, all these bad slaves make the lives of you, the obedient slaves, more difficult and burdensome. With this bigger whip we will make your life easier and make sure no one (please let us forget about the masters) will be a burden on you!

    The liberals say all of the above except the master’s whip will be smaller and the unruly and unfit slaves will be treated less harshly!

    Looking at the Tory manifesto I am reminded of Readers digest, which appeals to the elderly while trying to fleece them of money. The Tories rely on the elderly, borderline dementia ridden section of the population and lure them with promises to get rid of immigrants and make Britain white again, while at the same time they take away their home and winter fuel allowance!
    Policy 1: No votes for the over 70’s.

    Anyone who reads the Tory manifesto, which is a viscous and heartless attack on the weak and vulnerable, and still decides to vote Tory, can be nothing other than a despicable and cruel human being. You have to be a sociopath to vote Tory.

    Policy 2: Bring back hanging for Tory voters!

    I think there is an element of the Emperor’s new clothes about the hideous creature of the 19th century Theresa May, I wonder when that bubble will burst, but that could only happen if the media get bored of her and while ever Corbyn is around that won’t happen.

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