Labour’s Ed Miliband is under fire. This is not surprising, given his miserabilist message and the incompetence with which the party has handled Scottish politics. But not all criticism of Mr Miliband is fair. He has held firm on core liberal policy areas, such as Europe, immigration and human rights. Given that the Conservatives are abandoning liberal values in their pursuit of Ukip voters, shouldn’t liberals reward this grit under pressure, and vote for the party that Mr Miliband leads? But that would be as grave a mistake as liberals and greens would have made if they had voted for David Cameron’s party in 2010.
Ed Miliband’s Labour party has not lurched to the left, contrary to many claims in the press. It is in firm grasp of the political centre. His criticism of capitalism is aimed at is directed at rigged markets, as in energy. He does not plan to be reckless with the state’s finances – though he is guilty of not explaining this very clearly to more left-wing supporters. Many of his more radical policies, like devolution within England, look very similar to policies promoted by the Liberal Democrats. This liberalism and centrism has brought rewards. In a recent survey commissioned by the Fabian Society, pollsters showed that voters who had switched to the party from the Liberal Democrats remain loyal to Labour, even as it leaks support from people who had voted for it in 2010, a supposed rock bottom. The Liberal Democrats are not being offered any chink of light to aim at, with only six months to go before the election – except in a few geographically limited strongholds. The signs are that Labour intends to maintain this grip. Even as Ukip nibbles away at its traditional supporters, the Labour leadership shows no sign of panicking.
And most liberals seem to be sick of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The Conservatives are back to banging on about Europe, and Mr Cameron is happy to gamble the country’s future membership of the European Union in order to deliver some sound-bites to voters worried about excessive immigration. The Tory commitment on environmental issues, especially the reduction of carbon emissions, has been shown to be skin deep. In education they have set ideology ahead of effectiveness. Their promise of future tax cuts will have devastating implications for public services. The future of the NHS is of particular worry to voters – though it is far from clear that any other party has a better answer to the challenges it faces. The Lib Dems have limited the damage the Tories would otherwise have inflicted. They can claim more tax on the rich, and less on those with lower incomes, advances on renewable energy, forestalling the reintroduction of grammar schools, among many other achievements – but for each liberal win there seems to be more than one in the opposite direction. The tone of the government is Tory and liberals are fed up with it.
But does Labour deserve to win the liberal vote? We might remember David Cameron’s efforts to de-toxify the Conservatives before the 2010 election – which culminated in the slogan: “Vote Blue, Get Green”. But it was quickly clear that his party hadn’t changed for the better; even if Mr Cameron was a moderate liberal himself, he was not carrying his party with him. I think the same is true of Mr Miliband’s liberalism.
The Labour and Conservative parties are very similar in many ways. They are founded on the idea that they are monopolistic parties of government. In many ways they resemble old east European Communist parties (or the modern Chinese one, come to that). They concede grudgingly that the other party has to exist, and that government between the two will alternate – but on the other hand they see each other as tribal enemies. All other political parties, and people without a party allegiance, just don’t count in their world view. This is best seen in local government. There is nothing these parties like better than a Council in which only their own party is represented – which can happen with our current electoral system (except in Scotland and Northern Ireland). They run these fiefdoms through their own, opaque party machinery, so that they can display unity in public, and suppress awkward debate. Conservative Wandsworth (where I live) works in much the same way as Labour Grimsby (which I visited last week). Corruption, especially around property development, is hard to prove. But it is sort of governance where corruption can thrive – and the public suspects it, be it high-rise developments in north Wandsworth, or wind farms in Grimsby’s rural hinterland.
So when Labour talks of devolving power, it is to these opaque structures. If you want a say in how the extra powers and money are used, join the local Labour Party. And if you join the local Labour Party keep your dissent private. Most Labourites, like Chinese Communists, are so inured to this way of doing things that they can’t see a problem. To them, this is what democracy looks like.
But it is has left a rotten mess in far too many places. In Rotherham local council officials preferred to leave their opaque dealings with local ethnic community leaders intact, rather than confront allegations of sexual grooming by Kashmiri men on vulnerable young girls. Doncaster’s social services department collapsed. And these are the tip of an iceberg. Labour hangs on to power by promoting social and ethnic tribalism. The Lib Dems had been their only challengers in their northern English heartlands – but they have now been crushed following their coalition with the hated Tories. The Lib Dems have passed the mantle to Ukip – who, for all their many faults, stand for much more open and transparent ways of government – or anyway that’s what their grassroots think their party stands for.
If this sounds a little like paranoia, just listen to how Labour activists refer to those Lib Dems. They aren’t regarded as a valid political party who are mistaken – they are traitors and vermin who must be despised and extinguished. Many Labour activists were prepared tolerate the Lib Dems where they looked better able to unseat Tories than Labour. But any such tolerance is now long gone. Some Labour activists are telling the others: “told you so” – any party that is not part of the Labour movement is not to be trusted. Consider this article by Luke Akehurst in Labour List: We must not make the same mistake with the Greens that we did with the Lib Dems.
Such tribal, monopolistic political parties are inimical to modern democracy. Not all Labour party members and activists support such attitudes – but they predominate the closer they get to political power. They are increasingly at odds with they way people want to exercise political power. Such parties are not interested in democratic engagement: they want their tribal loyalists to turn up to vote, and would rather everybody else stayed at home.
Labour and the Tories do not threaten each other in their respective heartlands – but they are subject to insurgent challenges. I have already mentioned challenges formerly from the Lib Dems and now Ukip, which apply to Tories as well as Labour. But the immediate threat to Labour is in Scotland and from the SNP. Labour, as by far the largest unionist party north of the border, naturally led the campaign for a No vote in the independence referendum. They did so with staggering ineptitude. They had no idea how run a political campaign based on persuasion rather than crude intimidation. They lost their critical stronghold of Glasgow to the Yes campaign. And following the referendum they rapidly tried to change the subject as if nothing had happened. Now recent polling has shown their vote to be in a state of collapse. They could lose more than 20 seats to the SNP in the General Election, dishing their chances of an overall majority in the UK as a whole.
It is too much to hope that the party will reform itself without suffering electoral disaster first. Voting for them will mean perpetuating a duopolistic system of government that will not make the country a more liberal, better governed place. For liberals it would be better to hold your nose if you have to, and to vote for the Lib Dems.