The band played on

Lib Dems are underwriting a government of crisis, writes James Turley

The Liverpool conference of the Liberal Democrat Party, as expected, was a strained affair, revealing many of the tensions at the heart of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

The Lib Dems went into the conference with collapsing poll ratings and a worried, mutinous mood among activists. Though the formation of the coalition was merely the continuation of the cynical political strategy they already pursue at a local level - that is, saying whatever necessary to get into coalition government before proceeding to toe their partners’ lines - the prospect of taking responsibility for the most bloodthirsty Tory policies in the post-war era has left many in the Lib Dem ranks with cold feet.

So it was no surprise to see a few left poses on display in Liverpool - such as Vince Cable’s ‘controversial’ (really?) speech, to which we shall return later. There was even a conference vote against one of the Tories’ flagship policies - ‘free schools’, a backdoor method of privatising the management of schools painted in feel-good parent-power colours. The Lib Dem leadership attempted to water down the motion so that its MPs would not be required to actively campaign against it. Their amendment was overwhelmingly rejected, and the motion duly passed.

On the other side of the coin, there were endless exhortations to ‘stay the course’ in government. That was certainly the line being peddled by leader and deputy PM Nick Clegg. His speech, vetted in advance by David Cameron, was fulsome in its endorsement of the coalition’s most notable policy - enormous and brutal public spending cuts. “Hold your nerve and we will have changed Britain for good,” he told the delegates - presumably in the same sense that the American military changed Nagasaki for good.

He also warned against breaking the unity of the coalition, ‘hanging dirty washing in public’ and so forth - which, it must be said, puts him in a bit of a pickle over free schools. A good proportion of those who foisted opposition to Cameron and Michael Gove’s plans on him are local notables, many in long-standing council positions, or working in education themselves (the mover, Peter Downes, was a councillor and retired headteacher). Either he alienates important sections of the Lib Dems’ support with proven electoral records, or he starts raising hell and draws the ire of the Tories. No doubt he will devise a cunning plan to get out of this predicament, whose final shape one awaits with interest.

You would have thought that the Lib Dems’ local power bases would already be quaking in their boots looking at the polls. After all, it is they - not Clegg, Cable and co, barring some calamity in the next few months - who are to go to the voters early next year, and they will be a prime target for a protest vote drubbing. Yet they apparently remain fairly confident of survival. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was told by Warren Bradley, the Lib Dem leader on Liverpool council, that “the people of Liverpool won’t be swayed by national politics” (September 20) - a statement quite extraordinary in its combination of insulting cynicism and political naivety.

Despite misgivings - and Bradley was one of the angriest Lib Dem rebels over the Building Schools for the Future fiasco - the party is happy to sail on, with the leadership, into the electoral iceberg. They will no doubt have been assuaged somewhat, not just by their victory on schools policy, but also by Vince Cable’s forthright rhetoric in his own conference speech.

“I make no apology,” he told the assembled throng, “for attacking spivs and gamblers who did more harm to the British economy than Bob Crow could achieve in his wildest Trotskyite fantasies, while paying themselves outrageous bonuses underwritten by the taxpayer. There is much public anger about banks and it is well deserved.” He also, of course, trotted out the familiar homilies about the necessity of spending cuts with such an enormous deficit; that, while deficit financing is necessary in an “emergency”, it all has to be paid back.

While he claimed that cuts had to be balanced by stimulus, having the nerve to cite John Maynard Keynes - bourgeois economics’s most consistent advocate of deficit financing, who would no doubt have claimed in the words of Marx that if this was a Keynesian speech, he was no Keynesian - there was no evidence that this was any more than empty verbiage. Despite being sold to the electorate as a fine economic mind, he does not seem able to grasp the effect on growth of throwing hundreds of thousands of people out of public sector jobs. Ireland, which has imposed its own foul austerity programme, is now in a double-dip recession. Cable, for all his Keynes citations, seems pretty cavalier about the fate of Britain on that score.

It is, of course, the ‘spivs and gamblers’ section of his speech that has aroused the most fevered discussions - and not because he was ignorant enough to call Bob Crow a Trotskyite, which no doubt caused some purple-faced consternation at RMT headquarters. The City was prompt in its denunciations; Cable was even declared to be a Marxist in sections of the bourgeois press.

This is a frankly comical denunciation - even many Tories were to be found laying into ‘spivs’ as the financial crisis broke a couple of years ago. As far as Cable goes, he seems inordinately careful to link his disparaging comments about bankers to the more uppity sections of the workers movement - the “Trotskyite fantasies” of Bob Crow follow the characterisation of irresponsible financiers as “pin-stripe Scargills” during the election campaign. With comrades like these ...

Yet there is a serious side to this too. As the new Labour leader Ed Miliband’s campaign picked up steam, and a sneaky victory over brother David appeared more likely, the denunciations of him began in earnest. He was branded ‘Red Ed’ - a tool of the unions, a poster boy for the very people Vince Cable most fears. On closer examination, of course, this claim is equally ludicrous - Ed Miliband served in the New Labour government, was obviously very close to Gordon Brown from the early days of that project, and has been attacked for failing to mince his words cravenly enough before audiences of trade unionists. Now that it no longer matters, he criticises the Iraq war. Not exactly a rabble-rousing tribune of the people, then - but still the victim of red-baiting.

While we have no particular interest in defending the dubious honour of Vince Cable or Ed Miliband, this rhetoric from the right-wing media amounts to a considerable extension of the fairly common practice of red-baiting. The model appears to be the United States, where to advocate any kind of extension of the healthcare or welfare system, no matter how modest, has long been tantamount to ‘communism’. This atmosphere has become all the more oppressive in recent times, with the increasingly irrational Tea Party movement peddling bizarre conspiracy theories to large sections of the US population.

This may, in fact, be a sign of things to come here. Should Ed Miliband lead Labour to victory in the next election - a big ‘if’, of course - he will not have to break with very much of Tory policy for the same fate to befall him. The conditions for a British Tea Party are ripe, except that the party of the right is already in charge. Such are the dynamics of class polarisation in times of crisis. The workers’ movement urgently needs to organise itself in a serious enough fashion to beat back the vicious attacks - material and political - it can expect in the coming years.

The same dynamics underlie the peculiar course of the Liberal Democrats in the short years of their current existence. Their political strategy, as noted, has consisted of sneaking votes away from either of the main parties according to convenience. It could talk left in, say, Walthamstow, and talk right in Henley on Thames. The accession of Labour to power in 1997 disrupted this strategy somewhat, as the Lib Dem policy platform seemed in many respects - over economic matters, and especially over the Iraq war - to be to the left of Labour’s; it could no longer play piggy in the middle in national politics (although, in an utterly degraded local government system, it could do so at that level). Disputes emerged between the left and right wings of the party - Clegg and Cable, it should be noted, were very much in the latter camp.

Now the Lib Dems are underwriting a government of crisis; the battles to come will be bloody. Clegg and Cable are right - the Lib Dems cannot be half-in and half-out of government, but have to make a choice. It is an easy one for the leaders; they will probably be rewarded with ‘non-aggression pacts’ with the Tories at the next election. Those unlucky enough not to be deemed sufficiently important for salvation face electoral wipe-out. A side must be chosen; the Lib Dems have picked government, and with it, political suicide.