The second death of Liberal England

The weakness of the Liberal Democrats benefits the Tories more than the workers' movement, argues James Turley

If you want a clear index of the parlous condition of the Liberal Democrats, the upcoming Oldham East by-election already serves the purpose - and the date has not even been announced.

The election was triggered, as readers will be aware. after the odious Labour hatchet-man, Phil Woolas, was removed from parliament charged with having knowingly spread utterly fictional accusations against his Lib Dem opponent. In May the constituency was balanced on a knife’s edge - under the normal circumstances of routine British politics, the Lib Dems would be in with a good shout to wipe out Labour’s majority.

As it is, though, their activists look forward to the day with the same dread that they may view Armageddon. Seven months in coalition government with the Tories has left them swinging in the wind. Poll ratings have collapsed; rank-and-file activists, not to mention backbench MPs and backroom apparatchiks, are increasingly divided. The only consolation on offer in Oldham is that, among others, Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins will face British National Party leader Nick Griffin - that will at least provide a diversionary sideshow.

The direct cause of all the Lib Dems’ troubles can by summed up in three words beloved of Tony Blair - education, education, education. That was the most controversial matter at their party conference this autumn, though then the focus was more on the ‘Building schools for the future’ fiasco and Michael Gove’s other insidious plans for the British school system.

Now, of course, the focus has shifted to tuition fees. This is something Lib Dem ministers cannot palm off on their Tory colleagues - for one thing, the enormous proposed hike in fees has been cooked up by Vince Cable’s business department; for another, the party’s leading lights (unwisely, as Clegg now admits) went into the May election not only having opposition to fee rises in their manifesto, but having made personal and very public pledges to vote against any such hikes.

As pressure mounts from student protestors, Lib Dem backbenchers are beginning to waver - to put it mildly. The BBC surveyed all 57 Lib Dem MPs, and found only two willing to declare support for the government plans - presumably Clegg and Cable. Thirteen - including former leaders Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy - plan to vote with Labour; the rest are undecided, refusing to comment or even to respond. It is worth noting, also, that rightwing Tory David Davis plans to vote against - no surprises there, since Davis has persistently tried to undermine the coalition. The question is how many other Tory grumblers will make the same Machiavellian move.

Cable’s and Clegg’s excuse for reneging on their promise is truly perfunctory - we are in a coalition government, there is a process of give and take (from a Lib Dem perspective, rather more give than take), etc. It has half a ring of sincerity to it - except that it is basically another way of saying, ‘We got a better offer’. If it was so important that they were willing to make personal pledges on the matter, then they should have held out for the right to vote against - as it is, the flip-flop on fees is one aspect among many of what amounts to utterly unashamed electoral fraud in May. It is an instance of mendacity, in fact, very much comparable to Phil Woolas’s - albeit not so personally vicious. Should Watkins receive a trouncing in Oldham East, it will thus be a satisfyingly ironic outcome.

2015 wipe-out?

It is not beyond the realms of possibility for the Lib Dems to recover well enough to face the next general election in good order. For many reasons, however, it is unlikely. They remain lashed to the Tories, and the Tories have the scent of blood in their nostrils - the cuts are only beginning to bite, and are to deepen progressively over four years. As things get worse, it is the Lib Dems who will suffer the most - after all, the Tories have the advantage of the support of the bile-spitting rightwing press and significant sections of big business. The only potential ‘success’ on the cards is the referendum on the alternative vote electoral system - although, one imagines, all its opponents will have to do to sink AV will be to point out that the Lib Dems would be more likely to get in again.

Hardly surprising, then, that the persistent rumours of some kind of deal at the next general election have resurfaced once again. In a rare public appearance, former Tory prime minister John Major - no stranger to balancing the whims of bitter factional rivals - suggested that, should the coalition fail to complete its work during the current term, it should go to the country for re-election as the coalition. He dismissed the rejections of the idea coming from both partners: “Neither party will admit that possibility at present, not least because it would upset their core vote, but - if events turn out well for the coalition - I, for one, would not be surprised at that outcome” (The Daily Telegraph November 26).

Major is wrong to lay the blame for all this on the “core vote”, which is truer for the Tories than the Lib Dems. The latter face a rather more serious challenge - it is no exaggeration to say that coalition with the Tories, which looked like a taste of the big time back in May, now represents an existential threat to them as an independent political force. Should Cameron, in 2015, strike a deal with Clegg and co, the latter will effectively become a ginger group of the Tories, only electable where they are unopposed by the latter.

What remains of the Lib Dems after this de facto defection will be a small rump of MPs, comparable to the status of the Liberal Party throughout the ‘short 20th century’. This is not a decision that even so repugnant a group of opportunists as they will take lightly. On the other hand, to compete with the Tories and Labour at the next election, barring a political miracle, will result equally in electoral wipe-out; as the date looms, an electoral deal will come more and more to look like an offer they can’t refuse.

For this reason, it is wrong to draw the conclusion from Lib Dem discomfort that the government as a whole is weak, divided and will collapse with a big enough push from our side. This appears to be the perspective of the Socialist Workers Party - a central committee-penned advance taster from the third SWP pre-conference bulletin, focused on the student protests, states ecstatically that the latter have “have sent a shudder through the establishment and exposed what a weak government this really is ... Vince Cable’s suggestion that he might join his colleagues in abstaining on fees shows that it is fast becoming an issue that could bring the government down - after only six months in office.”

There is a half-truth here - the government has not been so weak as it is now during its whole time in office. The December 9 vote has become, one way or another, a test of Nick Clegg’s credibility. His party will almost certainly split three ways, with perhaps a majority either abstaining or voting against the bill. Does that mean the Lib Dems are about to break their coalition agreement with the Tories and depart from government? It looks unlikely.

Clegg will surely convince his colleagues to stay ... and perhaps go for a renewal of the coalition. He can say, with total honesty, that to break from the Tories is to risk the job of every Lib Dem MP. Those who have snuck into marginal seats will have to weigh their principles against their wallets. Recent history militates strongly against the view that Lib Dem MPs are overburdened with principles.

The weakness of the Lib Dems is not a source of weakness in the government - on the contrary, it is a source of strength. The coalition agreement was a masterstroke of political engineering from the Tories’ point of view - it has been meticulously designed to leave the junior partners as fall guys. The more they look likely to take the fall, the more reliant they are on Cameron’s patronage. It is a perfect circle.

The militancy of the school and college students has been inspirational to millions who are worriedly facing George Osborne’s ‘age of austerity’. Next year we will begin to see the entry of the organised working class into the battle. However, if we expect the coalition to fall with the first big push, we are likely to be disappointed. It will take more than occupations, mass demonstrations, even one-day general strikes to shift this government.

We need a political alternative. Obviously not Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet. They are just as committed to cuts as the coalition - only slightly later and slightly less deep. No, what we need is a united party of the left. We call it a Communist Party. Such a party can only be worthwhile to the working class if it openly and boldly espouses internationalism, Marxism and the rule of the working class. That means a break from cross-class popular fronts with the Greens, from Keynesianism and the continuation of wage-slavery - from all that passes as common sense for far too many on the left today.