Friday, 23 September 2016

Realighnment of the Left

Realignment of the Left is back on the agenda. It is not hard to understand why. Already the idea has spawned books, public meeting and a lot of debate. This was the great project of Jo Grimond's leadership of the Liberal Party. Today with a Corbyn led Labour Party few people can see that party winning seats from the Tories at the next elections. They may well pile up bigger majorities in some of their existing seats but it is hard to see where they can win seats especially after the boundary review. Our first past the post electoral system doesn't help. It does look as if we are in for a period of uninterrupted Tory rule, even  people like Neil Kinnock doesn't expect to see another Labour government in his lifetime.  Left wing former Labour Minister Chris Mullin has come out in favour of a pact explaining that for the Tories to be defeated it requires Lib Dems to win seats Labour have no chance in. So the question is : can a progressive programme be agreed between the competing parties compelling enough to make some electoral arrangement acceptable.

One initiative that has been launched is the publication of a book The Alternative edited by Lisa Nandy, Caroline Lucas and Chris Bowers. It is significant because it does not spend all its pages discussing how and electoral arrangement could be achieved, rather it begins with ideas around which common agreement can be reached.

The Social Liberal Forum (SLF) sponsored a meeting at the Lib Dem Conference this year and put together the three editors of the book along with David Howarth a former Lib Dem MP for Cambridge. (David stood down without being defeated) The SLF has heard from Ms Lucas before alongside Neil Lawson from COMPASS and few doubt that with goodwill and common-sense a deal could be done with the Greens-despite some of their obvious difficulties. Labour is a harder issue. The electoral reality is dawning on some folk in Labour. The fear of grammar schools, welfare cuts, the NHS, a hard Britex  are combining to focus minds. Nevertheless too many Labour activists think pluralism and compromise are dirty words. Their monopolistic view of power and their right to exercise it makes it hard to see where agreement may come-or maybe I'm just scarred by having spent most of political life in the NW. And therefore the meeting was genuinely interested to hear Lisa Nandy's pitch.

Now, without dwelling too long on the point, it should be said that Ms Nandy has some Liberal antecedence in so much as her Grandfather was a Liberal MP and Leader of the Liberal Party in the Lords for 17 years. There was much agitation in radical ranks about his relationship with Rio Tinto Zinc, the mining company, and its activities in Africa . None of that is Ms Nandy's responsibility .

I thought she was convincing and indeed impressive. She is clearly of the left, which was a relief, too often we see Labour MP's at odds with their party who are by inclination reactionary and authoritarian-John Reid, Jack Straw et al- ( and some of the people who fancy themselves to be on the left John Mann or Dennis Skinner are the personification of tribalism)  She acknowledged the stand we took on civil rights and accepted Labour's failure in that area and pointed out Labours challenge to the coalition over welfare (at which point she had a more sympathetic audience than she might have imagined-as the following days votes on welfare confirmed).

In so much as she used her family connection she did so to in relation to Frank Byers Liberal politics having been fashioned by his opposition to fascism . I am always impressed by the record of those Liberals who came back from the war determined to build a new international order. Lord Rea who led the Liberal Peers till Byers took over was one such case  David Dutton writing in the Journal of Liberal History recordsAs Liberal leader in the Lords Rea found himself obliged to speak on a wide range of issues. But, with the Cold War at its height, he was especially concerned with reducing the risk of nuclear war and for Britain to abandon her pretensions to great power status. The country ‘seemed to find it difficult to realise that her nineteenth-century position in the world was not in abeyance but actually gone. Britain must adapt her ideas to the modern world.’ Such thinking made him particularly contemptuous of the notion that Britain remained an independent nuclear power. ‘Why should we attract an onslaught on this undefended island by the provocative possession of a virtually useless contribution to American nuclear arms? That would be the very reverse of a deterrent. ’ It was that approach which led Liberals to embrace federalism and the European project.

Lisa Nandy's proposition was that the prospect of long term Tory rule requires us all to think again and explore thoroughly the alternatives.

The video clip at the top of this post shows a little of David Howarth's contribution. I think it is important to assert that any agreement must be based ideas and values. I have felt for some time that the divorce between values and class loyalty is overdue. David make the case better that I can.

There are those who dislike the term Left. I am not one. It is a short hand for those dissatisfied with the status quo. For a season it came, somewhat perversely, to mean political ideas that championed state ownership and regulation. Hence tyrannical Communist states were seen as Left. The coming down of the Berlin war changed that although the statist Left still clings to loyally to some models. Eliot Dodds, who would have been well known to Ms Nandi's grandfather, robustly defends the Liberal position as on the  Left in his chapter in The Unservile State (1957)  when he wrote: by any strict use of language Liberals are the true Left, the real progressives'. He wanted men and women to be in charge of their own destinies with the aim of 'giving more abundant life, to the individual person. So those of us that are angry about the mal-distribution of power and wealth in today's economies should at least try to work together.

Let me leave you with a bit Grimond-who after all can be claimed as the Granddaddy of the idea:

In an interview in the Observer immediately after the 1959 election, Jo Grimond, the Liberal leader, called for radicals in the Liberal and Labour Parties to make a new appeal to ordinary people to take an active part in political life. Asked how a Socialist party could cooperate with a non-Socialist one, he replied that ‘there might be a bridge between Socialism and the Liberal policy of co-ownership in industry through a type of syndicalism coupled with a nonconformist outlook such as was propounded on many issues by George Orwell’.1 Industrial democracy and a tolerance of dissent, which were also distinctive marks of the New Left, were symptoms of a change in ideological thinking in Britain which was not confined to the socialist movement

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