The liberal zombie awakens

The left is wrong to attack Cameron’s coalition. It has brought politics back to life
May 25, 2010
"Middle way": for liberals of all parites, the Lib-Con pact could be a winner
For liberals, this was an exquisitely painful victory. A place in the cabinet for the first time in eight decades means cherished demands for fairer taxes and political reform are likely to be met. The tone of politics has changed. Even the coalition document was, in the words of one tweeting commentator, “like a manifesto without all the bullshit.” But it hurts, too. On Europe, immigration and Trident the Lib Dems have conceded acres of ground. The Tory’s absurd inheritance tax cut plan has been killed off—much to the relief of most of the Conservative leadership—but their marriage tax break is likely to pass, testing the resolve of those who agreed when Nick Clegg described it as “patronising drivel that belongs in the Edwardian age.” Nonetheless this is still a more liberal moment than could have anticipated only a few months ago. Before the election, David Cameron declared himself a “liberal conservative”: a ploy to win votes in the centre-ground, and one which didn’t really work. But now, thanks to his coalition, he really will have to govern from the middle. Liberals of the left have poured scorn on the new arrangement, but privately they know there is much to celebrate here. Plenty of younger, modernising Tories are privately delighted. They would rather rely on votes from Nick Clegg and David Laws than from the party’s “theo-con” and social conservative wings dominated by Bill Cash, Nadine Dorries and others. This group have secured one redoubt: the department for work and pensions, where Iain Duncan Smith is seconded by Chris Grayling, and advised by Philippa Stroud, the former head of the Centre for Social Justice. But the coalition ensures they won’t have the upper hand elsewhere. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, may benefit from being seen as a parent of a new politics. Equally, the next election could see the party suffer, as voters in the south plump for the liberalised Tories and those in the north turn back to Labour. Nobody knows. But nor can anybody doubt Clegg’s audacity. For decades, parliamentary liberalism has been a zombie. Clegg brought it to life. His challenge now is to animate liberal ideas across government. The alternative minority “rainbow” coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats propped up by nationalists was a non-starter. Everybody knew it. Labour MPs lined up outside television studios to declare it stillborn, even while the talks were underway. The problem was not philosophical—the split between Labour and the left Liberals remains the great tragedy of 20th-century British politics—but arithmetical. This political rainbow would have lasted about as long as the real thing. Privately, most thinking Labour politicians know the Lib-Lab efforts were in vain. Their real anger is at themselves, and their party, for failing to act earlier to forestall electoral defeat. Labour should have ditched Brown in 2009, when James Purnell resigned, and installed a new, younger leader who could have narrowed the political gap with the Lib-Dems on tax, civil liberties and the environment—and almost certainly could have won a few more seats. It is quite possible that the Labour party has just missed an epic political opportunity. A different leader, capable of securing 34 per cent of the vote rather than 29 per cent, could have taken Labour into a coalition that would have made Vince Cable less grumpy and which even Charles Kennedy could have supported. A referendum on genuine reform to the voting system would have followed, and the political landscape could have changed permanently. The realignment the Conservative party has always feared was, as it turns out, immanent in the last parliament, like an angel in marble. The Labour party had neither the courage nor the imagination to carve it out. As Labour’s candidates turn over the good and the bad of their legacy, there is one compliment they can pay themselves: their spell in office taught the Conservative party that there was no prospectus for government in being overtly right-wing. Nonetheless, Labour should understand that the prime mover in the current coalition was still David Cameron. He seized the coalition not just to seize power, but also to transform the way we see his party. To make progress, the coalition must now withstand the countervailing forces of conservatism and social democracy, which are the staple of the activists of its two constituent parties. If it does, then Labour will need an imaginative response. There is a common debate in Labour circles about their next political strategy. There are those who believe the British are a conservative people and who see periodic Labour victories as a form of political smuggling. Then there are those who think Britain is itching to elect social democrats and who believe Labour governments fail through timidity. Versions of this argument will swirl round as the leadership candidates work out their pitch. If only they could realise that neither side has it right. This is no conservative nation that has just had 13 years of Labour government. But neither is this a social democratic nation: after all it just ejected the Labour party at precisely the moment it started looking too much like the Labour party of old. If it makes sense to characterise a nation in a single word at all, this is a liberal nation. And this is why the coalition government has changed Britain’s political configuration completely. There is now a good chance that a newly liberal Conservative party will fight the next election against a more liberal Labour party. If that happens, then for liberals of all parties, the coalition will have been a success.