A Lib-Lab Con

[Friday]

With the aid of coffee-fuelled insomnia, I pour forth on capitalist peace in Northern Ireland, pre-emptive coalitions that backfire, the flawed perspective of Jon Cruddas and the labour bureaucracy, the shaky leadership of Liberal Democrats, the chances of co-ordinated industrial action in the public sector, and what we can expect of a Brown premiership. I think I’ll have a lie down now…

You’re the one for me, Paddy
As I commented hastily only the other day, Gordon Brown’s promise of a “government of all the talents” has materialised as a recipe for a unity government. Why he should need to invite Lord Ashdown to be Northern Ireland Secretary is beyond me – in fact, why does Northern Ireland or British imperialism even need a Secretary, talented or not, from the British government?

The Provisional IRA has disbanded, British imperialism’s involvements in the Middle East have led to a reduction in the number of service personnel, and Sinn Fein now co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley is First Minister with Sinn Fein’s Martin Maguiness as his deputy.

What problems are there to be solved in the province by Paddy the so-called peace-maker that cannot be dealt with by Stormont? The last rump of the British Empire’s colonies has been cowed; the people of Northern Ireland have a power-sharing government of unionists and republicans. Who needs Lord Ashdown’s “talent” now?

Invited gatecrashers
Labour’s backbenches will be seething, as will members of the cabinet who are hoping to hang around after Blair’s departure. It is known that those lacking in Scottish accents are though to have more secure cabinet careers than fellow Scots in a Brown administration, but there are plenty of Welsh and English people in the PLP, and some of them must be skilled. Why is Brown not seeking to promote talent within his own party? His offer to Liberals betrays a lack of confidence in the abilities and priorities of Labour MPs.

Claims that Brown is seeking a “new politics” are disingenuous. I understand that, like Labour, the Liberal Democrats are ostensibly a centre-left outfit, but why enter an effective coalition if there is no need to? Could it be that Brown fears Labour’s base in the trade unions and traditional class perspective will prevent him carrying out the work of the capitalist class?

The Liberal Democrats might differ from Labour over the planned ID cards scheme, the burgeoning DNA database, the Trident nuclear weapons system, and the necessity of a new nuclear power stations – but on economic matters, the Liberals are just as committed to neo-liberalism, and despite their opposition to the intervention in Iraq and Blair’s complicity in last summers Israeli assault of Lebanon, they are most certainly not anti-imperialist.

As I said, the “government of all the talents” idea, trailed at the launch of Brown’s campaign for the premiership, was thought to refer to bringing private sector figures into government – or rather, contracting-out policymaking to capitalists. Now it appears that Brown is preparing for a unity government.

Back to basics
There will be an expectation on the part of the labour movement and those who have stuck with the party that Brown can be held back and perhaps even won over. Jon Cruddas, the leftwing deputy leadership challenger who has the most support in the labour movement, wishes to become a conduit between the party’s base and leadership rather than take a cabinet post and run a ministry.

A left-winger breathing down his neck is the last thing Brown wants. Cruddas and the trade union leaders wish to reverse Labour’s commitment to the neo-liberal agenda. Not so much Old Labour but Real Labour, claims Cruddas. And there could be some truth in this: Labour has traditionally opposed aspects of the capitalist system, but at the same time lacked a coherent alternative. Cruddas has been derided as indicative of Labour’s “lurch to the left”, but he himself is not immune from red-baiting, characterising the party’s internal conflicts in the early eighties as a struggle against people who wanted to “abolish the police and invite the Russians in”.

Doubtless much of Cruddas’ support will come from class conscious working people, and while this could get him elected to the deputy leadership, there is little hope in him being able to influence policy. And because Labour is so discredited, lacking in democratic structures, and dependent on funding from wealthy businessmen there is no possibility of an independent working class party being constructed, not even if Brown has a Damascene conversion to the cause of the proletariat.

Gordon’s Liberal bias
Brown’s courting of the former Liberal leader has left the current Liberal leadership fuming. The Tory strategy has been to suggest that the Liberals will hop into bed with Labour after the next election – expected to result in a hung parliament and therefore necessitating a coalition government.

Sir Menzies Campbell has been aiming to muscle in on Tory territory; he succeeded in getting his party to scrap their commitment to a 50% tax rate for those earning more than £100,000 a year, perhaps their most distinctive and progressive policy, in favour of regressive green taxes.

His predecessor, the affable Charles Kennedy was derided as a weak figure, a more a chairman than a leader, because he was unable to get his party to back the privatisation of Royal Mail. Campbell is unlikely to follow Kennedy in addressing anti-war demonstrations – he has claimed that the opposition to the Iraq war contained anti-American elements and backs the occupation of Afghanistan.

A weak [sic] is a long time in politics
Campbell has experienced a rumour campaign within his own party, partly because of the inefficacy of his own leadership. Though the party is not floundering, there has been a distinct lack of coverage of Campbell’s Liberals, compared to the high-profile maintained by Kennedy. The Liberals have been left out because of the resurgence of the Tory party under David Cameron and Campbell has been derided as being too old in comparison. This ageism is robustly challenged by Campbell, but it is not his age that is the issue.

The Liberals gained some support from Labour voters for their opposition to the invasion of Iraq and can be said to be the only party that has a presence within England, Scotland and Wales. The Tories have been unable to break into the northern cities of England whereas the Liberals have not experienced these.

As a third party in Westminster, the Liberals are confined to a permanent opposition – unless they decide to collaborate with Labour in the event of a hung parliament. Though they have shared power with Labour in the devolved governments, Liberal big shots are keen to stress the differences between central and devolved government in terms of electoral procedure and legislative function.

This reasoned response is not as strong as the emotive line from the Tories that Labour will be kept in power by the Campbell and that those seeking a change would do better than to vote for the Liberals come election time. One might counter, that since Cameron has come out as the heir to Blair, there would be little change in terms of policy in the event of a Tory victory in 2009.

Polytricks (an interlude)
When the ailing Charles Kennedy was forced to admit he had been seeking treatment for alcoholism, he announced that he was stepping down as “chairman”. This sparked a leadership contest in early 2006 that brought about an Orange Revolution within the Liberal Democrats. It was the man partly responsible for Kennedy’s downfall, Sir Menzies Campbell who assumed leadership of Britain’s “third party”, whereupon he set about repositioning the Liberals to the right on economic issues

It has to be said that Campbell was an unusual choice for the leadership due to his age and lack of prominence, though it was expected that the right-wing Orange Book group would dominate policy-making; Simon Hughes, the party’s loquacious President, was initially a front-runner because of his popularity with party activists and ability to communicate (at length) the party’s message. He was, though, seen as more of a left-winger, and this might have been why he was subject to a character assassination.

A homophobic smear campaign conducted by sections of the tabloid press scuppered his leadership bid and Hughes was forced to admit his bisexuality. This would not have been so bad, but the election contest that first brought Hughes to Westminster in 1983 was marred by a disgusting amount of homophobia towards the Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell, who is now a prominent human rights activist, and Hughes’ campaign team was party to the abuse and insinuation.

In this age of tolerance, there was no possibility of suggesting Hughes’ sexual orientation precluded him being an MP or even leader of a political party – the emphasis was very much on the lack of openness and on the earlier hypocrisy. This was the line adopted, but it failed to convince. For the interest in private matters was in marked contrast to the lack of concern about the nefarious role played by top Liberal figures in toppling Kennedy.

Hughes’ political opinions and actions account for far more importance than his personal life and it says much for the bourgeoisie’s commitment to equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people that he was outed in this manner. The infamous by-Bermondsey election occurred almost a quarter of a century ago, and in a much different political climate. Since Hughes had not voted against LGBT rights legislation, the suggestion that his outing was in the public interest did not hold water.

So why the interest in Hughes’ sexuality? Surely not because The Sun was concerned about homophobic incidents that occurred years previously and for which Hughes had apologise? Peter Tatchell, now a member of the Green Party, said he wished Hughes well in the campaign to become party leader “because of all the contenders he is the most progressive on human rights, social justice and environmental issues”. So I suspect it had something to do with his talking up of the inequalities that have grown under New Labour – if he had been leader of the Liberals he would have been able to highlight the gap between expectation and reality on social justice.

As if to counter my theory, there’s the case of Mark Oaten: another of the candidates for Liberal leadership in 2006 and one of the contributors to the Orange Book, Oaten was revealed to have used male prostitutes. A married family man and supporter of “tough liberalism”, Oaten was forced to resign from his post as Home Affairs spokesman.

Kennedy, by the way, is believed to be interested in getting his old job back. But unless Ming the Merciful quits or kicks the bucket, a contest for the position of Third Man is as unthinkable as the possibility of a split within the party.

Crisis, what crisis?
Back to the issue, at hand, Brown’s preparations for a government of national unity lead to a series of questions. For one, why does he desire a coalition before it is necessary – is he trying to embarrass the Liberals or is he a maladroit political operator? Does Brown foresee a crisis in the national or international economy or some other momentous political event that might require a united front for the capitalist class?

If Brown was not intending to compromise the Liberals and does expect the imminent ruination of the economy, why did he make a move on Campbell and then Ashdown? Forgive me if I have constructed a case in reverse, but I am drawn back to the Labour Party and the broader labour movement.

Efforts towards political strike action against below-inflation pay increases and in defence of jobs and services in the public sector have not yet resulted in a concrete plan of action. The labour bureaucracy is split between engaging with Brown and confronting him; modifying the agenda and opposing it. Naturally, he would like neither engagement nor confrontation, but I suspect he would prefer the latter – it would allow him to win brownie points with the bourgeoisie, not that he needs any, by taking on the unions, and perhaps eating into the Tory lead over Labour in the polls as a result of positive media coverage.

There is a danger that because of the lack of organisation in the private sector and the fact that the wages of public sector workers are paid out of taxation, the bourgeois media will be able to conduct a successful disinformation campaign. Already, in the case of the CWU’s dispute with Royal Mail, the government has been party to this. Unfortunately, the postal union is quick to dismiss suggestions that the upcoming strike has a political character or concerns more than pay – the CWU did not put up much of a fight when the government implemented an EU directive to end the Royal Mail’s monopoly two years in advance.

The weak shall inherit… 10 Downing Street
Brown and Blair have only personal differences; politically, they are indistinguishable. But that is not to say that Brown can or will be as strident as Blair. The towering majority gained in the 1997 landslide victory has ebbed away and Labour may be forced to go into coalition with the Liberals in the next session of the Westminster parliament.

The Labour Party had 407,000 members when Blair’s New Labour project was swept to power in 1997, by the start of this year membership has fallen to 177,000. Ten years of New Labour rule and the wars in the Middle East have cut the party to shreds organisationally and in the opinion polls. The trade unions may reconsider bailing Labour out when the leadership can easily secure party finances by selling peerages to rich businessmen…

Brown lacks charisma, a power-hungry parliamentary party, and the air of expectation that surrounded Tony Blair’s elevation to Prime Minister. Whilst his predecessor was elected, Brown has become party leader by default. Blair became PM after the party had won a parliamentary majority in a general election; Brown will enter Number 10 two years from parliamentary elections, trailing the opposition in the polls, with the expectation of a hung parliament in 2009.

He might have concluded that since electoral participation is in a downward spiral and Wales could follow Scotland on the road to political independence, Labour is finished. The Tories are committed to pick up on the direction New Labour set out on and are playing on Brown’s reputation as a control freak to portray him as a Stalinist in favour of more state control.

All that remains then is to piece together a coalition and cling on for a while longer. And to think he’s not even through the door of Number 10…

Clunking fist
So Brown appears weak, how will he remedy this?

As a Scot representing a Scottish constituency at a time when the SNP have recently come to power in Scotland, beating New Labour, Brown will have his work cut out in proving he is the British PM. Curbing the rights of Scottish MPs to vote on matters which only concern England and Wales is a proposal that has been supported by the opposition leader David Cameron. Brown is unlikely to endorse such a measure, for obvious reasons.

Proposals for a written constitution and a Bill of Rights are expected; Cameron has come out in favour of a written constitution, so Brown is sure to shoot his fox. And a review of the Barnett formula – the equation that determines funding for the public expenditure of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – will probably be announced within the first one hundred days of the Brown administration, not least because of Tony Blair’s admission that higher per capita public spending in Scotland than England is a bribe to retain the Union. Plaid Cymru are seeking to secure tax-varying powers for the Welsh Assembly, and the SNP are naturally seeking fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

There will be an expectation of withdrawal from Iraq, but Brown is not in a position to disappoint the US or distance himself from the Bush administration, he is a confirmed Atlanticist. Majority opinion in the UK is that troops should be brought home from Iraq and there is support for withdrawal amongst sections of the British ruling class because the venture is not successful, that is to say profitable, and may weaken the influence of Britain in future.. On the Afghan front, Brown is likely to commit to more funding for the mission; though he will try to dispel the notion that British forces will occupy the country for thirty years, not least because of the demoralisation the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have cause the armed forces.

Walkouts and walking away
After the fire-fighters’ national strike in 2003, the Fire Brigades Union decided to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The Communication Workers Union could do the same in the wake of planned strike action – if the membership were given a choice I suspect they’d rather tip the political fund into a drain than hand it over to Brown.

A break by the CWU could lead to momentum for breaking the union link with Labour completely if other unions decide to review the situation. Certainly, it would harm Brown in that he would lack funds and unless the cash for honours scandal is completely forgotten about, very few rich businessmen will be arranging to make donations. Still, he could always introduce state funding of political parties and get the new Chancellor (if there is one) to write the cheques for the next election.

But where would the unions take their cash? In Wales, it could be conceivable that there would be funding for Plaid Cymru, which is to the left of Labour, or continued support for Welsh Labour. Is it all that unimaginable that the unions might support the SNP in Scotland? The Scottish Trade Union Congress narrowly supported Labour before the last election, and the reforms being implemented by the nationalists might be more appealing than the reformism-without-reforms of New Labour.

For class conscious working people in England, there is little to choose from and electoral politics might seem like a dead end at this point. Organisationally, workers are weak in terms of self-defence and pro-active political intervention is unlikely to get results until there is greater unity in action.

In the past, I have pointed to the Scottish Socialist Party as a model for going forward in England (excising from my memory the Sheridan split and the failure of previous endeavours, namely the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance). As I have long believed that the break-up of Britain will be the key to revolution in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, perhaps attention should be focused on constitutional arrangements and the industrial struggle rather than any further attempts at a unified pluralist workers’ party.

Here’s Jonny
Cruddas winning deputy leadership would make Brown respond to complaints from the labour bureaucracy and at best could provide a focus for the left within the Labour Party – but since the leader of the party is more interested in connecting with members of other political parties, what hope is there of rebuilding Labour’s electoral base?

Reviving participation in elections will only become an issue for the bourgeoisie when the legitimacy of the capitalist system comes under question. State funding of political parties may emerge as a solution to the unseemliness of capitalist funding of the parties, which was brought to public attention in the cash for honours scandal – the police investigation of which has yet to conclude.

It comes down to a different approach to politics. Brown doesn’t mind blundering on, targeting swing voters whilst alienating Labour supporters with neo-liberal policies and imperialist wars; Cruddas sees the need for Labour to make amends with its base, apologies for the war in Iraq, and try to move forward with policies that benefit working class people.

Brown’s passionate desire to be Prime Minister, supposedly assured in a deal made with Blair in a restaurant called Granita, looks set to be realised, though it may not last. What does Cruddas want? Not much, and that’s what he’s bound to get if he wins the powerless post of deputy to the President-unelect.

Breaking news: Brown’s been turned down by a second unelected figure. Sir John Stevens, the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has declined an invitation from the Iron Chancellor to join his administration. Yes, that’s right – Brown will build a police state…

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