My advice to young Lib Dems — rise above the tribalism

Vince Cable describes how, from his student days at Cambridge to one of the highest offices in the land, he has walked and crossed the fine line between Liberalism and democratic socialism.

One long-standing dividing line in British politics has been the split on the centre left between those who regard themselves as both liberal and social democratic but are divided by party. For well over a century they have largely agreed about policy and philosophy but been divided over tribal loyalty and power: from the split in the pre-1914 Liberal Party, which gave birth to Labour, to the Labour civil war of the 1980s, which led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats, and latterly to the differences opened up by the coalition government.

My half-century of political activities has been spent on that fault line, surviving the earthquakes but constantly reminded that conflict between siblings can be more brutal than working with ideological opponents. As a politically impressionable teenager, I faced two competing sources of intellectual inspiration. One was Anthony Crosland’s book The Future of Socialism (1956). His message was egalitarian and communitarian, but he was also trying to distance Labour from hostility to a market, capitalist economy, and from the Marxist legacy of the industrial state and proletarian struggle.

The arguments over the Labour Party constitution’s Clause Four may seem as remote today as the great political debates on the Corn Laws or Catholic emancipation. But for those of us who were trying then to understand the relevance of the left in an increasingly affluent, socially mobile and materialistic postwar Britain, Crosland was a breath of fresh air.

The other breath of fresh air was Jo Grimond, the leader of the Liberal Party from 1956 to 1967. The Liberals were politically peripheral (literally so in the case of Grimond, who represented Orkney and Shetland), with only six MPs. But they seemed to have the best ideas; and seemed, unlike Labour and the Tories, to be as comfortable with business as with organised labour, more liberal on civil liberties and more outward-looking, as in the ongoing debate on Europe. Grimond was also witty and irreverent, and the Liberals lacked the tribal certainty and pomposity of the two main parties. I decided to join them, encouraged by my mother, who voted Liberal as a private act of defiance against my uncompromisingly Conservative father.

As an active member of the micro-party, I was quickly promoted to edit the student magazine while at Cambridge University in the Sixties. The subjects of my first ventures into student journalism, I now realise, were quite prescient: the power of the press barons, a liberal approach to immigration and the need for legislative reform on moral issues such as abortion and gay rights.

Student socialists ridiculed this agenda and insisted that the future lay in “bread-and-butter” issues such as the nationalisation of steel and cement, the class struggle in the car industry and the thoughts of Mao. All of this was to the great discomfort of Labour’s student social democrats, with whom I also identified.

When I reached the heady heights of president of the Liberal Club (membership: circa 30), I tried to reconcile the traditions of Crosland and Grimond by attempting a merger between my small Liberal army and an equally small army called the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, inspired by two Labour MPs, Dick Taverne and Bill Rodgers.

The merger negotiations were a disaster, as both sides formed obscure theological points on which to disagree, proving themselves every bit as sectarian as warring Trotskyite sects. I was disowned and the warriors went back to their tribal armies.

In due course, I migrated to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. I was attracted by a non-ideological leader who was also a Yorkshireman and an enthusiast for science. I stayed there, mostly happily, for a decade and a half, until those of us who identified ourselves as social democrats came to be seen, at least in revolutionary centres like London, as capitalist cuckoos in the socialist nest. The SDP provided an escape route.

In this way, some of the descendants of Grimond and Crosland eventually came together in the newly formed Liberal Democrats. But others remained divided, and still are. And having walked along both sides of the dividing line for half a century, I recognise the bitter intensity of these small differences and the strength of tribal affiliation.

My own descendants are aspiring Liberal students faced with hostile Labour social democrats. They no longer have the moral superiority and innocence of opposition; but they do have the understanding of a party of government. I trust they will not repeat my mistake, dissipating energy into an attempted merger. But they should rise above tribalism, not least because many shared beliefs and values are being challenged more than ever.

 

A Lib Dem conference attendee. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.