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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Jeremy Corbyn's won a monumental victory - but it's more delicate than it looks

The need for peace on the left is overwhelming. 

It is perverse, absurd even, that in the aftermath of such a monumental victory Jeremy Corbyn must immediately talk of coalition building and compromise. Previous winners of internal struggles – most notably Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock – certainly did nothing of the sort, and Corbyn’s victory is bigger than theirs. To an extent, this is not the victory of one set of ideas but the establishment of a new party altogether – with a completely different centre of gravity and an almost completely new membership. 

That new Labour party – and core project that has built around Corbyn’s leadership – is itself a delicate network of alliances. The veterans of big social movements, from the Iraq War to the anti-austerity protests of 2011, find themselves in bed with left-leaning cosmopolitan modernisers and the reanimated remnants of the old Labour left. All parts of the coalition have reason for hubris, to believe that this new formation – complex enough as it is already, and filled with ideas and energy – can carry the Corbyn project into Number 10 with or without the co-operation of his Labour colleagues and the wider left. 

That vision is a mirage. Labour has undergone the biggest membership surge in its history, and is now the biggest left of centre party in Europe. As John Curtis has pointed out, the party’s support has maintained a high floor relative to the level of infighting and sniping over the summer, in part because of Corbyn’s strong appeal to Labour’s base. But the bleak electoral outlook, compounded by boundary changes, requires us to do more than read out lines from pre-written scripts. We must all, from a position of strength, stare death in the face.

The terms of peace with the Labour right must be negotiated carefully. There can be no negotiating away of internal democracy in the selection of candidates or national policy-setting; doing so would permanently weaken the left’s hand and allow Corbyn’s detractors in parliament to run riot. And in policy terms, Corbyn cannot compromise basic anti-austerity principles – not just because doing so would be a betrayal that would demobilise Labour’s new base, but because the project of triangulation pioneered by Ed Milliband is a tried and tested electoral failure. 

And yet the need for peace is overwhelming. At a grassroots level, Owen Smith’s support was not made up of hardened Blairites. Many of them, unlike Smith himself, really did share Corbyn’s political vision but had been ground down and convinced that, regardless of the rights and wrongs, there could be no end to Labour’s civil war without new leadership. The left’s job is to prove those people, and the politicians who claim to represent them, wrong. 

Labour’s assorted hacks – on left and right – often forget how boring and irrelevant the search for Labour’s soul looks to a wider public that long ago left behind party tribalism. The intellectual task ahead of us is about framing our politics in a comprehensible, modernising way – not creating a whole new generation of people who know Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech by rote. 

A united Labour Party, free to focus on shifting the consensus of British politics could well change history. But the grim realities of the situation may force us to go even further. To get a majority at the next election, Labour will need to gain 106 seats – a swing not achieved since 1997. 

Add to that the socially conservative affirmation of the Brexit vote, and the left’s profound confusion in terms of what to do about it, and the challenge of getting a Labour Prime Minister – regardless of who they are or what they stand for – looks like an unprecedented challenge. That unprecedented challenge could be met by an unprecedented alliance of political forces outside the Labour party as well as inside it. 

In order for Labour to win under the conditions set by the boundary review, everything has to be calibrated right. Firstly, we need an energised, mass party which advocates radical and popular policies. Secondly, we need the party not to tear itself apart every few months. And yes, finally, we may well need an honest, working arrangement between Labour, the Greens, and other progressive parties, including even the Lib Dems. 

Exactly how that alliance would be constituted – and how far it would be under the control of local parties – could be the matter of some debate. But there is every chance of it working – especially if the terms of the next general election take place in the context of the outcome of a Brexit negotiation. 

The starting point for that journey must be a recognition on the part of Corbyn’s opponents that the new Labour party is not just the overwhelming democratic choice of members, but also – with a mass activist base and a mostly popular programme – the only electable version of the Labour party in the current climate. For the left’s part, we must recognise that the coalition that has built around Corbyn is just the core of a much wider set of alliances – inside Labour and perhaps beyond.