Why I’m not willing to be part of this coalition

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MatGB has written a number of provocative posts about the need to develop a “coalition of the willing” to fight the “New Labour project” (hat tip: Nick Barlow). I’m afraid I’m not convinced by all this at all, and so I thought I’d spell out why.

To start with, one of the best bits of advice I’ve read this week has been that you should always define yourself by what you are for, and not what you are against. Too much of what both Mat and others have written seem to be rooted in a desire to oppose “New Labour”, yet New Labour isn’t the problem. Would we prefer “Old Labour”?

“New Labour” was a marketing term coined in the mid-nineties to unite a broad church of Labour politicians and activists who wanted change and a move away from a style of party management which hadn’t completely broken from the bad old days of the eighties. It encapsulated as wide a range of figures as Peter Kilfoyle and Peter Mandelson. People these days seem to have a notion that Old Labour is cuddly figures like Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, particularly in Northern cities, Old Labour is anti-democratic, homophobic, mysogynistic, racist. Above all, Old Labour was all about mob rule and the idea that the majority, or even the plurality, should be given untrammelled power over everyone else. It is no surprise that just as much of New Labour has become thoroughly disillusioned with Blair, so much of Old Labour has learned to embrace him as “One of Us”.

But when you look at what this coalition might be for, fractures begin to appear. Because, many of the people who have commented back at Mat, don’t seem to be particularly interested in the civil liberties agenda, just on bashing Labour on its current agenda. To quote “Andrew”:

Campaigning has to be very tightly focussed on the civil liberties issues we all agree on – ID cards, OTT terrorism legislation, the Civil Contingencies Act, the Leg/Reg Bill, and so on. You’ll lose an enormous amount of support if the coalition comes out in favour of a wider liberal agenda, particularly on Law and Order. Us Tories still want to brutalise criminals with lengthy jail terms, punishment beatings and hard labour. Getting New Labour out isn’t going to change that.

This would appear to be even more timid than David Cameron’s line on crime prevention, who is increasingly paying lip service to alternative forms of punishment and rehabilitation. Would you really trust a “hang’em flog’em” Tory to defend your liberties?

Worryingly, Mat would appear to be unconcerned by this, agreeing that:

The coalition needs to be strictly non-partisan, except in its opposition to New Labour. You’ll lose a lot of Tories again if you start advocating voting Lib Dem in Tory/Lib marginals, and vice versa. In fact, the coalition shouldn’t even discuss that sort of situation. Even where the Tory candidate is a rabid Cornerstone member who wants to hang gays and publicly flog benefits claimants, or where the Lib wants to install revolving doors in prison cells and to legalise and make compulsory the taking of crack by 13 year olds, they’ll still vote with the party whip when it comes to civil liberties issues.

Really? So, this coalition isn’t actually going to be about supporting politicians who believe in civil liberties at all, but just a full frontal assault on Labour, trusting that the whips will sort out the civil liberties stuff for us?

Let’s bring this all back to Planet Earth. David Cameron is still very much an unknown quantity. What we do know is that a majority of his parliamentary colleagues voted for right wing, more authoritarian candidates at the shortlisting stage. What we do know is that some Tories are up in arms at his reforms. What we do know is that every attempt to modernise the Tories in the past has looked promising at this stage and ended in crushing failure. What we do know is that Cameron is self-consciously attempting to emulate Blair.

And what did Blair do? He tarted himself around, emphasising his liberal credentials. There was not a single campaign or issue that he did not attempt to co-opt. And almost every single liberal cause ended up disappointed when it came for him to deliver. Why on earth should we believe Cameron would be any different?

If there is to be a “coalition of the willing” on civil liberties issues, then let it be for real civil liberties, not a handful that Conservatives have deemed electorally useful to cherry-pick. Let it concentrate on individual candidates and politicians, tactically opposing any candidate who doesn’t sign up to X, Y, Z rather than letting individuals off the hook and supporting “best fit” political parties who subsequently will be under no pressure whatsoever to carry out their reforms. It needs to acknowledge that for a majority of Labour and Tory MPs, and a minority of Lib Dem MPs, civil liberties simply are not on their agenda, and that just defeating party X or Y won’t change that. And it needs to look at underlying causes: Tory exhortations about the Bill of Rights as if it means something, while opposing any formal entrenchment of civil liberties in a codified constitution is simply fluff.

From what I’ve seen thus far, Mat’s emerging coalition is all about doing everything on Tory terms. People who remember being told that everything needed to be done on Labour’s terms ten years ago will be extremely wary of joining such a thing.

18 thoughts on “Why I’m not willing to be part of this coalition

  1. James; firstly, you’ve quoted Andrew twice, and not quoted me at all.

    Secondly, I agree with many of your concerns, and also think you’re misreading things; look at Unity’s post here and find something you actually disagree with.

    Let it concentrate on individual candidates and politicians, tactically opposing any candidate who doesn’t sign up to X, Y, Z rather than letting individuals off the hook and supporting “best fit” political parties who subsequently will be under no pressure whatsoever to carry out their reforms.

    That, I agree with completely, and in fact will over the next few days be starting an analysis of sitting MPs and how they’ve voted on key issues (Terrorism bill, 90-days detention, ID cards, etc). I actually disagree with Andrew about his analysis on the party whip argument, and have been meaning to readdress it a little in a follow up.

    It needs to acknowledge that for a majority of Labour and Tory MPs, and a minority of Lib Dem MPs, civil liberties simply are not on their agenda
    It should be, and I think it will be, Huhne’s speech, combined with things both Ming and Simon have said, lead me to believe the LibDem contenders are convinced there are serious issues to be addressed, I’m also pretty sure that they are on side with them as the right thing to do. Cameron’s Conservatives I’m not so convinced on, but if they’re doing it for electoral advantage because it becomes a serious issue then the’re still doing the right thing.

    I favour a complete reform of the constitution. But that can’t happen without a change of Govt, and that has to be the priority. No matter how much we hate FPTP, we have to win within it. Psephology says no one party can win on their own.

    My big concern would be giving the Tories a massive victory, but given the maths is utterly against them, even after the boundary commission fixes, that isn’t going to happen.

    I’ll do a follow up post when I’ve finished fixing my damn browser to address more of your concerns.

    Effectively, the second part you quote, he’s right. In Torbay, we don’t need an anti-Labour campaign, the whole constituency is anti-Labour. So in such a seat, the winner would help determine the make up of the new Parliament. A non-partizan tactical voting campaign needs to concentrate on the seats we need to take from the Govt. I’ve said already that on the ground in those seats where New Labour isn’t an issue, the other parties should continue to fight.

    If you think it’s about doing things on Tory terms, you’re missing things or I/we’re not being clear enough. Because I assure you sir, I am no Tory.

  2. I’m with James on this – link is to my blog on it.

    I will add a couple of points here.

    1. There is a large anti-Tory vote that prefers Lib Dems to Labour, and will vote Lib Dem while the Tories are weak. When Labour falter, they may stick with us if we are strong enough that they don’t expect a Tory government. So I still think we have to grow somewhat before a weaking of Labour with respect to the Tories is good for us.

    2. Mat talks of constitutional reform. Wtf? The Tories are way behind Labour on this – they opposed devolution, PR for Europe, you name it. Any recovery of the Conservatives will only damage the possibility of further constitutional reform; their shrill, irrational arguments will frighten. Conservatives are conservative.

  3. The coalition we need to build is not an anti-Labour coalition but a pro-liberalism coaltion.

    We need to aim to unite liberals who are currently in all parties (or none). I’m not against, in principle, an “alliance” with pro-civil liberities Conservatives but there are some liberal Labour MPs with whom we have more in common a significant number of Tories.

    For example, would any Lib Dem want to unseat a Labour MP who has voted with us on terror legislation and ID cards for the sake of getting elected some Cornerstone Group Tory? Of course not.

    Better to concentrate on getting a Lib Dem elected in that seat and stuff the both of them.

    If people want to join a coalition fighting for civil liberties then they should join the Liberal Democrats.

  4. Joe; you’re right, on both points. But not all Conservatives are conservatives, and both can be sold on the idea that fundamentally, our traditional system of government has been damaged.

    What has surprised me is that the two that have jumped in with constitutional proposals are both on the Right; Strange Stuff and Bishop Hill. Sure, not agreeing with some of their proposals, but they’re making a start.

    And, specifically, I’m not defining this by what I’m against. I’m very much for individual freedoms, reform and liberties. New Labour has declared itself against these things. So I oppose them because of what I’m in favour of.

    The VABL campaign and the Liberty Central campaign will need, effectively, to be separate but linked. Both, it seems, were in nascent planning stages before I posted, but both have been kick started by it. I fully expect LibDems to be more in favour of Liberty Central, but we can (and will) also gain from VABL.

    Essentially, I’m looking at this from a non-partizan, what’s good for Britain view, not a narrow party political what’s good for the party view. I want the LibDems to do well, because they’re in favour of the things I think are needed. But I want to bring others on board as well.

    Not, note, Old Labour. Just the non-authoritarian liberal(ish) left that are still in Labour. Unity is one, there are many others.

  5. I’ll leave the wider debate for others, but on the point of me quoting Andrew and not you, my reason for doing so is that you were quoting from him approvingly, from which I inferred you agreed with him.

  6. I do, in many ways, but not on some details. Note his comment about brutalising prisoners Iread as hyberbole, linked to a comment about LibDems proposing enforced dealing of crack, it can be nothing but. Agree; love the hyperbole there, but the point is sound, we need to concentrate and emphasise that we all oppose, those issues that we disagree on need to be left open for debate

    We need to engage those not sold on elements of the agenda in debate. It is possible we can sell them on things that they would never have considered before. To me, I see the hardest two elements of this being to persuade Tories of the need to acknowledge the new electoral map with three strong parties (4 in Scotland) and also to persuade people that the real debate now is Liberty vs Authority, that in that debate, LibDems are Liberty, NuLab is Authority, and the Tories are the centre ground.

    In those seats we cannot win, we need to accept a tactical vote for the Tories, not Labour. We’ve acknowledged, tacitly, the tactical reality since 1997 if not before. But the tactical reality has changed, we need to change with it.

    I’ve written up a full post; can’t see a trackback URI, so link is here.

    Which is more important, at a very essential level; party, or principle? I’ve made my decision; I’ll continue campaigning for Adrian in Torbay, and hopefully helping him with his website/blog. But nationally, liberty needs to be campaigned for. You’ve said so yourself above. Fundamentally, I don’t think we disagree; it’s a question of method, emphasis and priorities.

    But, still, valid critique; if you hadn’t done it, I’d have put up a post asking for it, groupthink is the most dangerous threat of all.

  7. New Labour was about changing the style of party management? Are you joking?!! New Labour has abandoned practically everything Old Labour stood for. The single facet of Old Labour which New Labour has not changed is its authoritarian, democratic centralist style of party management.

  8. New Labour has abandoned practically everything Old Labour stood for.
    You say that like its a bad thing.

    Abandoning liberty, equality and fraternity, certainly doesn’t strike me as a good thing.

  9. But (and I can’t believe I’m sitting here defending members of the Labour Party), that wasn’t what New Labour was about. It was about abandoning a culture in the party that had very little to do with any of that.

    There is a huge gulf between what a lot of “New Labourites” thought they were signing up to and what Blair has become, and much of the internal politics of Labour now is about the tension between those two, not New and Old Labour.

  10. I have not read your blog before, so apologies for butting in and disagreeing with you, but I thought I should raise my voice in support of this idea. This is for civil liberties. That coincides, at the moment, with being against New Labour, but please don’t see this as a partisan thing. Already in the comments there have been people going on about New Labour, Old Labour, Tories, Conservative, right, left etc etc. Please (to use a management speak phrase I hate, but here goes) think outside that box. This is more important than red, blue and yellow.

  11. But (and I can’t believe I’m sitting here defending members of the Labour Party), that wasn’t what New Labour was about.

    Not consciously, perhaps, but certainly subconsciously – that’s what it amounted to.

    It was about abandoning a culture in the party that had very little to do with any of that.

    The culture that was abandoned was intrinsically linked with those concepts. And there were clear statements in rejection of fraternity (as in trade unionism), of liberty (with Blair making a pitch for the Mail’s readership), and of equality (with the scrapping of Labour’s commitments to democratic control of the economy and to welfare).

    There is a huge gulf between what a lot of “New Labourites” thought they were signing up to and what Blair has become, and much of the internal politics of Labour now is about the tension between those two, not New and Old Labour.

    That’s true to an extent, and that’s what the whole Blair-Brown thing is all about. Roy Hattersley – an Old Labour figure who supported New Labour – has characterised the difference now as being between those who think Labour has gone far enough to the right (New Labour) and those who wish to go even further (whom Austin Mitchell has christened, Nouveau Labour). But this only matters to the extent that that kind of in-fighting may lead New Labour to self-destruct. The tension between Old and New Labour is much bigger and more significant, and the traditional right of the Labour Party is starting to find that it actually has more in common with the traditional left than with new Labour. People like Hattersley and Peter Kilfoyle are now rebels, having found themselves to the left of New Labour in government. A lot of liberals and moderate conservatives who signed-up for New Labour, too, have found the political carpet pulled out from under them (though that’s more to do with Iraq than anything domestic).

    New Labour is about more than party management. It’s management techniques are bad, but if they were in the service of a traditional Labour platform, if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have that much of a problem with them. Well, not the total and absolute crushing of dissent, but the PR machine and the replacement of civil servants (never as impartial as they liked to think) with special advisers were necessary developments given the hostility Labour has traditionally faced from the media and from the permamenet arms of the government. If Harold Wilson had had an Alistair Campbell (instead of a press secretary who was shilling for MI5), he could have worked miracles. But maybe that machine could never realistically be coupled with progressive policies.

  12. Abandoning liberty, equality and fraternity, certainly doesn’t strike me as a good thing.

    But that’s not what Old Labour ever stood for anyway from what I can see. Blair, Straw, Brown etc are all from the old labour leftist school. All they’ve done is update the rhetoric to reflect a different world (apart from Prescott who would rather keep to class war).
    Socialism and the Labour Party have always used the language of liberty and liberalism but have always perverted the language.

  13. The Lib Dems should coalesce with people who credibly stand for PR & be damned to the rest. This is an issue on which it is blindingly obvious that the Lab/Cons are not only undemocratic but self serving & no alternatives to each other (& on which Libs are not divided). Force Cameron & Brown to explain in detail why they won’t go for it & neither will ever again be able to claim to be a moderate reformist.

    There may well now be a majority of Tories who think this is something worth voting for as there has long been a Labour one.

  14. There is a huge gulf between what a lot of “New Labourites” thought they were signing up to and what Blair has become, and much of the internal politics of Labour now is about the tension between those two, not New and Old Labour.

    Precisely. Note; making allies within Labour is pretty low on my personal agenda, although I’ve already got more than I expected. Putting the case for freedom, liberty and reform is at the top.

    As many allies as I can get, they all have to be a good thing. There’s a huge groundswell of opinion in favour of some sort of change; we need to capture it.

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