The SDP : a new home ?

The SDP : a new home ?

British Politics has become increasingly tribal. Both of the main parties now  have been dragged by their extreme wings away from the centre-ground and towards increasingly exaggerated positions. Both seem to have drifted away from their core purpose and now appear to pander to powerful sects as their leaders try and remain in control. The Conservative leader, Theresa May,  is constantly harried by the European Reform Group whilst the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is kept in position by the Momentum group. Neither leader commands the respect of the majority of their party and only survive by compromising vision and honesty for pragmatic coalitions which allow them to remain in power.

We were in a similar position in the 1980’s when Labour had its troubles with the hard left Militant Tendency and the Conservatives were being dragged further rightwards by the strength of the Monday Club. There was considerable unhappiness and it looked as if the large parties might split asunder into different parties.  In 1981, four senior  labour MP’s  (David Owen, Bill Rogers, Shirley Winters, and Roy Jenkins ; the Gang of Four) did break away and set up the Council for Social Democracy by issuing the Limehouse Declaration. This subsequently established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the UK which had considerable initial success. 28 Labour and 1 Conservative MP joined the party and over the first few years  it had growing electoral success. In 1983 it took 25% of the national vote. However, this was not sustained and by 1987 the party merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in 1987.

I have some personal experience of these events as I was one of the Labour Party election organisers who helped in the 1987 general election. I worked with the team to make sure that Roy Jenkins lost his Glasgow, Hillhead seat to the Labour Candidate George Galloway. In those days I saw the SDP as turncoats and traitors who were splitting the left vote and was quite convinced that my mission was to get a true socialist goverment into power. How life has changed ! But why am I thinking about the SDP in 2019 ?

It seems the SDP never went away. I was listening to a podcast, by the Anglican priest Giles Fraser, and learnt that the SDP continued and recently issued a renewed declaration. In his podcast he wondered if the SDP would provide a home for many people who, like him, find themselves politically homeless. I read the declaration and had to agree with him; there was nothing objectionable and much with which to agree.

They recognise the failures of our current two major parties :-

The Conservative party has conserved very little and instead, has put everything up for sale. Labour has abandoned the nation’s working men and women.

and recognise that if we are to preserve democracy it is important to keep it local :-

We consider the nation-state to be the upper limit of democracy. Along with the family, we regard it as indispensable to the solidarity of our society and concern for our fellow citizens. We regard supranationalism as a neoliberal ideology aimed at neutering domestic politics and placing the most important issues beyond the reach of ordinary voters.

Socially and personally they  avoid the excesses of libertarianism whilst keeping true to socially liberal beliefs. They are aware that there has been increasing intolerance in our society and a tendency to fragment our communities  by the pernicious use of identity politics. They stress the importance of mutuality, rather than law, to bind communities together and this is an important aspect of politics which is rarely discussed by the main parties :-

We believe ‘fraternity vs division’ to be a key watershed question in all Western societies. Fraternity must prevail.

We regard kindness and mutuality as a political rather than a legal achievement which relies on free consent rather than legal obligation. Excessive individualism – of both the social and economic variety – has regrettably led some citizens to believe they don’t share a common fate with their neighbours. They do.

On the economic front they recognise the dangers of rampant neoliberalism, and the adverse effects of globalisation,  but appear also to recognise that there needs to be boundaries to the state’s intervention in a social market economy. They see the public and private sectors as complimentary and see a natural boundary between them :-

The correct frontier between the public and private sector is determinable. Natural monopolies – the utilities requiring universal delivery to citizens – should be returned to public ownership and operation or be subjected to significantly more effective regulation.

There are interesting and positive bits on the family, the welfare state, culture and mutuality. On reading it I felt that there was really little to which any reasonable person could take objection. So is this the start of a change ? Or will this be like the 1980’s again ? Can a party which tries to push for a middle-road out of our present chaos ever gain enough traction to get moving ? I would like to think so and will watch their progress closely, although I am aware that in these acrimonious times they are going to have an uphill battle to make any headway. If they do, I will find myself, 30 years later, in the unusual position of being on the exact other side of a political divide. Perhaps my team will win again.

 

The Impossible Deal

The Impossible Deal

British politics appears to have reached a new nadir and an insurmountable impasse. Recent votes in Westminster have firstly successfully opposed the government’s plans and secondly failed to oppose the government. We are left with the situation that the government remains in power but its plans have been rejected.

Much of this arises from the problems of two-party tribal politics which rather than address a problem itself but instead  promotes a party’s programme. This is compounded by the present leaders of the two  parties. Both leaders have parties seriously split on the issue of Brexit. The Tories have a leader, who is at heart a remainer, trying to manage a programme of leave to please the staunch ‘leavers’ in her party. Labour has a leader, who at heart is a leaver, trying to offer a programme that will please the remainers who largely control his party. The Liberals, the only party who have a party, programme and leader backing remain, are so inconsequential in British politics at present that the only debate in town is between the two major parties with their discordant leaders.

No-one has a plan to get out of this impasse. There is nothing which can suit all the needs of the two political parties. Neither party is single-minded in its desire to either support the decision of the referendum to leave the European Union or to propose something else.  The only thing uniting them is that both of them are terrified of a ‘no deal’ scenario. This despite Theresa May recognising (one of the few things she grasped correctly) that “no deal is better than a bad deal“. All our parliamentarians, of any hue, are unable to countenance ‘no deal’ scenario, even though it may be unavoidable and may also be preferred.

A deal, or a ‘managed’ withdrawal, may well be the best way to proceed. However, sometimes it is not. Think of a “managed economy”, these never function as efficiently as free market economies. In complex situations allowing individual actors to work out the best way to proceed, and chop and change as necessary, is better than an agreed centrally-‘managed’ plan. Centrally managed agriculture lead to famines. Centrally managed healthcare in Europe provides poorer healthcare than the mixed market healthcare alternatives. Situations can be managed when all the data is known but in complex situations there are many things which can not be known in advance. Rather than a committee of bureaucrats trying to plan fishing, healthcare, automotive industries, IT services, financial services, mining, agriculture, food processing,  forestry, electrical engineering standards, inter-university cooperation, medical devices, medication and aircraft standard, and so on and so on. It would be better to allow all the agents involved to work this out for themselves. It will probably prove quicker and will, almost certainly, find better solutions. Even is there is a managed deal,  we  will still need to see individuals and organisations modifying and adapting  it to make it work, as the likelihood of a centrally decided plan fitting all eventualities is negligible.

But, even if you want a managed separation and a deal, then there is still a need to consider a “no deal” scenario. In every negotiation the two agents have their bottom lines, the point at which they think the available deals are not worth having, and the points at which they need to walk away from the negotiations. Imagine the scenario of going into a car showroom and announcing “Right I want a car. I am going to buy it here and I want it today. I don’t care how difficult it is but I warn you now that I am not leaving here without having bought a car. I will not consider the idea of you not selling at least one car to  me. Right what have you got ?” How likely is it that you will obtain a great deal ? You will be relying on the benevolence of  car salesmen, not a wise move. Every negotiator has a line in the sand, the line at which they decide to go for the no deal option, not to consider this is extremely foolhardy.

No deal will be followed by disruption and change, but so will any deal.  At present the EU, and UK leaders,  wish to minimise the disruption to global capital and large corporations and to cause as little disruption to governing organisations which manage many governmental agencies. Unfortunately they are forgetting that the reason people voted for Brexit, and the reason many European people are also upset, was because of the power of global capital, large corporations and remote undemocratic government. They wanted to weaken the powers of corporations and force them to pay national taxes and listen to local governments. They wanted to stop changes in culture which central governments held valuable for the needs of capital. They opposed the ability of capital to bus in cheap labour to undercut local workers; something bad both for the local workers and the home economies of the migrant workers.

Companies may complain that without a deal they fear their profits will be hurt. Populations may reply  “That is tough but that is precisely why we voted as we did. We are fed up with your greed“. Governmental bodies may worry that without a deal their authority may be diminished, but that was the point. No deal allows a blank slate and the opportunity of all to create the future arrangements they want. I recall every election, when I was a youth, the warnings of dire economic calamity if the nation even considered voting for labour. It is no different now to then, those in power and those with the wealth, will try everything to keep it including trying to scare us into accepting a good deal for them and a bad deal for us.

There are many problems with capitalism at present. Crony capitalism is now gathering the increased wealth, that only a market economy can create, into increasingly few pockets. Institutions like the EU are the mechanisms to promote this and they, and the crony capitalists, need to be weakened. This will not be without pain. But if it is done well then hopefully most of the pain will be felt by the rich and powerful who can best deal with it, and may even be thought to deserve it. An unmanaged Brexit may well be the best way to do this.

In defence of the floating voter.

In defence of the floating voter.

I have become aware that sometime during the last decade I have become a ‘floating voter‘. Prior to this I had always identified myself with one or other of the main parties, either Labour or the S.N.P., and cast my vote loyally for their local candidates. I was aware that floating voters were always looked on with a degree of derision; as poor fellows lacking any political philosophy and being politically un-engaged. The quote below, by Ann Coulter the right-of-centre political commentator pretty much sums up the common impression.

Swing voters are more appropriately known as the ‘idiot voters’ because they have no set of philosophical principles. By the age of fourteen, you’re either a Conservative or a Liberal if you have an IQ above a toaster.

However, despite this statement being witty , is it accurate and reasonable ? Taking first the idea that floating, or swing, voters do not have a political philosophy; is this really likely to be the case ? If one has a well developed sense of political principles then it is quite unlikely that these will line up neatly with those of a single political party. While my desire for people to have the ability to determine their future might tally nicely with the SNP’s plans for and independence referendum but not with the Labour Party’s opposition. My internationalism may find favour with those pursuing worldwide class solidarity in the Labour Party but would jar with the nationalism of the SNP. My recognition of the importance of freedom of speech might be welcomed in the Conservative Party but cause consternation to those in left leaning parties who place greater emphasis on the dangers of “hate speech”. However, if I have well developed opinions I am going to have to drop some of these and compromise if I want to be a loyal party voter (though I suppose I could establish my own party !). If I have political principles I am going to have to weigh these up against the offerings of the political parties at any given time, as priorities and situations change, and decide which party looks the best recipient of my vote at that time. In short, if I am principled I’d be better being a floating voter.

I remember when I was active in political campaigning how little respect the parties had for their loyal voter. Their votes were “in the bag”, all that we needed to do was “get the vote out, in some of our more certain constituencies we’d joke that we could put a red, or yellow, rosette on a dog and it would win handsomely. In essence we knew that these votes were loyalty votes, unthinking votes, knee jerk votes that we didn’t have to work for as they were not forged out of discussion or principle but because “I’ve always been Labour/SNP”  or they were voting “like my father and his father before him”.Even when parties acted against their best interests (Labour has neglected the fate of the white working class, the SNP has ignored the best interests of the youth in Scotland, and the Conservatives are ignoring the economic havoc they are about unleash on the business community) the loyal voters keep coming back. Like store loyalty cards, even though you can get a better deal elsewhere, it coaxes you back to the same old fare.

Secondly there is the idea of intelligence, that floating voters are in someway a bit more dumb than those who have made up their mind. For the reasons above this is unlikely, but there is a further reason. The world constantly changes, the challenges we face differ, and our priorities need to change to match this. Intelligence comprises recognising change and adapting to it, changing our responses and dealing with it. It is stupidity to continue to try the same approach no matter what the problem. The old adage that when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail  comes to mind. Consider the problem facing loyal Labour voters, their conference has just jubilantly proposed harsh measures which will  undoubtedly worry large businesses (they know this because they have started to plan for a run on the pound should they win). Now this is quiet understandable in the light of their general principles but, with Brexit just around the corner when everyone’s main priority will be to maintain business in the UK and try and avoid its flight to Europe, the smart labour voter might recognise priorities have changed (at least temporarily) and feel that they need to put their vote elsewhere – it would be the intelligent thing to do.

Indeed, being a floating voter requires more intelligence and more involvement. Voting on party lines means you are leaving the decisions to others, you are abrogating your democratic duty to consider the arguments and make a choice. It is more work being a floating voter but you can feel better knowing that your vote was actually a considered one and is more likely to have had an effect on the outcome (Floating votes are disproportionately important in election results). Our system with its reliance on political parties damages our democracy.  The tendency of political parties to try and develop these “loyal voters” has lead to increasing pork-barrel politics with the right trying to expand its power by promising tax relief or advantage to its crony capitalist friends, or the left promising increased benefits in the welfare state to bribe its followers to keep in line. All of this concentrates political power and influence into a small number of hands, it reduces the choices we are given and influence of our opinions, and it weakens the flexibility and efficacy of our subsequent government.

 

The fury and rage.

The fury and rage.

Before all the dead have been found, before anyone has been buried, and the left has started using them as fodder to make political points. Before we know the facts they are trying to create the narrative – this, in their eyes, was a fire caused by austerity and social inequality. The possibilities of criminal negligence, inadequate building regulations or of materials failure are all put out of mind, while they try and stir the flames for their “Day of Rage”.

I will certainly feel enraged if we discover that malevolence or negligence caused this tragedy. If people were sacrificed for short term gain then the fury will be real and justified. But I will also be enraged if this manipulated political fury allows the guilty to hide from responsibility. I fear the shifting the focus from the real task of finding our the causes of the fire, and the causes of the failure of systems to mitigate against the fire’s deadly effects,  to the task of scoring political points will obscure the truth and allow the guilty to escape.

There are likely to be, at the very least, lessons to be learnt on how to offer help and support to communities in the wake of tragedies like this. Knowing how to do this, and doing it, is more important than scoring a point against a Tory council.

The only bright glimmer of hope so far has been in the response of the local community. Local groups and charities have managed to get assistance to the victims very rapidly and with great skill. They have shown that individuals, working voluntarily, can outperform government agencies. Rather than being ashamed of this, as some commentators have suggested, we should celebrate this and consider how we could support this approach more generally.