Dead Men Left

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Liberal Democrats: yellow Tories

Phil, from Actually Existing, asks in the comments boxes here whether the Lib Dems are "...ahead of New Labour on the opportunistic, unprincipled vote-grabbing scumbag front...". Leaving aside the Lib Dems propensity to form coalitions with the Tories, here's some recent evidence:

Liberal Democrats in Burnley, a town currently afflicted with six BNP councillors, recently brought down a minority Labour administration with support from the local Nazis:

The Lib Dem leader, Gordon Birtwistle, angrily rejected all charges of deals.

"My involvement with the BNP was nil," he said. "I made one phone call to the leader of the BNP before the council meeting out of courtesy to tell him that we were putting a motion to the council.

"The BNP voted for a motion which defeated Labour. They are a totally independent party [whose councillors] vote whichever way they wish. I don't speak to any of them."

Except, of course, when he called the BNP's local Fuhrer - "out of courtesy"! - to inform them of the vote. As far as "opportunism" goes, this is pretty high up on the list - and no, I can't imagine even New Labour doing a similar thing.

Going back a bit further, we run into "ISLAND HOMES FOR ISLAND PEOPLE". This sorry story is from Millwall in 1993, excerpted from The Scotsman, Saturday 18 September, 1993 (via Lexis-Nexis):

Last night the Liberal Democrats became embroiled in allegations that they had been racist in the way they had conducted their election campaign.

The party leader, Paddy Ashdown, ordered an investigation into the allegations and warned that anyone proved to have acted in a racist way would be expelled.

The claims are a severe embarrassment for Mr Ashdown, coming days before the Liberal Democrat Party conference in Torquay.

The Liberal Democrats were accused by Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, of seeking to inflame racial tension and of playing to local prejudice and fear by issuing racist leaflets during the campaign.

Mr Ashdown accepted that one leaflet he had seen "could lend itself to a racist interpretation."

The leaflet, entitled How Labour Spends Your Money, says: "Bangladesh Shocker ... Millwall Labour councillors tried last month to give £30,000 to Bangladesh for flood relief. Liberals wanted it spent on repairs locally."

Another paragraph states: "Bangladeshi youth movement ... An organisation which employed Labour councillors and their 'friends' and received £175,000 from Labour last year. Has it helped you recently?" Mr Ashdown wrote a hard hitting letter to local Liberal Democrats forbidding them from issuing any further leaflets without the approval of the regional party.

(Now, in fairness, the New Labour have come pretty damn close to this sort of thing; but, in their dog-whistling way, I doubt they'd be quite so specific.) The left-leaning Lib Dem leadership at the time was rightly horrified. Aping the BNP is not Lib Dem policy. It says something for the party, however, that local members did not have the political commonsense to realise what they were doing was wrong. I have seen nothing since to suggest lessons have been learned.

There's more on the Lib Dems in an article this month in the Socialist Review; or you could try here. The underlying problem with the "Lib Dems are left-wing" argument is that it has entirely forgotten what formed and what constitutes the left: we stand for a change in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the majority; talking about the economy and the distribution of resources are essential for us. The Lib Dems, as shown by their squeaky-clean neo-liberal economic policies, including a ban on strikes, have no such concern. They are second Conservative Party; less socially regressive than the real Tories, perhaps, but just as economically unpleasant.

Unfortunately, we all know that the genuine forces of the left will be scattered at this election. In some areas, Respect will be standing; in others, a decent Green candidate can be found; in many more, left-wing anti-war Labour MPs abound. (Those in Scotland or Wales have a little more choice in the matter.) Many people, disgusted by the war on Iraq, will be contemplating voting Liberal Democrat simply to clip Blair's wings. What we need is a genuine organisation of the left that ensures they will never be faced with such a prospect again. What we shouldn't do, however, is delude ourselves that making this grim choice represents a shift to the left.