Blaggism: can the Lib Dems and Labour shake off the joint curse of beautiful leaders?

Their Party conference in Brighton showed Britain's Lib Dems embracing a Blair like leader in Nick Clegg. But this will drive them apart from Labour when progressives in both parties need each other.  

Stuart Weir
30 September 2012

The Lib Dem conference last week had a fringe meeting on 'Cleggism'. The clear implication was that whatever 'Cleggism' is, it does not rank with 'Blairism'. I missed the event but have no doubt that this further attempt at 'differentiation' from Cameron fails as badly as the Lib Dem strategy I criticised last week. For there is an uncanny resemblance between Nick Clegg's whole approach to power, politics and the people and that of Tony Blair; which goes further than their obviously shared neo-liberal ideology. Cleggism is what Sue Townsend might dub Blairism aged 2 and half. This matters a great deal as their shared arrogance and attitude to power is likely to reproduce the split within the progressive majority in Britain, as Labour activists gather in Manchester for their own conference.

Like Blair, only more so, Clegg won the vote to be Party leader more on the grounds of a persuasive personality and good looks than his (largely unexamined) politics. They both had, in brief, the qualities thought necessary to win modern elections.  In both cases, they were the figurehead for a vanguard set of politicians who were out to change the politics and character of their party.  Blair succeeded in imposing his vision on a party he despised; Clegg looks set to do the same.  A woman in the audience at the Lib Dem fringe meeting I spoke at complained that Labour’s shadow front bench remains full of "New Labour politicians".  But Clegg is creating a New Liberal Democrat party. And just as Neal Lawson argues New Labour really meant Not Labour, so Clegg is disavowing the Liberal Democrat party whose leadership he has seized. 

The affinity between the two projects of Clegg and Blair, however, presages not a coming together but rather the opposite, whatever Vince Cable and Ed Miliband are telling each other.  Clegg is not only rejecting his party’s recent left trajectory, he means to re-position it as a party of the centre-right that takes advantage from the larger shift to the right that Cameron is being obliged to embrace. Clegg has dragged his party into full-blown support of deficit reduction and the coalition.  After the monstrous mistake of insisting on a referendum on the wholly disproportionate Alternative Vote – a decision that not only undermined the case for PR but also the entirely justified effort to reform the House of Lords – Clegg has now completely abandoned the cause of democratic reform, a course of action - for which he is praised by right-wing commentators - and is even defecting on the Liberals’ historic commitment to civil liberties.

Meanwhile, Labour under Ed Miliband is engaged in a necessary if uncertain turning away from Blairite belief in the market, the privatisation of government and a strong security state.  There are signs that Jon Cruddas and others around Miliband want to create a party that governs with people rather than from above, driven by a belief in social justice and reform of business and the banks.  There are missing elements – I do not detect a real rather than opportunistic commitment to civil liberties, to reform of the tax system and democratic renewal.  (I wonder indeed if the democratic moment generally has been submerged as Anthony Barnett argued last year and which appears to be confimed by the collapse of even Clegg's modest proposals to reform the Lords.) 

Moreover, Labour’s strategy - reaffirmed by Ed Miliband on the Andrew Marr show this morning - remains wedded to the obsolete ambition of winning the next election outright and governing alone – a self-defeating strategy which has for almost a century involved treating the Liberals or Lib Dems as rivals to be scorned and if possible eliminated.  I saw elements of anti-Labour tribalism at Brighton last week; tribalism is just as entrenched in the Labour party.  However, electorally Labour need a Lib Dem party that performs well at the next election against the Tories. They and the social democrats in Clegg’s ranks can learn from each other; and more to the point, they will almost certainly need to partner each other in government should Labour emerge as the largest party after the next election.  

On a personal note, I object to Clegg’s Manichean distinction between party members who accept and embrace severe austerity and those who want to "Stop the World and Get Off" as being in some “comfort zone” of their own.  This is the authentic voice of the political class which insists that its view of the world is realistic and all alternatives are unworldly and "loony".  In fact Cleggism, like Blairism, is a class-based and exclusive 'realism'.  The search for substantial and beneficial change is more often than not frustrated; it may involve compromises at both the policy and personal level that are not in the least comfortable. But it offers hope and as we survey Britain after the crash we can also contemplate the profound irrationality of the market fundamentalism of the two handsome Labour and Lib Dem leaders. Call it Blaggism. Could a shared revulsion to Blaggism finally bring the two parties together in a much needed collaboration?

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