openDemocracyUK

Know your enemy – never underestimate the Tories

Last Thursday's election revealed the power of the traditional British establishment. The lessons of history show that the left must never underestimate the Tories
Luke Cooper
10 May 2011

Last Thursday’s election was a worked example of the power of the traditional British political establishment: the dinosaurs won the day, and by a mile. A simple lesson to draw is ‘know your enemy’ – never underestimate the Tories and the narrow social and economic interests they concentrate together in an explicitly political form. I hope Anthony Barnett’s intuition that they "may come to rue the day they so brutally crushed a harmless compromise" turns out to be right; only time will tell. But crush it they certainly did. 

The Coalition Agreement that outlined the ‘miserable little compromise’ was a stroke of Tory genius. Not only did it give a decidedly Thatcherite programme of cuts liberal legitimacy, it also compelled the Lib Dems to fight for an electoral reform they themselves didn’t advocate. We bore witness to the fruits of this policy last Thursday: an electoral humiliation for the Lib Dems; a decisive defeat for AV; and, perhaps more surprisingly, a strong Tory showing.

It’s the nature of Coalition rule that one party will nearly always prosper, leaving the other to feel the punishment of the discontented. Back in 1924, a similar fate befell the Liberals when they gave parliamentary support to Macdonald’s minority government. Back then they had no formal access to the levers of power, but like today they were perceived to lack any independent political voice. Tellingly, it was Labour’s rejection of any prospect of electoral reform that broke it up.

History may well repeat itself – but in the case of today’s Liberals, their prospects are much worse, facing not only being dislodged as a second party but wiped off the map altogether. Then and now, the Liberals demonstrated a naivety in the face of their political foes. Their justified anger at the lies, slanders and sheer demagogy of the No2AV campaign suggested that there was more going on than sheer indignation – they were genuinely surprised at the actions of their partners in the ‘new politics’

Here, too, there is a lesson for the anti-cuts movement. I campaigned for AV because I felt it did represent a marginal improvement over the FPTP system – the power to indicate preference; the ‘vote for the winner if you want your vote to count’ mentality undermined; and the freedom to vote to the left of Labour without fearing you would let the Tories in. But many activists in the anti-cuts movement and on the radical left backed a no vote – partially because it wasn’t proportional representation, but as it increasingly transpired, in the vain hope it would hurt the Liberal Democrats and so ‘deepen the cracks in the Coalition’.

The results provide only the most superficial justification for this. Yes, there are cracks in the Coalition, but we are up against a determined Tory-dominated government that despite everything did well in the election – and they saw off a threat to their cherished FPTP system. The Lib Dems are locked into this government: if they break it, they risk the Tories calling an early election, and there is nothing in Thursday’s results to indicate they couldn’t win it.

I can entirely understand the focus on the Lib Dems in the student movement – they did the opposite of what they pledged; the moral indignation was as justified as it was inevitable – but now we need to develop a more sophisticated conception of what ‘bringing down the government’ means – for none of us, I think, want to see majority Tory rule.

It’s in this direction that I’d like to see the debate move.  

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