Liberal Democrats: Charlie's No Angel

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The Liberal Democrats may fish for left wing votes, argues Jacob Middleton, but they are no alternative to the parties of war and neoliberalism.

Millions of voters will be faced with a grim choice at the forthcoming general election. An enormous gulf exists between the Labour leadership and a Labour electorate way to the left of it. The Liberal Democrats have carefully inserted themselves into the political space created by disillusion with New Labour, offering themselves as a 'progressive' alternative to a profoundly discredited Labour government. Many tens of thousands of left-leaning former Labour supporters will be thinking about casting their vote on this basis, but the Liberal Democrats are perhaps the last organisation to deserve such support.

Perhaps the most pressing reason offered for a Lib Dem vote is their apparent opposition to the war on Iraq. The Lib Dems have carefully cultivated a spurious image of principled opposition to war, and have made it a central part of their election campaigns - with great success in the 2003 Brent East by-election. The truth of their 'anti-war' stand is a little more murky.

Vegetarian between meals

Sensing a potential audience in autumn 2002 after an exceptionally large anti-war demonstration, the Lib Dems were quick to announce their 'opposition' to the invasion of Iraq. A motion in support of the UN, widely perceived as anti-war, was passed at their conference that year. As late as 17 March 2003 leader Charles Kennedy was claiming on the Lib Dem website that, 'I find it personally and politically very difficult indeed to support a war in which there is no mandate from the UN and no sense of legitimacy on the international stage.'

The invasion was launched two days later. Kennedy instantly shifted his position, saying that 'the House of Commons voted earlier this week and we have to accept that democratic verdict. There is nothing unpatriotic about having questioned the basis for this war but supporting our armed forces now battle is engaged.' Nothing unpatriotic, perhaps, but little that is consistent or principled. Like being a vegetarian only between meals, the Lib Dems' 'opposition' to the war on Iraq is meaningless. It lasted for as long as the war did not take place: little comfort for the 100,000 Iraqis that have died as a result of the invasion, but useful for Charles Kennedy's future career prospects.

The 'war on terror' generally reveals an equally dire record. Last month Kennedy declared that his party was issuing a 'clarion call' over threats to 'fundamental liberties'. So seriously do they take this threat that Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament abstained in a crucial ID card vote rather than break up a cosy alliance with Labour. Sixteen of their counterparts in Westminster (including Kennedy) failed to appear for a vote on the government's repressive anti-terror laws. The bill was passed with a majority of 14, the Lib Dems claiming their non-appearance was a 'cock-up'. So treasured are 'fundamental liberties' that the Lib Dems' most recent conference voted to ban strikes, with one speaker claiming this was 'about basic Liberal principles'. As Kennedy put it, 'We can't take for granted in a liberal democracy our citizens' rights.'

Their record on other international issues is no better. A Liberal Democrat MP, Jenny Tonge, who dared to speak in solidarity with the Palestinians, expressing an understanding of the pressures that lead to suicide bombing (while, incidentally, condemning the act), was summarily dismissed from the party's front bench. Tonge is to stand down at the next election; no doubt her parliamentary career would have lasted longer had she adopted the approach of Simon Hughes, who almost simultaneously claimed to support Palestine and be an 'unequivocal lover of Israel'.

Similarly, while the Lib Dems nationally have made much of their supposed 'anti-racism', they have been quietly pandering to local prejudices. Two separate leaflets were issued for the Hodge Hill by-election in June 2004: one for largely Asian areas, showing their candidate surrounded by smiling Asian supporters, and a separate, 'ethnically cleansed' leaflet for the mainly white areas with the Asian supporters removed. Lib Dem councillors in Stroud have played up to anti-traveller bigotry in the right wing rag the Daily Star, denouncing as 'a dangerous precedent' a human rights ruling in favour of a group of travellers.

In fact, while the Liberal Democrats often brag of their local successes, in council after council the same story can be found. Far from being a 'left wing' alternative to the Blairites, the Lib Dems have acted as little more than Tories in a garish yellow cloak. Offering no alternative to the rounds of local privatisation and deregulation, and with no desire to create one, Lib Dems have been happy to push toytown neoliberalism on their luckless voters.

Sometimes, local Liberal Democrats will work with the local Labour Party, carving out whatever Labour left still exists and pulling councils sharply to the right. More often, Lib Dems can be found propping up Conservative councils under the guise of 'anti-Labour' coalitions. Major urban areas like Birmingham and Leeds have discovered themselves effectively run by the Tories after years of Labour control. Where the Lib Dems can rule the roost, in councils like Southwark, south London, they have adopted an unusual enthusiasm for the privatisation of local services. Southwark now has numerous separate PFI schemes seeking to transfer public property to private developers, while a huge effort is being made to introduce a stock transfer on a major local estate. The Liberal Democrats' much-vaunted 'tolerance', meanwhile, has been exposed as a sham in their (so far unsuccessful) attempts to break up a well established community of houseboats to appease rich waterfront homeowners.

But their constant expediency has led them to lower depths than this. Those with longer memories will recall the Lib Dems' notorious election campaign on the Isle of Dogs in 1993, parroting BNP propaganda and inadvertently helping Nazi councillor Derek Beackon to a short-lived victory. They have learnt no lessons since. In Burnley, currently suffering under six BNP councillors, Liberal Democrats used the fascists to throw out a Labour administration and replace it with a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. With a motion of no confidence before the council, Gordon Birtwistle, leader of the Lib Dem group, phoned the BNP's local f├╝hrer to make sure the Nazis were in attendance for the crucial vote. Local Labour councillors rightly called this a 'deeply shady alliance'.

Latter-day Thatcherism

Again and again the same theme emerges: the Liberal Democrats are driven by little more than a desire for any last scrap of power. In Scotland, opposition to New Labour's unpopular tuition fees saw a boost for Lib Dem support; once in coalition with New Labour, this opposition was none-too-subtly dropped by the party's Scottish leadership. Only campaigning efforts led by National Union of Students Scotland prevented the introduction of compulsory university fees.

Yet there are movements within the Liberal Democrats away from their habitual opportunism. Vince Cable, the party's economic spokesman, has established a reputation as a strong voice for latter-day Thatcherism. At this year's party conference he justified a token tax increase for the rich not by appealing to social justice or redistribution, but claiming that a 50 percent rate was something 'Margaret Thatcher was happy to live with'.

Cable himself is the brightest spark in the party's sole ideological current, a selection of committed, mostly youthful free marketeers seeking to cleanse the Lib Dems of every left wing deviation. The Orange Book, published last year, contains a selection of essays urging a greater and more ideological shift to the right on the party. It was neatly summarised by Nick Clegg, one of its contributors, who told the Guardian, 'Throughout [the Orange Book] there is a strong scepticism about the blunt power of the state. Other strands of liberalism might place greater emphasis on social reform, on radical constitutional reform, on the abolition of inherited privilege.' But not this one.

The ruminations of the Liberal Democrats' provisional wing tie in very neatly with the concerns of its national leadership. The majority of Lib Dem target seats in the general election are currently held by Tories. Simple opportunistic logic dictates that, while some sops to the left can be offered, the party should shift to the right. The signs are clear, locally and nationally, that such a course is being sought. Responding to claims that his party would seek an alliance with Labour in the event of a hung parliament, Charles Kennedy angrily denied that any such plan existed. Such a situation, he wrote, 'would represent a huge loss of confidence in a Blair administration. In such circumstances, we in the Liberal Democrats would let ourselves down if we were to chase deals for partisan advantage.'

At no point has a deal with Tories been ruled out in such language. Given their local record, indeed, and allowing - no doubt - for some consternation among some of their members, a coalition with Tories would present a fine opportunity to practise the traditional Liberal Democrat art of chasing deals 'for partisan advantage'.

The great tragedy in this election will be the tens of thousands of angry left wing voters, disillusioned with Blair, who throw their lot in with a party of chancers and opportunists currently seeking a route to the right. But a breakthrough for Respect could lay the basis for providing a genuine left wing alternative in every area to the parties of neoliberalism and war - including the Liberal Democrats.