1980s >> 1988 >> no-1004-april-1988

Obituary for the phoney alliance

Much water has flowed under the bridge in the decade since the Dimbleby Lecture was delivered on BBC TV by Roy Jenkins, the archetypal Labour opportunist with an expensive taste for wine and an undisguised contempt for socialism. Jenkins had been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Wilson government which had dragged the idea of socialism through the mud as it pursued some of the most cynically anti-working-class policies in British political history. Now Jenkins had become a convert to a new, even more opportunist, more cynical, vision: the belief in what became known as the political “centre ground”. No longer should politics be stained with the extremities of ideological fervour. In moderate, comfy, common sense, men of good reason (capitalist timeservers like Jenkins and George Brown and assorted other careerists) would unite in the political “middle ground”. As the 1970s turned into a new decade with a new Thatcher-led government a growing campaign emerged to realise the Jenkins dream of a new Centre Party — a dream which, if history is to be written accurately, Jenkins pinched from the 1960s’ Liberal leader Grimond who in turn stole from the post-war Butskellite tradition in which all three major electoral parties co-habited within the intellectual slum of vaguely comprehended Keynesian reformism.

By the early Eighties the cry for a Centre Party was motivated by impatience at the dogmatic obsessions of the Tory monetarists and the tired rhetoric of the pro-state-capitalist Labour Left, then passing through one of its illusory moments of ascendancy. The cry for the new party was deafening. But wherefrom came the cry? Not from the factories or offices or pubs or dole offices or anywhere that you or I are likely to be found. It came instead from the media and from the academics who had run out of ideas, from the Liberals who had lost all hope of power and the Labourites who were tired of having to go to the bother of singing the Red Flag once a year so that the troops would fight for them.

The new party would “take the politics out of politics”, while offering the workers what they believed we had always been used to: smiling leaders and capitalism without the ideological wrapping paper of the Left or Right. The rest is history. In 1981 a bunch of squalid Tories in drag walked out of the Labour Party (which had been very happy to have them) and took up residence in TV studios. There they spent the early 1980s looking through the camera into the living rooms of workers who were told repeatedly that what we all really want is “moderation” — a term which, like decency and apple pie, is uttered with an appearance of great meaningfulness by politicians and which means absolutely nothing.

After the Labour split of 1981 came the Gang of Four: a gang of bores who told us that they were old-fashioned, “moderate” socialists who would stand for Social Democracy. This meant, in fact, that they stood for a combination of sterile Labour reformism and half-baked Tory management of the profit system and that they would do this in unison with the Liberal Party which had been suffering from a serious illness, probably terminal, for about sixty years. The Alliance was born. In Warrington Roy Jenkins won a spectacular by-election success when he lost the election and came second. The TV pundits did brief interviews with the candidate who had the audacity to win and then spent weeks celebrating the victory for moderation which Warrington apparently signified.

In 1983 the “social democrats” (by now the SDP) went into the general election with the Liberals as an Alliance. They lost, enjoying the dubious success of sometimes damaging the Labour vote and providing the Tories with the best election victory of any British party since 1945. Jenkins was removed as SDP leader within weeks of the result. He was to make way for the man who had always personified the real face of moderation: David Owen. What did this real moderate face look like? Well, as a face it looked pretty good — the sort of face which would not have been out of place on one of those TV hospital dramas where the surgeons are always handsome and arrogant. So much for the man himself. The face of moderation politically could not have been better portrayed than by David Owen: a smug, supercilious man for whom pragmatism was all, principles of no account and capitalism as inevitable as socialism was instantly dismissable. At the Labour Conference in Wembley in 1981 (the one where Owen quit) our late comrade, Jim Glitz, approached Owen and offered to sell him a Socialist Standard “This is the only paper which puts the case for the abolition of the wages system” said the ever-optimistic Glitz, the sort of bloke who would have tried telling Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams to stop wasting time on trivialities and unite for world socialism. “When are we going to have this socialism, then — next weekend?” retorted Owen, whose definition of an ideal is embodied in his devout support for the obscene power of the NATO murder machine. Owen epitomises most of what stinks in capitalist politics; the bits which he does not yet epitomise he is ambitious to descend to.

In 1987 the Alliance went into the general election as two parties in fundamental coalition. Steel and Owen presented themselves as the inseparable dream ticket. Seven million workers were conned into voting for them. Of course, the worst of it was that they voted for capitalism which can never be run in the interest of the workers. But that was not all that constituted the Alliance confidence trick. The campaign of Liberal-SDP coalition within the mysterious “middle ground” which was presented to the voters last year was erected on the basis of the most cynical and contemptible fraud. While Steel and Owen posed as friends they were in reality bitter rivals for power; they appeared as advocates of an unstated Centre vision but it now turns out that they were both looking in different directions, both hoping that those scrutinising their case were too stupid to see the transparent sham of their phoney alliance. Even within the usual context of capitalist political trickery the Alliance politicians played a dirty trick; they deserve everything that has happened to them in the days since the election as their tacky Alliance has fallen to pieces before the public gaze. They deserve the contempt which millions of workers will show them.

What pleasure we have all had — we who were not taken in by them — to watch the Alliance committing public suicide in the months since their defeat in the last election. How pleasing it has been to see that, despite all the advertising hype for which they could afford to pay thanks to their millionaire backers like David Sainsbury, despite all the media support which has none too subtly been offered to them, despite all the phoney rhetoric about “middle ground” and “the Centre” and “breaking the mould”, they have ended up in a squalid battle over a merged party which thousands are planning to leave and nobody looks very anxious to join.

The Alliance has shown that a party without principles or ideas descends to a level which is truly laughable. Look at the Liberal merger debate in Blackpool where for many of the speakers the main objection to merger was that Social would come before Liberal in the new party’s name (the SLDP). Then, on the eve of the SDP merger conference in Sheffield, an internal war broke out over which faction could use the conference hall on the Saturday night. The SDP leaders (the pro-mergerites) threatened to take their opponents to court to stop them using the hall. Meanwhile, the non-merger SDPers (irritatingly referred to as the Owenites: a profound insult to the memory of the ideas of Robert Owen, a political thinker whose boots David Owen would not be fit to polish) are offering the chance of a free fortnight in Portugal to SDPers who resist the yawn-inducing temptation of going into the SLDP and stay in the SDP rump. Such people might as well go away for good, for their political futures will be doomed after the SDP minority has had its nose bloodied in a few by-election defeats by the SLDP. How long will it be before Owen, and perhaps some of his fellow SDP hacks, swallow what pride they have left and accept the offers which are certainly made to them to enter their natural home in the Tory party?

Whatever happens to Owen, Maclennan and the rest of the SDP timewasters, one thing is certain: after one hundred and ten years as an oflicial party (and rather longer as a political tradition) the Liberal Party is now dead. Like jolly decent Liberals they booked a hall in Blackpool and voted with tears in their eyes to shoot themselves through the head. Some Liberals will be too “progressive” to be allowed into the new party — which will be the only party in Britain to impose a constitutional obligation on its members that they support NATO. Others will join reluctantly, mourning the days in which they at least had a reason to be in oblivion which they could justify to themselves. Others will join the new set-up willingly, pursuing the sordid struggle for a lick of power. Paddy Ashdown will be leading the Give Us A Lick tendency, followed not far behind by those nonentities in search of greater nonentities to worship them, Alan Beith and Malcolm Bruce.

Some people may be surprised that we regard the Liberal Party with such hostility. After all. are they not a basically “radical” force? Indeed, in its years of decline the Liberals have won to their ranks many workers who oppose the worn-out policies of both left-wing and right-wing and they have been responsible for raising within the Liberal Party many issues which would be ignored in more pragmatic circles. But no, the Liberals are not radical in any meaningful sense of the term. The Liberals have never addressed themselves to the root cause of the problems which they sometimes sound concerned about: they do not get to the root because the root is the capitalist system and it would not do for a capitalist party to have to pull up that root, would it? So for years now, the Liberals have plodded away in a smug world of thinking themselves rather radical and nonconformist but in reality being wedded irremovably to the futile old politics of capitalist reform. Ian Aitken of the Guardian was on the ball when he described them as being “cocooned in a comfy mood of self-esteem” (25 January 1988).

The Liberal Party ‘s delusion of radicalism is based, like so many of the other great myths of capitalist politics, on very selective memory. To be sure, the Liberals have made progressive-sounding noises when they have been out of power, but what have they done when they have been in? Are we to forget that they were the government which grossly intensified the arms budget to prepare the way for the monstrous slaughter of the First World War? Liberals supported that waste of millions of workers’ lives because as supporters of capitalism they cannot extricate themselves from the system’s inevitable by-product: war. They did it then and now again they have merged into a new movement which sees preparation for war as a priority.

The Liberals now make much noise about the wickedness of the Tories’ so-called free market dogma. But this was not an invention of Thatcher’s or one of her crazy advisors. The essence of Liberal economics was free trade and the unregulated market. And let it not be forgotten that the Liberal Party in power was the last government in Britain to fire on and kill striking workers. In 1910, when Winston Churchill was Liberal Home Secretary. 7.000 troops were sent to Liverpool to coerce the dockers who were on strike. Tom Mann, the chairman of the transport workers’ Joint Strike Committee, told the Liberal tyrant. “Let Churchill . . . order ten times more military to Liverpool and let every street be paraded by them, not all the king’s forces with all the king’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea”. In fact. Mann was right: the might of organised labour was greater than the Liberal government and their armed thugs and the dock authorities gave in to the dockers’ demands.

Liverpool was only part of a general strike wave to which the Liberal oppressors had to respond in 1910: in Tonypandy in the Rhondda Valley massed police attacked defenceless strikers, and in Llanelly they fired on a peaceful demonstration, killing two workers. So much for the radical record of Liberalism. The history of the Liberal Party is one of failure to tame the beast of capitalism and success in accommodating itself to the anti-social ferocity of the beast. If that is the legacy which they take with them into the SLDP, workers should keep clear of the new party like the plague.

Many Alliance supporters will be disappointed that their hopes which had been raised by Owen and Steel have been so suddenly dashed. It was inevitable for there is no such place in politics as the middle ground. The concept of the centre is an illusion. To those tired of the boring old left-right struggle the illusion is a seductive one, offering the chance of capitalism without having to think about ideology. The hard fact is that there are only two camps which serious political parties may join. One can either stand in open defence of capitalism — as the Tories and the Owen faction and many Liberals do — or one stands against capitalism. The reason for the lack of credibility of the Labour Party and the other lefty “moderates” is that they pay occasional lip service to opposition to capitalism but are in fact supporters of running the system. Kinnock and the vast majority of Labourites are as much victims of the illusion of the political soft centre — of capitalism in moderate doses — as was the Alliance.

There is no room for fence-sitting in the class war. You are either for the millionaires or for the workers who are robbed. You either favour bombs, of whatever kind they might be, or you refuse uncompromisingly to fight their bloody wars. You either stand for production for sale and profit or for production for use and free access. Either revolution or reform. There is no middle way. Let those who are licking their wounds in the obscurity of political disgrace remember that the creation of a sane society is always going to be more important than the miserable dealings for power in which they have all just been the losers. The workers have a world to win and that is just a little more important than whether Paddy Ashdown is to become leader of the party with no name and fewer principles.

Steve Coleman