Traditionalists within Labour, and those malcontents on the Left generally, like to recycle their slogans. Having labelled one prominent politician a “betrayer” of traditional supporters, a closet-Conservative, of being too fond of Thatcherite economic policies, they have now moved onto using the same language for another.
Tony Blair, who took an axe to Clause IV on his way to repositioning Labour as a European style social democratic party before the 1997 landslide election victory, would never be left-wing enough for every Labour voter. Blair was a Labour leader but not a Labour man, whose attempts to re vigour Britain’s political landscape for good was ultimately thwarted by the inherent conservatism within and without the political establishment. Nick Clegg is now suffering the same brickbats, labelled a betrayer and a turncoat, as much from the same disgruntled left-leaning voices who mocked Blair. It is, if you will, a case of ‘same difference’. Clegg has made a brave step, a leap far beyond that which Blair took, and doubtlessly there are many who feel that the trust they put into the Liberal Democrats has somehow been thrown away.
When Blair took to the country for his first election as PM, in 2001, he did so amongst the clutter and bother of disgruntled supporters who tried their hands at launching splinter groups in electoral opposition to ‘New’ Labour. They all failed – Socialist Labour Party and Socialist Alliance almost immediately, George Galloway’s Respect ultimately fell to internecine warring. His re-positioning of Labour, much like Clegg’s leap of faith within the Coalition, was an uneasy act for activists and councillors. When Gordon Brown told the party’s Conference “we are best when we are Labour”, he spoke with the socialist voice he would use throughout his own Premiership. Little wonder Lord Mandleson is speaking out against Ed Milliband’s bid for Labour’s leadership. Wrapping Labour values in conservative clothing has proven to be the winning formula for Blair and future followers of Blairism. Ickle Ed’s socialism would not.
Clegg’s Conference speech today, his first as Deputy Prime Minister, settled some nerves. The Coalition agreement has already made real many LibDem election manifesto pledges – higher income allowances, banker’s levy, changes to corporation tax, reforms to the voting system, possible good news on Trident renewal, end of ID Cards, scrapping Section 44, reform of the National DNA database. I blogged some time ago against the VAT increase, a move I still feel is regrettable. It will be difficult, these 5 years of fixed term governance. Clegg will have much harder rides, as the Cleggmania which followed the leadership debates gave his and the Liberal Democrats similar levels of expectation that Blair received in his landslide year. Coalitions are alien to Britain, which seems to be the sticking point for Labour and leftists; how can two opposing forces come together? How can political parties not be tribalist? Clegg is not one of “us”, he must be one of “them”.
I don’t pretend that the Coalition will make choices which run counter to my liberalism, or the ideas of the Liberal Democrats. I just feel far more strongly against the traditional he-said-she-said stick to your guns tribalist nonsense streaming from Labour since the election. Nothing done from their side which suggests they understand why they lost the election, nor how the Coalition has managed to agree to its terms and policies. The real opportunity from this Coalition is less of the same red/blue nonsense which Clegg campaigned against during the election. As he told the Party Conference this afternoon, if nerves are held, the LibDems won’t just talk about change, we’d be the agents of change.
If you wanted the country to be different, you put faith in the Party that was different. That party has not changed. I just hope that the two sides can fulfill the early promise of these past 4 months. I fear Labour are set for the ugliest campaigning in British politics. Their acting like a bitter divorcee should do for their credibility. New politics? Yes. But Blair found it impossible to take the country down that route. Will Clegg, similarly maligned by the same anti-Blair lefties, suffer the same fate?