Friday, 28 January 2011

In Response: More on the idea of a ‘conservative-led’ government and its contradictions

In a previous blog post, Chris has analysed the way in which we use different names for this coalition and argued that maybe we should stop skirting around the issue and just give it a proper name. and solve this issue once and for all. Yet, even though there is a lot in picking a name, my main concern here is Labour’s strategy in naming and interacting with the coalition and its actors, especially the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats. Some have argued that by using the ‘conservative-led’ name to define the government, Labour is not concerned with a party that barely has double digit approval rates, but the opposite may, in fact, be true. On the left side of the political spectrum there have been two different arguments. The first, radical, one argues clearly that the Lib Dems and their whole party are no more than political puppets of the Tories and that they will be easily absorbed within the larger party. In the mean time, the second view argues that the Lib Dems are essentially a split party and that in a short time their right wing (Clegg, Alexander, Laws, etc. – N.B. the leadership) will happily join the Tories, whereas what is constructed as the rest of the party will be integrated into Labour.

Both these arguments have the same effect. They delegitimize the very existence of the Liberal Democrat party - what do they stand for if their policies can be so easily implemented by one of the two main parties - and through this the Lib Dems become largely irrelevant on the political scene. More importantly, the division created between the leadership and the rest of the party portrays the former group as the failed leaders of a party that is essentially left-leaning, a party betrayed by its own representatives; in these circumstances the few can become Tories, no great loss, whereas the many, the grassroots of the party will have the revelation that their true home, on the left, is in the Labour party. There was though a moment of straying from this argument when in a speech Ed Miliband argued that Lib Dems can collaborate with Labour and input their ideas – and for this they wouldn’t even have to leave their own party. But isn’t that essentially showing them that the very ideals for which they became members of the Liberal Democrats are being implemented by another party, thus making their own party redundant? A lot more tame on the formal message level, but the same idea. So yes, it is an argument for two party system, but through a constant attack on the Liberal Democrats. And let’s not forget, this is the party for which some years ago ‘no news’ was ‘bad news’ so being ignored both formally, by not being taken into consideration, but also ideologically, by arguing that it doesn’t stand for anything different the others, especially in a ‘conservative-led’ government can easily become ‘bad news’.

It is this type of thinking that through its lack of importance given to the Lib Dems that not only legitimates the two party system, but also exactly the electoral system that stands at the basis of it, first-past-the-post (FPTP), especially in competition with something like AV that attaches meaning to a vote, by creating a preference system. Let’s take an example: if someone would have voted Conservative for all their life and suddenly for some reason or another they would be disenchanted with the Conservatives, they might vote for the Liberal Democrats. But, by the way of thinking promoted by Labour, the Liberal Democrats don’t have any value as a political party, hence the only other party to vote for would be Labour, which may be unacceptable for someone who has been voting for the right/centre-right for all their lives. And even as people may never have the opportunity to think in this way if the referendum fails, I trust quite a few have thought about this potential situation when deciding how to vote in the referendum.

It’s an argument that’s common knowledge, but it’s an argument that highlights the way in which acceptance of AV is essentially linked with the existence and credibility of the Liberal Democrats and, thus, to a certain extent influenced by Labours thinking on the matter. I’m not saying this is a very elaborate communication technique à la Alistair Campbell, I’m just trying to point out that the way in which we do politics, through the speeches our leaders – in this case pro-AV Ed Miliband - make, may just be more of an anti-AV campaign than the NO2AV group can ever hope for putting together. And it is true that the very framework (political culture, rules, truth regime, whatever you may want to call it) in which he works does influence his attitude to some extent (largely because political systems have this sort of resilience to change), but does he really not realise the contradictions within his own discourse. Or does he think that people will go out and vote for a political ideal whose finality they cannot grasp – what is the point of AV if there are only two parties anyway?


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