The Coalition

Couple of posts here from James at Quaequam and Joe Otten which raise points which need to be addressed.

First off, as one of the Labour contingent in this I should address the raising of the ‘Old Labour’ appelation. The one thing this is not about is ‘Old Labour’.

What you see in the Parliamentary Party in the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Peter Kilfoyle, Bob Marshall-Andrews and others, is not necessarily reflected in the Labour members who will be working in this coalition.

There is certainly common ground between people like myself and the current Labour ‘rebels’ on civil liberties. It’s easily forgotten, but it has traditionally been the left of the party that has taken the strongest libertarian line in the past – read any of Tony Benn’s work on constitutional matters and you’ll see exactly what I mean – but make no mistake here, this a new generation on the Labour left that’s starting to emerge, one not caught up in mistakes of the past, the biggest of which being the unquestioning acceptance of the Soviet system as ‘socialism’ when it bore little or no relationship to what we understood to be socialism in Britain.

I really don’t want to go too far into matters of ideology – part of what we’re trying to achieve, after all, is to step outside the old economic left-right divide and move the debate to a new axis, that between authoritarian and libertarian – but I suspect this cannot go entirely unaddressed.

So, for the record, what you will see from those amongst Labour ranks who work with this coalition is the emergence of a nascent ‘Rational Left’, the roots of which lie very much in the individualism and libertarian values expressed by George Orwell in his political essays, especially in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ – oh, and before Conservatives head off, read it and have an attack of the vapours in relation to his comments on economic matters and nationalisation, those views were very much of his time and are, shall we say, noticably dated and of little relevance.

Socialism as was, was the product of the industrial age of the 19th Century and the utopian ideals of those who never really expected to gain power and have their ideas and values put to the test. The task facing the Labour left in the post-Blair era will be to do what he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, and bring the core values of the party into the 21st Century and the realities of a modern post-industrial society – and that’s our task and one that has little or no bearing on this coalition other than to note that that we will benefit the same as everyone else from a new and genuinely democratic constitutional settlement.

Joe asks the question ‘But what are you [the coalition] for?’.

As I’ve said, a new constitutional settlement for the British people, one which, over time, the coalition will work together to define in detail.

Remember this is very early days as yet, and we’re talking principles and identifying key influences, although the combination of Locke, Mill and Paine is a pretty good staring point to which I would add Isaiah Berlin’s work on liberty and pluralism and Montesquieu on the separation of powers.

This is, it has to be remembered, very new – a broad consensus between libertarians on the left and right has emerged and been apparent in the blogosphere for some time but only in the last week have people been saying ‘Hey, maybe we can work together!”.

It will take a while to scope out the boundaries of this new working arrangement, so at this stage it is entirely valid for people on all side of the old political divide to make it clear where their personal boundaries lie – if we all know where we stand from the outset then we should be able to work more effectively together simply because we know clearly what we can work together on.

The overall aim here is to build consensus around a clear package of constitutonal reform and then to push that up the political agenda with the aim of having a Great Reforming Parliament.

Now as I see it, there are two approaches we can take, the route America’s founding fathers, that of careful negotiations leading to measures that are clear, simple and have widespread support, or that taken by the EU which loaded its constitutional treaty with all manner of unconstitutional buy-offs, lock-ins and concessions in an effort to articifically generate support. Look, it’s Jefferson and Franklin or Giscard D’Estang – I know which approach I prefer and which one will deliver what’s needed and it sure as hell didn’t originate in amongst the technocrats in Brussels.

So right now, I have absolutely no problem with the various groupings which make up this coalition stating right out where their boundaries are – this is about liberty not artifically embedding social democracy or free-market capitalism into a constitution; democratic elections will determine which economic route the country takes in future and respective governments will then legislate accordingly, for example a Bill of Rights might well set out a belief in the right of everyone to education from 5 to 16 – that’s fine, but what it shouldn’t and won’t do is set out how that should be delivered. That’s a matter of policy and one on which democratically elected governments should decide according to their mandate.

This isn’t about boosting support for any one party, it’s about setting a clear agenda for constitutional reform which individual parties, MPs and candidates will respond to according to their views and beliefs.

Which rather bring me on to the subject of tactical voting – in and around this there will be some who look, over the next three years, to organise tactical voting against Labour, which is my own party. That’s their choice – this is about liberty after all, so we should practice what we preach – but its not what this coalition is necessarily about.

If we are to look at tactical voting – and I suspect we will – then it will be in a rather more sophisticated way than simply ‘let’s get rid of New Labour’. We need to do the numbers, look at voting records on key liberty issues and see how people respond to the agenda we’re putting forward.

Liberty Central will be about supporting the long game, picking off the authoritarians and supporting the libertarians no matter what party the come from. My own personal view, and this has to be debated by everyone, is that we should consciously stay out constitutencies where the battle, come the next election, is between candidates who support what we’re trying to achieve and let the electorate take its natural course. Where the choice is between a libertarian and an authoritarian then yes, we look at how best to intervene and who we should be advocating that voters support on a case by case basis, but this has to be backed up by research and analysis – there is no point putting our efforts into unwinnable situations nor should we allow ourselved to be conned by candidates who suddenly discover the cause of liberty just in time for the general election. Our aim should be to profile constituencies and individual candidates and decide how we go on the evidence – to make unbiased recommendations based on what we know, not guesswork or rhetoric from party leaders.

It’s a two-pronged strategy. Within individual parties those party members who work with us would, I hope, actively support libertarian candidates and push to get our agenda accepted and supported by those candidates – we have three years to work on this, lets not forget. Come election time, whenever that is, we look at the hand that each party has dealt us in each constituency and make an informed choice as to what line we should take, if we take a specific line at all.

If that leads to organised tactical voting, then that’s where it leads – but that has to come from with the members and supporters of individual parties. I’m a member of the Labour Party, so what business is it of mine to tell Lib Dem or Conservative party members how they should be voting in a general election. As a campaign we will certainly highlight candidates who are notably supportive of our values and those who are clearly against our objectives, but if people want to cut deals on a local level to achieve a specific outcome then that’s up to them to organise and put together in detail.

Let’s put it this way, the last thing a libertarian project is or should be doing is coming over all authoritarian with its supporters.

To those like James and Joe who are suspicious of what we’re doing and where we’re going, what I will say at this stage is, please keep an open mind and give things time to develop. If you’re still not happy with the direction this is taking further down the road, then fine, that’s your choice. If, on the other hand, you change your mind, the door’s open.

This is about liberty, after all, so what else would we be saying but ‘it’s your choice’.

  • There is certainly common ground between people like myself and the current Labour ‘rebels’ on civil liberties. It’s easily forgotten, but it has traditionally been the left of the party that has taken the strongest libertarian line in the past

    Absolutely. There is no rpt no contradiction between being a socialist (in C20/21 Britain) and being a libertarian. The weakness of the contemporary libbo left, and the poaching of the term ‘libertarian’ by economic liberals (some of whom are rather weak on civil & social liberties), are a large part of the problem we’re in.

    After this, though, it all goes a bit weird.

    this a new generation on the Labour left that’s starting to emerge, one not caught up in mistakes of the past, the biggest of which being the unquestioning acceptance of the Soviet system as ‘socialism’ when it bore little or no relationship to what we understood to be socialism in Britain.

    I’ve no idea what – or, more to the point, who – you’re talking about. “unquestioning acceptance of the Soviet system as ‘socialism'” in the Labour party? I’ve been opposed to the fellow-travelling mentality for as long as I’ve been a libertarian socialist (i.e. since I first read Homage to Catalonia, aged 16 but I never actually found any fellow-travellers to oppose until I got involved in CND… and their fellow-travellers were (a) a readily-identifiable minority and (b) mostly actual members of the Communist Party.

    And Orwell’s a very bad patron saint – he’s a ghastly old windbag, wildly inconsistent in just about everything except his conviction that he was right and most of his audience was wrong. The Lion and the Unicorn is particularly dreadful.

    I think your first instinct was right – this project isn’t about the politics of economic management & distribution, so let’s not go into that.

  • Which rather bring me on to the subject of tactical voting – in and around this there will be some who look, over the next three years, to organise tactical voting against Labour, which is my own party. That’s their choice – this is about liberty after all, so we should practice what we preach – but its not what this coalition is necessarily about.

    If we are to look at tactical voting – and I suspect we will – then it will be in a rather more sophisticated way than simply ‘let’s get rid of New Labour’. We need to do the numbers, look at voting records on key liberty issues and see how people respond to the agenda we’re putting forward.

    Agreed. the imminent Anyone But Labour campaign is seperate to the ‘main campaign’ and supporting one will not automatically mean supporting the other. In addition the ABL is initially aimed at the May council elections, a shorter term and narrower campaign that Liberty Central.

    on a personal note, many of the long standing labour rebels should be supported, but we need to give the party a smack in the face and try to show them, and other parties, that backing restrictive legislation is a vote loser. i think that will aid the liberty central campaign in it’s longer term ambitions.

  • Unity

    Not weird at all Phil, just badly explained.

    The ‘group’ that bought most heavily into the idea that socialism = the Soviet system were not the left but the right-wing of the party, it becoming ‘that which must be opposed’.

    Take this, from a letter sent by Tony Blair to Isaiah Berlin shortly before Berlin’s death in 1997:

    “I very much enjoyed your interview with Steven Lukes in Prospect this month. I hope you don

  • Thanks – that’s a lot clearer..

    Berlin was too ill to reply to Blair and died about six weeks after receiving this letter,

    [Groucho]So it was murder![/Groucho]

    The irony is that many of his strongest allies in this, like Clarke and Reid, are ex-Communists – in some cases Stalinists.

    Indeed. Like Martin Kettle’s confession of his Communist past, where he ends by denouncing the anti-war Left and saying that this way of thinking must be purged. Dig the crazy rhetorical bricolage, Martin. Except that it’s actually not, is it? There’s a remarkably straight line from Communism to New Labour, in all sorts of ways.

  • Gregg

    The only Labour MPs I can think of, who equated the Soviet Union with socialism, were expelled circa 1950. And there’s George Galloway, of course, but he was never really involved with the left – he never joined the Tribune Group or the SCG, nor was he notably involed in any of the left’s campaigns.

    There were Labour MPs (on the left and the right) who believed in free trade and friendly relations with the Soviet Union. They believed this would hasten the demise of Soviet communism. They were called sympathisers, fellow travellers, even traitors, for this. But they were proved right – the Iron Curtain wasn’t brought down by cruise missiles, but by Levi jeans and bootleg tapes of rock and roll. Had the Labour left, the likes of Bevan and Wilson, been listened to, in the UK and the US, in the 1950s, the Soviet Union may well have ended sooner than it did, and with happier results for all.

    I find it difficult to imagine how any libertarian coalition could include Conservatives. They are, at best, fairweather friends of liberty, and during their last 18 years in government showed themselves to be implacable enemies of liberty.

  • You have made me rather nervous here. I am looking for a document which defines freedom from government. But you are talking here about a “right to education”. That sounds to me like a recipe for enshrining state education on a permenant basis. It is also nothing to do with freedom from government.

  • You’re getting in to bed with a very strange group indeed here, Unity. I dislike intensly many of those on the Labour right, I loathe Tories, but I know where both of them are coming from. this rag tag and bobtail of Lib Dems, say anything to anybody, and form a coalition with the devil for a place at the masters’ table, I wouldn’t trust them one inch. Their ‘Anyone but Labour Campaign’ is a desperate throw of the dice to get into bed with the Tories before Cameron pulls the rug from under them. I for one wouldn’t want any Liberals to “consciously stay out” of my Ward, get your lazy arses out their and fight for what you believe in.. not posture about what you don’t.

  • Unity

    Bob:

    As I see it at present we may be heading for a hung parliament in three/four years which, if it does happen, will give the Parliamentary LD’s the bargaining chip they’ve been looking for for PR anyway.

    On the premise that at some point it’s going to happen we have two basic choices – do nothing and levae ourselves open to a new settlement for Westminster Village or go for broke and push for a complete new constitutional settlement all around.

    The worst case scenario in all this is that we get PR and nothing else – or rather PR and a tame, gerrymandered, second chamber full of political appointees.

    Some of the current legislation that Blair in putting through and has put through is genuinely frightening – both the Civil Contingencies Act and Leg and Reg are enabling bills that make Hitler’s enabling act look tame in terms of the scope of powers reserved to the Executive.

    As for tactical voting at this stage, the Anyone but Labour crew will do what they do – can’t stop ’em. What it does make clear is that, at the next election, we will be facing the same kind of ‘get Labour’ campaign/mood that we ran so successfully in 1997 to get the Tories – no harm in knowing that well in advance.

  • I don’t necessarily accept the premise that we are heading for coalition or PR. The Tories are unlikely to support PR and Labour backbenchers under Brown or whoever are hardly likely to be whipped into it. You seem to be accepting the rise of the Lib Dems is inevitable, whereas there are those of us who think they are already a busted flush, which is why some of their activists are talkin coalition now.

    I entirely accept and agree with your views on Blair’s repressive legislation. Blair is a Tory, albeit a Cameronesque Tory, by instinct. But he is a blip on the radar. I thought Lexi Sayle was particularly good last week when he said the Blair project was like almost all political elites – they move further to the right with each piece of power they get. Be it as councillors or MPs, the more power people get, the more they move towards the establishment. The country is run by an elite, including senior civil servants, the secret services and politicians who are required to present the public face.

    You mention Tony Benn, well Benn is spot on when he identifies the power of patronage, delegated from the monarch to the PM as being the major democratic change required. Not the voting system, but something which prevents the Prime Minister from controlling the whole House of Commons with the ability to dole out jobs and honours. Break that, make the Executive responsible to the Commons, and we can at least put power in the hands of our elected representatives. Leave it untouched and you continue with the same corrupt government in the control of people elected by a different voting system.

  • Unity

    Bob:

    I take your points on board entirely, which is why what we’re trying to pull together is something that looks at the whole constitutional package and not just as individual elements like PR or Lords reform – a written constitution and a bill of rights are by far the most important elements of this.

    As I’ve said elsewhere this is all at the scoping stage, which necessarily means things are going to be a wild and wooly at the edges and people will go off at tangents and explore different things – the idea for the present is exclude nothing to begin with and winnow down later to a reform package around which a broad consensus can be built, one in which I dare say some ideas will be more fully formed than others – a bill of rights is one that will look very solid in the end.

  • PR would stop a lot of the current abuses of power, because a party would have to win 50% of the vote to win power. Isn’t that what we want? Party whipping would no longer be enough to win votes, it would have to have widespread parliamentary support.

    By all means lets go further than PR with a reformed 2nd chamber, written constitution, devolved power (subsidiarity), etc. etc., but PR is a great step in the right direction.

  • Magnus G. Pound

    You will fail.

  • Unity

    Why thank you, Eeyore.