Auto-liberal politics #1 How the centre-left can thrive

Posted by RDN under Politics & campaigns on 17 July 2016

In a nutshell: The Auto-liberals have helped the failing working class to put a 1960s liberationist lefty within a whisker of Number 10. Still, the June 2017 election brought out a huge, wide, vote for the Tories. The centre looks very squeezed. But against all the odds, there is plenty of action in a sort of hidden centre-left. The centre might yet be the power in the land which Tony Blair always dreamed it might be. Here’s how.

I have posted four linked posts on what bright, educated, nice, liberal-minded and especially young voters ought to do instead of feeling superior about Brexit, the disaffected white working class, and the Tories.  This is #1

Auto-liberal politics #1 How the centre-left can thrive
There has for a hundred years or more been a simple underlying dynamic to British politics. A broad church Conservative Party has reached out to a One Nation creed which embraces much of the working class. But the party has other minority tendencies which are variously (on economics) quite interventionist and quite libertarian, (on moral issues) quite permissive and quite “conservative”.

Labour has had quite a broad church, and it was the unionised working class as steered by intellectual or industrial socialists. It had a historic and shifting split as between moderates who sought to mildly reform capitalism and extremists who sought to overthrow it. It had a minority who openly espoused a liberationist (they would say, a human rights) agenda and a large, largely unspoken, mass who were much more prone to the sort of mild bigotry which was much more often ascribed to Tory voters.

Both these great parties ignored the emergence of a large, very various, swathe of Britons who felt ignored by almost everything modern: the very things the other parties sturggled to accommodate, this large rump loathed.

Historically, after the 1950s, the Tories felt themslves to be and were widely acknowldged to be the party of practical government. Labour were the party of compassion and complaint, and – rather often – of opposition. In power, Labour over-spent and the Tories would come in and tighten belts; the country would eventually get tired of economic good sense (now called “austerity”) and give Labour another go.

Only Labour’s pragmatists (economic realists, up to a point) were able to form governments. Equally,  Tories have only gained power by promising a good deal of “tax-and-spend”.  The upshot for years was Butskellism (named after Butler and Gaitskell, the two leading centrists of the two main parties in the 1950s).

Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair were two exceptions to these general rules, though she wasn’t half the slasher she half wanted to be, and he never controlled public spending as he might have liked. Both broke the rhetorical model of their parties; both offended very important elements of their respective parties. Thatcher brilliantly took much of the new entrepreneurial working and lower middle class vote from Labour; Blair as brilliantly got the new, huge graduate classes (Auto-liberals to a man and woman) away from the Tories.

The current muddle is not historically unusual (indeed, the fissures and fractures in politics look more 19th Century than modern).  But it is not remotely clear that the old left-and-right, two-party dynamic is what we now need. Indeed, there is a strong case for suggesting that the more “tender” Tories and the more pragmatic Labourites, and especially the young of either tendency, might invent – ought to invent – a new middle ground.

Here are the questions they face.

The simplest, core question is, as usual: what percentage of the national income should be spent by the state, and therefore by politicians. Mainstream Labour tends to suppose 50-55 percent would be about right. Mainstream Tories tend to suppose it ought to be less than 35-40 percent.  Neither gets what they want.

The question only looks simple: the question is about the size of the economy as well as how to divvy it up. After all, a low tax economy may produce a bigger potential budget for welfare. And it is not a given that only government can provide welfare.

So a subset of the tax-and-spend question is: how should welfare get done? It is not a given that people who want low taxes want the poor to suffer (though that is what the left always say of them). And here we have the next question: how should welfare be paid for and provided? One might remember that nationalised welfare produces strong public sector unions which strongly influence politics, not least by their power within Labour. On the other hand, capitalism has not yet proved intself brilliant at providing low-profit, reliable public service bodies.

And then there are the “social” or “cultural” or “moral” questions. How many immigrants should now be allowed to come into the country? Should it be harder for a migrant to get citizenship than to get work? How much should families be subsidised so as to produce two working parents? How much should offspring expect to be able to inherit from parents who needed expensive, subsidised end-of-life care? Should the arts be subsidised?

Even economics has to be taken seriously. For several hundred years, there have been profound divisions over the role of the state in making trade rules. In or out of the EU, these debates will continue for ever.

And then there is war and peace. Do we have a profound moral obligation to interfere in foreign affairs, or an equal obligation not to?

It seems likely that all these questions have to be answered by competing political parties. It seems very unlikely that they will fit into the existing matrix or dynamic. Surely it is probable that there is room for at least a third and maybe more political parties?

My challenge to the young Auto-liberal is to take part in the changes within existing parties and the possible creation of new ones. I think the result might well be formal recognition that there is a gap in the centre left.


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