Liberal Democrats aren’t reformers

May 3, 2010

British author Mike Marqusee responds to the case that progressives can show their opposition to both the betrayals of the Labour Party and the threat of the Tory Party by voting for the third mainstream party in British politics, the Liberal Democrats.

THE LETTER in the April 28 Guardian from writers and journalists calling for a Lib Dem vote is a particularly dispiriting example of the superficiality of the liberal wing of the British intelligentsia. In forming their opinion, they seem to have relied entirely and uncritically on the picture of British politics--and specifically, of the Liberal Democrats--purveyed in the mainstream media.

There's no indication that they've actually considered either the nature and record of the Liberal Democrats or the actual consequences of a vote for them.

In modern times, and in this election, Lib Dem politics have been driven by their need to position themselves between the two bigger parties. They are an alliance of disparate forces with varying perspectives and social bases. From the inner cites to the suburbs and the countryside, the Lib Dem face varies. It turns left or right, issue by issue, depending on the local electoral arithmetic.

Yes, the Lib Dems have opposed some of Labour's more egregious attacks on civil liberties and deserve credit for that. But even taken at its best, their record here is inconsistent.

The Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg speaks to a reporter during the general election campaign
The Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg speaks to a reporter during the general election campaign

They've done nothing to defend the victims of the worst abuses--including asylum seekers and young Muslims. In the TV debates, Liberal Democratic party leader Nick Clegg went out of his way (along with his opponents) to placate anti-immigrant sentiment; on "law and order," he talked about more police, not fewer police powers.

Because of their mixed base, and their need always to face (at least) two ways, how and in whose interest the Lib Dem MPs who get elected will actually use their power remains extremely uncertain.

THE CLAIM that this is a "historic" moment and we now have the chance to elect a great reforming parliament is, at best, inflated. The one and only reform that a coalition government would be forced to introduce would be the introduction of some form of proportional representation in general elections.

While the introduction of at least an element of proportionality would be welcome, in itself, it cannot amount to the kind of "reform" envisioned, however vaguely, in the Guardian letter.

It does nothing to address the power of money in politics. It does nothing to address the power of the media and the trivialization of politics. It does nothing to prevent the emergence of right-wing figures like Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. It does not necessarily protect or enhance the kind of pluralism the signatories want to see. It does not in itself widen the debate or enhance the power of the electorate.

There are many types of proportional representation with very different results and impacts. At this juncture, it is impossible to know which one would emerge from a coalition government.

What seems predictable, however, is that the Lib Dems will push for the system of proportional representation that most favors them. The upshot could be a situation where the Lib Dems are effectively institutionalized as power brokers, regardless of the ups and downs of their vote.

The government that the signatories are asking us to elect (and to vote for with enthusiasm) will continue the war in Afghanistan, the subordinate relationship with the U.S., and the international and domestic "war on terror" with its terrible human toll. It will continue to harass immigrants and pander to xenophobia and racism. It will implement public-sector cuts on a vast scale, to the detriment of the living standards of the majority and in obeisance to the global financial elite.

By adhering to the neoliberal dogma that unites Clegg with the Tories' David Cameron and Labour's Gordon Brown, it will exacerbate the inequalities that have already reached obscene dimensions. And in the unlikely event that it takes anything like the steps needed on climate change, that will only be because a popular movement has dragged it by the scruff of the neck.

Is this the historic reform we're being told to vote for? You may decide that a vote for the Lib Dems is the best under the circumstances, but don't kid yourself about what it means. You might consider--and it appears that the letter's signatories haven't bothered to--that in voting Lib Dem, the only practical effect you may have is to elect a Tory government.

The reality is that if you want a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, and if you want also to keep the Tories out of power, then you have to vote Labour in Labour-Tory marginals.

The signatories of the letter want us to use our vote to strengthen the prospect of what they consider to be a significant "reform." But they haven't even worked out the tactics of their own position. For this reason and for others, their advice should not be taken seriously.

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