One question that comes up time and again from punters on the doorstep to far left activists is “why can’t you all just unite?” (although, ironically, Left Unity has ruled out unity with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition for next year’s London Assembly elections). Of course, there are Very Important Reasons why myriad groups in the revolutionary socialist tradition can’t unite. But one question I’ve not heard from the mouth of any voter ever is “why can’t Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge?” Yet it is being asked now, and the man putting his head above the parapet is Jamie Reed.
Writing for The New Statesman, Jamie argues it’s time we rethink progressive politics in this country, and suggests that the “next leaders” of Labour and the LibDems seriously mull over a merger, seeing as “business as usual will likely result in permanent irrelevance.” Besides, citing some work done comparing the two sets of party policy, there’s apparently very little between them.
First off, Jamie deserves credit for not just thinking the unthinkable but going public with his thoughts. As radical narcissism is blighting the left inside and out the Labour Party, doing what Jamie’s done will see him get some stick. Yet being honest about our differences and stating them plainly is the only way we can come to grips with our defeat and the tough challenge politics presents us with. So if you’re of the ‘fuck off, you’re a Tory‘ tendency, a period of calm reflection about why you’re in politics would be most welcome. A bit of listening and reading may assist too.
Nevertheless, Jamie is wrong. Very wrong. It appears he has fallen into the empiricist’s trap. He sees the Labour manifesto sharing some ground with the yellow party, and has undoubtedly noted one of the three frontrunners in the Labour leadership contest is, essentially, running on a liberal platform. He may also have observed that between us, the parties mustered circa 11.7m votes – a bare 400K in front of the Tories but enough to tip the votes against them in dozens of constituencies. So a merger makes sense – few political differences plus a common enemy. The problem is the LibDems, despite the best positioning of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, are not a progressive party.
What are progressive politics about? It’s not about being nice to each other and having fluffy policies. Progress in technology is usually understood as the development of increasingly complex machines that, ultimately, make life easier for human beings. Progress in the sweep of social development is something roughly similar. It’s a broad but by no means inevitable historical movement from relatively simple human communities ruled by the tender mercies of nature to complex and sophisticated societies that increasingly allow us to master our own fate. 21st century global capitalism has given us the means and know how to provide a decent standard of living for everyone, everywhere. And yet, because it is a class system in which a vanishingly tiny minority of people own and control the means of producing a better life, economics is instead about pursuing profits. Needs are only satisfied in as far someone profits from it.
What does progressive politics mean in this context? I would suggest it, among other things, means a levering out of the monopolisation of the means of life by private individuals and institutions and tackling the awful consequences that result. One cannot live freely and fully if one is forced to give over a portion of their life each week under the pain of economic necessity to an employer who directs their physical and mental activity as they see fit. The same pertains to the millions of small business people who have to run themselves ragged to make ends meet. That is no life. Things can be better than this, to half-inch a phrase.
Progressive politics is more than a nice idea. It’s a real movement rooted in untold numbers of workplaces, a long and sometimes heartrending story of working people fighting for better wages, control over their work, the length of the work day, for the right not to be treated like a piece of shit. It’s a struggle that has touched everyone living today and has profoundly shaped our societies. And the numbers of those who club together, be it formally or informally, condition the patterns of inequalities and, crucially, the capacity of governments to undo and/or strengthen the reforms and institutions thrown up during the course of our messy development that make life easier for the majority by protecting them from the full blast of the market’s elements.
This is where the Labour Party comes from, though sometimes our leading parliamentarians affect amnesia about it. Labour is a progressive party because its very existence poses a latent threat to the established order. A politics rooted in the wrong side of the antagonisms that riddle every society, its trajectory ultimately points in the direction of the socialisation of the means of life. Of course, when the movement of working people and their allies are weak, as has been the case for the last 30 years, so Labour reflects this in the dominance by it of the right wing commonsense of the day. When the movement is strong, things are slightly different.
Where do the LibDems sit in relation to these politics? As liberals, they – like Labour – accept the freedom of the individual. They are progressive in as far as discriminatory barriers need to come down. On equality of opportunity, against bigotry, against fascism and tyranny, yes. But on the essential question, on the unavoidable divide that cuts across every society, liberalism either pretends it doesn’t exist or, as is usually the case, line up on the other side of the progressive fence.
Take Tim Farron’s appearance in Question Time last week. Known as one of the “lefty” LibDems and successor to the path broken by Ashdown and Kennedy, he argued that trade unions – the very organisations our people have used to better themselves and, yes, realised their aspirations – should butt out of politics. In Farron’s view, it’s legitimate for private individuals and businesses (as extensions of private individuals) to be involved in politics. Yet collectives of democratically-organised working people? Absolutely not. Their sphere is and should be confined to private relations between employer and employee. Getting involved here is infringing individual liberty, even if that liberty stands on a distinctly illiberal set of circumstances foisted on people out of economic compulsion.
To answer the question, Labour and the Liberal Democrats should not merge. The former is a progressive party and the latter is not. It’s not a question of philosophical differences, it comes back again to interest. Labour is a movement for prosecuting them, or it is nothing. Jamie Reed and his friends would do well to remember that.
This article first appeared at All that is Solid