Commentary on the local and national elections on May 5, and on the English electorate’s rejection of a new, more proportional, voting system, has focused on the terrible performance of the Liberal Democrats – in England, above all, but in Scotland and Wales too. Quite rightly. They are the one party whose continued existence as a serious and substantial political force is now under threat.
Most Lib Dems cannot bring themselves to admit it, but it is clear that the decision of Nick Clegg and his allies to identify themselves wholeheartedly with a dominantly Conservative government has turned out to be disastrous. Many voters no longer see them as a ‘moderate’ alternative to the Conservatives, let alone a radical alternative to Labour. And indeed the latter option was explicitly disowned by Clegg soon after the 2010 election.
Now they are making frantic efforts to try and re-establish their separate party identity, having suddenly discovered their misgivings about the Tories’ plans for the NHS – soon to be re-named the National Health Market (NHM). It is probably too late. They could have retained their independence by offering the Tories’ conditional support after last year’s election. They chose not to do so. They are now paying the electoral price.
One beneficiary from this disenchantment is likely to be the Greens. And there are some signs (in Brighton?) that this is already starting to happen. But Ed Miliband is quite right to see that there is an opportunity here to draw disillusioned Lib Dem voters and activists back to the Labour Party. But that won’t happen on a large scale unless and until Labour rediscovers its radical and social democratic values. And there is not much sign of that at present. Consider the feebleness of its opposition to Lansley’s plans to commercialize the Health Service. Both the public and the medical professionals have been more vocally critical than the Labour front bench. This is, of course, a reflection of Labour’s own sell-out to market ‘principles’ – if you can call them that.
What this shows is that there is more public support for social democratic policies than most politicians and commentators suggest or assume. This is most clearly so in Scotland and Wales. In both countries the devolved governments have preserved many of the free public services which have been so easily abandoned by both Labour and the Tories in England, and even plan to abolish long-established charges like those for prescriptions. The success of the SNP – at the expense of all three UK-wide parties – is due as much to their adoption of popular social democratic policies as to nationalism, let alone any great enthusiasm for complete independence.
No doubt social democratic values are more deeply embedded in Scotland and Wales than they are in southern England outside London, where Daily Mail culture so widely prevails. Nevertheless there is more support across the country for public services and welfare than is reflected in mainstream party politics. If Labour cannot articulate and embody that support, and the opposition to library closures, education cuts, and the whole ideological assault on public services, then we are doomed to a long period of neo-Thatcherite Tory rule.
PS For all their proclaimed opposition to the Alternative Vote, it is worth noting that the Tories in both Wales and Scotland benefit hugely from the proportional allocation of seats. In Scotland only 3 out of their 15 seats in the Holyrood parliament were won on a constituency basis. In Wales, if constituencies only counted, they would be down from 14 seats in the assembly to 6.