|I was asked off-list
> what is the substantive programme of the liberal democrats,
> i.e. how do they differ from New Labour ?
I would find it easier to give my perception of where they are
ideologically and in terms of the class nature of their constituency,
but it is a fair question
In some ways they have started to appear to be "to the left" of
Labour: some years ago they proposed to increase income tax by one
penny in the pound to pay for better education, at a time when New
Labour was committing itself against tax rises in competition with the
They are in favour of abolishing the council tax and replace it with a
local income tax.
They are very much in favour of proportional representation, which of
course would help them. They cooperated very much with Labour in
Scotland in setting up fairly successfully the Scottish Assembly of
They were critical of the evidence about weapons of mass destruction
and opposed going into the Iraq war. However once in, they supported
"our troops". They have not called for withdrawal. They do emphasise
putting it on an international basis.
Ideologically they are not economic liberals like the German Free
Democrats - they believe in a mixed economy. They have no social basis
like as in the German Mittelstand. Their basis is petty bourgeois, of
people who are sure they see something wrong with the present system.
They recruit support particularly in local campaigns of people who are
annoyed about defects in local government, like rubbish etc. Some
opinion surveys show that their supporters may also have backward
populist prejudices like racism but it carefully does not show in the
The political stand of the party is socially liberal rather than
It therefore straddles the contradictions of bourgeois right in civil
Although a thoroughly bourgeois party it therefore has progressive
It is essential for the Lib-Dems to be able to draw votes from
Conservative supporters, and more Conservative seats are at risk than
Labour seats from an increase in the Liberal vote. That is why the
Liberal victory in the recent by-election is such good news for
The Liberals were always hit badly before by the two party system,
picking up seats in by-elections but losing them in general elections.
However I think we are seeing a complex effect partly produced by New
Labour's determination opportunistically and systematically to
dominate the middle of the political agenda in terms of consumer
reactions. The two party system is becoming more complex - a sort of
three body problem. The Liberal Democrats have moved both the left and
behind New Labour and in front of it. The Conservatives are now in a
terrible position where they do not know where on earth to position
themselves, and their leader now gets attacked by Labour for
"opportunism" which is ironic.
Why this matters is about the range of conversation in middle strata
circles. People chatting with neighbours or over a more formal middle
strata meal, carefully sharing and comparing their social aspirations,
will be able to admit in passing they are not very sure about the
Conservatives without losing social status. Tactical voting is now
considered legitimate and to be tolerated, although "middle class"
class loyalty is stronger than "working class" class. This process
blurs the distinction between white and blue collar workers, and in
fact puts working people more in the same boat. And the children of
the "middle class" are no longer immune from all the risks run by the
children of the manual working class, and often have to work as
waiters and waitresses to pay for their university education.
Although the number of Lib-Dem seats has climbed to over 50,
the party is careful not to focus attention on whether it would
support either of the other parties in a "hung parliament."
So the importance of the Liberal Democrats is that Conservative voters
might feel they could tactically vote for them to keep Labour out, or
tactically vote for the UK Independence Party, which taps into
suspicion about the finance capitalist logic of the European Union.