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The last liberal and how the centre broke

It seems I spend my blogging life commenting on Guardian articles about the Labour party and that election. Probably because I’m still traumatised by this image:

2015 UK election exit poll forecast projected onto BBC centre. 316 seats to the Conservatives

If only it was 316

There have been some really useful, perceptive articles about what happened, what it means and what we need to do to stop 1000 years of Tory rule. I think I’ve come to the not particularly profound conclusion that Labour lost because voters didn’t feel the party could be trusted to run the country. It had little to do with policy.

The reasons for this are a bit more complex, but trying to formulate a centrist approach to the economy while failing to challenge austerity and its narrative for 5 years resulted in a predictably confusing electoral pitch.

Anyway, today’s article is from Will Hutton. It’s about how Charles Kennedy wasn’t left of centre; rather, the centre, and Labour, had shifted rightwards:

Kennedy was routinely described in many obituaries as having taken his party to the left of New Labour. But such a description traduces the real political context. A refusal to be co-opted into an illegitimate, self-defeating war or later, in 2010, into a programme of crash public deficit reduction, almost entirely shouldered by expenditure cuts, should not define him as “left”. A fitting tribute to Charles Kennedy would be a revival of popular liberalism

This explains why large swathes of Labour’s natural constituency fails to vote, or even supports other parties at election time, whether it’s the Lib Dems in 2010, or the Greens and SNP in 2015. It simply doesn’t stand up for its members’ interests; instead, it chooses to fight the Tories on their own terms.

Consequently, politics as a whole has become a dance around right wing tenets like the deficit must be tackled; so much so that Labour ends up pondering modern social policy when there is no money around with a straight face. Ideas that would have seemed solidly central become radical. That prospective Labour leaders insist on dancing to this tune will only result in the collapse of the centre and more defeats. After all, there’s a real Tory party out there. At least what they say has some internal logic, even if it’s fundamentally wrong.

A party that has lost its instincts is finished. Perhaps the anti–Tory future lies in a rejuvenated liberal party firmly of the centre. I don’t believe the British are somehow naturally right wing, just as much as they’re not left wing. We need a party that can express simple ideas that question Tory assumptions about how economies work without tying itself in knots. Is Labour as a party capable?

I’ve had the phrase the last liberal in my mind since Kennedy died. We’ve seen lots footage of him at anti–war rallies or on Have I got News for You recently, but my strongest memory is of his first appearances on Question Time. He really was impressive: humorous, clear, likeable; an alternative to pettyfogging politicians of all stripes and, most importantly, clearly right about a lot of things. Just what we need now.