Oxford West and Abingdon

Like many other people, I thought Evan Harris was safe in Oxford West and Abingdon. There was a reason for thinking he might not be: the constituency boundaries had been redrawn to include less of Oxford and its student-heavy city centre, and more of the outlying Tory villages, but I was inclined to discount the importance of this. In general, the Lib Dems looked good in the polls, and, in particular, polling in marginals suggested that their vote was holding up well against the Tories. Harris’ majority was a healthy 7,683. And the Conservative candidate clearly looked like a bit of an idiot. So, as I say, I thought he was safe.

If I’d really thought he was in danger, I might have voted tactically on the day to try and save him. After all, I’m a not-terribly-tribal tribal Labour person (just as Andromache – who left a dead mouse in our bed this morning – is a not-terribly-wild wild animal). I voted in the Compass ballot to endorse the issuing of a statement in support of anti-Conservative tactical voting, and, more generally, I think the Lib Dems are a less toxic political formation than the Conservatives. If politics really were just about choosing between them, then it wouldn’t be difficult to choose.

But I voted Labour instead, and I learned later in the evening that – basically – it’s people like me who denied Harris his victory. Harris lost by a minuscule 176 votes, and there were almost six thousand Labour votes, so only 3% of those Labour supporters had to switch their votes, in order for him to be safe. And, as time passes, I’m more and more glad I cast the vote I did.

I’ve heard that on election day, the Lib Dems were sending their local activists into Oxford East to help defeat the local Labour MP Andrew Smith, thinking that Evan Harris had the OxWAb election in the bag. And Labour supporters in OxWAb who might be tempted to vote for the Lib Dems need to be clear about this. If we cast an effective anti-Tory tactical vote in this constituency by voting for Evan Harris, what we are doing is helping to provide support for the Lib Dem anti-Labour campaign in the next constituency along. It’s much better for the Labour Party in Oxford that OxWAb is highly marginal between the Lib Dems and the Tories, and that this constituency sucks in as much campaigning effort as possible from the Lib Dems, so that we can concentrate on the important stuff, like winning Oxford East and controlling the City Council. (And, yes, both goals were achieved in Thursday’s election.)

There’s a tweet going round that reads like this:

A curious statistic: Oxford’s combined vote: LD: 41087 Con: 33633 Lab: 27937. One Con MP, one Lab MP. #electoralreform

On the face of it, that’s not a bad argument in support of some kind of reformed voting system — and, in general, I support some kind of reformed voting system. But appearances can be misleading. The Lib Dem raw total, for example, includes both those Labour supporters who cast a tactical pro-Harris vote in OxWAb and those Tory and Green supporters who cast a tactical anti-Smith vote in Oxford East. And so on. We live in a system that encourages tactical voting, as first-choices will so often not be available – so it’s tricky to use the numbers thrown up by that system straightforwardly as evidence for its unfairness.

What we can say is that a set of elections were held on Thursday in Oxford – in two parliamentary constituencies and in every ward for the City Council. The parties fought the elections on the same terms as each other, and under the same rules, and all of the local parties had plausible aspirations: the bigger parties to win parliamentary seats, and the Greens to win seats on the City Council. Those local parties pursued particular tactics and strategies to try to maximise their electoral gains, and the choices they made shaped the outcome of those elections. And those elections threw up a very clear winner — the Labour Party — and a very clear loser — the Lib Dems. The Oxford Lib Dems misunderstood what was going on around them and they over-reached, making a set of bad political choices. They thought they could win everything, and instead they won nothing. And, yes, the voting system has punished them, but not – it seems to me – unfairly.

I’d reach for the language of hubris and nemesis, but these are the Lib Dems we’re talking about, and for them (especially today, of all days, as they engage in talks with the Tories to put David Cameron into Downing St) the appropriate language isn’t that of tragedy.

It’s comedy: hahahahahaha.

58 thoughts on “Oxford West and Abingdon”

  1. Ok:

    1) This blog post is, according to its headline, about Oxford West and Abingdon

    2) Evan Harris, the best advocate in parliament for issues of libel reform, science-based policy and secularism, was narrowly beaten by Nicola Blackwood, a member of Conservative Christian Fellowship. The result has been lauded by every conservative Christian group with a reactionary social agenda. It is also worth noting that Harris was, within the Lib Dems, undoubtedly on the left of the party, and with a voting record most on the left would, i think, regard as exemplary: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/evan_harris/oxford_west_and_abingdon

    3) It ends with “hahahahaha”

    I agreed with the post entirely up to that point, and from a tribal Labour perspective, the conclusion kind of fits. From a more broadly left-wing, secular, rationalist perspective, it’s bizarre. I like blogs that take the latter perspective; that’s what it comes down to.

  2. One other thing:

    Andrew Smith is, from what i’ve heard, a better constituency MP than Evan Harris. His voting record, on the other hand, is that of a man who has sold out on his left-wing principles (if he ever had any). He even sank so low as to oppose Lumley’s campaign for the Ghurkas in parliament, though only after he’d voted for tuition fees, for the Iraq war, for draconian anti-terrorism laws (he even backed 90-day detention), against laws to take action on climate change, for ID cards, etc. etc.


    Yes the Labour party has done well in Oxford overall, and yes the Lib Dems lost out, and yes it was largely their fault that that happened. Can you, in any meaningful sense, really call the overall result a victory for the left, though?

  3. Chortling over the victory of a Christian reactionary over a staunch secular liberal? You really have been reading too much MacIntyre (or is it Augustine?), Chris!
    (That said, while we disagree on this — and no doubt much else — I still like this blog.)

  4. Although Leo has something of a point, he seems to have missed that the OP was directed mostly at local Oxford Lib Dems, who it seems fully deserve a “hahahaha”.

    More widely, after 3 weeks of listening to beardy-sandle-wearer blah on about Liberal Moments and Labour being the third party, I can’t help but join Chris in a little schadenfreude.

    Also, lobbing MP voting records is a slightly dishonest game: of course Harris voted against Iraq, for Ghurkhas, etc. That was what his party whip told him to do. Ditto vice versa Smith. Would it have been better if he hadn’t? Yes, probably. But there’s very few MPs who have safe enough seats and weight within their parliamentary party to frequently defy the whip. So it’s a bit myopic to just throw up voting records like that.

  5. I hadn’t even realised than Harris lost his seat, having been away the last couple of days anyway and now (bizarrely) living in ‘Oxford East’.

    I did find it annoying being targeted by Lib Dem campaigners insisting that I should vote for them strategically in order to defeat Labour. Telling one canvasser that I’d voted Green last time did rather derail his tactical voting argument though.

  6. Well if the liberals prop up the Conservative government, as seem likely to be the end of all this, I don’t see any point in voting tactically for them anywhere.
    Your point aboiut helping the Liberals in seats where Labour doesn’t have much chance just freeing up Liberals to attack Labour candidates next door is a good one.

  7. Paul,

    Yes, they overstretched themselves, probably as a result of the Lib Dem surge suggesting Harris would hold OxWAb easily. Still, the net result is an Iraq war-supporting New Labour loyalist kept his seat, and Evan Harris was defeated by Nicola Blackwood (why that’s bad detailed above). From a general left-wing perspective, how is that a good result? So I still don’t get the joke. Again, schadenfreude only makes sense if you’re being tribally Labour about it. If Chris is, i’d rather not read that. All i’m saying.

    As for it being dishonest to compare individual MPs’ voting records, it’s not just that Andrew Smith followed his party’s line by and large, it’s that with the single exception of Trident he has backed ALL the bad things New Labour have done – Iraq, the Ghurkas, 90-day detention, etc. etc. That’s my point. I can see the pragmatism in not rebelling on all those things (though it has to be said, Oxford East’s constituency Labour party would probably back him if he did so, and i doubt the national Labour party would withdraw the whip from him in such circumstances either), but still, he resigned from the cabinet in 2004 and even since then has still been pretty slavishly loyal.

    Similarly, Evan Harris has consistently gone out of his way to take a principled left-wing, secularist and rationalist stance on controversial ‘moral’ issues like abortion and euthanasia, along with the other stuff i’ve mentioned. That’s not down to party whipping.

  8. Leo — Sure, if you prefer Evan Harris to Andrew Smith, then fine: be an Oxford Lib Dem, support your man, cheer when he wins, and cry when he loses. That’s partisanship, it’s a good thing, and we’ve chosen different sides.

    But, right now, you should be *incredibly angry* with the Oxford Lib Dems, for sacrificing the chances of your man Harris on the altar of trying to depose someone else. OxWAb was yours for the taking — Nicola Blackwood is entirely shit, as we all recognise — and your team fucked up in an absolutely colossal way. Every time anyone went to leaflet Oxford East, you should have had someone there saying, no, it’s more important to hold what we’ve got. The national polls were misleading, as we’ve learned, but if there’d been any kind of serious doorstep campaign in OxWAb (and there was, right?) you’d have had much more detailed intelligence about whether, when push came to shove, the electorate was going to come out and support your guy than you could have got from the national polls. And, when it came to the crunch, you abandoned him to campaign in Oxford East, and the OxWAb electorate in its turn abandoned you. You lot screwed up massively, and now you’ve got to live with it.

    And, if you take this left-wing secular rationalist stuff seriously, as you seem to say you do, then you should be *incredibly angry* not just with the local party, but also with the national Lib Dems, right now, for as we’re having this snotty exchange, your party leadership is sitting down at a table — as they’ve been doing for over 24 hours now — to try to work out how to get David Cameron into Downing St. Trying, in short, to make the party of Philippa Stroud and Nicola Blackwood and Gideon Osborne and Eton College and the Bullingdon Club and Boris fucking Johnson into the ruling party in this country. I get angry with my party when they fuck up – and, my God, right now, you should be angry with yours.

    Josh — Of course there were good things about Harris as a national politician. He was way above the median MP in the House of Commons, and there’s much to admire in his political record. But when the Lib Dems flood the district with leaflets urging Labour people to vote tactically, and when it turns out they aren’t actually campaigning for their man, but instead they’re using the tactical votes of their Labour opponents as the cushion with which to launch an attack on the Labour MP next door, then they can, in short, get stuffed. Labour people in Oxford are fully entitled to be gloating a lot this week, and the Lib Dems have __only themselves to blame__ for bringing a premature end to their left-wing secular rationalist tribune’s career. They made their bed, and now they can lie in it.

  9. Chris,

    You’ve quite neatly sidestepped my point, i think. Of course, as i said, i agree with your analysis about the Lib Dems’ complacency in ‘banking’ OxWAb, as it were, and piling into Oxford East. From what i can tell, however, it’s an exaggeration to say that the local party ‘abandoned’ Evan Harris; I wasn’t involved in the campaign though (Prelims, and i’m disorganised at the best of times..).

    The point is, talking about Labour people being “fully entitled to be gloating a lot” and so forth is the kind of thing i take exception to; similarly with “we’ve chosen sides”. In the latter case, the sentence that ends seems to reason backwards. It begins by ignoring my pointing out that Evan Harris was and is a much better advocate of the (broadly left-wing, secular, etc.) causes i’m assuming we all support here than Andrew Smith, and just seems to say ‘you pays your money, you makes your choice’. My whole point is on *what* grounds whatsoever can you justify preferring Smith to Harris? Other than that the former is a Labour man, the latter a Lib Dem, the truth is you can’t really supply any. Now, this raises the question of whether supporting Labour over the Lib Dems was, at this election, or in the long term, the right decision for those on the left to make. My view is that it is the Lib Dems who now better represent causes the left cares about; any claim that the Labour party does has to answer for its 13 years in power and what happened during them, the fact that the none of the realistic contenders for the party’s leadership (David Miliband, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, etc.) look likely to take the party significantly to the left now. As someone seriously committed to principles that put me well on the left, the choice is Lib Dem or Green; i just don’t see Labour as being between those two options any more.

    Now, the stuff about the Lib Dems “try[ing] to work out how to get David Cameron into Downing St.” is just bollocks. No-one in the party actively *wants* Cameron as PM, what the party is doing, however, is negotiating first with the party that has the biggest mandate – most votes, most seats. As i’m sure you well know, to do anything else first would mean Clegg being crucified by the right-wing media and slammed by voters at the next election. So he had to go to Cameron first.

    It now looks quite possible that Clegg’s negotiating a coalition deal with the Tories. Let’s review why that’s the least bad of the three options available by looking at each:

    a) Lib-Lab coalition with support from NI MPs, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. That adds up to 328 MPs. 329 if, for whatever reason, Caroline Lucas jumps on board. Now, that’s hardly a stable majority, given that the SNP leaving fucks it up, and the same to a lesser extent with the SDLP and Plaid Cymru. And that’s ignoring by-elections. Add to that that it would likely be headed by a new Labour leader, i.e. one every commentator would agree had not been given a ‘mandate’ by the electorate, and that the price of the small parties’ co-operation would be extra spending/exemption from cuts for their region(s), making the coalition massively unpopular in the English battlegrounds. Moreover, while the coalition is busy falling apart the Tories would presumably either chuck Cameron and replace him with a proper Thatcherite, or allow him to stay on as leader in the condition that he become one, and then they’d be ideally placed (on 308 MPs) to have a hefty majority with even reasonable gains (let alone the likelihood of a landslide in the event of such a transparent stitch-up by the other parties). So, net result of a Lib-Lab deal: a weak government widely perceived as illegitimate and held to ransom by regional interests, and a big Tory win at the ensuing election that would inaugurate a new era of right-wing dominance. No thanks.

    b) A Lib Dem ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Tories. Worst of both worlds, in my view: allowing the Tories to govern but having no say in how they do so; sitting on the opposition benches but effectively ceding the role of proper opposition to the Labour party. The likelihood would be an Autumn election at which the Tories do better (i.e. decent overall majority), the Labour party a little worse, and the Lib Dems get wiped out as they suffer a pincer from Labour telling voters they’ve sustained the Tories and the Tories telling voters they’ve sat on the fence and proved too indecisive to govern. Would a Tory minority government be good for the country? If you hate the Tories, obviously the conclusion you have to come to is no: the Lib Dems would have to abstain on the Queen’s speech and budget, allowing a Tory cuts programme to go through in its entirety, or maybe with modest concessions, but probably paltry ones. Again, no thanks.

    c) Lib-Con coalition. Not the result i wanted, obviously. But the most likely way of preventing the worst excesses of a Tory government (given that, having considered the previously outlined options, one looks inevitable sooner or later)? Yes. The Lib Dems can, this way, take some key cabinet posts and try to implement their four priorities, and it enables them to demonstrate they are capable of governing. Given that this is likely to be the most stable arrangement, two things follow:
    a) it’s likely to be the best advertisement for PR (i imagine Clegg will settle for no less than a free-campaigning referendum on PR – he won’t get past the party’s ‘triple lock’ otherwise);
    b) it’s likely to put off an election for the longest. Bear in mind that the sooner the next election, the less time Labour has to regroup and bed in a new leader, the more likely the massive existing Tory war chest won’t be matched by Labour and Lib Dem fundraising efforts, and the less likely the public is to adopt a ‘sod it let’s just give them a go’, or something similar, attitude to a Tory majority.

    So, i hate the Tories as much as anybody. I hate them for their positions on Trident, immigration, the EU, foreign policy more broadly, social issues, redistributive taxation, the size of the state, the environment, political reform, etc. etc. Does that mean i think it sensible to do anything other than what Clegg and his team of negotiators are doing now? I wish i could say so, but on considering the situation properly, i can’t. One further point:

    If you are like me in thinking that PR is a hugely important democratic reform that this country must adopt, it is absurd to simultaneously suggest that one should continue to adopt the ridigly adversarial attitude towards politics that only makes sense under FPTP. In Germany, the SDP and the Christian Democrats have had to work together despite the ideological chasm being great; people on the left of British politics have to realise that if they want PR, they can’t cling to the old attitudes about compromise any more. It may be that you don’t support PR – i don’t know; even if you don’t, everything i’ve said before this paragraph still holds.

  10. *Sorry, i meant to say the *more* likely the public is to adopt the ‘sod it…’ attitude. It’s rather late…

  11. Leo: I avoided going into this earlier, because it seemed petty, but now that you’ve added the phrase “i’m assuming we all support” to your stuff about secularism, I’ll bite (and use the word secularism a lot without bothering to define it – it’s now late here, too). There’s nothing inherently left-wing about promoting secularism, and I don’t think there’s a single major religion the beliefs of which map directly onto any given political program, or indeed onto any particular position on a single policy. Obviously, vote for what you want, but if what you really care about is being left-wing, then being guided by signs of secularism is a distraction, and probably a mistake (vice versa, too). Much of Britain’s home-grown leftwingery has historically been associated with religious belief, and much of it continues to be. And plenty of sound ‘secularists’ don’t give a damn about the left. It just muddies the water to assume/suggest otherwise.

    Maybe the Lib Dems are the secular rationalist party, but they’re not left-wing and never have been. Many of their supporters are, but those supporters are misguided (which mostly seems to me to be thanks to the party’s aggressive left-wing image-promotion for the last decade or so – at least, that’s as much as what my and your peers could have been swayed by – rather than any substantial principled commitments).

    The truth of your comments is that Labour-in-government has been substantially to the right of what the Lib Dems are now promoting, but all that really means is that we currently lack a decent left-wing party. For me, history and foundational stuff matters, and I stick with Labour because a large contingent of its members and supporters feel and think the same way, and have always done so, whatever the current lot are saying. (As an aside: I’ll spoil a ballot or not vote if I hate the local Labour representative, but that’s about it for tactics). The party isn’t yet labour in name only, even after Blairism. For you, maybe – and for many of my friends – what prominent people are saying/doing right now is the key. But not looking beyond that surface is what leads to the left-LD voters’ current depression regarding (and stupid “strategic” rationalizations of) a Lib Dem-Tory pact that was always utterly predictable to the rest of us.

  12. Ugh, I am tired and will have to follow your lead in correcting myself… Stuff in brackets in second paragraph above doesn’t fully make sense, but the point is that I reckon the left-wingness of the LD party is a matter of marketing, not substance or principle, and those who care about substance and/or principle have simply been duped into believing otherwise by that marketing.

  13. I couldn’t agree more with Chris. God, how I oathe these Lib Dem hypocrites who will tel leftists how we ought to support them because they’re left, while at the same time in other places they’re telling Tory voters to support them to keep out the leftists. They want everybody’s tactical vote, and then they want to complain that they don’t get the seats the other parties get. They appeal for Labour votes to keep out the Tories, then they negotiate to join a Tory government (on the grounds that they’re restraining them). Other people are factionalists: but when their party faces every way at once, it’s not being factinalist, it’s the height of principle.

    Permanent, professional hypocrites, who always want to have it both ways while adopting an air of permenent sanctimony. A few days ago Clegg was telling us how they’d replaced Labour, and as it was they were some way third. Ha ha ha indeed.

  14. Leo — ejh, who is absolutely not a Labour loyalist, has it right. Lib Dems do need to stop and think a bit about why everyone else in politics hates them so much. Because, my goodness, they do.

    And if you’re still peddling this “more left wing than Labour” stuff, you need to think a bit about what your party is and does.

    Look at the manifesto: on state support for young people, the net effect of (i) abolishing the child trust fund and (ii) phasing out university tuition fees is a pretty decent redistribution from poorer families who benefit from the CTF to the richer families whose kids go to college. I’d like to hear the “fairness”, “leftwing” case for all this from a Lib Dem, and I haven’t yet.

    Look at Oxford City Council: the reason the Lib Dems can never run the city is that they when they get into power, the councillors respond to their rather wealthy base, and that means switching money out of programmes that benefit poor people in South and East Oxford into stuff going on in leafy affluent North Oxford — you know, where the Lib Dem voters live — and when they do that, the Lib Dem councillors elected in the poorer areas switch sides and the Liberal council loses its majority. More left-wing than Labour? Uh-huh.

    And look at Central London today, as your party that represents left-wing causes better than Labour, etc., sits down with the Tories to work out how to put Cameron into power—and you say poor ickle Clegg’s got to do this in case the Mail says something nasty about him. Well, diddums. Right-wing papers *exist* to trash non-Conservative politicians, and if you’re scared of what they’re going to say about you, you just don’t belong in the political game.

    You know I could go on and on and on. And one of the sad things is that the Liberals used to be quite an interesting party. If you read their manifestos through the postwar period, there’s quite a bit of interesting stuff in there — but it’s the interesting stuff that’s been stripped out over the years, from election to election, as the party has been on this drifting-rightwards trajectory (but the further to the right it moves, the more its activists like to squeal that they are the “real” progressives).

    Now obviously New Labour has in many respects been a disaster area. Blair was ghastly, the basic economic strategy was misguided, the wars were terrible, and the authoritarianism is repulsive. No disagreements there. But for all its faults, if there’s to be a decent government in this country, it’s going to come from the Labour Party. The Lib Dems don’t have enough of a geographic / demographic base, their median voter is, let’s face it, a bit too rich to make it ever likely to be the case that the politics of social justice will loom larger in their thinking, and — as we’ve just seen — although people can tell opinion pollsters that they are thinking about voting Lib Dem, when push comes to shove, the party gets the same 18-23% that it’s been getting since 1983. Serious politics requires a serious electoral base: the Tories have one, the Labour Party has one, and, as we’ve just seen, the Lib Dems don’t. Whine about the electoral system, whine about the right-wing media (as I say, diddums), but this isn’t the basis for government.

    In the realm of fantasy politics, you can console yourselves that you’re the “real progressives”. But when you open your eyes and look at reality, what you’ll see is that your lot are working out how best they might work alongside George Osborne.

  15. Oh, and, briefly: I’m basically in favour of PR. What I really don’t like about the current system, is that in each election, it’s only the votes in the marginals that matter, and they are only about 20% of the seats in the country. I’d like a voting system where everybody’s votes mattered — and that basically means a form of multimember STV.

  16. And – briefly and bluntly – when you write against the “ridigly adversarial attitude towards politics that only makes sense under FPTP”, do note that there’s something *honest* about good old-fashioned political enmity.

    Sure, what I’m highlighting in this post is the way in which the Lib Dems aren’t doing the old-fashioned adversarialism, but something else: they are appealing for tactical votes from Labour supporters in one part of town, in order to free up resources to trash the Labour party in another part of town. You’re inviting voters who identify with other parties, in other words, to play the sucker. That’s much more insidious than good old-fashioned rigid adversarialism, and if that kind of thing, plus rationalisations for going into coalition with the Tories — while insisting that you still “hate the Tories as much as anybody”, natch — if these are what the new healthy multiparty modern left-wing secular rationalist politics are all about then please forgive me if I prefer to stick to what I know.

  17. Sarah,

    I agree secularism is not an exclusively left-wing creed – ardent libertarians on the right might be big fans of it too; i don’t doubt that. Here’s where you’re wrong: you seem to be under the impression that secularism is like a kind of atheistic or anti-theistic creed; in the sense in which i understand it, it is not. Sure, you can get the kinds of intolerant secularism you see in Turkey in the moment, for example, where it approaches a state religion. Nevertheless, i understand it as a belief that, however much of an underlying motivation, religious faith should not enter the public discourse, and state institutions should be neutral towards all religious faiths. To my mind, that Is an essential part of what it means to be on the left. You can be a secularist and not on the left; you can’t not be a secularist in the sense i’ve outlined and on the left in my view.

    ejh and Chris – on the kind of ‘low politics’ stuff:

    Let’s start by having no bullshit on this ‘you’re helping the Tories’ shtick. In Germany, the SDP went into coalition with the CDU/CSU for 4 years, despite being ideological opposites. Sometimes the public votes in such a way that these things are inevitable. I’ve explained why that’s the case by quite extensively detailing how unbelievably shit the other two options available to the Lib Dems were. Both would, as i said, result in another election sooner. The sooner the next election, the better for the Tories and the worse for the Lib Dems and Labour. It has nothing to do with what the Mail might say about Clegg; quite frankly i couldn’t give a fuck what the Mail says, and i doubt Nick Clegg does either. Were he to be so, i doubt he would’ve proposed an earned amnesty or slashing Trident, or even mentioned the Euro at the last election. I’m merely pointing out that this option is the one least likely to fuck over the people of this country, because it’s the least likely to result in a Tory majority. By all means, show me why i’m wrong and why one of the other two options is less likely to result in a Tory majority; i’d like to believe you, and i’m sure Clegg would too. Do you seriously think the idea of going into coalition with the Tories with the deficit situation as it is is something he really Wanted to do? As opposed to getting to sit on the opposition benches for a few years and watch the Tories take the flak for the inevitable cuts? Seriously? I mean, seriously? What planet are you people actually on?

    Now let’s get a further thing straight: this is what consensus politics looks like. If you think we should have multi-member STV (and i agree we should), you’ve got to face up to the fact that deals like this are going to be a par for the course in the future. It involves a grown-up approach to politics, rather than the utterly asinine adversarial crap that the Labour party’s idiot tribal tendency has been all-too-keen on keeping for the past few decades.

    And while we’re on the Labour party, let’s review that claim that they’re the only potential supplier of decent government in this country:

    1) How can you seriously contend that when the Labour party has presided over an actual *rise* in inequality over the 13 years it has been in power? And when so totally has Labour failed to engage its traditional supporters that around 1 million people actually voted BNP at the last Euro elections?
    2) My uncle was a Lib Dem councillor in Kilburn, one of the poorest wards in Brent, until last Thursday. When he and the other Lib Dems got into office in 2006, he told me how, though he had always thought Brent Labour party a disgusting bunch, he’d not quite anticipated what a bunch of self-serving scumbags they were until then. Besides having awarded themselves pay rise after pay rise, they’d been charging every conceivable cost to the Brent taxpayer and living it up at the expense of some of the poorest people in London.

    He spent four years working with the police on tackling drug crime and the local housing partnership on serious local housing regeneration, after decades of total neglect by Brent Labour party, who’d assumed they would simply never be challenged in their hegemony. On Thursday, the people of the South Kilburn estates went out and tribally voted in the same Labour party that’d fucked them over time and time again. Ask any of them why? Not because of the council’s record, not because of my uncle’s personal record; because they’re poor, and the poor vote Labour. Or because they’re from an ethnic minority, and ethnic minorities have to vote Labour. Duh.

    Don’t kid yourself into thinking Labour is the party of the poor. In electoral terms, it may be, or the urban poor at any rate, and certainly some of its past governments did things that genuinely helped the poor. Nevertheless, I point you to the record of the last 13 years, the degree of ideological capitulation, the sheer invertebrate shamelessness of Labour’s behaviour towards asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, the socially-excluded, the long-term unemployed. Any why? Because Blair, and then Brown, were terrified of the Mail and the Sun and what they’d say if they were soft on those groups (who, by the way, don’t vote much…). So let’s have none of that ‘diddums’ stuff. Thanks.

    Now, the left-wing stuff:
    1) Please explain to me the case for wasting state money by tying it up in a trust fund for 18 years while the child in question is busy failing at school? It’s absurd. By contrast, the pupil premium is directed at the most deprived children in the country, and wouldn’t exhibit the same urban bias that Labour’s education investment has over the past 13 years. Result? Children in Hackney are doing just great; children in rural areas are barely doing any better. And that’s after extensive grade inflation (and trust me, there’s serious grade inflation: i did my A2s a year ago).

    2) Abolishing tuition fees is, i agree, not redistributive. CentreForum did a good report on why the policy should be dropped (http://www.centreforum.org/publications/times-up.html) and i agree with them that it should instead be spent beefing up the pupil premium.

    3) I can’t speak for the Lib Dems on Oxford city council because i’ve not lived in the area for long, but they don’t seem to have a bad record. If you’ve got any stuff on their screwing over the poor, i’d be interested to read it.

    I’ll answer the broader point about leftwingery later. I’ve been up all night writing an essay (not this..) and my eyes hurt.

  18. And on your latest bit,

    Indeed the Lib Dems in Oxford invited Labour people to play the sucker. At a national level, both Labour and the Tories did the same. My initial point was that it wasn’t much cause for laughter to see Evan Harris lose his seat; maybe i’m saying some Labour people should’ve played the sucker. It wouldn’t have freed up any more resources for Oxford East, because they were already there.

  19. Very true Chris. What is politics without a bit of ‘hahaha’?

    I wonder about this too. For years, probably since the Rochdale by-election back in 1958(ish),people have imagined that a PR electoral system would liberate a huge Liberal vote. In fact it’s taken for granted. But has anyone seriously asked whether it’s FPTP that has kept the Liberals and Lib-Dems alive all these years. At the risk of another hahaha moment wouldn’t it be wonderful if the LibDems disappeared following the obsolescence of tactical voting?

  20. Briefly, as I need to get on with stuff:

    Let’s start by having no bullshit on this ‘you’re helping the Tories’ shtick. In Germany, the SDP went into coalition with the CDU/CSU for 4 years, despite being ideological opposites. Sometimes the public votes in such a way that these things are inevitable.

    There’s nothing remotely inevitable about a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Get a grip.

    Both would, as i said, result in another election sooner. The sooner the next election, the better for the Tories and the worse for the Lib Dems and Labour.

    Well, it’d obviously be bad for the Lib Dems, as they’ve wanted a hung parliament forever, and if they screw up when they finally get what they’ve wanted all along, they can hardly reasonably expect the voters to back them a second time. For Labour, not so clear. The Labour vote held up pretty well, all things considered, and if there’s a second election because the non-Labour forces can’t actually form a government, then that doesn’t seem something that we should be afraid of.

    It has nothing to do with what the Mail might say about Clegg… I’m merely pointing out that this option is the one least likely to fuck over the people of this country, because it’s the least likely to result in a Tory majority.

    Sorry: I misunderstood. When you said that “to do anything else first would mean Clegg being crucified by the right-wing media”, I thought you were making a point about the reactions of the right-wing media. Apologies for being obtuse.

    I mean, seriously? What planet are you people actually on?

    I think Clegg knows he lost in the election badly, is shit-scared of a second general election, and is behaving accordingly. Nothing to do with being a principled left-wing secular rationalist, and everything to do with being a centre-right opportunist who finds himself playing a far weaker hand than he hoped he’d be dealt. What do you think’s going on? And why do you think the first (PLWSR) explanation is better than the second (CRO) in explaining what he’s doing right now?

    It involves a grown-up approach to politics

    Nothing wrong with coalitions. I’m not mocking coalitions in general; I’m mocking the Lib Dems, who have this ludicrous “more left wing than Labour”, “we hate the Tories” schtick, and who then try to hop into bed with a dangerously reactionary Tory leadership as soon as they get the chance.

    Of course there are parts of the Labour Party that are rotten — either because Old Labour rotten boroughs or dominated by repellent New Labour cliques. And I always like it when the Lib Dems break through in those parts of Britain where rotten parties have obviously failed to reform themselves from within, because it’s vital to have healthy electoral competition in order to decent democratic government. And if your uncle’s been doing good things in Brent, great — though, apparently, not good enough that his electorate is willing to re-elect him. (As I say, plenty of individual Lib Dems have perfectly decent political records, just as plenty of individual Labour ones have shameful ones.)

    OK: no doubt more to say, but I’ll stop here, at least for now.

  21. Leo: I don’t think secularism has to be atheist or anti-theist. But your two-point definition of what it involves is still something I, personally, don’t support, and I’m very much on the left. I’m just not a full-blooded liberal (in the ideology/political philosophy, not party, sense). This is a distraction from the main line of this comment thread now, so I won’t say more. But do look into recent political theory stuff on this general area (religious establishment, liberal neutrality, etc.). It’s not a cut and dry thing even for more wholeheartedly dyed-in-the-wool liberals.

  22. John Locke: one of the main intellectual founders of (what has come to be known as*) modern liberalism.

    John Locke: Christian theist who predicated an entire philosophical system, and political philosophy, on the belief in a Christian god.

    Jeremy Waldron: Leading moral and political philosopher, arguably the brightest of the immediate post-Rawls generation. A self-identifying liberal, who published a collection of essays entitled “Liberal Rights”.

    Jeremy Waldron: A Christian pentecostalist [I think] who also wrote a book called Locke, God and Equality in which he argued not only that Locke’s political philosophy cannot be understood without reference to belief in a God that created us all equally, but that modern liberal egalitarianism cannot find a foundational resting-place for its commitment to equality without something like recourse to an equality-guaranteeing God.

    Suffice to say, Sarah is most definitely right.

    * got to keep QS happy until September.

  23. Hey, Paul, Sarah is obviously right (as she is in most things), but we don’t have any need for specialist Locke interpretation after the crucial intervention of the Sun’s Poppy on election day:

    *** “The basis of Lockean thought is his theory of the Contract of Government, under which all political power is a trust for the benefit of the people.

    “His thinking underpins our ideas of national identity and society. Please don’t let those who seek to ban our beauty win. Vote to save Page 3!” ***

  24. And, since I’m here again: Mark H — yes, we don’t talk enough about this kind of thing. Though actually this may be one place where the Lib Dems are *more* principled than we might think, as it’s plausible that they’d do better under an AV system (which they reject) than under the STV system they endorse.

  25. Chris, how could I forget! Poppy was even more insightful than the p.3 lovely who reminded us that Italy has had 65 governments in 69 years via PR, QED.

    However as for AV vs STV, also have to take into account that the lib dems are also going in with their strongest demand – knowing they can accept a watered down compromise on AV. And it can’t ve that principled an opposition because they’d do even better under STV.

    Also recall that Labour has until Thursday only made noises about AV, which would in some ways be even less proportional than FPTP, and the possibility of AV+ (as recommended by the long ignored Jenkins report) has only very recently made it onto the table. Which is hardly surprising, because why would Labour want to give the Lib Dems seats unless it had to?

  26. As i’ve already stated, this crap about Clegg enthusiastically jumping into coalition is just such a load of bullshit. I’ve outlined why the other two options facing the Lib Dems would be disastrous; that basically binds Clegg into doing what he’s doing. I’ve also outlined why i think another election soon would be disastrous (for Labour too, incidentally*). In that sense, this coalition is pretty inevitable for Clegg. Did the SDP massively sell out to engage in a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU? You’ve still not addressed any of this stuff: you’ve just insisted Clegg has freely chosen this, which implies he has other viable options that don’t lead to his party getting demolished at the next election.

    So come on, outline what those other options are. You’ve avoided the key point so far. You simply cannot go on insinuating that Clegg has really wanted this unless you can demonstrate he has spurned viable alternatives.

    On secularism: as i’m sure everyone on this thread knows, liberalism is an ideology that has its origins in the European wars of religion and the need for religious toleration. Yes, there are figures like Locke and Waldron, but to take each in turn:
    -Locke: did indeed have the belief ascribed to him above; was it an essential part of his contribution to liberal political thought? No. It’s important for understanding the coherence of his overall view, but is it something later liberal scholars have kept and developed? Not really.
    -Waldron: i haven’t read Locke, God and Equality, but from what i’ve read of Waldron it would be odd indeed if he were arguing that a) the state should be partial in its approach to religion, and/or b) heavily faith-based forms of discourse should be, or are fine to be, used in broad public deliberation on political questions.
    Richard Rorty wrote a fine essay on this subject called ‘Religion as Conversation-Stopper’ – he sums up quite well my basic objections, but i don’t see any real reason why anyone who views themself as ‘on the left’ thinks that the left’s causes would be advanced effectively by either of the two things i’ve outlined above. In addition, if what i’ve outlined is not what you recognise as ‘secularism’, what is?

    *To restate: it’d be disastrous for Labour because a) the Tories still have lots and lots of money, Labour don’t, b) Labour may not have settled its internal demons and bedded in a new leader – and let’s face it, none of the potential new leaders actually look any good, c) people will still be pissed off with the Labour party in 4-5 months, and the Tories’ asking for a decent majority to have a chance to govern is, barring a major disaster on Cameron’s part, more likely to be responded to.

  27. Mark H – I absolutely agree with you. It seems glaringly obvious to me that a pretty huge chunk of the Lib Dem vote is made up of tactical votes cast in opposition to rival parties rather than specifically for the Lib Dems. I’ve probably voted Lib Dem more often in general elections than for any other party (including 2010, since Labour barely exists in my constituency), in every single case in a futile attempt to unseat the incumbent Tory. Mea maxima culpa, I even voted for the unspeakable Jenny Tonge at one point, though at least she didn’t win that particular election.

    Bring in any form of PR, and my rationale for voting Lib Dem evaporates instantly – and it’s hard to believe that I’m a lone eccentric outlier. So we might well see a situation whereby the party gets more seats but a smaller share of the national vote.

  28. One other thing, on the right-wing media:

    To quote myself,
    “No-one in the party actively *wants* Cameron as PM, what the party is doing, however, is negotiating first with the party that has the biggest mandate – most votes, most seats. As i’m sure you well know, to do anything else first would mean Clegg being crucified by the right-wing media and slammed by voters at the next election. So he had to go to Cameron first.”

    Point is, they’d crucify the party with good reason. We’re not afraid of their normal attacks. The idea of them actually being right about something, and being able to run and run with it, is not an appetising prospect.

    Additionally, as i said: if any party has a track record of running scared from any serious confrontation with the right-wing press, it is the Labour party. They’ve happily bashed and talked down some of the most vulnerable sections of society to appease the baying mob, and that’s a fucking disgrace, quite frankly. When i said the Lib Dems better represent the causes the left cares about, i was chiefly referring to the way in which they’ve shown a degree of tenacity in fighting the corner for values the Labour party all-too-quickly abandoned.

  29. As i’ve already stated, this crap about Clegg enthusiastically jumping into coalition is just such a load of bullshit.

    Well, not really. He was careful before the election to rule out any alternative options by saying (i) he wouldn’t deal with Brown and (ii) he would deal with the party that came first in terms of votes / seats, and he wasn’t under any pressure at all to make either of those commitments (for which, as you say, he’d be punished now were he publicly to break them).

    As I’ve said in a number of places now — including before the election itself — Clegg would be negotiating from a position of weakness, not strength, and I agree with those commentators (Hopi Sen, Stephen Tall, possibly also Andrew Rawnsley) that he’s facing a series of unpalatable choices. But this can all be true, and it can also be true, as I’ve said, that he’s jumping into bed with the Tories at the first opportunity. To show that that’s false, you have to tell me which earlier opportunity he passed up. It’s not a kind description, to be sure, but, as you might imagine, I’m not in a mood to be kind to the Lib Dems right now.

    Agree on Labour as disgrace re asylum seekers, etc., chasing tabloid headlines, etc. No disagreement there.

    But on Lib Dems “better representing causes”, etc., as you’re about to find out, in Opposition, words are extremely cheap, and I look forward to hearing your party leaders defending the Tories’ immigration policy.

    I disagree on your history of liberalism as response to wars of religion, etc., but I’m not going to pursue that here. Tolerationist discourse grows out of that, yes, but liberalism as any kind of coherent political position is a distinctively 1790s-1820s development, part of the reaction to the French Revolution, etc.

    Michael — Yes: and as the election has shown, Lib Dem support is very shallow indeed. They may very well get a rude awakening when people have more reason to vote for their first-choice party.

  30. “But on Lib Dems “better representing causes”, etc., as you’re about to find out, in Opposition, words are extremely cheap, and I look forward to hearing your party leaders defending the Tories’ immigration policy.”


    Giles Wilkes at Freethinking Economist was writing the other day about how “liberalism is about disolving power”, and how disgraceful Labour has been for not doing more power-devolving. I’ve annoyed Giles enough this month (and post-election disappointment he’s obviously in a daze and doesn’t need to be prodded unkindly), so I didn’t leave my comment there, which was originally going to be along the lines of “yes very easy to say this from the sidelines, when the LDs have never been in power and hence have never been tested on how much power they would disolve. Though isn’t it funny how all parties are rather worse at it in practice than in principle – or is it all just a giant conspiracy?”


  31. I’ll reply to this a bit later. For now, however, i seem to remember you saying in the past, Paul, that you used to support the Lib Dems or something but have since kind of given up on the party. I’d be interested to here why (if you haven’t already written something on this elsewhere that you can link me to).

  32. I think the basic story is that he went to work for one of them, and met a lot of them, and realised that they were mostly full of shit. But there might be a longer version.

  33. No, that’s about it. I don’t feel ashamed about it because the bloke I was working for – John Pugh – is a top notch constituency MP, does incredible amounts for worthy causes in Parliament, and is way to the left of the mainstream parliamentary party and frequntly tells the leadership where to get off (hence he fights Southport basically on his own without central support – and still manages to trounce the Tories in a traditionally Tory seat, because as Evan Harris never learned, giving one about your constituents really matters). Also, he defended me when the press office got upset because I called the Tories racist at CiF, which many suppine spineless MPs wouldn’t.

    But the rest of the party MPs are mostly Tories-lite who resent privilege but are looking for ways to chop up the “sacred cow” of the NHS, or who think that the “liberal” thing to prioritise in health policy is to spend billions in making people’s medical records available on little USB sticks they can lose on the train, because Norman Lamb MP is too busy to just go to one doctors’ surgery and has to have mobile health records.

    Basically Chris is right: the Lib Dems are not a leftwing force, they’re just opportunistic and confused. And that’s basically why I joined the Labour Party instead, for all its faults – though of course I’m happy to go back to Southport and make anti-Tory propaganda in election times.

  34. I was chatting to someone else the other day, who used to work for a Lib Dem MP, and she was saying that the people who worked for the MPs enjoyed the work, but that they didn’t really take the Lib Dems seriously as a real political party, with the result that they found it a bit jarring during the election campaign to find out that apparently the media did!

  35. Yes, that sounds about right. After all it’s fun to flounce around Parliament when you’re in your early 20s, and working for the Lib Dems is a wonderful license to do important-sounding work with no real consequences. That’s pretty much true of the main opposition party (if the Government has a majority the other side is just sitting around for 5 years, sneering when the Government slips up and waiting for their turn) but it’s especially true of the Lib Dems who revolve in a perpetual cycle of third-party pointlessness.

    As a result, it also means that having to work with – and occasionaly for – wazzocks like Jeremy Browne or David Laws is made tolerable, because nothing they do ever really matters.

    Although I’d go on record as saying that Vince Cable is every bit as decent and sincere as the press represent. He used to treat me like an actual human being, and did basic things like remember my name. Unlike Jeremy Browne, who would refuse to talk to me in lifts because I occupied a rung too far down the ladder of importance for an MP like him to waste time on. After all, he was busy coming up with ways he could lambast the 50p top rate tax in Finance Bill committee hearings.

  36. Leo – I didn’t say what you’ve outlined isn’t ‘secularism’; nor did I say, however, that I support secularism.

    In terms of your latest comment: I misread your original point 2 (now (a)) as being confined to requiring complete state non-involvement, not merely impartiality. You may be implying the former, but your phrasing doesn’t allow me to assume that yet, and my blunter opposition is to non-involvement, not impartiality. Having said that, I agree with those who argue that state impartiality, as it’s commonly understood, is pretty much impossible in most areas – certainly including religion. So yes, I believe a leftist can favor partiality towards religions, for (at least one of at least) two reasons:

    1. As a matter of ensuring real equality (of respect, dignity, etc.) in treatment of people of different faiths. You probably know the sort of thing – issues involving motorcycle helmets for Sikhs, peyote use in religious ceremonies, firing a Seventh-Day Adventist for refusing Saturday work, etc. (Actually, I’m ambivalent on this one myself, being somewhat sympathetic to the late Brian Barry, but in terms of caring more about equality than a vague/common-sense ‘neutrality’, I approve)

    You can recast – and people have recasted – this, of course, as “genuine impartiality”. But it’s partial on the surface, at least, in giving exemptions, special allowances, and so on. And I think many pretty impeccable leftists would get on board with it.

    2 (In some tension with (1)). Some religious beliefs simply are silly/wrong, and others pretty great. And some of these beliefs touch on things a leftist could think are appropriate matters for state involvement. Since different religions and denominations disagree with one another, passing a policy in such an instance will inevitably involve partiality. If you wish to maintain state impartiality, in my view, you’re options here are limited. You could go in the direction of (1), and compensate for opposing some item of a religious group’s belief by showing some other sign of respect, favor etc. That’s bloody complicated, and probably problematic in other ways. You could also go for state non-involvement in issues religions differ on; but (a) that would mean very little state involvement in *anything*, and (b) if it works, it’ll end up partial to atheism/anti-theism, and then – yes – secularism does reduce to being one or both of those two things.

    This also relates to point b (formerly your first point), about public discourse, on which point I really disagree with you very strongly. I still see absolutely no correlation between this view and being left-wing. If leftism intrinsically involves egalitarianism (I don’t think it does, but the two are obviously related), then I don’t see any conflict between being left-wing and favoring/accepting “faith-based forms of discourse” in public political discussions. (As an aside: how do you distinguish ‘heavily faith-based’ from merely ‘faith-based’? And would you intend to do so as a matter of policy?). In a liberal egalitarian vein, this is partly just a matter of freedom of speech, allowing everyone to express themselves equally. In a more fundamentally egalitarian way, seeking to remove ‘faith-based forms of discourse’ from politics would both alienate and disempower many of the people I think the left should most be seeking to empower and include.

    Still egalitarian, but now more generally: you might well take the view that religion is simply, in the final analysis, the ‘opiate of the people’, ‘the sigh of the oppressed masses’, etc., and seek to eliminate its influence in the long run. But if so, you should be a revolutionary socialist, not an evolutionary one, if you want to bind secularism and leftism together in the tight way you describe. If you believe in conducting politics at the normal level, it’s not particularly leftist to require of those who believe – many of whom are working-class or in some other sense currently disempowered – that they change their beliefs, or translate them into some more acceptable form, before they can come to the table. Frankly, I find that kind of thing sickeningly elitist. I know this smacks of the kind of paternalism evident in arguments against the smoking ban based on its effects on the working-class. But I’m pretty much OK with that. Moreover, from an evolutionary perspective, if you seek to eliminate the influence of faith-based forms of discourse, then history and current experience very much suggests that you’ll have more success by a short-run strategy of inclusion and toleration than by telling people what they can’t say right now.

    And, finally, I would still repeat my original point: I really, personally, don’t see much connection between secularism and being left-wing at all when it comes to matters of substance. Particular religious beliefs will be utterly at odds with being left-wing on some issues (e.g. some Christian approvals of slavery, some religious approval of subordinating women, the belief of some in “God’s ordained plans of life” preventing support for the working-class, etc. – note it’s always ‘some’), but plenty of others won’t be. You can be both secularist and left-wing, but you’ve still given me no sense in which I believe one must be.

  37. Just to support Sarah’s point: the most interesting and intelligent libertarians I know (the ones who are still frothing at the mouth, but the foam isn’t preventing them from making sense just yet) are all some sort of secularists.

    Partly it’s because of their impoverished views of democracy, the state, social power structures etc – but nonetheless, they are mostly secular types who think people can do whatever they want in private but in public it’s all just market transactions, so take your church out of the minimal state thank you very much.

    Which rather busts-open the “secularism=leftism” meme. Not to mention that plenty of leftists are not secularists, as I think that Sarah is essentially saying.

  38. Also, Leo, although I’m with Chris on the intellectual history of liberalism (not least because he knows a lot more about intellectual history than I do, given that it’s been his income-source for much longer than it’s been mine) it might be worth asking yourself a Nietzschean question on this one: even if the history of secularism and liberalism is as you tell it, why does that make you think that it’s value is thereby enhanced in the here and now?

    The more I toss around reading the On Genealogy of Morals, the more those sorts of questions start to stand out. Especially if we bring back Chris’ point, which is essentially going to be that the value-promoting pedigree/Whig history story you are telling yourself about liberalism is likely to be masking some rather more uncomfortable – or at least, more awkward – truths about how modern political ideologies really did come into being.

    I would hope that you can be an English Psychologist, one of those “proud animals who know how to keep a rein on theior hearts as well as their pain and have trained themselves to sacrifice all desirability to truth, to every truth, even plain, harsh, ugly, unpleasant, unchristian, immortal truth…For there are such truths.-”

    OK sorry. Enough procrastinating pretentiously, I’m off to read the stuff I was actually supposed to read today.

  39. If the Lib Dems do decide that the principled, left-wing secular rationalist thing to do is to prop up an Osborne/Cameron regime, they might want to comfort themselves with the thought that some of the earliest politicians who actually identified themselves (or their ideas, at least) as “liberal” were some of the apologists for General Bonaparte’s coup of 18 Brumaire.

  40. After all, he was busy coming up with ways he could lambast the 50p top rate tax in Finance Bill committee hearings.

    A rate which, of course, they had themselves supported until very recently. They abandoned it because they felt it was putting off Tory people they wanted to attract: fair enough, if that’s your game. But in the first place, slagging off people who advocate the policy you yourselves supported yesterday is pretty low anyway, even if it weren’t done with the usual Lib Dem piety: and in the second place, if you reverse your policy in order to attract Tories, don’t then be telling us about how you believe in a progressive tax policy.

    But they do, of course, and always will, having it each and every weay for themselves and then expecting everybody else to support them. All political parties and hypocrites some of the time, but I can’t think of any other party which has internalised it as practice and virtue quite like the Lib Dems have.

    [On Chris’ point above: I’d also offer the liberals who were enthusasts for bombarding the Russian parliament during the Yeltsin era, and the observation that on the republican side in Spain, the Liberals were allied with the Communists against the rest of the left.

    But any of these would at least have been liberals with substance, not the vapid and whining opportunists of the contemporary Liberal Democrats.]

  41. “But they do, of course, and always will, having it each and every weay for themselves and then expecting everybody else to support them. ”

    You also forgot: “and criticising everybody else for any perceived hypocrisy or compromise in power, claiming that if they had power they would magically transcend the bargaining and trade-offs that are a necessary party of working through a liberal democratic representative institution; see Leo above passim

  42. Excellent post and discussion thread.

    Just on that idiotic tweet: “A curious statistic: Oxford’s combined vote: LD: 41087 Con: 33633 Lab: 27937. One Con MP, one Lab MP. #electoralreform”

    This is only accurate if you define Oxford as including Abingdon, Kidlington and a bunch of small villages in the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency. If you instead define Oxford as “the city of Oxford”, then Labour got the most votes.

  43. Thanks for that, Don. I hadn’t realised we could do the breakdowns like that so soon after the election. Do you have the real numbers, or is it just eyeballing that shows that the tweet figures are horseshit?

    (It’s also pretty obvious from the huge Labour votes in the Council elections that Oxford is a Labour city.)

  44. Oh, and Paul, I don’t have full stats, but the Telegraph might think it can relax a bit now. Balliol drop-outs at the election include Labour’s Kitty Ussher and James Purnell, while the Tory ranks have now been swollen by the arrivals of Rory Stewart and Joe Johnson.

  45. Ok, to sum things up (because otherwise this is going to drag on forever and i’ve another essay to write) from my perspective:

    On secularism:
    1. Paul – your point about libertarians also being secularists is something i obviously accept, as i raised much earlier on in the discussion when i, too, pointed out that obviously secularism does not straightforwardly ‘=left-wing’. I just think it’s a necessary component of left-wing politics. To reiterate: you can be secularist and religious;

    2. Sarah – as you quite rightly point out, and as i accept, the seemingly straightforward idea of state neutrality towards religion gets quite knotted and difficult once it’s unpacked and applied to specific instances. I saw both Raymond Plant and A.C. Grayling give a talk about this a few months ago – both have a kind of ‘thin’ conception of secularism (as opposed to the ‘thick’ one you see in places like France, Turkey; sometimes associated with republican political thought, etc.) which i subscribe to. I guess the reason i see secularism as a necessary component of left-wing politics is that, while i don’t deny (as i’ve said before) that politicians and political thinkers may be inspired by their religious faith, on the whole it’s a bad idea to start bringing matters of faith into public political debate. The reasons why not seem relatively intuitive to me: if i say i believe something has to be done because i believe my god has told me so, and you don’t believe in my god, then (to again raise Rorty’s point) religion is acting as a kind of conversation-stopper. What are the implications if we can’t settle our political disagreement through public conversation? On the whole bad, i would say. Depending on the antecedent political conditions, you can get an Iraq-style sectarianism, a US-style shouting match (where, because basic premises aren’t shared between opposing sides in, say, the abortion debate, the result is that each side just shouts its position at the other and no engagement occurs), or a kind of general giving-up on the prospect of discourse and intellectual engagement between faiths or moral viewpoints with a replacement emphasis on capturing the main institutions of the state to force your beliefs on ‘the other side’.

    Now, as i say i accept that secularism has contradictions, and i accept that it’s unclear as to whether what i’ve just outlined is a ‘necessary component of left-wing politics’, but i think that’s probably because this discussion has suffered from a failure to adequately define ‘left-wing politics’ (something i take no small part of the blame for, obviously). Let me go a little further on secularism, however:

    I agree with you that state neutrality, when unpacked, starts to look a lot more like equality, and while i suppose the issues around wearing items of faith or whatever in public need a delicate resolution, by state impartiality i was focusing much more on the state itself: what it funds, what it is composed of, etc. So, i have huge problems with the state funding faith schools, and especially with giving them significant leeway in their teaching of things like sex education, evolution and so forth, but also with bishops sitting in the HoL, and with the head of our state also being ‘defender of the faith’ and head of the CofE. Now, obviously in terms of practical power, the Queen being the head of the CofE doesn’t mean a huge deal. I still feel it matters, however. I suppose my conception of left-wing politics involves a large dollop of republicanism, and as such requires that we get rid of all instances of relatively egregious and unjustifiable special treatment of individual religions, as well as of religion in general. As i say, issues like letting Sikh busdrivers wear their turbans and suchlike i don’t have problems with; when you’re looking at how the state spends its money and of what the state is composed, however, i think the kind of secularism i’m talking about really matters.

    On ‘left-wing’:
    Loathe as i am to ever say anything along the lines of ‘we’ll have to agree to disagree’, i think the nub of this argument is what you consider vital constituents of a ‘left-wing’ politics. I come at the question from (as you might expect) a liberal direction, though more Rorty/Shklar than Rawls/Dworkin. From reading this blog, Chris seems to come at it from a socialist direction, and Paul and Sarah i can’t speak for. I think it’s a wider and deeper debate than this thread is going to allow us to get into, and perhaps one for another time, though one i look forward to.

    On party politics:
    I think this part of the discussion has been perhaps the most overheated. For my part i think i flung a little too much invective. Now, again i don’t want to give the impression that i don’t enjoy or welcome a hefty chunk of polemic in these kinds of debates, but i think that if partisan allegiances are put aside, we probably agree more than we disagree. Which raises the question of those partisan allegiances, which i’d like to briefly examine:

    a) Labour: first of all, i don’t think that this:
    “Agree on Labour as disgrace re asylum seekers, etc., chasing tabloid headlines, etc. No disagreement there.”
    Is a get out of jail free card, or that it means you can then just go back to Lib Dem bashing. You have to tell me why you think Labour isn’t going to behave in the next decade or so in pretty much the same way (or similar) to that which it has in the past decade or so, or at least where Labour’s principled arguing for the left is going to start. For a supposed party of the left, Labour’s 13 years has been a mix of overdue reforms (constitution, gay rights, etc.) that were never going to be big electoral issues anyway, wimping out on the big ones the right-wing press went to town on (civil liberties, immigration, Europe, crime, the unemployed) and the downright disgraceful (Iraq, asylum seekers, its record on inequality). It did good things on improving public services, but at the cost of ceding larger, public arguments to the right. So i guess in broader historical terms, its biggest failure was invertebracy and ideological capitulation. Show me which senior Labour figure has the guts to reverse that.

    Incidentally, the point was at some stage made that while the national Labour party may behave like dicks, it’s ok because the electoral base of the Labour party ensures they never forget the poorest entirely; the activists on the ground often provide the link to make sure of this. The obvious empirical problem for this argument is that while structural unemployment has (or had before 2008, anyway) virtually disappeared under Labour, it’s unclear whether even that can be fully credited to the Labour government’s actions. But aside from that, the people who are now suffering the most in society are those who a) don’t turn out to vote at all, ever, and b) those who can’t vote. So the people i’ve mentioned before – the really long-term (like, we’re talking inter-generationally) unemployed, people who’ve been chewed up and spat out by our completely fucked-up prison system, immigrants (both legal and illega) and so forth. These are the people whose welfare is the test of a government’s principle, because there aren’t many votes in caring about them.

    Finally, Labour does indeed have the backing of trade unions, and its demographic isn’t that well off. Those facts haven’t stopped Labour from ignoring both groups throughout 13 years of power, they’ve just stopped Labour from royally fucking those people like the Tories would. Which brings me to:

    b) Lib Dems: so we’ve had the standard roster of criticisms trotted out over the course of this debate (if you can call some of them criticisms):
    – ‘my gosh are the Lib Dems not liked by the other two parties’ – well that’s quite a surprise, given Lib Dem candidates up and down the country are getting Labour and Tory constituency parties in previously safe seats to get up off their arses and actually work for what they have.
    – ‘the Lib Dems aren’t serious, and some of their MPs are cocks’ – well yes, Jeremy Browne is a cock; so’s Chris Huhne. And as you say, Vince Cable is quite nice. That’s people for you – a mixed bag. Let me know how you find the parliamentary Labour party (if you get involved). On the Lib Dems not being serious: perhaps that’s true. These next few months will test the theory. I’m going to take a suck and see approach.
    – ‘the Lib Dems have jumped into bed with the Tories at the first possible opportunity’ – that can be construed as technically true (the Lib Dems might have, for example, propped up Major’s minority government in its dying days, but of course didn’t, so close but no cigar), but in so far as it might be only technically true, it demonstrates little. When someone says something has been done ‘at the first possible opportunity’, we usually take it to imply a certain degree of eagerness on the actor’s part. My argument all along has been that Clegg is not eager to do this, he’s locked in by political circumstances. True, he himself set out the criteria that led him to talk to the Tories first, but the only way he could neutralise the ‘which one are you ideologically closer to’ question (it’s obviously Labour, but to say that undermines the party’s electoral independence, and allows the media to paper over the ways in which we’re still massively different to both parties) was to set out an objective criterion. And any objective criterion that wasn’t “begins with ‘L’, ends with ‘abour'” was going to lead to the Tories, given they did better. So like i say, political circumstances. Clegg and his negotiators will get the deal they think best safeguards the party’s prospects, which will mean a) not doing anything policy-wise that will piss off the mostly left-wing activists and mostly left-wing to left-of-centre voters (not because they’re so untempted by cabinet posts, but because we have a ‘triple lock’ that sounds, and in metaphorical terms is, the world’s heaviest chastity belt), and b) getting electoral reform.
    – ‘the Lib Dems may be all principled now, but they won’t be when they get near government’ – well, that may be. obviously it’s relatively unverifiable (unless you think local councils are a good guide, which i don’t particularly, and even were i to do so, it wouldn’t be an assessment we come out of badly, whatever your experience in Oxford is). I still think it worth voting for the principled option at elections. It gets them closer to power, it forces the other parties to explain why they’re acting like a bunch of scumbags.

    On Evan Harris and Oxford Lib Dems:
    Ok so back where this discussion started. Oxford Lib Dems cocked up their strategy; stupid of them indeed. The net result is that we’re now minus Evan Harris. My basic thought was that given all the results at this election over which one could have considerable schadenfreude – Peter Robinson, Jacqui Smith, George Galloway, Nick Griffin (thumped by Margaret Hodge! Margaret Hodge! And with the BNP getting wiped out on Barking & Dagenham council…) – your going for Evan Harris (or Oxford Lib Dems; whatever – it amounts to the same) looks not a little small-minded. I never thought i’d be calling a Cambridge academic (and former Mr Foynes pupil, apparently) small-minded, but there you go.

  46. Leo —

    Do note that these claims about secularism are much much weaker than the ones you started out with. Then, you explained what you meant by secularism as including the view that “religious faith should not enter the public discourse” and you affirmed that “you can’t not be a secularist in the sense i’ve outlined and on the left in my view”. That’s a slightly bonkers view, as it straightforwardly excludes by definitional fiat someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., from being considered as part of the left — so it’s good to see with these more modest claims that you’re retreating from that kind of slightly bonkers position.

    I’ll let the national politics stuff wash over me; this isn’t an argument I either have the time or the inclination to have right now — but thanks for your contribution. This may, in fact, be the longest comment ever posted at the Virtual Stoa, in its almost nine-year history.

    If taking an interest in your immediate surroundings is small-minded, then maybe I’m small minded. I wrote about OxWAb because I live in the constituency, and I thought I had something to say that I hadn’t seen anyone else say anywhere else (that’s a common motivation for posts at this blog). If you click on the “Oxford” or “Jericho” links on the sidebar, you’ll see that I often comment on stuff in Oxford, or Jericho (where I live) but rarely in, say, Redditch or Barking. (Although I work in Cambridge, I’m not in the slightest interested in local politics here.) I’m sure there are similarly small-minded Redditch or Barking bloggers you can consult to get your fill of local election commentary over there, if you want to read about Jacqui Smith or Margaret Hodge.

    But, yes, after all these thousands of words, it’s nice to end on a moment of agreement, that the Oxford Lib Dems are stupid.

  47. There’s a lot to read in the comments, but may i cut through the chatter with a dumb bewilderment that people are so tolerant to wild skews in representative legitimacy in the UK? We don’t have to look at the results at the Oxford level, just looking at the huge number of voters for LDs and the comparatively very few MPs they have.
    Of course there is a majority of voters out there that benefits very greatly from how the system works. And i see in some comments that people are comforting themselves by pretending that they know better than the voters that LD voters actually are just tactically voting, or are deluded, or stupid, and basically let’s not fuss to much about those silly people. Admitedly the LDs being bad at playing the system is amusing (despite the horrible consequences), but how is the underlying system healthy, or representative, or just?
    If that’s what passes for fairness and legitimacy, then there’s not much left to go out of bounds. I suppose creating discontinuous districts to corral voters even more effectively? Even that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow these days, i suppose.

  48. Just a minor point:

    He even sank so low as to oppose Lumley’s campaign for the Ghurkas in parliament

    This was a point on which, surprisingly, Phil Woolas was right and the Daily Mail and Joanna Lumley were both wrong. The Gurkhas specifically joined up on the basis that they would not be gaining British citizenship – quite apart from anything, their wages and pensions are calculated on this basis, which is why so many of them have arrived over here after paying big fees to agents, and discovered that they can’t afford to live here (and of course, if they had been paid standard Army wages and pensions, the regiment would have been disbanded decades ago).

    The Gurkhas served with distinction, but they have done for over a hundred years and at no point during that time has anyone thought it a good idea for them to spend their retirement anywhere other than Nepal. That’s because it wasn’t. I thought that the poor bastard at the foreign office who had the job of dealing with the amazingly predictable clusterfuck that resulted from this bad idea of a policy was quite right to note that Ms Lumley had suddenly disappeared from view.

  49. TJ: the current system has its virtues and vices, and both are real, and both get exaggerated by the polemicists in the fights over the voting system. Yes, there’s a problem of fairness, etc., but people disagree (reasonably) over whether this problem is big enough that it’s worth correcting, given other foreseeable consequences that might follow. Lots of people in this country like – or at least tolerate – the way British politics has its own rhythms, and don’t find anything of which to be envious when they consider the pattern of politics and government in continental European countries with more proportional systems.

  50. I think this election has shown up the problems with the FPTP system and theresults it produces. Too many people seem to assume that the idea of an election is to produce a government rather than the concept of voting for representatives to articulate our interests and opinions in a legislature. Thus the Tories think that gaining a simple plurality of votes gives them the right to rule the country, and that anything else will lead to the utter collapse of society.

    I think there’s a rather immature attitude towards actually engaging in politics in this country, I would have thought that a more pluralist system would be preferable to the idea of ‘the smack of firm government’ that is offered to us by the Tories and their allies in the media.

  51. if i say i believe something has to be done because i believe my god has told me so, and you don’t believe in my god, then (to again raise Rorty’s point) religion is acting as a kind of conversation-stopper.

    And if I say I believe in dialectical materialism? How about if I say I believe in Copenhagen quantum mechanics? Or if I reject Copenhagen in favour of David Bohm’s implicate order?

    We all have conversation-stoppers – a “final vocabulary”, in Rorty’s own phrase. Rationalists believe they’re the only ones speaking in prose.

  52. One other thing in case Leo, or indeed anyone else, is still reading:

    I think the nub of this argument is what you consider vital constituents of a ‘left-wing’ politics.

    I think not agreeing a formal alliance with any party as right-wing as the Conservative Party is a vital constituent of any conceivable ‘left-wing’ politics. What say you?

  53. Over the last two and a half years I’ve occasionally thought about the argument that took place here, particularly because the difference of views over who to support was so much greater (I think) than the one over substantive policy issues. During that time, it has, of course, been Chris, Paul, and everyone else who were proved right on every count. It may not matter to anyone, but I thought it would be worth recording my full acceptance of that – I feel obliged to. I also apologise for the tone of much of what I posted. I don’t usually swear that much – perhaps it was bombast to mask deeper worries, it may just have been frustration. My silly contention that secularism is a necessary component of left-wing politics was also obviously wrong, and in retrospect advanced in an embarrassingly arrogant fashion.

    Yesterday’s vote on the welfare uprating bill was the single event which spurred this apology, but I have accepted that I was wrong to support the Lib Dems, and especially to contend that they were the ‘real’ left-wing voice in British politics, for quite some time now. Given all that has happened, it seems astonishing that I once held the views expressed above. Contrary to my first, rather melodramatic comment, I still read this blog and enjoy doing so.

  54. Thanks for this, Leo. It was a good scrap, wasn’t it? Certainly there’s no need to apologise for the tone: we were all a bit over-heated.

    Looking back over our disagreement, I still think (as you do now) that you got quite a bit wrong. What you got dead right, though, was the way in which the Lib Dems were, immediately after the election, looking for the least bad choice from a menu of extremely unpalatable options. One of the reasons that coalition was such a risk was that things would remain undecided–and, largely, out of the party’s own hands–for quite so long. Indeed, I suppose they still are.

    Good to hear that you still enjoy reading the blog. Maybe there’ll be some fresh content, one day.

    Hope all’s well: Chris

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