What used to be called the main three Westminster parties (the savaging of the Liberal Democrats and the rise of the SNP have put paid to that convenient shorthand) have faced for at least twenty years the accusation that they are all the same. This call has grown louder since the 2010 General Election, and culminated in the aforementioned SNP Scottish landslide and hugely boosted support for UKIP and the Green Party.
The reason that the three parties (the Conservative & Unionist Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party, for those who have been living on Mars) seem to have become mere reflections of one another is that the ideologies which once drove them have been diluted almost to the point of non-existence by the rise to power of a foreign and dangerous strain of political thought: neoliberalism.
Regular readers will know that I bang on about neoliberalism on a fairly regular basis, but there is a good reason for this. This article by Tom Clark (a.k.a. Another Angry Voice) explains the concept very well, but the basic idea is that all good neoliberal governments should run the smallest budget deficit they can, or a surplus if possible, no matter the economic conditions; that all industry and as much capital as possible should be in private hands, meaning mass privatisation and minimal taxation; that state subsidies should be restricted only to necessary infrastructure, primary education and basic healthcare; and that free market economics and free trade policies should be the order of the day in as many states and territories as can be ‘influenced’ to accept them.
Neoliberal ideology, developed by the Chicago School economists in the 1960s and ’70s and first implemented under the brutal rule of US-backed Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, has since become the mainstream economic consensus in the USA, the UK and across most of the world under the direction of the IMF. It became Conservative party policy after Margaret Thatcher won the leadership in 1975, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour project made it Labour policy as well from 1994. The point at which the Liberal Democrats succumbed to neoliberalism is less well-defined, but the ascension of Nick Clegg – a prominent ‘Orange Book’ Liberal – to the leadership in 2007 is the latest possible date.
Conservatism vs. Neoliberalism
Though it is difficult to imagine now, the Conservative Party was not always the preserve of rabid Thatcherites, hell-bent on selling off as much of the country’s assets as possible and rolling back taxation to regressive pre-war levels. The Conservative Party of the 1950s and ’60s was largely run by ‘One Nation’ Tories in the mould of Benjamin Disraeli, following the post-War economic consensus laid down by social liberal William Beveridge. This Keynesian economic consensus, based on the ideal of full employment, the idea that government spending could be used to stimulate growth and the maintenance of a mixed economy, provided the UK with a period of sustained economic growth, benefiting all deciles of the income spectrum.
One Nation conservatism was able to incorporate this essentially social-democratic economic paradigm because its tenets included a paternalist approach to problems of inequality and a pragmatic attitude towards methods of achieving its core aim of preserving a coherent and united Christian society. The One Nation Tories were perfectly happy to adopt the policies of their intellectual opponents if they saw that they had value, and while their motives for maintaining a Keynesian economy were essentially reactionary the effects were positive.
However, the modern Tory Party has no real chance of returning to its One Nation glory days. The Thatcherite faction within the party has attained such a position of supremacy that George Osborne, an arch-Thatcherite, was able to present his Budget as a ‘One Nation’ Budget despite it including privatisation measures which would have made Thatcher wince, and receive almost no backlash from his own party. When David Cameron steps down as leader, which will almost certainly happen at some point soon after the 2017 European Referendum, the only possible contenders to succeed him are all firmly members of the Thatcherite squad. There is little prospect, therefore, that the curse of neoliberalism will recede from the Conservatives any time soon.
Jeremy Corbyn vs. Neoliberalism
The Labour leadership campaign will be fought between four candidates: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall. Of the four, Kendall is a clear Blairite – despite her protestations to the contrary – and has said that Labour must ditch the ‘fantasy’ that Britain has moved to the left. She, therefore, clearly has no intention of overturning the neoliberal consensus within the party leadership. Burnham and Cooper are less obviously New Labour devotees, but the best that can be said about either is that they broadly support the policies of the Miliband-Balls leadership, which is hardly an endorsement.
Jeremy Corbyn, though, is something different. A committed activist for the left, his policy positions include an end to grammar schooling, consistent opposition to tuition fees and PFI deals, renationalisation of the rail network and higher top rates of income and corporation tax. He is also an environmentalist, signing the Climate Change Early Day Motion, has campaigned vociferously against apartheid, the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and was the lowest expenses claimer in the House of Commons in Q3 of 2010.
In short, he has the perfect mix of credentials to galvanise the Labour left, win back supporters from the SNP and the Green Party and perhaps even make inroads into the one-third of voters who habitually do not vote at General Elections. Only by electing Jeremy Corbyn can Labour members restore their party to the champion of social democracy – of equal rights and equality – which it was supposed to be.
Tim Farron vs. Neoliberalism
Tim Farron is the man to do the same for the Liberal Democrats. The former President of the party does not have a voting record to parallel Corbyn as a backbencher, although he did vote strongly against the 2010 tuition fee increase, but he is infinitely preferable to his opponent, former Coalition minister Norman Lamb, who is very much the Nick Clegg continuity candidate. Widely identified as part of the social liberal school, Farron is a splendid orator and a passionate advocate of social equality.
While it remains to be seen if Farron is willing or capable of moving the Liberal Democrats back to the centre-left position they occupied before the rise to dominance of the Orange Book group, he is certainly the only man with even a chance of doing so – and make no mistake, to accomplish this is the only way to detoxify the Liberal Democrat brand and reverse the devastating slump in the party’s fortunes,
All three of the traditional Westminster parties have had their founding ideologies insidiously replaced by the pseudo-economic rubbish of the Chicago School neoliberals. The Conservatives, with the current leadership of David Cameron and George Osborne and a future leader certain to be drawn from a pool of hardline Thatcherites, are lost already – they will probably never recover from this deadly American poison. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, however, have a chance to do so – and they can begin the journey to re-energising their parties this year by selecting the right people to lead them.