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The Other parties of Big Business...
RECENT OPINION polls suggest that Britain's three mainstream parties - Labour, Liberals and Tories - are not only indistinguishable in politics but also indistinguishable in support.
At present all three seem to have the backing of around 30% of the population. ROBIN CLAPP looks at the Liberal Democrats' policies while STEVE SCORE considers the Tories' prospects.
Lib Dems Tear Off The 'Liberal' Mask
LIBERAL DEMOCRAT leader Charles Kennedy has not yet repeated one of his predecessors' infamous battle cry of "return to your constituencies and prepare for power". But both the press and his party now expect them to make significant gains at the next general election.
Some polls put the Lib Dems as high as 29%, their best standing at this stage of the electoral cycle since the SDP/Liberal Alliance's heady days in the early 1980s.
Headline policies like the commitment to scrap university tuition and top-up fees will prove popular with many voters. The commitment to replace council tax with a local income tax will strike a chord especially with the elderly.
Local and by-election successes in previously safe Labour seats convinced the Lib Dems they can take on Blair in the north and the Tories in the south. The New Labour machine's vulnerability was shown in June's local elections in Newcastle where Blair's traditional rock-solid majority was reduced to rubble.
All but a handful of the top 35 Liberal Democrat target seats are held by the Tories, who are still unpopular. Tory bigwigs David Davis, Oliver Letwin and Theresa May, are all defending wafer-thin majorities. Even Howard may fear for his seat.
Kennedy claims his party would not go into partnership with Michael Howard, but he has indicated they might consider working with New Labour, inside or outside of a formal coalition.
However the Lib Dems have a perennial problem of what policies to put forward in different areas. Having perfected opportunism into a principle where they try and play the middle against both ends, their strategy is based on little more than dangling the populist card.
A GROUP of up-and-coming Lib Dem MPs and parliamentary candidates recently tossed a grenade into these carefully weighed-up calculations. In the 'Orange Book' these would-be leaders write about the need to 'reposition' British Liberalism. It shows all the contradictions at the heart of the Liberal Democrat Party. If implemented, these policies would lurch the party sharply to the right.
In ten provocative essays rising stars like David Laws MP and Mark Oaten MP, who call themselves the 'New Liberals', question the Lib Dems' philosophy and programme.
Laws says that the free market was historically the preserve of the Liberals, long before Thatcher and Blair colonised this territory. He complains that the party has been captured by "soggy socialism and corporatism" and that the Lib Dems must understand that the "old dichotomy between left and right has broken down."
Oaten chimes in with a commitment to "tough liberalism." Sounds like Blunkett's mantras against crime? It's no surprise to learn that as shadow Home Secretary, he refused to criticise Blunkett over the extension of telephone tapping.
The essays call for Royal Mail's privatisation and a further big deregulatory push across the entire public sector. They propose a cap on state spending at 40% of GDP and demand that workers be forced to enroll in compulsory savings for a second pension.
Trying to shake off Tory charges of being naively pro-EU, the Orange Book's authors try to woo UK Independence Party (UKIP) voters by arguing for vetoing the next EU budget unless the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is scrapped. Next they pander to Mr. and Mrs. 'Hang 'em and Flog 'em', by unveiling dictates for national service camps for non-dangerous criminals.
Third Blairite party
THESE 'MIDDLE-aged Turks' have called explicitly for the breaking up of the NHS. In The Guardian (18 September) Oaten conjectures: "...we don't have a problem with beds and equipment being made privately, so why should it be a problem if some of the buildings and staff are from private companies?"
They want health care funded through social insurance rather than taxation, while the state would cease to manage the NHS on a daily basis. Private providers will step in to provide services - at a cost.
Kennedy went ballistic on reading this. It's not necessarily a million miles away from what the Lib Dems would like to do, but it's not clever to spell it out shortly before an election. The party's former deputy chairman pertinently asked: "What is the point of a third Blairite party in this country?"
The Lib Dems opportunistically rode on the back of the anti-war movement and frequently cultivate the appearance of being to the left of New Labour. The Orange Book reveals once again that the Liberal Democrats are just another big business party, bedazzled by the free market, greedy for more privatisation and desperate for another hoist up the greasy pole of personal gain.
Thanks must go to the authors of the Orange Book for clearing that up.
Tories: Another Lurch To The Right?
IN A desperate attempt to revive their opinion poll ratings Tory leader Michael Howard played the anti-immigration card last week. The UKIP accuse Howard of stealing their policies as he talked of "cracking down hard on illegal immigration", imposing quotas on legal immigration and pulling out of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention which defends the rights of asylum seekers.
In Euro elections and local elections the UKIP peeled away many Tory votes, and Howard wants to bolster his right flank, although he denies this was a "lurch to the right."
In his recent shadow cabinet re-shuffle, arch right-winger John Redwood was made minister for 'deregulation' (read privatisation and attacks on workers' rights). In recent bye-elections such as Leicester South, the Liberals have taken the anti-Blair vote.
Howard was supposed to revive their fortunes, following their failed previous leader Ian Duncan Smith, who was described as "not credible" by Tory chairman Tim Yeo. Even the, hardly successful, previous Tory leader William Hague was suggested as one point to replace Howard!
Rows have spilt out between the 'Notting Hill Set' of younger MPs and older MPs dubbed the 'Bed Blockers'. The old rows between hard right and 'centre right' still rumble on. The differences on Europe still exist.
The Tories' fundamental problem is that New Labour has stolen their clothes; they are no longer the bosses' 'first eleven'.
No matter how much anger builds at New Labour policies, whichever leader they pick, however they lurch on policies, so far the Tories don't seem to break through. Many workers over a certain age remember what the Tories did in office, and don't want them back.
New Labour are privatising and attacking pubic services, but the Tories set the ball rolling when they were in government. Their policies now seem to be to out-do New Labour in how far they can bring in the market to health and education etc. They have no leg to stand on over the war either having fully supported Blair's policies.
Whether Labour are still the biggest party after the next general election, or events result in the Tories forming a government, we cannot as socialists support the "lesser evil" idea that a vote for Labour is a better option. The choice between two or three capitalist parties is no choice. We have to keep putting forward a socialist alternative and campaigning for the creation of a new mass party of the working class.
In The Socialist 2 October 2004:
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