The Passing of the Red Tory Moment (For Now)

by Russell Arben Fox on May 7, 2010 · 12 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power,Short

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Given enough time, anything–well, realistically speaking, almost anything–can happen in democratic politics, and so one probably shouldn’t assume that the current election results from Britain definitively signal anything. However, I will bet on one thing: the notion that David Cameron’s Conservatives could introduce anything remotely like some genuine Red Tory reforms is dead (at least for now).

As I suggested before, it’s not clear to what extent the Conservatives ever were, in reality, committed to “associative communitarianism” and the like, or whether their “Big Society” notions did nothing more than just pay some lip service to Phillip Blond’s ideas. But either way, we’ll almost certainly not find out the truth now (much less find out the degree to which a modern liberal state, at least nominally committed to egalitarian welfare principles, could ever practically follow through on decentralizing, democratic reforms in the first place). As things stand this morning in Kansas (which is Friday afternoon in the UK), we have a messy hung parliament, and current Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown, knowing full well that his party is willing to promise much more in terms of the electoral reform which the Liberal Democrats want than Cameron’s conservatives could, is (purposefully or not) pushing the Conservatives in very nearly exactly the manner least amenable to seeing any hypothetical Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government preserve even the least elements of Red Tory promises.

That’s not to say that associative communitarianism isn’t compatible with the proportional representation wanted by the Lib Dems; indeed, I’ve suggested before that moving away from the American electoral model would actually make various populist/democratic/communitarian political possibilities more likely further on down the road. But the more immediate problem is the broader demographics and interests of the Lib Dems: they are, by and large, very much the sort of socially liberal, fiscally conservative, libertarian-lite, environmentally-conscious elites which Mark Penn idolizes and Jonathan Chait and Ross Douthat properly mock. With the Lib Dems, the Conservatives would likely still not give more power to the EU, and would still likely try for some immigration reform. And true, the Lib Dems would keep the Conservatives’ feet to the fire in regards to any welfare cuts. But serious reforms of Britain’s corporate market and financial structure? A patient–and expensive–devolution of welfare responsibilities to local communities, with attendant democratic oversight? Not bloody likely.

And if that all falls apart? Then it is some other ramshackle coalition for the Conservatives, or a minority government, or it is Labor-Lib Dems doing the same. All of which have, from my point of view, any number of arguably defensible, even appealing compensations. But however you slice it, the as-yet-not-clearly-articulated Red Tory promise is definitely going to get pushed to the back burner, if not off the stove entirely.

Perhaps it’s just as well; as I wrote yesterday, Blond’s (and Cameron’s, perhaps) reformist ideas need something more…well, more moral to them–a more broadly shared “religious” conception of what a polity and the government it creates has in common–if they’re going to find a legitimate sphere to operate within. And that will likely take decades of time, both in government and out of it. Hopefully Blond, and others, will keep hammering away at Red Tory possibilities for a while. But in the meantime, no matter what happens in London over the next couple of days, I don’t expect them to get a test drive.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bruce Smith May 7, 2010 at 12:16 pm

The LibDems would appear to be a party in search of a coherent philosophy. They are communitarian, localist, enviromentalist on the one hand and enthusiastic supporters of big unaccountable statist solutions like the Europe Union on the other. It was probably the immigration issue, the fiasco over the Greek debt problems and the possibility of a Euro collapse that resulted in the LibDems losing seats rather than gaining them. They would be natural allies of Blond’s communitarian mutualism but it remains to be seen whether the Tory Party can stomach a referendum on electoral reform to stitch together a power sharing deal with the LibDems. The LibDems also have traveled down the road of electoral reform for many years and will be reluctant to sacrifice the opportunity to achieve Proportional Representation. There will be a lot of argument with the Tories over exactly what options for electoral reform should be presented in any referendum. It remains to be seen whether the Labour Party leader, Gordon Brown, will sell out his party for a few more years in power by agreeing to a referendum on electoral reform. I don’t think electoral reform can be imposed without a referendum but nothing surprises me with the Alpha Ape politics we live under.

avatar Steve Knepper May 7, 2010 at 12:16 pm

I think you’re both right and wrong. Obviously Cameron is going to have to play politics with the other parties, so a lot of the “Big Society” could end up as rubble back on the campaign trail. But I think the Tory education program will almost certainly go through, and I suspect some sort of public services reform will, too. There is plenty of “Red Tory” involved in those. And, arguably, whatever election reforms Cameron has to concede to the Lib Dems will result in a system that is more in line with a Red Tory position.

I could well be wrong, but I think that some of the “red” elements of the Tory agenda may be the easiest ones to build a consensus around.

avatar Adam K. Webb May 7, 2010 at 12:34 pm

These are, inescapably, establishment politicians in every sense. It is true that genuine proportional representation would open up more political space for eccentric alternatives. But what they will probably come up with is something quite devious like PR with a 10% or 15% nationwide threshold, which will reward the Liberal Democrats and no one else.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 7, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Bruce,

The one genuinely good thing I can see coming out of this mess, whether the Lib Dems do it through the Conservatives or through Labor, is some push towards proportional representation, which I think every healthy democracy ought to have at least some of. And I like many of their Green sympathies as well. But I just don’t agree with your claim that the Lib Dems are the “natural allies of Blond’s communitarian mutualism.” I don’t see it. Blair, at least, had this egalitarian/Social Gospel sensibility that led him to give some ear, however minimal, to communitarian concerns. The Lib Dems, by contrast, strike me as almost wholly Urban Upscale Progressives, individuals concerned very much about poverty, equality, etc…but not community. I’d like to be shown wrong, since I suspect they are going to be the kingmakers here, but I don’t think I am.

Steve,

I agree that any kind of PR electoral reform will, in the long run, result in a friendly political environment for Red Tory-type concerns, and that’s a good thing. As for education and public service reforms, we shall see. I can see the former perhaps going forward, with the Lib Dems on board, and still preserving some sort of localist/democratic/communitarian elements. I’m very doubtful of the latter.

Adam,

Good point. Part of the frustration here is that Labor is making noises like they’d be willing to go much further in true PR reform, whereas the Conservatives would very likely, as you imply, offer just enough reform to serve the Lib Dems’ party interests, and nothing more. Still, I guess I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss that out of hand, depending on the numbers. Germany’s 5% rule arguably does violence to the democratic principle of proportional representation, but still, just looking at German policies suggests that it has, nonetheless, had some genuine populist/communitarian/”Tory” consequences.

avatar Bruce Smith May 7, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Russell. I can understand why you think the LibDems are not “communitarian mutualists” since their language is “toned down” in comparison to a full-on Phillip Blond anthem but the LibDems are fighting for election and Phillip is not. He has the luxury of being able to challenge the conventional wisdoms as a think tank director and very well he does it too. Here are three web sites that I think help support my argument that traditionally the LibDems have tried to position themselves between Labour and Tory parties albeit not very successfully:-

http://www.thenews.coop/news/Politics/1758

http://www.palgrave-journals.com/bp/journal/v4/n2/full/bp200835a.html

http://www.libdems.org.uk/what_we_stand_for.aspx

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 9, 2010 at 7:03 am

News analysis keeps talking about “proportional representation,” but reading between the lines, what appears to actually be on the table is order of preference voting. In my seldom humble opinion, that is much better than proportional representation, although it would ALSO correct the disconnect between popular vote and electoral outcome. It’s also complex to implement, without massive recounts or relying on computer programming, but worth the effort.

In 2000, order of preference voting would have allowed people to vote for Nader or Buchanan, confident that if, indeed these turned out to be minority voices, their vote could then be transferred to Bush or Gore as the candidate’s with the smallest first-place totals were eliminated. Who knows? It might have turned out that Nader and Buchanan were the first choices of a majority of voters.

This year in England, it would have meant that people could have voted for Lib Dems, or Plaid Cymru, or SNP, (and yes, also for the National Front), without worrying that if it came down to Labor or Tories, their vote would not count. Or in some districts, a Tory voter could vote Tory, knowing their second preference between Labor and Lib Dems would ultimately have affected the final outcome.

What Philip Blond’s sometime attractive ideas lack is a mass movement eager to carry them out. Participatory democracy, as SDS demonstrated circa 1970, can turn into a dictatorship of the night owls and loudest mouths. Devolving power back to local communities assumes that a significant portion of the local population will turn out to exercise their new responsibilities and powers. What if they gave devolution of power, and nobody came? In many periods of history, a large portion of the population doesn’t much care to participate in politics, especially since the advent of TV. That can leave an enlightened natural aristocracy running things, or it can leave a determined band of jerks taking over school boards.

avatar Bruce Smith May 10, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Siarlys. You are right to doubt the degree of enthusiasm for participative democracy. Hasn’t it always been so under the dominance of a repressive capitalism that ensures poor political and economic education? If real wages are declining and the majority find themselves having to work longer hours as a family to support themselves time for participation and education is bound to be at a premium. Knowing all of this, however, doesn’t remove the problems. I would argue some of the major problems we have are as follows:-

Most countries have an economic system run by unelected and unaccountable financial cartels organized in the form of Federal Reserves, or national banks, and these usually operate unfairly in the interests of the members of the cartel. Financial education is so poor, however, that very few recognize this, or indeed recognize they are the effective government on key economic matters because they bribe politicians with campaign finance. Instead most people foolishly continue to blame elected representatives of a particular governmental political party for their economic problems when those representatives are merely corrupt puppets.

Very few recognize the double edged sword of elite, or concentrated, capitalism which endless throws up the conflict between capital accumulation and maintaining waged demand in an economy.

Very few recognize that free trade will be manipulated especially by those countries trying to catch up on the capital investment of more advanced countries by making use of their only asset cheap labor.

Very few recognize that in the last thirty years in advanced countries like America there has been a financialization of the economy due to manufacturing over-capacity by a combination of the advanced countries and the newly developing countries. This financialization has been the search to maintain a return on capital through the alternative means of increasingly reckless financial speculation ultimately leading to the current financial crisis.

Very few understand that many of these problems stem from our inability to come to terms with the “egocentric alpha ape mindset” within us and that traditionally to counter this abusive personal power we have used counter-dominance devices in the form of institutional power.

Very few understand, however, that this institutional power will always be vulnerable to takeover and corruption by the “alpha ape mindset” and for those who do now realize this we have reached the stage of examining whether in addition to centralized institutional power dispersive economic and political institutional, or associational, power will help us overcome the barrier to achieving the common good.

avatar Bruce Smith May 12, 2010 at 9:31 am

Now that the LibDem and Conservative Coalition has been agreed Phillip Blond has been handed his greatest Christmas present ever. The LibDems will be active allies for communitarian mutualism against the Alpha Ape selfishness of the Tory right wing.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 12, 2010 at 9:53 am

It’d be nice if you turned out to be correct, Bruce; I certainly would delight to see some serious engagement with “communitarian mutualism” coming from a group of people with at least nominal Lib-Dem commitments to basic justice and equality. But I remain highly doubtful, for the reasons I lay out in my response to Daniel Larison here. The orientation of the bases to which the Red Tory argument could be and the Liberal Democratic argument will be put–particularly in regards to the EU–differ dramatically. And moreover, the basic worldview of Clegg and Cameron, as shaped by their experiences, is similar in ways that give me all sorts suspicions. But I suppose we shall wait and see.

avatar Bruce Smith May 12, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Well Russell I share your skepticism but in terms of the cards dealt to Phillip Blond with the hung parliament they were much better than he could have hoped for. We’ll have to wait and see how well he can play them. I don’t think the LibDem enthusiasm for a statist European Union is as strong as the pundits make out since there was not much struggle from the LibDems over European issues in the coalition discussions with the Tories. I think for the LibDems their support for the Europe Union is more a humanist legacy from the Second World War and a vague feeling that there is strength in numbers with regard to the Euro. Maybe they are right in the latter since there will now have to be a re-think on how best to stop Euro currency member countries from screwing up their economies like Greece. If this takes place the EU will have put in place greater fiscal responsibility than the United States has managed where the banksters and their political cronies are running its economy into the ditch.

avatar Bruce Smith May 12, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Here is The Times report on the Interim Coalition Agreement:-

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article7124090.ece

It is fairly clear reading between the lines that the LibDems have put their enthusiasm for the EU on the back burner.

avatar Bruce Smith May 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Cameron and Clegg announce their “Big Society” program:-

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/18/david-cameron-big-society-plan

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