A Green And Pleasant Land (you do get green when you mix blue and yellow, right?)

When I was in Melbourne in November last year sorting out visas for this year’s travels, I caught up with a few Burn City friends for drinks and a chat. I met with one, Tom (of crushtor.net), at Toorak train station, and we walked down Malvern Road in (a vain) search of a pub. We were eventually forced to settle for a wine bar that had a small selection of stubbies. Walking down the road, I commented that one could almost smell the bourgeois there (a smell Tom identified as lavender and Chanel No. 5). It’s the doctor’s wives capital of the southern third of the country, and if I recall correctly it was in Peter Costello’s electorate.

I relate this story because while the smell wasn’t there, I immediately got the same sense (some sort of Marxist spidey-sense? “It all began when I was bitten by a radioactive communist…”) when I walked into Staines’ shopping district. A friend who had lived in the UK for a while a few years back advised me that the town’s closest Tasmanian analogue was Kingston – an aspirational area which pitches itself to middle-class families but also ends up with a smattering of lower classes (bogans in Australia, chavs in the UK). I’d landed in the aspirational middle-aged part of town. It’s the sort of place that you don’t even need to look at an electoral map to know that it’s about as solidly Tory as a place can be – and sure enough, the last time this place elected a Labour MP was when the whole country united behind Labour after the Second World War to pitch out Winston Churchill*.

Sure enough, as could be guessed the split of the vote at the last election was about 70% Conservative, 25% Liberal Democrat and 5% everyone else (Labour, Green, UKIP, BNP, Monster Raving Loony Party). The presence of the Lib Dems as the second party instead of Labour in this seat probably needs some explaining to Australians. A third party with much more influence than the Greens back home, they’re also nothing like them. They seem to exist to confuse standard left-right notions of politics – yes, I know I have a reputation for constantly complaining about this particular bugbear but the Lib Dems bear this out. They promote social liberalism, but also economic liberalism. Labour are seen as the party of social democracy (despite pretty much abandoning it under Tony Blair, it remains to be seen whether new leader Ed Miliband will bring it back in any significant fashion but don’t hold your breath), so the Lib Dems don’t worry about that; similarly the Tories (an historic nickname for the Conservative Party) are the party of social paleoconservatism and aspirations to a polite, charming past that never existed so the Lib Dems have taken the progressive route in that area. So they see themselves as filling an oft-unplugged gap in the system.

To bring it a bit closer to home, if Australian politicians were to find themselves inhabiting the British party system, politicians like Malcolm Turnbull and Petro Georgiou would almost certainly have joined the Lib Dems rather than the Tories as most of their fellow Liberal party members would have. Paul Keating might also have found his home there, having been a definite departure from Labor treasurers of the past – on the other hand, Keating’s controlled application of market policy in Australia in the 1980s combined with his use of the increased profits to reinforce the welfare state have been pointed to by many as “Blair’s New Labour, but done properly”. Other Labor ministers like Linsday Tanner (Australia’s most vocal proponent of social control/guidance via ‘nudging’, a part of the Lib Dem platform) might also have been Lib Dems in this alternate universe, although it is clear that Turnbull-style small-l Liberals would have provided the largest chunk of the party’s membership.

The problem with this repudiation of standard modern two-party politics, of course, is that it’s basically useless. Social liberalism will always be tokenistic and pointless – not to mention easily reversed – without some sort of government safeguards, or as culture-war conservatives like to call it, “social engineering”. And uncontrolled neoliberalist policies (aside from being embraced by both of the other major parties since the mid-90s) have been proven to work to the detriment of much of the white-collar middle class the Lib Dems pitch themselves to as the Global Financial Crisis has left them running on empty, the birds of boom exploitation come home to roost. So the party is left entirely confused – most of its rank-and-file membership, backbenchers and supporters consider themselves to the ‘left’ of Labour, particularly after the social-control-happy tendencies of Blair’s New Labour, but the party leadership are free-market evangelists who, to go back to the above analogy, would have found themselves part of the small-l faction of the Liberal Party in Australia. To people in a place like Staines, they offer alternatively a suitable ‘left’ alternative to the Tories, a party to vote for so that you vote against the Tories without having to support the nanny-statists/’communists’/(insert complaint here) in the Labour Party, or a safe expression of the sort of socially liberal ideas which appeal to what we in Australia like to call the “doctors’ wives” demographic. There’s also the presence of the ‘tactical vote’, an aspect unique to the pathetic First Past The Post system used in the UK, where people who support Labour or the Lib Dems will instead vote for the other because they stand more chance of winning. So while a similar place in Australia would have a small Labor vote, here, all of that – protest/“it’s time”/social liberal votes – instead goes to the Lib Dems. There’s a parallel sort of effect which occurs in a number of Labour seats, where people who see something wrong with the current Labour party (and who wouldn’t have at some point in the past fourteen years) but can’t bring themselves to vote Conservative (and who could have at any point in the last thirty-two years) will vote Lib Dem. It certainly makes for a more dynamic system compared to what essentially amounts to a pendulum like we have in Australia.

Testament to this unique position is the fact that after a hung parliament at last year’s election – yep, they had one too – the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Tories, but were seen as being capable of forming one with either of the other two parties. Their free-market policies, along with the softer, nicer face of the current Conservative party, won out though. Ruling out a massive turnaround at some point in the next four years though, it’s pretty much been the party’s death warrant. As I mentioned before, while leader Nick Clegg and the rest of the party leadership (what is often referred to as the “Orange Book” faction, after the book which a number of them wrote essays for extolling the virtues of neoliberalism) are ardent free-marketeers, the majority of the party rank-and-file consider themselves to the ‘left’ of New Labour, and have taken this coalition as an act of betrayal. Meanwhile the party is also losing support in places like Staines where they are seen as the safe alternative to Labour because they are seen as ‘diluting’ proper Conservative policy. In reality all they have managed to achieve is a referendum, due in a month and a half, on the introduction of the “Alternative Vote”, or AV, their name for Preferential Voting with single-member electorates like we have in Australia. They hope that it will end the splitting of the ‘left’ vote as happens under the First Past The Post currently (eg a seat will vote 45% Tory, 30% Labour and 25% Lib Dem, delivering the seat to the Tory, while under AV most of the Lib Dems would preference Labour, giving them the seat). The Tories, incidentally, know that they will be the ones to suffer under an AV system, and have thus been running a scare campaign based on distortions (billboards asking whether a sick child needs treatment in hospital, or a soldier needs body armour, rather than a new voting system – as if AV is the only thing that threatens those two things) and outright lies (a number of fabricated polls stating that the majority of Australians hate the system and want it removed). Clegg and the party leadership are thus seen by most of the people who voted for the party at the last election as naïve at best and blues in yellow clothing (parties are identified by colour much more than in Australia, and it’s thought of as symbolic of the betrayal of the party’s past by New Labour that nobody in the party even wears a red tie anymore, fearing the connections to communism) at worst. Once again, as with Ireland and as the Tasmanian Greens will hopefully avoid, we see the foolishness of chasing power or the illusion thereof (as a very junior partner in a coalition) rather than attempting to achieve what you would with power outside of the obvious channels.

* The level of revisionism that surrounds Churchill is stunning; I could (and may if I’m bored someday) write an article on how much of a scumbag he was even by the standards of the day. Among this is the idea that Churchill was a popular and wise leader beloved by the whole country. In reality, while he was the kind of strong, defiant leader who was needed for the Second World War, he was almost universally recognised as a poor peacetime prime minister and was immediately turfed in favour of Labour’s Clement Attlee, an utter legend (sort of like a British Ben Chifley except even more of a hardarse whose ambitious policies have only become truly appreciated after the fact), at the end of the war. Yes, pedants, he did return in 1951 as the Tories enjoyed a revival; again, he was so unlikeable that he got turfed after a single term, this time by his own party.


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