by Sacha Ismail
“Scandal-hit Lib Dems in free fall” was a typical newspaper headline this week, as the fall out from the sex scandal surrounding ex-Liberal Democrat leadership contender Mark Oaten damaged the party in the polls. Yet the Lib Dems’ do have a substantial, although mostly passive, following among leftish youth.
Most activists of the global justice, People & Planet-type probably vote Lib Dem, at least where there isn’t a Green candidate standing. The Liberals get this support basically because they seem to scrub up well next to the ultra-reactionary policies of New Labour, particularly on a few popular issues — the war in Iraq, asylum rights, top-up fees etc.
But that tells you more about New Labour than it does about the Lib Dems. The latter are in reality a thoroughly bourgeois political party, a strongly pro-business, right-wing one at that, and one that is moving further to the right, not left. Unlike the Tories, who now receive a majority of their funding from individual donations, a majority of Lib Dem funding comes from business. They are wholly in favour of privatisation, “free markets” and neo-liberal economics generally.
In fact, they have produced a few right-wing innovations of their own.
Their conferences recently voted that the government should be given the power to ban public sector strikes. Their leadership has been vocally pushing market-oriented policies, from Post Office privatisation to an insurance system to replace the NHS.
The “left” candidate for the Lib Dem leadership, who is generally seen as too radical for the party establishment, is Simon Hughes. Hughes won his North Southwark and Bermondsey seat on the back of a gay-baiting, red-baiting campaign against Peter Tatchell in 1983. More recently, he made his name as the Lib Dem candidate for mayor of London with virulent attacks on the London Underground workers’ union RMT.
During the leadership campaign, Hughes has tacked (even further) to the right, saying that he is “not theologically wedded” to the policy of a 50% tax rate on those earning over £100,000. Writing in the Evening Standard, he justified this by saying that the London voters he hopes to attract are only two pay rises away from £100,000.
In other words, he told us explicitly what we already knew — that the Lib Dems are just another party of the rich, for the rich.