13 January 2017

Tristram Hunt and the crisis of the liberal elite


First Jamie Reed. Now Tristram Hunt. In the space of four weeks, two of the Labour party’s most able MPs have announced they are quitting the Commons, triggering by-elections as they depart.

It’s pretty obvious what this says about the Labour Party. Lumbered with the calamitous, but immovable, Jeremy Corbyn as leader, many Labour MPs recognise that they are heading towards electoral disaster.  Why hang around?

Only after the looming electoral wipe-out, followed by painful years of rebuilding, does Labour stand any chance of one day winning power again. If at all.

There will be plenty of pious comment pieces written about the need for a strong Opposition in our democracy. I agree. But why does the alternative to Toryism have to be leftist and Fabian?

In his resignation letter, Tristram Hunt referred to the “social, cultural and economic forces which have rocked mainstream social democratic and socialist parties” around the world. Quite.

What we are witnessing is not just the normal ebb and flow of electoral fortune. Something more profound is at work, and it is undermining the idea – so central to centre-left parties for the past century – that human social and economic affairs might best be organised by grand design.

It’s not just the Labour Party that might be in the process of being replaced, but many of the retro liberal-left assumptions that have long underpinned our politics.

For years in Britain, politics has been done by politicians, who while notionally accountable to the rest of us, often seemed bound together by a set of shared assumptions – about Britain’s role in the world, the benefits of EU membership, the munificence of monetary policy, the ability of the state to order society, and much else.

These retro liberal assumptions are – deservedly – starting to fall apart. But the danger is that as they do so, able MPs who came up under the old system are driven out of politics, which ends up dominated instead by a shrill, stupid certainty. Or worse.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is sometimes claimed, is different. Different? He does not appear to have changed his mind much in 30 years. Retro socialism is not really much of an alternative to retro liberalism.

Under Corbyn, the Labour Party is taking a refreshingly different approach, they say. Nonsense. He’s imposed on the party he leads a groupthink from the 1970s, with – it would appear – little room for dissent.

Our liberal elite, having lost sight of what a self-organising society means, is in a muddle almost entirely of its own making. Tempting though it is to laugh, we should worry at the prospect of a profoundly illiberal alternative.

Liberalism, far from being a creed of the elite, ought to be revitalised as something radical that subverts it. As the brightest and the best depart the Labour Party, that becomes a little bit less likely.

Douglas Carswell is MP for Clacton. His new book 'Rebel – How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy' will be published by Head of Zeus in April