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The realignment of British Politics

By Simon Goldie
January 3rd, 2012 at 11:30 am | 6 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Jo Grimond, former Liberal party leader in the 1960s, famously argued for a realignment of the Left. When the SDP formed some thought this was the beginning of that realignment.

Now that the Liberal Democrats are governing in coalition with the Conservatives, the idea of a Left realigning that includes the Liberal Democrats seems fanciful.

Tom Papworth, in his post A Labour Party we could work with, sets out what he sees as the conditions for a coalition with Labour: not so much a realignment, more a practical arrangement dependent on what the voters do at the next general election.

The conditions that Tom sets out for the Liberal Democrats and Labour to work together reflect something else as well.

As all three parties adapt their policies to the changing economic situation and challenges that new technologies bring, we are seeing not so much a realignment of the Left but a realignment of British politics.

Politicians from all three parties talk about people having more control over public services, we hear about an enabling and responsive State and about giving power away.

People have different expectations of their politicians these days. As ideology has disappeared from public debate people see parties as a consumer choice: who will do their best for me?

Given people more control over their lives plays into the liberal playbook. But all parties are heading in the same direction. Each one needs to find ways to fit their approach and values to this new world.

For the third party, struggling in the polls, it is imperative that the Lib Dems carve out a niche that separates the party from the others.


Nick Clegg sets out his vision

By Simon Goldie
December 20th, 2011 at 3:07 pm | 5 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Policy

This Monday, Nick Clegg set out his vision for British society. As someone who has argued that Clegg has been weaving a liberal narrative from liberalism’s rich tradition, it is interesting to see Clegg draw these strands together.

Clegg distinguishes the socialist, conservative and liberal views of society. He argues that socialists, or social democrats, believe in a ‘good society’. Conservatives want a ‘big society’ and liberals promote an ‘open society’.

He makes it clear that there is some overlap for liberals with a ‘big society’ as both conservatives and liberals are sceptical of State power. There are also differences, which is why Clegg is a member of the Liberal Democrats and not a Conservative.

There is very little in the speech that nods to any overlap with Labour’s ‘good society’ bar that both parties see themselves as progressives. On this point, he makes it clear that Labour’s progressive agenda is based on a fixed blueprint. Having a set view is not, according to Clegg, compatible with an ‘open society’.

Clegg makes it clear that his liberalism is about people. As far as he is concerned the other two competing traditions put their faith in the State or non-State institutions.

The speech also covers some policy. Clegg’s interest in taxing unearned wealth fits with a party that has long had a fan base for land value taxation.

He ends the speech quoting Karl Popper.

The party now has to flesh out these ideas on social mobility, dispersed political power, transparency, a fair distribution of wealth and property and an internationalist outlook.

The challenge after that is to build an electoral base who support an ‘open society.’


Graham Watson and a liberal narrative

By Simon Goldie
December 1st, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Comments Off on Graham Watson and a liberal narrative | Posted in EU Politics, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy

In a recent post, I argued that the Lib Dems need to ensure that they have a clear identity.

In his piece congratulating Sir Graham Watson, Barry Stocker has drawn attention to a speech that Graham has given on liberalism.

The speech frames liberalism within a rich political tradition and shows why it is relevant today.

This is a welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion about where the party is going and where it should be going.


Ever Closer Union?

By Simon Goldie
December 1st, 2011 at 11:00 am | Comments Off on Ever Closer Union? | Posted in Economics, Liberal Democrats, Policy, UK Politics

The Liberal Democrat leadership had intended to fight the next general election on the basis that they had taken tough decisions and those decisions had paid off. The view was that by 2013 the economy would have turned around and voters who were angry with the party would forgive them by 2015.

After the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement it looks as though this strategy is no longer tenable. Danny Alexander made clear on Newsnight that he believes the party will go into the election arguing for more cuts to public expenditure in order to deal with a structural deficit that will not have been entirely dealt with. This is because in government, the party is committed to the plan set out by the Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne.

It is true that Ed Miliband has said that the Labour party needs to think hard about how it can deliver its social justice agenda while dealing with a difficult economic situation. If the leader of the opposition is making the case for continued cuts, it is not surprising that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is too.

However, Alexander’s statement has already caused concern for some in the party.

That is not surprising given that Alexander’s comments have profound implications for the party.

If the good times had arrived by 2015, it might have been easier for the Liberal Democrats to distance themselves from their coalition partners. Now they will enter the election standing on a record of austerity with more austerity to come. The party will say that things would have been worse if the country had had a majority Conservative government. Whether the voters will make that distinction is open to question. Both parties will not only sound awfully similar as they fight for every vote they can get they will, apparently, be fighting on the same policy regarding cuts.

By now, the reader will have realised that this post is not about the ever closer union of Europe.

The fate of the Liberal Democrats will depend on the electorate’s verdict. It will be very difficult for the party to enter into coalition with Labour given the current political atmosphere. For those in the party who wold prefer that outcome, they need either Labour or the Conservatives to win outright and for the Lib Dems to have time to regroup and develop a different political agenda that will differentiate the party from its years in power. Then they need another election that produces a hung parliament.

If the 2015 result leads to five more years of a blue and yellow administration the parties will start to be seen as natural allies.

The upside of all this is that the party continues to govern and implement its policies. The downside is that it could lose its identity. The electoral consequences would then be bleak.

Assuming Lib Dem members would rather see the party carry on governing but not lose their identity in an ever closer union with the Conservatives, they need to ensure that the party offers a set of clear liberal policies. If people understand what the party stands for, that it is implementing some of these policies in government and that its vision for the future is consistent with the past, the party will stand a better chance of electoral success.

Crucially, it needs to be positive in government while being separate. It can’t appear as simply complaining about the Tories. It has to work with them in order to ensure its policies are successful.

It is not going to be easy. The public are rightly worried about the economy and what will happen in the next few years. Being in government is a great responsibility. A wrong decision can impact on many people. The party will need to think long and hard about the policies it puts forward.


The broad church that is the Liberal Democrats

By Simon Goldie
November 28th, 2011 at 10:37 am | 6 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Social Liberal Forum, Uncategorized

In a series of comments under the post, The Strange Rebirth of Classical Liberalism, the question of what the Liberal Democrats are all about came up several times. One comment by Dan asked about the party’s view of limited government and the free market. Instead of responding directly by discussing my own experiences, I thought it might be more illuminating to look at what different strands make up the Liberal Democrats. This is partly because I see myself as a commentator on the party and how liberalism has developed.

It is a cliche to say that the party is a broad church. All political parties are.

In one sense, the Liberal Democrats are a new party. Formed after a merger, the party combines at least two political traditions. The SDP rejected a Labour party that was adopting policies like unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Community. The party placed itself deliberately in the centre ground and shared some headline policies with the Liberal party.

The Liberal party was born out of a merger a century before between the Whigs and the Radicals. This tradition was influenced by the ideas of Adam Smith, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It was shaped by a reforming impulse that manifested itself with repeal of the Corn Laws, pushing for free trade and the establishment of the rule of law. Its non-conformist radicalism made common cause with the co-operative, and mutual, movement and a concern for the poor.

Over time these strands have evolved, but they can still be identified in the party.

Simon Hughes, a member of the Liberal party, clearly comes from that non-conformist radical tradition. He has a deep concern for people in society who through no fault of their own struggle to get by. His instincts are liberal but mixes this with a desire for equality of opportunity.

The ex SDP side of the Liberal Democrats are more like Scandinavian social democrats. They are for a free market and strong public services.

The ‘Orange Book’ liberals, some of which are ex SDP, want to see government helping the most vulnerable in society and believe the freerer the market the more likely that is to happen. Some, like Chris Huhne, believe that regulatory frameworks can help develop markets that would not otherwise come into fruition.

The social liberals also support a free market, albeit one that is more heavily regulated. They tend to be sceptical about using market mechanics to help provide public services while the ‘Orange Bookers’ are more comfortable with this.

Since its inception, the party has supported constitutional reform which in their view would limit, and check, executive power. Traditionally, the classical liberals within the Conservative party have opposed these reforms. Some reject change because they believe tinkering with the constitution is dangerous, some dislike the idea of the executive being constrained while others take the view that constitutional change won’t actually limit government. Whether the changes that the Lib Dems argue for will work is open to debate. The point though is that the commitment to limiting government has always been there.

Clearly, the Liberal Democrats are not a classical liberal party. But there are members who are classical liberals and even social liberals are influenced by the ideas of liberty, tolerance, limited government, sound money and the distribution of power.