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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.


Nick Clegg’s social mobility

By Simon Goldie
September 22nd, 2011 at 8:57 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Nannying, Social Liberal Forum

Nick Clegg has made it clear that social mobility is a key part of his political agenda.

He returned to this theme again in his closing speech at the Liberal Democrat conference.

Clegg has also been weaving a modern liberal narrative for sometime. Early on in the conference week, he talked about the rich liberal heritage of the party.

For now, he is arguing that the pupil premium will unblock the barriers to achievement for poor children.

Social mobility could be his modern liberal narrative in action. Mill, a classical liberal, was keen on education for all. He wanted everyone to have the opportunity to reach their potential. And once they had reached it, they would be active citizens in a liberal society. For me that meant individuals running their lives and living as they wish as long as they did no harm to others.

The social liberal wing of the party must surely welcome this government intervention while the classical liberal side can look forward to the children who benefit becoming adults who no longer need the ‘Nanny State’.

If Clegg can establish this modern liberal narrative: a combination of different strands of liberalism and then implement a policy that represents it, he may be able to rebuild the party’s electoral base in time for the next general election.


The SLF are not Social Democrats

By Andy Mayer
June 21st, 2011 at 8:08 am | 10 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Social Liberal Forum

The Social Liberal Forum, a left leaning lobby within the Liberal Democrats, held their first conference on Saturday. The event and lobby have been characterised as a gathering of social democrats.

“‘We are trying to make sure that mainstream liberal values continue to be shown in mainstream party policy.’ By mainstream he means social democratic.” – Independent on Sunday

“a group that represents social democrats within the Lib Dems” – Guardian

It’s an easy assumption, but anachronistic. The Social Democrats were the pragmatic right of the 1980s Labour Party, generally comfortable with markets and capitalism. Former members such as Andrew Lansley, Andrew Adonis, and Chris Huhne sit in all three major parties today.

That opposing the direction of travel in public service reform of the first two, and coming closing to tearing up the public services position of the Liberal Democrat Commission bearing the name of the latter, is principally what the SLF is known for, is a pretty big hint.

The SLF, like LV, and unlike the SDP, tend to be sceptical of central government and imperial adventures. There is nothing inherently objectionable in their desire to see more local democratic accountability over local public services. We just wish they would see that there is nothing inherently objectionable in using market mechanisms to make institutions accountable to individuals.  

The SLF and LV both sit on a liberal spectrum. We’re all social liberals. We differ in our concept of social justice. 

LV leans towards redistribution as a means to an end, for example tackling ignorance and poverty. SLF leans towards redistribution as an end in itself, in the belief that a flatter society is a better one.

We differ in our economic preferences. We support a more Hayekian model of sound money and a night watchman state, they tend to Keynesianism and activist government.

As SLF member James Graham notes in an excellent piece of analysis, most of the labels are unsatisfactory. I’m not entirely convinced by his conclusion though that social liberal is least dissatsifactory. His ealier pick of socialist liberal is the most accurate description of the SLF’s bias towards redistribution, sympathy for public ownership, scepticism of markets, and bottom-up change.

It’s a better counter-point to the use of economic liberal to describe the right, and largely defines what we oppose in the SLF agenda, their socialism.

The SDP was a victim of it’s own analysis. It highlighted that the early 1980s Labour party was too extreme, too left-wing, and too unwilling to compromise with the real world to be electable. Having made that point, most forcibly in the 1983 election where only geography and first past the post saved the reds from meltdown, Labour’s modernisers set about expelling Militant, ditching Old Labour poses, and creating the election powerhouse that was New Labour.

They became the SDP.

The SDP itself was dead over 20 years ago.  

The SLF is very much alive, exploiting the circumstances of coalition with Conservatives, and a long-standing weakness amongst our ‘Orange-Book’ leadership to take party management seriously. SLF have every reason to believe that should we continue on that trend, that the next Leader of the party could be from the left.

That is the long-game. That is the risk to which those of us who regard liberalism’s anti-socialist tradition as important should be most alert.

That though is the battle with the SLF, not a re-run of the merger debates of the 1980s.