Monday, 13 February 2012

Left, Right or Liberal?

There has been a flurry of activity over the past few days with the launch of two new groupings within the Liberal Democrats - Liberal Left and now Liberal Reform. There have also been a number of blog posts by some prominent Lib Dem bloggers, including Stephen Glenn, The Hon Lady Mark (also here), Neil Monnery and Gareth Epps - although you may be quicker checking out the latest Lib Dem Golden Dozen for links!

As someone on the fringes of being particularly active - at least for now - my contribution to date has been limited to just one tweet: 

 I’ll explain why later. But first, I wanted to take a broader view of the idea of groups and factions within the party. 

To my mind, Liberalism is about openness to ideas and debate. It is not about dogma and ideology much beyond a belief in individual freedom and a desire for a state which facilitates these. This is summarised in the very first paragraph of the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution:
"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives."
(Incidentally, I tried - and failed - to find a comparable statement of the core values of either the Labour or Tory parties - the closest I could find is this from Labour. In comparison, the full constitution of the Lib Dems is freely available - and easy to locate - on the website!)

I believe Liberals are pragmatists in a philosophical sense of the word - willing to assess the practical outcomes of policy and seek intelligent, not uninformed, practice. We are not bound by ideology or custom, not afraid of change and not afraid to challenge the status quo.

Liberals welcome new ideas, are able to see and explore alternative viewpoints, exhibit an openness of mind and a willingness to discuss and debate. Democrats believe in submitting to the will of the majority. Practically every Liberal Democrat I know cherishes the fact that policy is decided at and by conference. It is proposed not imposed. It is debated, assessed, improved and approved. Where it is proposed from above, the leadership has to carry the party first then the country – not the other way round. 

The yardstick for any and all policy is the Preamble - does the policy further the desire for individual freedom and societal fairness? It shouldn't matter whether the measure would be - typically - described as left or right. As Nick Clegg said: "We have our own label: Liberal".

Obviously, though, the classical terminology of left and right is easy shorthand. Indeed, I typically describe myself as "left of centre but economically right" but it's Liberalism - Socially and Economically - which is at the core of my political being.

The left/right division is a side show. The true dividing lines are between statist policies - whether proposed by the left or right - and Liberals on one hand. Between those whose Libertarian views would seek to absolve the state of any duty to redistribution, poverty alleviation or community support and our Social Democratic commitment to all of these on the other.

Liberal Democrats cannot, I believe, subscribe to authoritarian polices whether they be those imposed by Labour in Government or those favoured by many Conservatives, particularly in the realms of Law and Order. Equally, Liberal Democrats do not believe a Laissez-Faire approach to benefits which abandon the poorest in society.

Liberals are not Libertarians. (Social) Democrats are not Socialists.

Groups within the party should be welcomed as far as they exist to constructively propose and discuss policy and contribute to debates on our vision, outlook and direction of travel are to be welcomed. Groups whose aim is something other should not be.

Two existing examples are the Social Liberal Forum, which accepts the rationale for the coalition while acting as a "left of centre" pressure group and Liberal Vision which verges on a Libertarian approach. As far as I can tell, both these groups seek to promote their views of Liberal Democracy positively.

And so to the new groups - Liberal Left and Liberal Reform.

Liberal Left describe themselves as existing to:

  1. Provide a voice within the Liberal Democrats, opposing the party leadership on economic and fiscal policy, and advocating a positive alternative.
  2. Seek every possible opportunity to build good relations across the left, between Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Greens, and the non-party liberal left, recognising that organisations such as Compass already offer a thriving space for such dialogue around democracy and sustainability.
Liberal Reform, in contrast, describe themselves thus:
    "Liberal Reform exists to promote four-cornered freedom in the Liberal Democrats – personal, political, social and economic liberalism. We are an organisation founded and run by members and activists, to both propose policy in keeping with the party’s liberal heritage and to continue arguments for free people and free trade in the future political direction of the Liberal Democrats. We seek, through active debate, policy initiatives, and broad campaigning, to foster an understanding of the party’s heritage and philosophy.

    Although the Liberal Democrats remain at the cutting edge of much of liberal politics in the United Kingdom, maintaining our position as the party of personal freedom is not guaranteed. We believe in extending opportunity to all, in devolving power to the lowest level, in placing people in control of their own lives, and in freedom itself as a force for good.

    We desire a liberal society, which will need a significant level of public spending, to be financed primarily by taxation rather than state borrowing. We argue for a fair tax system which rewards hard work and entrepreneurship, that punishes social harms, and that places the greatest burden on the broadest shoulders. Taxation is a significant but necessary reduction of individual freedom and should be kept as low as possible, consistent with the goals of a liberal society.

    Liberal Reform supports and endorses no political party other than the Liberal Democrats, and favours no relationship with any party over another."
    Whilst I believe in greater pluralism in politics (although more specifically, I believe in creating a more pluralistic system of politics; a nuanced but important difference), I'm not in favour of building pre-election coalitions or electoral pacts.

    More importantly, the failure to accept the pragmatic need for the coalition - and the lack of any viable alternative in 2010 - sets Liberal Left apart as more than a pressure group. It becomes a de-facto internal opposition. And we all know the old maxim about divided parties...

    Liberal Left may wear it's heart on its sleeve but there is a danger of it playing into a divide and rule policy - I expect Ed Milliband's already drafting letters to it's leading lights... 

    Liberal Reform on the other hand - for all the negativity in founder member's Charlotte Henry's blog on the launch of Liberal Left - has a rather more constructive "mission statement". I may not be able to agree with it as written but the gist is certainly recognisable as being within broad Liberal Democrat thinking and adopts a positive approach. It also makes clear that we should stand alone and independent.

    So, for now, I remain outside of any of these groupings. I hope that we don't descend into factionalism and internal division but that positive and invigorating debate is the result. And I hope that Liberal Democracy is the winner as we move towards the second half of this parliamentary term and the election beyond.

    P.S. One final link - Kavya Kaushik has written a good piece on this very topic.

    No comments: