William Wallace writes… The future of the left

We’re entering another phase of the ‘future of the left’ debate, whether or not Jeremy Corbyn emerges as Labour’s next leader. So it’s worth remembering previous cycles of this debate, what they revolved around, and how Liberals and Social Democrats responded to them. There are some lessons to learn, and warnings about what to avoid.

Richard Rose’s book, Must Labour Lose?, after the third consecutive Conservative victory, in 1959, set out the issues that Labour struggled with in the early 1960s: a gradual decline in working-class solidarity, a younger generation with aspirations to join the middle class, trade unions torn between anti-capitalist activists and the natural conservatism of many of their members, and a leadership divided between socialist intellectuals, trade unionists, and Fabian reformers. As a new student in 1959-60 I was amazed by the plots and conspiracies which preoccupied the different factions of the university Labour Club, and found the Liberal Club far more constructive – as did many others. The first Liberal ‘revival’ surged to its peak in 1962-3, with policy proposals bubbling and party membership briefly above 300,000. Labour limped back into power in the 1964 election, more because of the exhaustion of the Conservative government and the scandals that surrounded it than because of any positive appeal. Jo Grimond, who had spoken warmly about ‘the realignment of the left’, made friendly gestures to Harold Wilson about parliamentary support when Labour’s hold on power looked shaky, in early 1965; when Labour’s opinion polls improved that summer, Wilson repudiated any cooperation with the Liberals, and went on to win a decisive majority at a second election in 1966, demonstrating that in the UK’s constitutional system Labour was the only credible alternative government to the Conservatives.

A longer cycle of uncertainty began with Labour’s failure to win a clear majority in two successive elections in 1974, with internal divisions between left and right breaking out again after the 1975 European referendum. When Labour’s control of the Commons became shaky, in 1977, David Steel offered a ‘Lib-Lab Pact’, with weekly meetings between Labour ministers and Liberal MPs – resisted by the many Labour ministers who despised the Liberals, and achieving little beyond allowing Labour to stagger on to the end of the Parliament, lose to the Conservatives, and split. Negotiations between the Social Democrats and Liberals were not easy – there were many, like David Owen, who continued to despise the Liberals as they negotiated with us. The surge of patriotic fervour which followed the Falklands war overtook the wave of support for this alliance; but the electoral system might still have hobbled us even if we had maintained the temporary lead over Labour we held before the Falklands conflict erupted.

In 1995-7 the Liberal Democrats were better prepared, and the Labour leadership after four election defeats more willing to negotiate seriously. The Cook-McLennan talks set out an agenda for constitutional reform, with parallel discussions on how to manage a full coalition. But the popular surge to sweep the Conservatives out carried Labour to an impressive majority (as well as bringing in the largest number of Liberal Democrat MPs for several generations), the Jenkins proposals for voting reform were sidelined, and the goodwill between many Liberal Democrats and Labour gradually evaporated as Tony Blair enjoyed prime ministerial executive power. Liberal Democrats who were fighting authoritarian (and sometimes corrupt) Labour authorities, across the north of England, in London and in central Scotland, breathed a sigh of relief.

In 2015 we start from a weaker position than 20 years ago, facing a Labour ‘movement’ much of which has reverted to tribal hatred of us as crypto-Tories, after the 2010-15 coalition. The uncomfortable coalition which Labour itself has always represented, between the self-interested unions that provide so much of the party funds, the London-based professionals who dominate its parliamentary party, the working classes whom the party claims to represent but which no longer provide a solid base of voters, and Socialist intellectuals of varying tendencies, looks shakier than ever. Underneath the influx of new members and supporters, many local parties remain authoritarian, even corrupt. The Guardian, which looked on the idea of wider cooperation warmly in previous cycles, has deteriorated into a house-journal for internal Labour disputes. The electoral system remains against us. What held Labour together in the run-up to the 2015 election was the hope that they might win a parliamentary majority on 35% of the vote – which explains why Labour leaders have been so lukewarm about any changes in the current Westminster system. And this time we are not alone: the Greens have captured some of those who are looking for an alternative to Conservatism.

Conservatives have held power in Britain for most of the past century because Labour, as the dominant political alternative, has managed to win over a sufficiently broad cross-section of the electorate only in 1945 and 1997. But its access to union funding, and its entrenched position in our winner-takes-all voting system, block other parties from offering a more credible alternative government. It’s not impossible that another group of professional politicians will decide to jump ship, in the hope that we will provide them with a stepping stone back to power; but cynical voters, and suspicious Liberal Democrats, will doubt that the ‘Alliance’ can be successfully repeated. By 2020 it’s likely that many voters will be looking to support whatever candidate is most likely to get rid of the Conservatives, as in 1997. We need to pitch our appeal for a liberal left distinct from whatever package Labour develops, and rebuild local bases which we can capture on another anti-Conservative swing. And we should not kid ourselves that many within the current Labour Party will welcome our efforts.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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70 Comments

  • Stephen Howse 25th Aug '15 - 9:04am

    “We need to pitch our appeal for a liberal left distinct from whatever package Labour develops, and rebuild local bases which we can capture on another anti-Conservative swing.”

    All well and good, but… what are those of us who live in Labour-facing Northern areas where the Tories are pretty much extinct supposed to do?

  • In my Labour-facing ward we gained our third council seat from Labour (just) in May (thanks for your help William) as a consolation prize while losing our MP. Our local party would be regarded by most outsiders as fairly “leftish” and we fight Labour relentlessly. The remaining Conservative vote is very resistant to squeezing. The local Labour Party is solidly Old Labour and will probably carry on regardless of outside influences (including their regional party) until everybody dies. I have no doubt that there are similar outcrops of such folk across the North who would never see electoral reform as anything to do with them. If I wanted to save the Labour Party I would start the Constitutional Convention on PR now with a view to keeping it as a serious contender for government beyond the debacle of 2020! We may be on the ropes but if we had Labour’s current problems we would be extinct.

  • The lesson from history is not to try and form an alliance with Labour of any sort because they will betray it. Same as making an alliance with Tories, but worse, because we have more sympathy with left of centre than right, so for some reason we have seemed to want to snuggle up to a Labour party that is only interested in assimilating us in order that they remain one of the two obvious parties of government.

  • The first debate on Victoria Derbyshire this morning is very interesting and shows what is attracting young people to politics – at the moment Jeremy Corbyn.

    They seem to see things ‘in the now’. Jeremy Corbyn may or may not be world leadership material but he is energising the bruised party now. Isn’t that how we all first became interested in politics?

    I had to wait until I was 21 before I could vote and that privilege has never left me. Engage 16+ voters.

  • Jayne Mansfield 25th Aug '15 - 9:47am

    @ Prue Bray,
    Your most recent history of betrayal came from the tory party.

    You obviously have more experience of dealing with Labour , but I see no evidence of a willingness to snuggle up to Labour on here.

    Quite frankly, I am in despair that that different parties who define themselves as left of centre, cannot bury their differences to get rid of a tory party that is doing irreparable damage to the fabric of our society. It is just so self-indulgent.

  • Jayne Mansfield 25th Aug '15 - 9:54am

    @ Joan Hand,
    For me it was the ( disreputable) Young Liberals and the anti- apartheid movement.

    It seems that young people are already becoming engaged but they are described as ‘seeing things in the now’. What is meant by that ? It sounds pejorative.

  • It was not meant in a disapproving/contemptuous/pejorative way.
    It was meant as a very positive thing to be in touch with the way things currently are.

  • Christopher Haigh 25th Aug '15 - 10:53am

    Let’s hope the new leadership of the labour party embraces the concept of electoral reform and proportional representation.

  • Warrington Dave 25th Aug '15 - 12:58pm

    The question I still cannot work out is are the Liberal Democrats left wing economically? I know what your social positions are.

    Would you support rail renationalisation and and end to outsourcing to G4S / Serco / A4e? What about foreign ownership of essential monopolies? Would you favour corporatism or a genuine free market?

    Until these questions are answered, I do not know if the party has more in common with Libertarians, the Liberal Tories or the Labour left.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 1:30pm

    Geoff Reid

    The local Labour Party is solidly Old Labour and will probably carry on regardless of outside influences (including their regional party) until everybody dies. I have no doubt that there are similar outcrops of such folk across the North who would never see electoral reform as anything to do with them.

    Yes, they are in effect in a permanent coalition with the Conservative Party, which we used to call the “Old Pals Act”. It means they get rock hard safe seats up where they are in a deal which means in other parts of the country the Conservative get rock hard safe seats. So this leaves both parties free to spend their time in the sort of factionalist in-fighting that William Wallace talks about, because they don’t have to put energy into winning seats. The seats come to them naturally. Oh, sure, they have to fight over the marginals, but there’s huge parts of the country they can write off from serious campaign activity engaging with the people, either because they always win there or they never win there.

    So, your Old Labour people were and are very happy to leave working class people in the south without representation. Perhaps they have a stereotypical view of the south as all inhabited by wealthy people living in big houses with jobs as top civil servants or City financiers. Er, no. While there may be a bigger proportion of such people in the south, it’s not everyone. Who, for example, does all the dirty work? The reality is that class division is bigger in the south than in the north, but it goes unrecognised because the southern working class have no voice.

    The consequence of this is that the southern working class felt alienated from politics altogether. Labour and the media elite’s failure to understand this is shown by the common assumption that the way to win votes in the south is to become more right-wing because southerners are more “aspirational” and so like Thatcherite economics. No. Many southerners drift to the Tories more because they see little difference between them and Labour than because they actively identify with Tory philosophy.

    Understanding this used to be why the Liberals were able to build up support in the south. But the Cleggies threw all this way, dismissing the hard-won votes in the south as just “protest votes” which were “borrowed from Labour”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 1:31pm

    Me

    But the Cleggies threw all this way

    Should be “threw all this away”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 1:44pm

    Warrington Dave

    Until these questions are answered, I do not know if the party has more in common with Libertarians, the Liberal Tories or the Labour left

    It is not a Leninist party. The Liberal Democrats do not work on the basis that there is The Party Line as laid down by The Glorious Leader, so whatever it is this week is what we stand for. Or at least we shouldn’t if we are true to liberalism. My anger with the Cleggies is as much about the way they tried to enforce this view of politics on the party as it is about their attempts to push it to the economic right.

    The reality is that until they came along there was very little in the Liberal Democrats in the way of people who espoused the sort of extremist free market economics which is perhaps what you mean by “libertarianism”. The position was mostly a pragmatic one. It recognised the dangers to freedom of strong state control and aspects of the free market which enhanced freedom, but also recognised the opposing arguments that there were many services best provided through democratic control, and that a pure free market had the danger of driving up inequality and hence causing enslavement by poverty.

    Gladstone advocated nationalisation of the railways and Joseph Chamberlain rose to fame as a Liberal through forcing local state control of services in Birmingham. The idea proposed by some 21st people who claim to identify with then that 19th century liberals opposed this sort of thing is wrong.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 1:56pm

    Colin

    Yes, you (plural you) were the left-opposition here in Guildford. I don’t understand why the Party threw that all away.

    Yes, and not just Guildford but most of southern England.

    So, leftists in this town voted LibDem because under Charles Kennedy the LibDems were a party of the left.

    Not just Charles Kennedy, but previous leaders. When I voted in the leadership election where Charles Kennedy was voted in, I put him low down in my preferences because, coming from an SDP background, he was a bit too right-wing for me.

    It’s a little unfair to say that the Liberal Democrats threw that all away, as the situation after the May 2010 general election really didn’t leave much of an alternative. The idea that the Liberal Democrats “put the Tories in” and could somehow have caused a completely different sort of government to have come into existence is wrong. Of course Labour kept sort of pushing that idea, but without going into details – because the details would mean accepting that if there was an alternative they would be leading it and so needed to come up with the policies it would have. They had no ideas, so jeering “nah nah nah nah nah, you put the Tories in” at the Liberal Democrats, they though, would be a better election-winning strategy. Except it wasn’t, all it did was destroy the Liberal Democrats and put Labour back into second place in seats they would never win from the Tories – so benefitting the Tories.

    I appreciate that the “Rose Garden” love-in image pushed by the Cleggies did not help. They did not have to put it that way, they could have made much more clear that it was a “miserable little compromise” forced on us by the situation. When the Liberal Democrats voted as a party to agree to the Coalition they did NOT vote to agree with the way the Cleggies portrayed it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 1:57pm

    Me

    because, coming from an SDP background, he was a bit too right-wing for me.

    Again, I need a quick clarification. It was Kennedy, not me, who came from an SDP background.

  • paul barker 25th Aug '15 - 2:02pm

    The 1st thing to get out of the way is the idea that there is a Left which could be united, there isnt & never has been. There have been 2 distinct Left traditions since The French Revolution, one libertarian & focused on individuals & one authoritarian & focused on class. Those traditions can work together but not in one Party.
    Its much too soon tomake predictions but any defections from Labour should be welcomed with open arms, whatever we may think we know about the individuals involved. Right now our biggest problem is invisibility & even a couple of defecting MPs could change that.
    Corbyn may get a honeymoon but sooner or later the endless infighting will drag Labour down, giving us the chance to get back voters if we can get them to notice us.
    A new breakaway Party would be a potential ally, I wouldnt rule out a New Alliance, perhaps including The Greens ? Its not impossible that Labour itself might undergo a miraculous conversion to Electoral Reform if they start regularly polling below 25%. The whole situation is full of opportunities for Liberalism.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Aug '15 - 2:35pm

    I’d be all in favour of an alliance with Tristram Hunt’s and Chuka’s “Labour for the Common Good”, but it wouldn’t be left wing.

    Adding the Greens to the mix of a centrist Labour break away wouldn’t work.

    Regards

  • Isn’t it just time to dig in and hold tight for the LibDems? None of the alternatives have a fair wind for the foreseeable future, Labour’s slow motion carcrash is perhaps most obvious at the moment, but they have only a slender majority and any LD recovery in their areas would remove that, and they have yet to indulge themselves over the EU Referendum and the next leadership. The Greens and UKIP are having to face the shock of our broken electoral system, and we seem to have no new parties coming along as so many parts of Europe have.
    Am glad to see some realistic views of the 80s Alliance above, have noted here before that the SDP was not quite the radical force that some would claim, and my own view is that formerTory refugees tend to settle better into the party than Labour influxes (we had their right wing in the 80s and disaffected left post-Iraq).
    So, the system is broken but it flatters and deceives in equal measure. Time to hold on tight!

  • David Allen 25th Aug '15 - 3:07pm

    Paul Barker,

    “The 1st thing to get out of the way is the idea that there is a Left which could be united, there isnt & never has been. There have been 2 distinct Left traditions since The French Revolution, one libertarian & focused on individuals & one authoritarian & focused on class. Those traditions can work together but not in one Party.”

    Well Paul, these traditions have fought each other to a standstill for the best part of a century, with the exception of David Steel’s temporary truce in 1978-79. They have failed to work together. Meanwhile the Tories have held sway, and inequality has increased remorselessly. Precisely the opposite of what you say is true. These traditions cannot work together unless they form one Party.

  • @Jamie Stewart

    “surely the Lib Dems, judging by this blog, are full of economic (neo)liberals, and will end up trying to court disillusioned one nation Tories. Or have I misjudged the state of the party?”

    I hope so! We tried that at the last election and look what happened!

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 3:40pm

    Jamie Stewart

    How can you stay a Lib Dem if you’re to the left of Kennedy? I don’t mean, how could you until now, I mean now that it is clear that Labour are turning left, surely the Lib Dems, judging by this blog, are full of economic (neo)liberals, and will end up trying to court disillusioned one nation Tories. Or have I misjudged the state of the party?

    Well, there is an argument about whether Liberal Democrat Voice is truly representative of the Liberal Democrats as a whole or not. See the recent discussion on comments made by Tony Greaves.

  • Christopher Haigh 25th Aug '15 - 5:08pm

    @Jaimie – as a new member I too am shocked by the thatcherite views of many in the liberal Democrat party.

  • Christopher Haigh:

    Where have you found the “many in the liberal Democrat party” with “thatcherite views”?

    Is it your local party? I don’t think you contribute on the members’ forum, so probably not there. On the public site anyone can join in and some neo-Thatcherites do, but that does not mean they have anything to do with the Liberal Democrat Party.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Aug '15 - 5:35pm

    The key factor about Charles Kennedy as leader was his principled and well judged opposition to the Iraq policies of Tony Blair and George W Bush. Although we gained MPs at that time the main factor is the effect on the world, still continuing.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Aug '15 - 5:53pm

    Christopher Haigh 25th Aug ’15 – 5:08pm i agree with Martin 25th Aug ’15 – 5:32pm above, but would add that Mrs T was insufficiently demonised. As a cabinet Minister for education in Ted Heath’s government she abolished free milk for some school children. As leader of the opposition she was less popular than her own party and less popular than the Prime Minister. When she forced through the sale of council houses at large discounts she prevented local councils from replacing them. When a British citizen was kidnapped in the war-torn Lebanon she went beyond saying that it would be difficult to help him, she said that she did not want to as a matter of policy. We disagreed at conference and FCO diplomats found a way. She was a personal block on progress in the EU, causing major delay and obstruction. She fell because one of us won a parliamentary by-election in nEastbourne. Her flagship policy went down when one of us won another at Ribble Valley.

  • Christopher Haigh

    ok I’m going to stick my neck out here but I believe Lib Dems are in favour of a small state (like Thatcher) but with well-funded public services ( unlike Thatcher?). That’s what makes Lib Dems different from Tories and Labour. I’ve been hanging out on this site for a few years now and even I (often critical of the Lib Dems) would not say that there are many folks on here with “Thatcherite views” – quite the opposite. There are one or two but you soon spot who they are. Matthew Huntbach will be along shortly to give you chapter and verse on how he and other Lib Dems fought against Thatcherism.

    But perhaps you meant in the ‘real world’ ?

  • Richard Underhill 25th Aug '15 - 6:03pm

    Paul Walter 25th Aug ’15 – 5:45pm
    Yes. Charles Kennedy was key in smooting the path to a united party after the name debate.
    He said he woulkd die with his Liberal Democrat membership card in his pocket.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 6:07pm

    Richard Underhill

    The key factor about Charles Kennedy as leader was his principled and well judged opposition to the Iraq policies of Tony Blair and George W Bush.

    Again, we have a re-writing of history.

    Charles Kennedy did not take the lead on the party’s policy on Iraq. It was the party’s democratic policy making mechanism which did, and Kennedy had to be pushed into taking a strong lead on it in public.

    The key factor about Charles Kennedy was his weakness. We now know the personal factors which led to this. But it was great. It was great because it enabled the Liberal Democrats to escape from being seen as a one-man band. Before then it had been portrayed as the Paddy Ashdown Party, as the Liberals before were portrayed as the David Steel Party and the Jeremy Thorpe Party, and the SDP as the David Owen Party.

    Because of his weakness, it wasn’t Charles Kennedy doing all the talking. Other leading members got more prominence, and that helped get the message across that we were a mature political party with much talent and a variety of views. Because Charles Kennedy wasn’t trying to dominate, there was more chance for the democratic mechanisms of the party to work.

    One may compare this with the history of Britain in the 18th century as opposed to France. Britain had a succession of kings who weren’t interested or able to get involved in government for various reasons, which allowed democracy to develop, and moved us towards a constitutional monarchy. The opposite happened in France.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 6:16pm

    Jamie Stewart

    Anyway, that response from LDV is only serving to push me away, and having attended a Corbyn rally and been very impressed by his desire for democracy at many levels

    Corbyn opposes proportional representation. So he wants to deprive the less prosperous in the south of a voice in order to get safe seats in the north. He supports the way the current electoral system distorts representation, giving the party which gets the most votes a much greater share of seats than its share of votes, and giving parties with smaller shares of votes an even smaller share of seats (unless they are geographically concentrated). So Corbyn supports propping up the Tories by giving them extra seats which gives them complete control of the country on well under half the votes. He supports a system which makes it extremely difficult for third parties to break through, in order that the Old Pals retain their duopoly.

    “Desire for democracy”? Pfaah. In supporting distortional representation, Corbyn is propper-up-in-chief of the Tories.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 6:26pm

    Jamie Stewart

    I wrote a piece on my own views regarding the liberal party for LDV (see the link on my name)

    You write that the British people do not want to see many parties. That is fundamentally against what I am for as a liberal. At the core of my politics is the idea of pluralism, the idea that there should be a wide choice.

    To me, what always wrecks the left is when one party emerges as the party which thinks it is the monopoly left party – and that is at the heart of Leninist belief, and also at the heart of Labour Party belief, and I could never ever support that. The Labour Party believes everyone should be in a trade union and all trade unions should be affiliated to the Labour Party, that is that there should be in practice a one-party state, with democracy done within that party rather than in the representative assembly which is reduced to a rubber stamp. Blair believed in this Leninist model of politics just as much as an other Labour person. I can’t stand it, I despise it.

    As I have already said, this mentality leads to arrogance and complacency as the monopoly left party assumes votes will always come its way so it does not have to work to win them, and because it is the divinely-ordained monopoly party, it can never go wrong. It ALWAYS goes wrong.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 6:39pm

    Jamie Stewart

    I appreciate getting one article rejected is fair enough, but that was actually my third out of four (the other two were on university tuition fees), all of which seemed to be on the basis that they might be inflammatory (that was the implication at least), and all the articles were written from the point of view of myself being a Liberal Democrat.

    Well, there has been plenty of discussion on tuition fees here over the years, little of it productive.

    The reality is that thanks to the distortional electoral system which Corbyn supports but we oppose, the Liberal Democrats had very little power in the Coalition. The distortion meant a Labour-LibDem coalition was ruled out as it would not have had a majority. It gave the Tories five times as many MPs as the LibDems even though they had only only one and a half times as many votes. The policies which came out of the coalition reflected this distortion which Corbyn supports and we oppose.

    It was simply not possible for the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs to get 307 Conservative MPs to break their pledge on keeping tax low, which would have had to be done to prevent what was introduced. Well, either that or huge cuts elsewhere and in universities themselves so that what was left could be subsidised without raising taxes.

    The compromise instead was to fight for generosity in the availability and repayment of loans. This saved the English university system. Compare with further education which remained state subsidised and had huge cuts under the Coalition.

    I’m not saying what came out was ideal, I’d have preferred full state subsidy. But I can see the case that in terms of long term effect it was the least worst of the compromises that the Tories would agree to. Liberal Democrats who were ministers were in a particularly difficult situation as the job of government is to propose a budget meaning both plans for what is spent and how it is paid for. It was not possible for them to vote against tuition fee rises without also voting for how to re-adjust the budget to take that into account.

  • Jamie Stewart 25th Aug '15 - 6:51pm

    Matthew,

    I’m in favour of electoral reform, but I don’t think it is necessary for a fair democracy. In fact, the lib Dems would have had a huge amount of power in the coalition if they’d been prepared to step away from it.

    I don’t think the university system was saved, the cost has merely been foisted on graduates with the worst opportunities ever. I work in higher education and think that only high level reform will prevent large scale meargers and job losses unless funding is shifted from the students to the tax payer. This is without even thinking about the social implications of the drops in part time students already.

  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Aug '15 - 7:19pm

    This is a quite incredible assertion – ‘By 2020 it’s likely that many voters will be looking to support whatever candidate is most likely to get rid of the Conservatives.’

    OK, the next election is some way off, but this is blasé at best and treating reality with contempt at worst.

  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Aug '15 - 7:22pm

    Matthew Huntbach – ‘It was not possible for them to vote against tuition fee rises without also voting for how to re-adjust the budget to take that into account.’

    Well, that’s all well and good. But there was money in the budget for triple locked pensions, pensioner goodie bags, conflict in North Africa, universal school meals, a bottomless pit NHS – the list goes on. The adjustments you talk about were a political choice and the public at large is free to make what value judgments on that choice it wishes.

    I’ll sit back and let you shout at me now.

  • william wallace 25th Aug '15 - 7:43pm

    Never underestimate the depth of Labour resistance to the reform of the Westminster Parliament, the voting system, the relationship between central and local government, or the executive and Parliament. I spent 3 years, from 2012-15, leading for the coalition government on constitutional issues in the Lords, and have bitter memories of Labour peers resisting proposals for change. The current system keeps them in contention whenever the electorate despair of Conservative government (not often enough, I know), and gives them the chance in their turn of pushing policies through the Commons with a whipped majority of MPs representing little more than a third of those who voted. That’s why so many of them resisted even the alternative vote. We managed to get a form of PR for Scotland as Wales as part of the Cook-McLennan agreement; but Jack Straw would not go further for the London mayoral election than allowing the weak ‘second vote’ version of AV, and Labour continues to resist PR for local elections in England. That’s also why they were so lukewarm about Lords reform; they don’t want a stronger second chamber limiting the executive dominance of a future Labour government, and are prepared to accept the executive dominance of the Conservatives in power in the hope that they will be able to use it when it’s their ‘turn’.

  • Warrington Dave 25th Aug '15 - 7:46pm

    Thanks for the comments but trying to square:

    “Gladstone advocated nationalisation of the railways and Joseph Chamberlain rose to fame as a Liberal through forcing local state control of services in Birmingham. The idea proposed by some 21st people who claim to identify with then that 19th century liberals opposed this sort of thing is wrong.”

    with:

    “I thinks that’s an easy one. In terms of a choice between the liberal Tories and the Labour left, the Liberal Democrats clearly have more in common with liberal Tories. That’s why Paul Barker is absolutely correct that the potential election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader offers us enormous opportunities.”

    OK I am now really confused! Corbynism is pro rail renationalisation. According to the first comment it is a “liberal position” and the second that Corbynism attracts opportunites because the party has more in comparison with the Tories on economics.

    Seriously I am not here to cause trouble, but I think there is some real genuine confusion in the view of the party.

    I will keep with railways here, Is rail renationalisation a Liberal Democrat position, and if not, do you support Open Access competition, monopoly private franchises, or foriegn states running our network?

  • Matthew Huntbach “The compromise instead was to fight for…..”

    Matthew believe from our previous discussions on this subject that this is what you think must have happened, you don’t actually know that the discussion went that way – am I correct? Unless you were a fly in the wall or have been told by one of the parties involved, in which case perhaps you can clarify?

    It could equally have been that in the Coalition negotiations the Lib Dem team said ” now about taxpayer-funded tuition fees… Oh yeah Nick never believed in that but couldn’t get the activists on board so we’ll just put that down to the ‘compromises of Coalition'”

  • Jamie, I think you may be right when you suggest that some of the new LibDem members (and possibly some longer term ones too) may decide that a Corbyn-led Labour Party might be a more effective vehicle to achieve some of the things they would like to see happen in our politics than the Liberal Democrats with only 8 MPs. I support quite a few of the policies that Corbyn is espousing, although it should be noted that most of those things are not currently Labour Party policy. I won’t be joining Labour though both because I am a tribalist, but also because there is no possibility that Corbyn will ever be able to deliver the re-nationalisation of public utilities, or the scrapping of Trident, or any of the other things I would like to see happen. I agree that there is not much prospect of the Liberal Democrats being able to deliver such policies either but a Corbyn leadership is going to plunge the Labour Party into an inward-looking turmoil that may take years to resolve while in the meantime rendering the party impotent as a serious opposition to the Tories.

  • Paul W “Beveridge was a Liberal. I am a Liberal. This party is a Liberal party. Charles Kennedy was a Liberal.”

    I thought you were all Liberal Democrats?? Heck, now you got me confused!

  • Jamie Stewart 25th Aug '15 - 8:12pm

    Paul,

    Very clear, don’t worry! I’m afraid I just don’t agree that socialism and liberalism are mutually exclusive.

    tonyhill,

    Pretty much my thoughts exactly. Although I’m new this time round, i was a member in 2002-2005, and I do feel quite tribal, and although I think the public will jump at just one more option to the neoliberal orthodoxy, I agree with Matthew that the ideal is many options. So I want to stay a Lib Dem for now, but I’m still hoping that Tim will direct the party to the left.

  • John Tilley 25th Aug '15 - 8:26pm

    The penultimate sentence of William Wallace’s article begins —
    “We need to pitch our appeal for a liberal left ..”

    Unfortunately the “tribalists” are not only in The Labour Party. The reaction of some of our party members here in LDV to the possibilityof a Corbyn win seems to imply frothing at the mouth. A slightly calmer and more intelligent approach to the tens of thousands ( if not hundreds of thousands) of young people who have signed up to The Labour Party in recent weeks would be a good start.

    There will be many thousands of young idealists who want the world to move on from austerity and nuclear weapons. What is illiberal in that?

    We should be aiming to align with such people to defeat The Tories in 2020. That might (horror of horror) mean talking about The Labour Party as if they are not pantomme villains from the 1950s. Why not drop all the silly rhetoric about unions and extreme left etc etc?

    Why not recognise that there is a huge overlap between Liberal Democrats and many people in The Labour Party who are like us against austerity, against. punishing the poor, aware of climate change and what must be done?

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 10:31pm

    Little Jackie Paper

    Well, that’s all well and good. But there was money in the budget for triple locked pensions, pensioner goodie bags, conflict in North Africa, universal school meals, a bottomless pit NHS – the list goes on

    Yes, and how would it have gone down if the Liberal Democrats had insisted on pension cuts in order to pay for subsidising universities? As for universal school meals and a bit of action in North Africa, what are the costs of these compared to the costs of supporting universities? Sorry, but it still seems to me that those arguing that the Liberal Democrats could easily have got what they wanted on tuition fees are making an argument based on two contradictory points:

    1) The cost of full subsidy of universities is so small that it could easily have been done by shuffling around a bit of other spending and it would hardly be noticed.

    2) The cost of full subsidy of universities is so large that paying for it involves a lifetime of misery for graduates who come under the scheme.

    Yet 1) and 2) are about the SAME amount of money.

    On “bottomless pit for the NHS”, sorry but I find that offensive, knowing from people I know who work in the NHS how badly it is being damaged by what are in effect cuts. The reality is that there are huge factors pushing up what needs to be spent on the NHS just to keep things as they are. Lifespan has increased hugely in recent years, and that has huge implications on NHS spending as older people do need more basic care. So, no, it is not as if money is being thrown at the NHS wastefully, as your “bottomless pit” words suggest. If the money that was spent on the NHS was cut in order to pay for full subsidy of universities, that wold have HUGE implications, and would involve either costs for basic NHS services or people being told “Yes, we could save your life, but we have no money to do so, so you will have to die if you can’t afford private health care”. And how would that go down?

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 10:44pm

    Phyllis

    Matthew believe from our previous discussions on this subject that this is what you think must have happened, you don’t actually know that the discussion went that way – am I correct?

    Yes. I was not a fly in the wall, so I do not know the real discussions that took place. What I am saying is that the cost of full subsidy of universities is not trivial, and I have not seen any realistic suggestions from those jeering at the Liberal Democrats on this issue on how it could have been paid for in a way that the Conservatives would have agreed to, and would not have had very nasty consequences elsewhere. It seems to me that anyone who jeers at the Liberal Democrats and claims there was an easy-peasy alternative to backing down on tuition fees should suggest that easy-peasy alternative, and so far I have not heard anything realistic.

    What is clear is that elements of government spending that did not fall into categories that the Conservatives said they would protect HAVE had massive cuts made to them. That includes local government and further education. Knowing how bad the situation was in local government BEFORE these cuts, I really do not know how they could possibly cope with it I am SO glad I am not a councillor now. If universities had remained under direct government subsidy, they too would have fallen into this category and so suffered similar cuts.

    It may be selfish, but as someone who works in a university, I have to say “Thank you Liberal Democrats, thank you, thank you, for saving my job at the cost of destroying yourselves”. I am at a conference at another English university now, and looking round and seeing how pleasant life is here and how much people here too have been saved by the horrendous cuts that have fallen on local government, I really do mean what I say here.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 10:55pm

    Jamie Stewart

    I don’t think the university system was saved, the cost has merely been foisted on graduates with the worst opportunities ever. I work in higher education and think that only high level reform will prevent large scale mergers and job losses unless funding is shifted from the students to the tax payer.

    Well, if you think that’s the case with the standard £9,000 a year in tuition fees, how do you think it would have been if there had instead been the 40% cuts that there have been in further education and local government?

    Sure, I agree with you on funding being shifted to the taxpayer, that is how I would wish it to be. I would support whatever tax rises would have been necessary to have paid for it. I feel it would have been particularly appropriate to pay for universities out of whatever rate of inheritance tax would raise enough money to do it. But the Tories would not, that was the issue. Indeed, the Tories were stopped by the Liberal Democrats from making big cuts to inheritance tax, which they are now doing, showing once again that at the core they are the non-workers party, the party that believes money made by sitting on your bum is more precious and more noble than money made by work, so should be taxed less or not at all.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 11:09pm

    Warrington Dave

    OK I am now really confused! Corbynism is pro rail renationalisation. According to the first comment it is a “liberal position” and the second that Corbynism attracts opportunites because the party has more in comparison with the Tories on economics

    Well, I could say just the same about the Labour Party, that I am confused because while some in the Labour Party are massively in support of what Corbyn is saying, others (including the other leadership contenders and most of its MPs) are very much opposed to it and say it is foolish and dangerous.

    There are a variety of viewpoints in both parties. Do not assume that just because one person in a party says something that everyone else in the same party has exactly the same view. Are you saying this because the Leninist view of political party is so fixed in your head that you just cannot conceive of a political party in any form except one that has a fixed Party Line on everything, with every party member bound to support without question whatever is this week’s Party Line?

    The point I was making is that the argument that “liberalism” should mean support for extreme free market policies and opposition to any form of state control of any service is wrong. When people who push that line try to back it up by claiming it was historically what liberalism is about, they can be shown to be wrong by actual history.

    Until very recently, there was no significant support for that sort of extreme free market philosophy in the Liberal Democrats. My experience of actual party members is that it is still very much a small minority position. If you see it expressed often in this discussion group, do bear in mind that this discussion group does not always accurately reflect more general party opinion.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '15 - 11:18pm

    Jamie Stewart

    I’m in favour of electoral reform, but I don’t think it is necessary for a fair democracy.

    So you believe it is fair that all those who did not vote Conservative in south-east England should go without representation? Well, apart from Hove and Brighton Pavilion, but are the two MPs from those seats really enough to represent all those non-Tory southerners? And what if, as in some previous general elections, those constituencies too had gone Tory? You say that the whole of Sussex and Surrey and Kent and Hampshire being represented by nothing but Tory MPs, as was the case at times in the 1970s and 1980s, is “fair” . I do not. I believe that the millions of non-Tory voters in those counties should have MPs to speak for them.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Aug '15 - 11:59pm

    Warrington Dave – It needs to be pointed out that there are multiple different models for the railways being wholly or partially taken into public hands (and the current system is in fact only part-privatisation – otherwise Network Rail and the whole franchise edifice would not exist).

    The party’s official policy at the moment seems to be to seek to correct flaws in the railway system without pushing for radical change (which also used to be Labour’s strategy until the confused U-turns of Miliband’s period in power). But I think there are many in the party who do not regard increased public intervention in the railways as a capital crime. That is the key difference to the Tories – they are seeking to slam the door shut on more public involvement; this party would not I think ever completely rule it out.

    But whether there would ever be a majority of this party who would want to return all passenger and freight railways to one unitary, vertically-integrated, centrally-managed body under direct government control is entirely another thing.

    Many grassroots LibDems and LibDem voters could probably live with a regionally-managed semi-public railway (ie something like multiple regional TfLs, and certainly not a resurrected BRB).

  • SIMON BANKS 26th Aug '15 - 9:03am

    It would be illogical to talk about electoral reform and reject any kind of arrangement to co-operate with another party. It helps to be specific about what we mean and terms like “alliance” can mean many things. I’m all for co-operating with Labour and any other party that will join in (Greens, Plaid Cymru), plus non-party pressure groups, on particular issues such as electoral reform, clean energy or child poverty, or even a suite of such key issues where agreement is possible. Given how much harm ten years of unalloyed Toryism would do, I’m interested in limited electoral pacts on the left, but not imposed on local parties and not involving different parties trying to pretend they’re the same across the board, as with the Liberal – SDP alliance.

    There are good numbers of people in Labour who are favourable towards electoral reform (especially after the last result) and don’t see us as hate figures. But we fool ourselves if we underestimate Labour’s tendency to see things in black and white, “us versus all the rest who are enemies” terms, a legacy of industrial conflict. Moreover, those who hate us mostly don’t really hate us for being crypto-Tories. They hated us before 2010 for pretending (as they saw it) to be for the people and social justice, for being rivals on the left. For these people the coalition was deeply reassuring and Tim Farron will be disturbing.

  • @ paul barker
    “There have been 2 distinct Left traditions since The French Revolution, one libertarian & focused on individuals & one authoritarian & focused on class.”

    The French Revolution had three ideas – liberty, equality and fraternity. The liberal tradition still includes all three ideas and we in the Liberal Democrats state it as “we will seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community …” I reject the idea as did Conrad Russell that liberalism and libertarianism are the same. I can recognise that the French Revolution became more concerned with class warfare rather than liberty, while the American Revolution led to a society that is more concerned with liberty (including the freedom to exploit other humans and its support for slavery for over 50 years) than equality.

    @ Phyllis
    “ok I’m going to stick my neck out here but I believe Lib Dems are in favour of a small state (like Thatcher) but with well-funded public services ( unlike Thatcher?).”

    Historicity liberalism does not take a position on the size of the state, and this should be the same today. Liberals believe that the public via governmental structures should protect the liberties of all the citizens and today this protection should include protection against monopolies and multi-nationals as well as the failures of “classical economics”.

    @ Paul Walter
    “Charles Kennedy was a Liberal.”

    @ Jamie Stewart
    “I’m afraid I just don’t agree that socialism and liberalism are mutually exclusive.”

    I am sure that Charles Kennedy did describe himself as a liberal. I wonder if Shirley Williams describes herself as a liberal? I am sure that Shirley Williams once described herself as a socialist. And I am sure that Charles Kennedy once described himself as a social democrat. Nowadays Labour MP’s often describe themselves as democratic socialists. As a liberal I want each individual to have as much freedom to do as they please while not restricting the freedom of others. As a liberal I understand that economics and wealth have a huge effect on individual freedom and this is why I support equality. Socialism seems to be concerned with equality and meeting peoples needs rather than being concerned with their freedoms and liberty. Therefore it seems to me that socialism and liberalism share a support for equality, but socialism lacks the vital importance of the individual and their freedom.

  • John Tilley 27th Aug '15 - 7:48am

    Michael BG 27th Aug ’15 – 1:12am

    An excellent comment, Michael BG. You are quite correct to highlight that Liberal Democrats base their beliefs on —

    “the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community …”

    As you say Conrad Russell amongst others have repeatedly made clear that liberalism and libertarianism are not at all the same.

    Knowledge of the French Revolution and the American Revolution is a rapidly diminishing asset in UK politics. Possibly this is a direct result of the national curriculum and the downgrading of history as a subject that all children should learn.
    In many cases history seems to have been transformed into a Walt Disney ersatz substitute which bangs on endlessly about the more trivialities of Kings, Queens and Nazis (not necessarily in that order).

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Aug '15 - 5:12pm

    SIMON BANKS

    There are good numbers of people in Labour who are favourable towards electoral reform (especially after the last result) and don’t see us as hate figures. But we fool ourselves if we underestimate Labour’s tendency to see things in black and white, “us versus all the rest who are enemies” terms, a legacy of industrial conflict.

    It’s part of their fundamentally illiberal mentality. They really do not understand and cannot get their heads round the idea of political pluralism and truly representative government. To them, politics is still all about The Party seizing power however it can, and real discussion and policy making being made inside The Party with the democratic assembly just there to rubber stamp it. This applies just as much (if not more so) to the Blairites as to the Labour left.

    This was, of course, all part of what went wrong with the Coalition. It was obvious that Labour would use it to paint us as bad as they could, even though the net effect was to reinforce the Tories. It was perhaps less obvious that the leadership of the Liberal Democrats would do all it could to assist Labour in doing this.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Aug '15 - 5:16pm

    SIMON BANKS

    Given how much harm ten years of unalloyed Toryism would do, I’m interested in limited electoral pacts on the left, but not imposed on local parties and not involving different parties trying to pretend they’re the same across the board, as with the Liberal – SDP alliance.

    But we wouldn’t have needed such electoral pacts if we had the Alternative Vote system, and we could have had that if Labour had joined us and supported it in the referendum. AV is not PR, but it does end the “got to vote for X to avoid splitting the vote and letting Y in” issue.

  • “The future of the Left … ” does not involve us.

    Move along, nothing to see.

  • @John Tilley “Why not recognise that there is a huge overlap between Liberal Democrats and many people in The Labour Party who are like us against austerity, against. punishing the poor, aware of climate change and what must be done?”

    You seem to have a touch of the (Labour) Rose-Tinted specs there, John.

    The Labour Party seek, and have always sought, to crush us. We should give them no quarter.

  • Peter Watson 28th Aug '15 - 1:15am

    @TCO “The Labour Party seek, and have always sought, to crush us.”
    But it’s the Conservative Party that succeeded.

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