10 Years on from The Orange Book: What should authentic liberalism look like?

Orange_Book“10 Years on from The Orange Book: what should authentic liberalism look like?” That was the title of a Lib Dem conference fringe meeting in Glasgow, organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), at which I was speaking alongside MPs Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne, Orange Book co-editor Paul Marshall, the IEA’s Ryan Bourne and ComRes pollster Tom Mludzinski. Here’s what I said…

I often describe myself as an Orange Booker. Like most labels it’s a short-hand. To me it simply means I’m a Lib Dem at ease with the role of a competitive market and who believes also in social justice. To many others in our party, though, Orange Booker is a term of abuse – Orange Bookers are thrusting, smart-suited, neoliberal Thatcherities, never happier than when mixing with red-blooded free-marketeers like the IEA.

What I want to do briefly is make a pitch for something that’s become quite unpopular among the party ranks: I’m going to make a pitch that the Lib Dems should be a party that’s unabashedly of the liberal centre.

Yes, I used the c-word: centre. Centrism brings out some liberals in a rash, among those who see it as nothing more than a soggy, split-the-difference mush of vague intentions. It can be that, of course. But it doesn’t have to be. The liberal centre can be a principled place. It is also a brave place – as Janan Ganesh put it recently in the Financial Times: “Centrism is despised as effete, but it takes steel to leave your ideological comfort zone”.

It also happens to be the only place from which the Lib Dems can fight the next election and thrive as a party.

But before I explain why that is I want to reassure you of my core liberalism. If I were that oxymoronic thing for a day – a liberal dictator – I would pass 10 general laws as follows (I’d flesh the details out afterwards):

1. I’d shift taxation away from earned income and towards wealth and property, including through a land value tax, as well as pollution;

2. I’d abolish any form of net migration target and welcome wholeheartedly those who choose to work here as fellow citizens;

3. I’d eliminate any protectionist taxes and tariffs, including the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which stifle free trade and discriminate against developing countries;

4. I’d devolve powers over budgets and policy for key services from Westminster to national parliaments, assemblies and local councils;

5. I’d scrap the Barnett Formula and ensure public spending was allocated on the basis of citizens’ need not a 1970s’ patching job designed to prop up the Callaghan government;

6. I’d introduce a Citizen’s Income, guaranteeing an above-poverty level of income to people who have no earnings from work at all;

7. I’d ensure local residents were properly compensated for new housing developments to break the logjam which pits housing need against understandable NIMBY opposition and prices young people out of the market;

8. I’d strip private schools of their charitable status so they could market their social cachet as the commodity it is without being subsidised by the state;

9. I’d legalise drugs and prostitution;

10. I’d bring in a Bill of Rights that enshrined civil liberties protections for individuals from an intrusive state – yes to the ECHR, no to the Snoopers’ Charter;

11. Oh, and no regulation of the press or Internet either;

12. And of course I’d bring in a written constitution, electoral reform, an elected second chamber, a disestablished church – oh and abolish the monarchy in favour of a republic as well.

(You might have noticed that’s 12, not 10, by the way: always under-promise and over-deliver.)

You won’t agree with them all, of course not. But those dozen measures are what I’d call authentically liberal. My kind of liberalism, anyway, which is what most people actually mean by authentic liberalism.

So that’s my authentically liberal policy platform. Now, who’s going to offer to write me the Focus leaflet setting all that out which will get me elected? Anyone? [No-one offered.]

And that’s my point. We have to accept that one of the reasons we Liberals are such good friends to minority causes is because we are one. Individually, I’d probably lose an election on the basis of any one of those policies. Taken collectively as a manifesto it’d probably even lose us Orkney, our safest seat.

So authentic liberalism is all very well, but we aren’t only Liberals – we are also Democrats. That means we need to recognise the majority will of the people. And if we want to move towards the Promised Land of milk and honey we may need to make do with semi-skimmed and marge from Lidl before we get there.

That’s where the Liberal centre comes in.

Yes, the Lib Dems should campaign as a liberal party with distinctively liberal policies: it’s what we’re here for and it’s what the voters have the right to expect of us.

However, I assume none of us is under the illusion we’ll win an outright majority next May? Which means we won’t get to implement any of those liberal policies unless we cooperate with either Labour or the Tories in government after 2015. And in that circumstance we’ll have to accept some of their illiberal policies we don’t much like, they’ll accept some of our liberal policies they don’t much like, and on the rest we’ll work out some kind of compromise. Sound familiar? It should do: that’s the last four-and-a-half years.

Let me put it like this: if Lib Dem members really want to remain in government after May 2015 then we will have to do a deal next time with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We may not place ourselves in the centre, but our circumstances do.

It’s no coincidence that the areas where the Lib Dems have achieved greatest success in this Coalition — raising the personal allowance, the Pupil Premium, same-sex marriage — have been areas that are mainstream, centrist. To put it another way: they are popular with enough people to stand a chance of making it into legislation.

And that’s what makes being a minority party such a challenge. We have constantly to set out our liberal vision, to remind ourselves of the authentic philosophy which makes us distinctive. And then we have to work out how to translate that into practical ideas that not only get approved by our conference here, but also have a cat-in-hell’s chance of Labour or the Tories living with them too.

There’s sometimes a temptation in our party to wish for ideological purity. Orange Bookers wishing themselves rid of the social liberals, social liberals wanting the Orange Bookers to go privatise themselves. And yes there’s comfort to be had in being surrounded by people we agree with, wrapping our confirmation bias around each other. But you know what? I’m glad we have MPs like Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne, each representing different wings of the party, offering different — but, in their own ways, just as authentic — liberal visions.

The tension within the Lib Dems (when we keep it civil) is a healthy one. The Orange Bookers were quite right to sound a warning 10 years ago that too much Lib Dem thinking had grown flabby, that our answer to every public service problem was simply to say spend more money and hire more staff, to try and out-Labour Labour.

But I’ll tell you something else. I wish we’d listened as hard to the social liberals who warned, rightly, that the Bedroom Tax was a harsh and senseless way to cut the welfare bill and free up social housing.

We might sometimes be all too obviously two ill-fitting parties in one, a smart jacket combined with scruffy trousers pretending to be a suit. But we need the authenticity of both economic and social liberals within the Lib Dems: we are ourselves a coalition which is, how best to put it?, Better Together.

If you want to get a flavour of what was said by others, the meeting was covered by the New Statesman‘s Anoosh Chakelian and also by Lib Dem blogger Alex Marsh.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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75 Comments

  • Paul In Wokingham 19th Oct '14 - 9:41am

    “It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history…The lower half of households by wealth held just 3 percent of wealth in 1989 and only 1 percent in 2013.”

    Who said that?

    Answer : Janet Yellen, Chair of the US Federal Reserve, said this in a speech a few days ago in which she characterized increasing wealth inequality as the greatest threat to social mobility (a Liberal touchstone) as it stratifies and ossifies a social order.

    I would add that in my opinion it also undermines the basis of the social contract that binds us together – as indicated by the rise of UKIP and the Scottish Independence referendum result.

    Last year, the average wage increase for those in employment was 0.7%. The average remuneration increment for FTSE 100 executives was 21%. We simply cannot go on like this.

    So while I agree with pretty much all of Stephen’s bullet points (they are mostly Liberal versions of motherhood and apple pie) I dispute his preference for taxing wealth over income. We need to address the issue of increasing inequality by taxing both wealth and high income.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Oct '14 - 9:42am

    Stephen this is very good thinking. Centrism without liberalism lacks innovation, but liberalism without centrism can be unfocused and fail to meet the real needs of the people.

    Regards

  • Being ‘left-wing’ is being in favour of change, ‘anti-conservative’. It is nothing to do with collectivism or ‘big state’. The right wing media has chosen to portray it in this fashion over dcades so it does not make sense any more to use such as misused word. However, since you are using the archaic linear spectrum, Stephen, I think your list of proposals is more than a little left-wing! It woul certainly frighten the horses in suburban tea rooms. 🙂

    Unfortunately, words can be ‘stolen’ from their original meaning and twisted and we sometimes have to move along with the theft, otherwise we cannot communicate effectively with the masses who have been ‘sold ‘the new definitions of terminology. The latest example of this word-theft is ‘trolling’. The malicious activity for which the government is seeking to increase penalties is not ‘trolling’ at all. ‘Trolling’ is the repetitive ‘bombing’ of chatrooms, blogs and websites with one-track items, often only thinly-connected with the subject of original discussion, which present a fixed view of a particular subject, animate or inanimate, which may be true or untrue, with or without malice, attributable or anonymous. The offending behaviour identified for action is only a microscopic sub-set of this activity. It is as though fingernails were to be described in future as ‘human beings’. Unfortunately, the way that lazy media have misused the term ‘trolling’ will now make it virtually impossible to restore the original usage to common parlance and it is exactly the same with ‘left wing” and ‘right wing’ – and hence with ‘centre’.

    What usefulness does the word ‘centre’ have to any political movement these days? We have a Labour Party today , tipped for government, which defines itself almost entirely by what it is against rather than what it is for and which has very little in its policy portmanteau that smacks greatly of collectivism or (not the same thing!) radicalism. How should a modern, thinking political party try to portray itself as being in any meaningful sense half way between this ragbag of wishful thinking and a ‘Conservative’ Party which in the past couple of weeks is reminding us that they are indeed, as they always have been, very ‘conservative’ indeed, possibly in the nastiest and most unfair sense of that word?

  • Great article, Stephen.

    Reminds me of an old Liberal campaign poster/slogan, must have been from around 1910s-1930s

    Tories – Too Little
    Labour – Too Much
    Liberal – Just Right

    An overly simplified argument, of course – what poster/slogan isn’t? But what it does show is that the idea of pitching the Liberal movement as the centre ground vote of choice isn’t an Orange Book idea but one that is decades and decades old.

    On the 10 (12) points themselves, I fear no.8 would lead to an even smaller, entrenched ‘elite’ and a mass exodus from and closure of schools that would put further pressure on the state system. Realeconomik rather than Realpolitick.

    No.12, I’m still very unsure about a written constitution. I’m certain that I’m very much in minority on this, but to me it actually seems quite an illiberal idea. As we see with the US’s, it puts ideas in granite – even the bad ones. That ours is currently unwritten allows it progress when and where necessary (though muchmore slowly than some of us would like!) whilst being bound together by shared belief rather than codified statute. A written constitution sounds like it is Job Done, when surely democracy and preserving freedoms should always be a Work in Progress.

  • Shifting tax from income to wealth. Is that progressive though? What about reducing tax on consumption instead which was the big Thatcherite shift.
    I’m not sure why you see your position as ‘centrist’. Because you feel you are borrowing from left and right? But anyway Stephen, nothing about inequality or the biggest economic challenge in the UK, the banking and financial system. I notice there was no-one at this debate to put the anti-Orange Book case for the sake of argument. Wasn’t Will Hutton available? All suggests that you Orange Bookers aren’t very secure and are only happy talking amongst yourselves.

  • Centrism means different things. Very few people describe their views as extremist and, solipsistic as it might look, are more likely to project their own position as being from the middle.

    In truth some of Stephen’s aspirational dozen policies would be portrayed as extremist by quite a large number of people, but obviously not by Stephen himself.

    There is a version of centrism, which I fear is shared by the BBC that simply cuts the difference between Conservatives and Labour or whichever two opposing sides it recognises. This ends up with assuming a middle position between homoeopathy and medicine, flat-earthers and globalists. Sometimes I do feel Nick Clegg goes for this fallacy. This, however, is the type of centrism that most of us, including, I assume Stephen, abhor.

    Appealing to a middle ground of voters on the other hand is what political parties do if they aspire to attract support of the public. In this respect, the Liberal Democrats are not that different to Labour and Conservatives: there is a tension between activists who yearn for political purity and pragmatists who hoping for office in which their policies may be implemented, look for more widespread democratic support.

  • Bill le Breton 19th Oct '14 - 11:17am

    Stephen, first it is a good list and it is brave to endeavour to communicate each policy in a sentence. You deserve the benefit of any doubt about what you could resolve given a more generous format.

    I take issue, if I may, on your supposition that these policies are not campaignable. You may not think they are as campaignable as, say, building local support for traffic calming measures or a cycleway. Or by a council tax policy for a Borough or a City. But they are.

    They have to be campaigned for openly, steadfastly or we would be open to the charge of either lack of conviction or subterfuge; belying the democrat part of our name.

    There is a sense here that we anticipate lack of support and move to some compromise (the centre of any spectrum of solutions) without making clear or fighting with zeal for our preferred option first. How can we blame people for seeing us as ‘no different from all the rest’?

    Campaigning on these kinds of issues is achieved by the dual approach, inside and outside of the institutions that make these decisions. For these issues a Focus is but one of the many tools that need to be used.

    What is frustrating is that we have wasted our position as a Coalition partner, with its extraordinary platform and access to real power, to mount campaigns on any of these issues. How can we blame the general public for not having a clear idea of where we stand? Where is the evidence that we have pressed these solutions from our vantage point? Where is the ‘new politics’.

    Finally how can you blame people for seeing us as Tory-lite, or as believing all of the policies of the Coalition derive from the Tories or that we say one thing only to do another?

    All these policies require change. Therefore by definition they are radical – I would also say that they were Radical. And change only occurs when campaigning action creates a movement for them.

    We have squandered our great chance to communicate all this from the vantage of the steps of 10 Downing Street and simultaneously from the lanes, roads, cul de sacs, streets and estates of this country.

  • Stephen Tall gives us a list of what one comment has already described as “Liberal Democrat motherhood and apple pie.”.   
    But the politically position and aims of Orange Book people (not all  the actual contributors to or all the contents of the book itself) has been to the far right of more than 80% of Liberal Democrats.  
    See Stephen’s earlier article on survey results which has only 13% describing themselves as “Free Marketeer”.
    So who sponsored this fringe meeting at Glasgow?  

    “fringe meeting in Glasgow, organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA),”

      Stephen Tall and the others were seaking alongside the IEA’s Ryan Bourne.

    Not all Liberal Democrats will recognise the name Ryan Bourne. Some may remember Mark Littlewood.   Some may be aware of the right wing stance of the IEA and the sort of large corporate interests who fund it.

    This fromThe IEA’s own website gives a favour of what the moneyed people behind the Orange Book and IEA are al about – all in their own words.
     Mark Littlewood, Director General, said:
    “It has been a pleasure and a privilege to oversee the IEA’s growth in the last four years. We are delighted to welcome Ryan Bourne from our good friends at the CPS, who have been a huge part of a remarkable free market think tank renaissance in Britain.
    “We are also able to unveil a wider, broader, savvy, street-smart team to take the free market message to every corner of the UK with enormous professionalism and drive.
    “In Ryan, Stephanie, Christiana and Diego we have recruited the great young stars of free market-advocacy. They have already contributed an enormous amount to promoting the case for limited government, less state intervention and greater personal freedom…..”

    “Greater personal freedom” means different things to different people, I would suggest that the IEA has a very, very different understanding of those words from the vast majority of Liberal Democrats.

    But we all know what “limited government” and “less state intervention” means in the hands of these right wingers — it means privatising schools and the NHS, it means letting BigTobacco kill our children with cigarettes, it means NO social housing but lots private landlordism etc etc.

    Stephen Tall’s list of apple pie and motherhood provides a cover for something much less to our taste.

  • Now, who’s going to offer to write me the Focus leaflet setting all that out which will get me elected? Anyone?

    Stephen, I see no reason why you should not take your list of 12 points and in the words of one legendary Cornish MP, “Stick it on a piece of paper and shove it through a letter box”.
    Not sure if it would necessarily make you electable but I guarantee that more than 1% of peoplewould support it aEspecially if you followed it up by campaigning with the variety of political tools that are available to you in 2014.

    Facebook and YouTube are used extensively and used well to target messages direct to individuals. Even my local Conservative Party has caught on sending me a message via Facebook about their candidate in a by-election this Thursday (which they held). OK — I live in the neighbouring ward and after 44 years they should have learned by now that I am unlikely to be voting Conservative — but other than that it was using the tools now available.

    The success of Community Politics Liberals in the 80s and 90s was not based on calling a leaflet “Focus” and then filling it with any old collection of empty slogans and pictures of people pointing, or pictures of people holding up posters declaring “Liberal Democrats Winning Here” when they clearly were not winning anywhere.

  • Unusually I find myself in complete agreement with Steven. The confusion about Centrism comes partly from the fact that, on the political spectra that matter to us, we are quite extreme; while being in the centre of The spectrum that matters most to most Voters. On Liberty, Green Issues & Internationalism, all important areas for Libdems, we are at one end of each Spectrum. On what the Political Consensus defines as the main area of debate – The Left-Right spectrum we are seen by most Voters as just Left of Centre. That why we took a quarter of the Vote in 2010.
    I dont believe we are forever doomed to be Junior Partners to Labour or Tories because both those Parties are shrinking & breaking up.

  • Bill Le Breton 19th Oct '14 - 12:55pm

    I have just been reminded that Alex Marsh wrote an excellent review of this fringe meeting at Alex’s Archives: http://www.alexsarchives.org/2014/10/notes-from-a-small-gathering/

    He makes a point far better than my effort above , “The final point that struck me, not just in this fringe meeting but at several others, is the question of political leadership. When we work with public opinion as a fixed point around which politicians must dance, when we focus group policies to work out what might go down well with the floating voter, we implicitly accept a diminished account of political leadership. We concede that politicians cannot move the Overton Window. We concede that vivid narratives about where we might go and what we might achieve no longer have the power to sway and inspire. It is essential not to be naïve about the challenges inherent in not simply articulating but also delivering a vision of a different type of society. But to give the whole idea up as an impossibility rather throws the whole enterprise into question. To realize the liberal vision requires passion, it requires rigorous justifications, and it requires genuine leadership.”

  • Really good article, well articulated and considered; I’ll be back later for another read!

  • I agree with most of the 12 policies (I think 5 misconstrues the nature of the union and I have reservations about 11). But there is an elephant in the room that the advocates of ‘centrism’ don’t seem willing to confront. When the Lib Dems were seen as left of centre you commanded the support of nearly a quarter of the electorate. Recent polls have shown that you are now seen as bang in the centre and you command around 7-8% support. Clearly, being perceived as ‘centrist’ is paying little political dividend. Isn’t it time to have a rethink?

  • David Blake 19th Oct '14 - 1:15pm

    John Tilley mentions the ‘Liberal Democrats Winning Here’ slogan, which was prominently displayed at conference. I thought it was a mistake to use that.. Everyone knows that we aren’t doing that well, so people could quite easily say ‘Well of course they’d be winning at their own conference’. Mind you, the endless shots of an almost empty hall didn’t help.

  • Conor McGovern 19th Oct '14 - 1:55pm

    It makes a change to read a list of 12 points and actually agree with all of them (although I’d emphasise the point that immigrants should be here to work and bring skills to society). Well done Stephen, but ditch the ‘centre’ wording. Left, right and centre are meaningless words to most people, and it would be great if Nick Clegg understood that.

  • “It’s no coincidence that the areas where the Lib Dems have achieved greatest success in this Coalition — raising the personal allowance, the Pupil Premium, same-sex marriage — have been areas that are mainstream, centrist.”

    Those are 3 policies which were either in the Tory party manifesto or supported by them in public statements prior to the 2010 election. What you seem to be arguing for is that the party has a policy platform that only ever includes policies acceptable to one of the other two big parties.

    That has two main problems – one a total loss of identiy if those parties then adopt those idea (see this conference for an illustration on that) and second it abdicates the idea that the party can can shift the agenda. It frames the party totally in the confines of the two big (old) parties.

    And if you were speaking to a room full of people who couldn’t take ideas and articulate them into a Focus leaflet (ie some sort of campaign) then you should have stopped your speech at that point and walked out saying there was little point in bothering further!

  • Stephen Campbell 19th Oct '14 - 2:30pm

    @Geoffrey Payne: “Liberalism is about shifting power away from government and big business towards people and communities, so I am surprised you did not mention industrial democracy. This is not a trivial matter. The workplace is often where people feel most oppressed. The authoritarian top down management style you see in the Apprentice is highly illiberal and IMHO changing that should be on your list.”

    I’m with you 100% on this. One sort of power the “Orange Bookers” rarely talk about is the massive power global corporations have over us all. More and more power and wealth is being concentrated into their hands, so much so that many corporations are now richer and more powerful than smaller nation states. I was under the impression when I used to vote for you guys that you wanted to challenge large concentrations of power, but it seems the only power many Lib Dems want to devolve these days is the power of the “big state”. Many (most?) major corporations act like totalitarian nations with top-down diktats, total conformity from employees and no form of democracy at all. And, yes, many many people do feel oppressed working in these environments.

    If the Liberal Democrats truly believe in challenging behemoths of power, they would believe in challenging the power multinational corporations hold over us and the way they hold governments (and thus entire nations) to ransom by constantly threatening to leave, send jobs overseas and do all they can to avoid tax. But your party rarely talks about challenging this sort of power these days.

    Our society is sorely missing economic and industrial democracy. People say the unions had too much power in the 70s. The pendulum has swung the other way and now global corporations have too much power over us all.

  • Paul in Wokingham 19th Oct '14 - 2:39pm

    So it would seem that we are not really shocked by Stephen’s list of “unsellable” Liberal political positions. And there has been little support for the contention that we would be wiped out if we campaigned on them.

    There is a YouGov poll in today’s Sunday Times YouGov poll (LD 7% as usual) which asks a question about TRUST. Mr. Clegg gets the LOWEST score of the 4 leaders (including Nigel Farage) for “trusted” and the HIGHEST score for “not trusted”. Perhaps he would be more trusted if his position was determined by his own beliefs rather than by steering a path of incoherent centrism.

  • paul barker 19th Oct '14 - 2:49pm

    A couple of facts, The Libdems are still seen as slightly Left of Centre according to the last Polling on this that I saw. Nick Clegg was pretty much exactly in The Centre.

  • Stephen Hesketh 19th Oct '14 - 3:15pm

    “I’d shift taxation away from earned income”.
    This would be fine if certain people and sectors were not being paid completely perverse sums that they can never claim to have ‘earned’.
    “It’s no coincidence that the areas where the Lib Dems have achieved greatest success in this Coalition — raising the personal allowance, the Pupil Premium, same-sex marriage — have been areas that are mainstream, centrist.”
    These are not ‘centrist’. They are widely supported across much of the political spectrum which must more properly make them ‘common ground’?

    Besides Stephen Campbell’s point (19th Oct ’14 – 2:30pm) re economic and industrial democracy, a huge omission is surely regional devolution. Devolving power to the cities is not an answer.

  • Stephen Hesketh 19th Oct '14 - 3:28pm

    I also have a problem with “11. Oh, and no regulation of the press or Internet either”

    I believe it is a mistake to see the press as exclusively benign. They are actually just another albeit sometimes crucial industry. At their worst they are actually a cancer on our society and have had much to do with the undermining of the body politic. But hey, it sells newspapers, as does talking up the problems of immigration, the stereotyping of women, the unpopularity of wind turbines and even the ridiculing of the Liberal Democrats in government.

    Which other industry is singled out not to be regulated?

  • Tony Dawson 19th Oct '14 - 3:36pm

    @paul barker

    “The Libdems are still seen as slightly Left of Centre according to the last Polling on this that I saw. Nick Clegg was pretty much exactly in The Centre.”

    but trusted by hardly anyone to personify that position – and for rather obvious reasons. 🙁

  • Simon Shaw — it is a long time since I did Latin at school so I googled – just to make sure.
    “Post hoc ergo propter hoc ”

    “A fallacy in which one event is said to be the cause of a later event simply because it occurred earlier”

    You do not explain why you think this is so. But it seems to me that you are wrong.

    What AndrewR said in his comment was that–
    “When the Lib Dems were seen as left of centre you commanded the support of nearly a quarter of the electorate. Recent polls have shown that you are now seen as bang in the centre and you command around 7-8% support.
    Clearly, being perceived as ‘centrist’ is paying little political dividend.”

    Many of the mainstream media share the view expressed by AndrewR. It is a view that is also shared by many Liberal Democrat members and voters as well as a high proportion of ex-members and ex-voters (if the opinion polls are to be believed).

    So, Simon, why do you believe it to be a fallacy?
    Are you saying that the political dividends of being seen as Centrist are evidenced by the recent result in Clacton?
    Or is there any other election in the last 8 years where you think there is evidence to indicate that a Centrist position works with the voters?
    It does not strike me that you and your colleagues in Southport take a Centrist position. In fact I saw your excellent MP John Pugh speak at the Glasgow Conference where he was decrying the top down reorganisation of the NHS as “Maoist Deconstruction” — a pretty accurate description but not the words of a mealy-mouthed Centrist.

  • I’d say that both the rightward drift of the Liberal Democrats and their declining popularity are reflexes of the same thing: their presence in an unpopular government — or, at least, a government which, if not universally unpopular, is not popular with the Lib Dems’ original voting base. As the Lib Dems are continually called upon to support things which that base disapproves of, naturally they lose vote share. And while one may try to excuse it as “coalition politics,” and offer justifications, plausible or far-fetched as the case may be, it does not change the fact that people will not vote for a party that acts against their interests. The Lib Dems cannot get votes from the people in whose interests they are acting, because all those people are, by habit, by sentiment, or by ideology, Tories.

  • Simon Shaw
    I live in South West London where we have five constituencies which have elected Liberal Democrat MPs in the decades you mention. Only four at the moment but I can walk to through three of them in fifteen minutes of my front door. Bit better than your neck of the woods? I seem to remember you saying recently that the next nearest Liberal Democrat MP to you is in Manchester, Withington.

    As for keeping track of what is going on in Southport. I read some those things that appear in the right hand column of the LDV screen which regularly feature a number of different Southport wards. As I mentioned in my last comment I watch the MP for Southport at the conference, on BBC Parliament ; he is excellent and anything but a Centrist from what I have seen and heard. Also through the miracle of e-mail and Facebook I am in regular contact with a number of your colleagues on the council.

    Unfortunately our party is a small world (much smaller than it was before the Centrist nonsense began) and so my friends in the party throughout the UK are a wonderful source of information and inspiration. Not sure that even one of them would describe themself as a Centrist.

  • Peter Watson 19th Oct '14 - 5:54pm

    @Simon Shaw “If you don’t think we take a centrist position, do you think we in Southport are seen to be: (1) very much in the same left/right location as Labour? OR (2) to the left of Labour?”
    I know little about Lib Dems in Southport so visited the e-focus website to which your LibDemVoice name links and searched for “left”, “right” and “centre”.
    I notice that one of your colleagues in Southport wrote in 2011 “Like all Liberals of my generation I have always considered our party to be of the Left. ” (http://birkdalefocus.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/so-what-would-more-lib-dem-influenced.html). Elsewhere he seems to praise the party of Grimond who “advocated a political strategy of re-aligning the Left. A Left Party with a Left programme. For him the Left in Britain under Labour leadership had taken the wrong turning and gone down the state collectivist route.” (http://birkdalefocus.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/david-howarth-speaking-up-for-majority.html)
    As an aside, looking at some of his other articles I think he would be an excellent contributor to this website as well, and it looks like Birkdale is very fortunate with its trio of Lib Dem councillors.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Oct '14 - 6:39pm

    @simon shaw
    Its worth remembering when John Tilley talks about Kingston where he was the Council Leader for a number of years that they still have grammar schools – as they do in Sutton.
    So not exactly the leftist paradise he would make you believe .

  • It’s impossible to position a party a centrist because the ground shifts constantly. The electorate already think all the parties are the same. Why not just be liberal and evidence based and all that stuff.

  • Peter Watson 19th Oct '14 - 7:29pm

    This thread seems to be drifting off-topic and into ad hominem.
    But at least I can agree with the Simons that getting rid of grammar schools would be a good Lib Dem policy.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Oct '14 - 7:29pm

    @simon – to be fair to John Tilley doing nothing about grammar schools when he was Leader of Kingston was perfectly sensible – they would never have been relected had they tried to change. Just the sort of pragmatic decision of course that he is so critical of Nick Clegg for making in the Coalition.

  • Simon McGrath
    You are obviously not aware of the history of education policy in Kingston or who it was that chaired the meeting of the Education Commitee in the 1980s which took the decision to switch to a comprehensive system.
    I do know, because I was that councillor. I was in fact vice-chair of the committee standing in for the chair on that occasion.
    That was a minority Liberal Democrat administration. The switch to comprehensives was stopped when we lost two byelections and the Conservatives had a majority again.
    Six years later when we had a majority on the council, a switch to comprehensives was made all but impossible by government legislation (the Blair Labour Government). As far as I am aware no local education authority has made the switch since 1992 because of this.

    A court judgement known as ‘The Greenwich Judgement’ also had a significant impact as it forced local councils to take applications for grammar schools from anywhere else, As a direct result the two grammar schools in Kingston became dominated by children from outside the borough, with the vast majority of local children going to the cther states schools in borough. Liberal Democrat councillors rightly took the decision that it was more sensible to concentrate on improving the education of all children in the borough rather than engaging in some sort of tokenistic legal fight with the Bair Government
    Of course since 1997 further changes by the Labour Government and the Coalition Government have made the 1960s debate between Grammar and Comprehensive systems about as relevant to today as the race to be the first country to put a man on the moon.
    Now the big threat to decent state education comes from privatisation; the handover of local education assets to businesses or rich creationists or worse. Handing over schools to such dubious people may suit your political viewpoint as a member of a right wing free market faction within the Liberal Democrats but I doubt that you would ever win an election on that policy.

    You seemed in your comment to be saying that a local council with a comprehensive system is a “leftist paradise”.
    This would suggest that your knowledge of both politics and education is stuck in a time somewhere before 1980.

  • Simon Shaw
    MPs from Sutton Borough can answer perfectly well for themselves. I am guessing that as a local cuncillor you are slightly better informed about the reality of schools in 2014, see my reply to Simon McGrath.

  • Peter Watson
    You are right about the this thread drifting off but. I have tried to provide a factual response to Simon McGrath
    Whilst agreeing with you in principle on education the practicaities have long since moved on –please see my earlier comment —
    JohnTilley 19th Oct ’14 – 7:45pm

  • Peter Watson 19th Oct '14 - 8:14pm

    @JohnTilley
    I’m even happier to know that I agree with the two Simons and you that Lib Dems should have no truck with grammar schools. I suspect that I am in more agreement with you than the Simons over the other issues you raise.
    P.S. In your post at 7:50pm you might have had a lucky break with your automatic spelling correction 😉

  • Stephen Hesketh 19th Oct '14 - 8:52pm

    @John Tilley 19th Oct ’14 – 5:52pm “Unfortunately our party is a small world (much smaller than it was before the Centrist nonsense began) and so my friends in the party throughout the UK are a wonderful source of information and inspiration. Not sure that even one of them would describe themself as a Centrist.”

    I am a member of the Liberal Democrats because I view myself as being a Liberal and a Democrat and because the party I joined has both a constitutional preamble and policies more radical (and almost always more rational) than those of the Labour party.

    I think there is much to be said with working with other individuals, organisations and parties to implement shared or common values – indeed I believe one of the worst malaises afflicting politics is the inability to be honest that such areas agreement do exist.

    Does this make me a pragmatist? Hopefully.
    Does it make me a Centrist? Now rather than a short cut to this site’s ‘m’ place, I’ll just say NO to that question.

    When someone describes themselves as ‘neo-liberal’, I don’t think Liberal, I think Regan-Thatcher economics; when someone describes themselves as ‘fighting for class solidarity’, I tend to think ideological top-down socialist/trade unionist rather than them being an egalitarian redistributive bottom up democrat. And when someone describes themselves as being a ‘Centrist’ I think of someone who defines themselves and their not particularly rooted politics as being somewhere (anywhere?) between the Tories and Labour, someone who has a bureaucratic/managerial approach to politics and someone who may very well think that being in office is a valid end in itself.

    OK, this may say much about my own personal biases … but I am but a simple Southport lad.

  • Peter Watson 19th Oct '14 - 8:56pm

    @Simon Shaw
    At the top of this thread, this morning you appeared to be firmly “centrist” but this evening you appear to have moved slightly to “centrist/centre-left”, and are possibly to the left of John Tilley. I’m a little worried that by the end of the week you might have become a socialist 🙂

    As a postscript, can I check if Simon Mcgrath and Liberal Reform agree with us and oppose grammar schools. Googling suggests that Lib Dem policy is much more wishy-washy on this than I realised, and appears to be very much an “all things to all men” approach that leaves me a little bit disappointed. I admire the fact that John Tilley attempted to change the status quo in the past though.

  • “To me it simply means I’m a Lib Dem at ease with the role of a competitive market ”

    To my way of thinking, there’s a deep dissonance between being any sort of liberal and being “at ease” with the status quo. Liberalism is about recognising the way in which society fails people, and, in a non-doctrinaire way, looking for innovative solutions. Denying the problems arising from market mechanisms, or, conversely, making the doctrinaire argument that markets are the solution to all economic problems, is fundamentally illiberal — as also is the doctrinaire position that there is a legislative solution to every economic issue. But the details of avoiding both the Scylla and the Charybdis are another issue. The main point here is that liberals can never allow themselves to be “at ease” with anything; they should always be questioning, complaining, looking for the places where the gears don’t mesh and where people are being sacrificed at the altar of an abstract ideal. It’s an unpleasant job, but if liberals don’t do it, it is guaranteed that nobody will.

  • Stephen Hesketh 19th Oct '14 - 10:37pm

    Are we or are we not the radical Libertarian alternative to Labour?

    Can this reasonably be described as Centrist?

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Oct '14 - 10:59pm

    I think Stephen Hesketh is right about the principle of press regulation. Others will disagree, but the press often give the same prominence to inaccurate articles as accurate ones. You might think the press prefer accuracy, but the inaccurate ones have the added benefit of controversy.

    To give an example I once emailed an outlet complaining about an inaccurate article and I was asked if I wanted to submit an accurate one. I said no because I didn’t feel ready, but I also said I would expect it in an editorial, not just given the same prominence as the inaccurate article, as if both truth and falsehood are equally valid.

    I didn’t realise you were a Southport lad Stephen, Lib Dem Voice seems to have quite a few of us from here!

  • Prostitution is legal in England. It is illegal in Thailand.

  • David-1 19th Oct ’14 – 9:50pm
    I rather like this —
    “…,,liberals can never allow themselves to be “at ease” with anything; they should always be questioning, complaining, looking for the places where the gears don’t mesh and where people are being sacrificed at the altar of an abstract ideal. ……. if liberals don’t do it, it is guaranteed that nobody will.”

    Well put and quite correct.

  • Simon McGrath 20th Oct '14 - 8:36am

    @john Tilley – you have all sorts of terribly complicated reasons why Kingston, controlled by us for many years, still has Grammar schools. The real one is given away here though: “The switch to comprehensives was stopped when we lost two byelections”
    Good pragmatic stuff – better to have an LD council and accept you have to live with Grammar schools. Why not just admit it – just like we have had to do things in coalition we would not have done if we had a majority.

  • Bill le Breton 20th Oct '14 - 8:52am

    Good post on the Mansion Tax and wealth taxes in general http://waitingfortax.com/2014/10/20/a-question-on-the-mansion-tax/

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Oct '14 - 10:34am

    The trouble with trying to combine economic and social liberalism is that market centred economic liberalism works best in a society populated entirely by sociopaths…

  • A Social Liberal 20th Oct '14 - 10:58am

    On how Lib Dems are positioned on the present measurement of National Party policies.

    Given that the policies of the Labour party at the last election were anything but left leaning (and looking at the history of New Labour) it was said by political commentators and by even by Denis Skinner that the Lib Dems were to the left of Labour. Even now, the Labour lot are anything but socialist (although of course we don’t yet have anything substantial with which to see how red they are).

    This rubbish about using individuals to measure national party positioning is just that. The aforementioned Beast of Bolsover is ‘red in tooth and claw’ but he represents only himself and not the party. In just the same way we have to place Lib Dems on the spectrum given their actions in government.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 20th Oct '14 - 11:10am

    Agree with most of the points – not clear why LDs should NOT support Constitutional Monarchy and support Republicanism instead. Imagine having a Tory President and a Tory government working together. But I agree with changing the style of CM – and would support CM being less expensive, remote and ‘different’ and more equal to the lives of the people which the monarchy serves – more as Scandinavian models of CM.

  • Peter Watson 20th Oct '14 - 12:28pm

    @Simon McGrath “we have had to do things in coalition we would not have done if we had a majority.”
    The problem is that Lib Dems in coalition have given the impression that they want to do those things.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Oct '14 - 12:45pm

    “Imagine having a Tory President and a Tory government working together. ”

    You think the Queen’s not a tory? I’d rather know for sure than have to guess.

  • “We might sometimes be all too obviously two ill-fitting parties in one, a smart jacket combined with scruffy trousers pretending to be a suit.” Love it! haha

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Oct '14 - 1:31pm


    11. Oh, and no regulation of the press or Internet either;

    So no ban on child pornography?

    Similar questions can be put about the other issues. You need to be careful about just how they could be interpreted – and WILL be by our opponents.

    On this same issue, there is also the concern that what sounds like freedom could mean allowing those with the loudest voices (not necessarily literally) to drown out others and so not give true freedom of expression. This very group, Liberal Democrat Voice, DOES have regulation on its content for just this sort of reason. If it allowed complete “freedom” to contribute, as with many others forums it would soon get over-run by trolls and so genuine freedom to use it for proper discussion would be taken away.

    Similarly, other “freedoms” here may turn out in reality to be freedom for some at the cost of restriction in freedom for others.

  • It’s a very recognisably Lib Dem list of policies which is a worthy heir to a long tradition for such lists, but ….

    Does it really tell me – or more pertinently an average floating voter – what Party priorities are beyond these particular policies? I think not, at least not to any great extent especially since they have been discovered to be so, um, ‘flexible’ once in government. Lists’ utility is that they are a mechanism that enables the Party to agree a minimum platform while glossing over the deep rifts about its core positioning; the downside is that they too easily become totemic, put thinking into compartmentalised silos and limit the ability to make necessary trade-offs.

    Compare and contrast UKIP; they can’t keep a stable list of policies for longer than about two minutes and have only one MP (and that only recently) and yet they have the government dancing to their tune and in all sorts of disarray.

  • I’m not certain it would be a brilliant idea to get rid of the Royals to be totally honest. Adjustments maybe but abolish? That is sort of impossible unless mass slaughter occurs which is not recommended either!

  • Martin Gentles 20th Oct '14 - 6:31pm

    Abolition of the monarchy is exactly the sort of thing we should, as Liberals, should support. And it is exactly the sort of thing that is about as popular as Ebola with the electorate. Which is why Stephen Tall’s “liberal centrism” is the best summation of where the party should be, that I’ve heard yet.

  • SIMON BANKS 20th Oct '14 - 7:49pm

    This is an interesting definition of centrism. Anyone involved in politics knows that some measures (s)he desires can’t be delivered yet because too many people are opposed. The truly influential leaders try to shift opinion. They make compromises along the way, but they don’t simply seek the middle ground. The idea of something like the Welfare State was debated for many years before it was deliverable. In contrast, the major shift in British politics achieved by Thatcher was more opportunist, taking advantage of the rudderless Callaghan government and then of the Falklands War. The leaders and movements which have had the biggest impact in open political systems have had an understanding of political realities, but have been quite extreme in their aims. Abraham Lincoln was not centrist on slavery, nor Bevan on the NHS nor Thatcher on union power.

    Treating “centrist” as if it meant little more than “politically realistic” leaves it with little meaning and certainly one can be realistic without constantly searching out the “centre ground” so you can stand in the middle of it. Yes, we should ask ourselves awkward questions and think, think, think; but “leaving your ideological comfort zone” can be code for abandoning your principles.

    Some of the things you propose are brave and radical. I’d agree that they’re “authentically liberal”. I note that your “authentic liberalism” does not seem to make a defining issue of the size of the state or of the level of taxation, and I’d agree with that, since it’s the empowerment of the individual (which must include empowered communities) which is the key issue and private companies and the state can damage or enhance this. I don’t see that this programme can be meaningfully described as centrist.

  • Stephen Hesketh 20th Oct '14 - 8:55pm

    @Matthew Huntbach 20th Oct ’14 – 1:31pm

    Good points Simon. This sites ‘M’ place has held many victims!

    @SIMON BANKS 20th Oct ’14 – 7:49pm

    Excellent post Simon!

    And for myself … being liberal on social issues whilst being a supporter of ‘free’ markets (the term is just as dishonest as is neo-liberal) is not a bad definition for Cleggite Centrists. Those who hold such views should however be under no illusion that this represents the common ground of British politics. It does however nicely explain the political hole our leadership has dug for us. It is obviously even further away from mainstream Liberal Democracy, its members and voters. If it were not, we wouldn’t be languishing in the polls and losing so many politically progressive members.

  • Stephen Hesketh 20th Oct '14 - 8:57pm

    Matthew … apologies for the typo! Good points Matthew!!!

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Oct '14 - 12:16pm

    Stephen Tall

    It’s no coincidence that the areas where the Lib Dems have achieved greatest success in this Coalition — raising the personal allowance, the Pupil Premium, same-sex marriage — have been areas that are mainstream, centrist. To put it another way: they are popular with enough people to stand a chance of making it into legislation

    They also have to be policies the Conservatives will accept. Raising the personal allowance fits in with their tax-cutting principles, so they were happy to accept it – but not in the way it was originally proposed, which was balanced by higher taxes on other things. Although gay marriage had a lot of opposition from those in the Conservative Party who retain some old-fashioned social conservatism, other Conservatives had no problem with it because it has no conflict with the power of money and wealth, the preservation of which is what they are all about. They would not accept our tuition fees policy, however, since implementing it could not be done without a substantial tax increase which would be against all their principles.

    A great problem with the present Coalition is that although necessity has meant it’s those elements of Liberal Democrat policy which are most compatible with the right-wing views of the Conservatives that get through, and those which are least compatible which don’t, the leadership of our party has made no effort to explain that. Instead, the leadership seems quite happy with giving the impression that those of our policies that have got through are representative of all we stand for. The consequence is that the public image of what we are about has got pushed way to the political right. Would those who are happy with this have been quite so happy had we had to accept a coalition with a genuinely left-wing Labour Party (this is hypothetical, there was no such thing in 2010) and therefore seen our national image pushed leftwards as those of our policies which are more to the left would get through, but those which are more to the right, would not?

    The further problem which comes from this is that the explanation of what has happened as a necessary compromise (to the extent that there has been any) has fallen mostly on deaf ears because it is too readily dismissed as just an excuse for what we wanted to do anyway. I think a lot of this dismissal IS unfair. I am a believer in multi-party government, I fully accept how coalitions must work, and therefore while I’m very unhappy with what’s coming out of this one, I can see it is a fair reflection of its composition – and the people of this country voted by two-to-one to say they wanted the distortion which gave us this composition. However, I feel all attempts to explain this and hence retain the support we used to have from people to the left of the political spectrum are wrecked by the leadership of our party expressing such a contentedness with the limited amount of influence we have been able to have, and showing a very clear and obvious bias in all its says and does against those in the party whose political position makes the compromises hardest to accept.

  • I’m strongly in favour of devolution – AKA decentralisation – to promote greater accountability.

    The idea of regional powers to vary Income Tax and Interest Rates (within limits) provides the means to shift government income away from tax and potentially remove requirements for politicised financial transfers altogether.

    Personally I feel the argument that democracy can gain greater ‘control’ via a reduction in ‘command’ is more popular and in keeping with liberal principles than old-fashioned tit-for-tat squabbles about ‘tax and spend’.

  • Martin Gentles 28th Oct '14 - 6:36pm

    “In a property owning democracy… the words “LVT” and”manifesto” won’t be seen within country-miles of each other!”

    Lol. How true. Which is exactly why we should do it!,

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