Opinion: left-leaning Lib Dems should be united, pragmatic and positive

The launching of the ‘Liberal Left’ group this week has already led to lots of comment, especially on Twitter.

Those on the Right of our Party have, rather predictably, condemned it as divisive and self-interested. You might expect me, as someone on the Left, to disagree with them. But I don’t, I think they are largely correct in their analysis, and here’s the reason why.

I believe we need a united, pragmatic and positive Left in the Liberal Democrats; which, I believe, despite the protestations of some, remains a centre-left Party. As a member of the Social Liberal Forum, I’ve seen that any left-wing grouping comes in for attacks from some within the Party. However, the SLF is pragmatic and evidence based in its approach to policy making and policy critique.

We are, broadly speaking, supportive of the Coalition, pleased that our Party is in Government for the first time in any of our lifetimes, making a real, tangible difference.

But, let’s not fool ourselves, some of what our Party is signed up to as part of the Coalition Agreement runs right against the grain of those of us who self-identify as being ‘on the Left’.

For example, despite my best efforts at defending the Health and Social Care Bill, this week I came out against it. I praise the efforts of Baroness Shirley Williams and Dr Evan Harris in the positive changes they’ve made, but frankly it’s not been enough to make a major difference to what is fundamentally a bad Bill.

Sometimes we have to be honest enough with ourselves to say something hasn’t worked, despite our best efforts. We need the Left to be the voice of ‘let’s work together to make this better,’ which is what the SLF represents, rather than the voice of ‘No’ which, it seems, is what Liberal Left is determined to be.

My other major problem with Liberal Left is that they appear to only countenance Coalitions with other ‘Left’ Party’s, predominantly Labour and the Greens. Now, it goes without saying that being in Coalition with the Tories, our ancient enemies, has taken some getting used to… and I, of course, still disagree with much of the Tories’ Party rhetoric, but I accept and pay tribute to both parties for coming together and providing stable and effective Government in the national interest.

The very nature of Coalition Government means you can’t rule out any potential agreement with any party ahead of an election. Of course as a democrat in a democratic party I defend their right to exist, but that doesn’t mean that they should. How can a faction within the Party, which is openly hostile to both our own Leadership and the Coalition Government, be anything other than divisive?

I guess we should give them a fair crack of the whip, but the prospects aren’t promising.

Those of us on ‘the Left,’ need to be pragmatic and positive enough to be able to work well with those on the Right-both of our Party and of the Coalition.

I think those at the head of Liberal Left need to ask themselves a fundamental question: Do they want our Party to be successful, but only with strings attached? If the answer to that is ‘Yes,’ then I’d respectfully suggest that they disband as quickly as they formed.

* Mathew Hulbert is a parish Councillor in Leicestershire.

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38 Comments

  • Daniel Henry 12th Feb '12 - 10:55am

    I disagree with the group for similar reasons and won’t be joining, but so far I agree with their existence.

    I think they represent the views of a lot of the supporters who have left due to the coalition and I’d rather see such people as a disgruntled group within the party rather than out altogether.

  • My heart says “I agree with Mathew Hulbert”, especially on the issue of coalition, compromise and working together, but my head says “We have simply gone too far in accepting the practices and especially the rhetoric of the right.”

    We really can no longer tell the public (in effect) that such things as the Welfare “Reform” Bill, numerous privatisations, insufficient evidence that “we are all in this together”, and rhetoric around how severe the financial crisis is, to justify hard hitting and ideological changes. Let’s be honest, this has been about the move to the economic right over public and social spending in our own party. This is, in my view precisely where Grayson’s analysis is spot on. I am well aware he didn’t always pursue that line in the context of Centre Forum, but that doesn’t make him any less right now.

    I don’t think we should any longer not say what our views are, and allow the public to think we are all total right wingers. Sorry. Of course, the SLF has been doing good work, and it deserves praise for that, but we need to ensure the rhetoric tells people where we are – fighting for the “new politics” so popular during the period of Cleggmania in the lead up to the 2010 GE.

  • Much as I agree, with teeth gritted, that this party should do all it can to ameliorate and blunt the worst of the Tories atavistic urges, we should likewise be under no illusions that come the next GElection we will be crushed. It does not matter how much of our manifesto (a document markedly lacking in any social democratic influence) is enacted, or how successful our aforementioned bluntening efforts were, the Tory attacks on the NHS, on benefits, on the disabled, on public services and the provision of local/comunity facilities (libraries, swimming pools, nursery groups, etc etc) will be seen as being our fault. Because they could not have happened without our support.

    In the public’s eye our leadership and our part in the Coalition have reached a state beyond contempt and derision. Which is why after the inevitable decimation there has to be a true centre-left core ready to pick up the pieces. I personally feel that this will be done by Liberal Left and most of the SLF together, seeing as how the leadership will by then be utterly discredited. Yes, even more than they are now.

  • Most people voted for the LibDems,a party compromising of the SDP and the Leberal Party,as they thought,the LibDems would be elected not the Liberal Party.

    We hear so much about Liberal issues now,the SDP that amalgamated seems to have been forgotten.

    So now people perceive the Liberal Party as a right winged party,that has attacked the vulnerable along with what was and is known as the nasty party.The Tories.So by default,because you supported the Welfare and NHS reforms you also are the nasty party.

    If you want to continue being the Nasty Party,just continue being Right Winged.You will pay though,you will pay the price at the Polls.

  • Paul Westlake 12th Feb '12 - 12:49pm

    The prophets of doom who have commented above don’t seem to be aware of our decent poll ratings (normal for mid-term) or good performance in council by-elections of late.

    We need to keep the door open to both potential coalition partners: they are both illiberal, just in different ways. Tieing ourselves to won weakens our hand in negotiations, which is stupid.

  • To me, at least, the test of what we should and shouldn’t support is how our MPs would have voted on the issue had there been a Tory government with a small majority.
    To claim, as many do, that it is more important/responsible that the coalition survive than we adhere to our principles is wrong. There are always areas of compromise but, to paraphrase Churchill, “I deem it highly important that we should shake hands with the Tories as far to the left as possible.”
    In future elections where do we stand? Being seen as a semi-detached wing of the Tory party is a path without a future…. Many voters are, already asking, “What’s the difference?” Trying to explain to the disabled that, “We made a difference” and, claiming that “there was no choice” will not wash.
    As the ‘cuts’ are felt by more and more people disenchantment will rise, not with the Tories because that is what was expected, but with LibDems…”We’re all in this together” is a phrase which will be held against us rather than those who said it……….

  • David Allen 12th Feb '12 - 1:42pm

    The spectre of the Judea People’s Liberation Front looms large. I would suggest that both SLF and LL need to think hard about how to avoid it.

    The SLF have defined themselves as supportive of the Coalition. Now, I understand why they’ve done that, in the hope that they can then better work quietly behind the scenes to change some of the things which the Coalition does. However, it is a quite unnecessarily divisive stance. Individual party members have a great range of opinions about the Coalition. On the “left”, some would like to abandon it now: some would like it to end at the next election: some would make support or opposition contingent on a variety of particular policy issues: some would support it with various forms of pegs on noses: and all of these people could frequently change their views as the facts and events change. If the SLF stick to a rigidly divisive approach like this, they will be primarily responsible for splitting and weakening the social liberal viewpoint within the Lib Dems. If SLF formally declare support for Coalition, then a second group simply has to form to take the opposite view. Hence a JPLF disaster becomes inevitable.

    Incidentally, Barack Obama used to make similar claims to those of the SLF. His Chicago history led him to believe he was the supreme negotiator, the guy who could get local Republicans to progress bi-partisan policies. Then in Presidential office, he ran up against the hard guys on the national stage, and learned better. My guess is that the SLF will find that their right-wing interlocutors amongst the Tories, and also amongst the Cleggites, are equally hard ideologues, who will flatter their vanity and then give them nothing. I could be wrong about that – but even if so, couldn’t the SLF happily carry on with the behind-the-scenes stuff, while opening their doors to a freer discussion of whether or not the Coalition is a good thing?

    Now, in the interests of balance, let me also have a go at LL. Geoffrey Payne has said most of it for me. It looks far too much like a plug for Labour. In this case, I think the way back to better sense is to re-examine this awkward little word, “equidistance”. LL have said they want us to abandon it. I think that is an error, on two levels.

    First of all, while we are agonising about the word, the Cleggites have thrown equidistance to the birds! They are embedded into the Greater Conservative Movement, in much the same way that Tony Blair instructed his US Ambassador to embed himself into the nether regions of George W Bush! Oh, I know they pretend otherwise. And no doubt they work alongside the Cables and the Webbs and catch them up in that pretence. But everything they have done, most clearly Alexander’s advocacy of a common Coalition financial policy beyond 2015, shows their determination to become the British FDP. For LL to suggest that they were the first to think about non-equidistance is to lose sight of the important point that they sure as hell didn’t!

    But secondly (even if you think Clegg can’t really be as bad as I paint him), we should analyse what has really been meant by “equidistance”. Historically, I don’t think it has genuinely meant that we can never feel closer to one side rather than the other. We were never equidistant, in the sense of political philosophy, between Harold Macmillan and Michael Foot. Or, indeed, between Maggie Thatcher and John Smith. What we did say, consistently, was that we would be open to working with either party. That’s what we really meant. That’s what we should still mean.

    So, I’m quite happy to say that for me personally, Labour are the lesser evil. That does NOT mean that we should hitch ourselves to their star. We have to be prepared to deal with either side, if only because, unless we adopt that as our bargaining position, we shall have no leverage, and no capability to make a decent deal with either side. Even the Cleggites, with their (doubtless completely half-hearted) approach to Labour in the days after the election, could see the value of acting as if playing off one side against the other. LL need to show that they can see it too. Then they will deserve much more respect than is being granted them by so many others in the party.

  • “but frankly it’s not been enough to make a major difference to what is fundamentally a bad Bill.”

    Weren’t the changes made those that were called for in a conference motion in Spring 2011 which was (effectively) put forward by the SLF though?

  • Daniel Henry 12th Feb '12 - 4:24pm

    @ Pete Benson
    The whole “old Liberals are the right while the old SDP are the left” is a lazy characterisation that outsiders use. It wasn’t true in the 80s and is no truer now.

    @Geoffrey
    Great post with good points.
    I really hope the LL see it and take it on board.

  • Tony Greaves 12th Feb '12 - 4:36pm

    Pete Benson should remember that when the merger took place in 1988 (ancient history now!) the distrust of many radical Liberals was that the SDP were too right wing. This had grown up (inter alia) as a result of the stuff that David Owen and his right wing mates* had promoted on their “social market economy” – nowadays more often recognised as “Blairism” or “post-classical neoliberal economics”. (Yes I know, there are people around here still cling to these failed theories!)

    But that’s all past history. My concern with the SLF (am I am member? I’m not sure!) is that they are all about policies. Radical Liberals in the past (nowadays aka Social Liberals) were always at their most successful when they combined a mainstream radical Liberal view of policy with campaigning action. Who will now pick up on that? (Certainly not by holding meetings with the Labour Party or sections of it – that’s reminiscent of the Radical Action Movement of the 1960s led by such luminaries as Richard Holme, even ancienter history, which came to nothing).

    Tony Greaves

    *I am reminded that Roger Liddle is now a Labour peer!

  • Tony, funny you should mention the Radical Action Movement – I was thinking of that a couple of nights ago and wondering whether the revival of something like it now would be useful. Another movement which I believe helped considerably when polls were very low, was the People First campaign of 1990 – 91 (I think).

  • @Tony Greaves
    Ah…..Roger Liddle. I remember trudging through the Clem Attlee Estate during the 1986 Fulham by-election delivering his leaflets attacking the ultimate winners, Labour.
    The only bright spot in the campaign, I seem to remember, was a raucous but inspiring candidate’s meeting addressed by Jenkins and Steel; with Roy unleashing a battery of quite brilliant ripostes that had some anti-EU hecklers literally running for the exit. How I wish he’d been around during the AV referendum campaign, or better still during the 2010 negotiations over electoral reform.

  • Anyone remember the Chard Group – whcih is possibly still going. There was always a feeling that that would be divisive, mainly because of the founding influence on it. But it wasn’t really, so I think it unlikely that Liberal Left will be either. The issue of when and how we come out of coalition was always going to be somewhat fractious, and I don’t think a formal group firing some shots in relation to that is really going to change much in terms of division.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Feb '12 - 11:35pm

    Mathew Hulbert

    As with some of you, I do worry that the Social Democratic tradition in our Party (remember, the SDP merged with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems…the SDP wasn’t closed down) has been somewhat lost.

    Please try teading what Tony Greaves wrote …

    I can assure you there are people who identify with the left in this party who most definitely DON’T think of themselves as being in the “Social Democratic tradition”.

  • Yes, Matthew and Tony are quite correct – please, PLEASE stop falling for this myth that the old SDP was progressive and the Liberal Party wasn’t – the SDP had very many social conservatives, a great part of the disillusioned Labour right and …. David Owen and his nukes obsession.

    It seems to me, the names of today’s groupings are being bandied about without regard to their meaning – ‘liberal lef’t, what could that be? I can’t understand it. ‘Social Liberal Forum’ – it suggests that this is a grouping for social liberals, but actually I think that they’re more concerned with economics and are not classical liberals? help!

    if the SLF must exist, why not simply rally around the good and honourable ‘radical liberal’ tag and drop this obsession with using ‘social’ which comes, I fear, from a misty eyed view of the SDP which really is inaccurate.

  • I was a founder member of SDP than Lib Dems. I was formerly in the labour Party. I joined the SDP/Lib Dems to fight against the meanness of spirit embodied in Thatcherism which has corrupted our national politics and which remains embedded in the Tory Party. I have been fighting Toryisn all my life so please don’t preach equidistance to me .
    May members will wonder what happened to Mike Hancock, a genuine left leaning MP. He didn’t break the law or fiddle expenses but he was hung out to dry without a word of support from our leadership. Perhaps that illustrates the direction we are being led.

  • Mathew Hulbert – “We are, broadly speaking, supportive of the Coalition, pleased that our Party is in Government for the first time in any of our lifetimes, making a real, tangible difference.”

    Its great to read this, because its this positive, pragmatic attitude that will make the difference.

    The big contention that many economic Liberals have with the left is with those who have the antithesis of your attitude (which is encapsulated by the fissiparious Liberal Left position) – who in addition tend to paint anyone involved with the coalition as the antichrist.

    I look forward to making common cause with Liberal Pragmatists everywhere.

  • I have been thinking along the same lines as Matthew Hulbert and am reassured to read what he has to say. As radicals within the party let’s work on stage where the drama is being played out not on the sidelines.

  • Tabman………those who have the antithesis of your attitude (which is encapsulated by the fissiparious Liberal Left position) – who in addition tend to paint anyone involved with the coalition as the antichrist…..

    Or those on the ‘right’ who tend to paint anyone with the temerity to question any coalition decision as Satan incarnate. My problem with the coalition is, that with each major decision, ‘looking from LibDems to Tory it is becoming difficult to say which is which’….

  • jason [sic] – well done! You’ve read Orwell, or at least a book of Orwell quotes. Soon you may even be able to use them in the correct context.

    May I also suggest you read the following article:

    http://www.markpack.org.uk/4767/hung-parliaments/

  • Tabman…..Instead of indulging in silly, snide insults,…..

    As far as finding it difficult to tell Tory from LibDem….From the FT….’Nick Clegg has reacted furiously to reports that three Conservative cabinet ministers have been lobbying against the government’s health bill, amid fears the issue could split the Liberal Democrats at their spring conference next month and destabilise the coalition…”“We have spent months getting our party into a relatively good place on this,” said one ally of Mr Clegg. “We are not going to keep them there if they think that this is open season on the health bill from the Tories and Tory cabinet ministers.”

    “We are not going to keep them there”????? What sort of a comment is that? And, considering that the NHS bill was not, as far as I am aware, even in the coalition agreement how can this de-stabilise it?

  • jason [sic] – coalition politics is all about building and keeping consensus positions both within your own party and across the coalition parties.

    All those in government will have worked long and hard to create proposals that are going to have broad acceptance across both parties. If one party defaults from this position it is totally understandable that the other might feel aggreived for exactly the reasons quoted.

    Consensus-building is long, difficult work – but ultimately constructive.

  • Tabman…………..Our positions are so far apart let us just agree to differ…

  • Simon Hebditch 13th Feb '12 - 5:47pm

    I welcome the debate that has been kicked off by the setting up of Liberal Left. My problem with the Coalition is that the fundamental economic and fiscal policies have turned out to be wrong and the parliamentary leadership has sold out on a range of policy prescriptions, for example welfare reform, in the belief that there was no alternative to a deficit reduction programme as put forward by George Osborne. Of course, some gains have been achieved but these are as nothing to our pursuit of a damaging economic policy.

    The party has to grapple as well with the problem arising in 2010 that a coalition was cobbled together over five hectic days and the public, which had just voted, had no idea what to expect. One result is that there must be open debate before any election about our policy programmeand the electorate have the right to know which other political party we would prefer to ally with if the electoral arithmetic allowed.

    That is why I believe that some hard work needs to be done to both develop our own policy programme for 2015 and beyond and how that might, or might not, relate to the programmes of other parties with centre left values and principles. So, I am all in favour of opening a dialogue with Labour, the Greens and a variety of campaigning organisations to see if common programmes can be devised. I have no idea whether it would work but it is worth a try! I do believe in the old concept of the realignment of the left not the current realignment of the right lauded on the steps of Whitehall by William Hague in May 2010.

  • Dont try and stifle internal debate with calls for unity. Unity is overrated, we are supposed to be a broad and diverse party, this means divisions will always happen and that is a good thing .

  • Jock…I take no credit for that it was copied from ‘Tabman’

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Feb '12 - 12:42pm

    Tabman

    The big contention that many economic Liberals have with the left is with those who have the antithesis of your attitude (which is encapsulated by the fissiparious Liberal Left position) – who in addition tend to paint anyone involved with the coalition as the antichrist.

    This is a ridiculous assertion. Please name some of these people. There are varying degrees of unhappiness about the coalition, but the vast majority of Liberal Democrats on the left of the party have accepted that the balance in Parliament following the 2010 general election made it the only viable option, and the argument has centred not on throwing abuse for merely being involved in the coalition (let alone accusations of being “the antichrist”), but on how the party should play its role in the coalition. The right of the party have wanted to over-emphasise our role in the coalition, the extreme right have wanted to suggest it came about through some sort of ideological convergence on “economic liberalism”. The left of the party have wanted the leadership to be more honest open about the fact that the coalition inevitably involves compromises, and more assertive about what our party would do differently if it were the majority party. The number who regard the mere formation of the coalition as fundamentally wrong is tiny. A larger number would like to see the coalition ended early so that we can go into the next election as an independent force – but stating this is hardly “to paint anyone involved with the coalition as the antichrist”.

    As our party IS in coalition with the Conservatives there is no question about that being a possibility. If it is to retain an independence, the possibility of a coalition with Labour must be kept in view. That doesn’t mean complete agreement with Labour any more than the current coalition means complete agreement with the Conservatives. As the years of the coalition are passing, people within the Liberal Democrats are seeing that misleading coverage of the situation has led many voters to suppose there has been some sort of formal convergence of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats which has damaged us, and have therefore wanted to push harder to create more of an image which shows this is not the case. What is wrong with that?

    If our party does go into the next election still in coalition with the Conservatives and with the assumption that coalition is going to continue after the election, most of us in the party might as well give up. The election will be seen as “Government v. opposition” with “Liberal Democrat” just a label the government uses in a few places where that seems to win a bit of support. The Liberal Democrats may retain their support in those seats they already hold (with a “go easy on them” line from the Tories), and get the anti-Labour vote in those seats where the Tories are in third place. Outside those places – there are not many of them – the party’s vote will collapse, as people who want to vote for the government will vote Tory, people who want to vote against will vote Labour. This is the pattern that was seen as the Liberal Party almost became extinct in the 20th century, with one wing of it becoming just a local label for the Conservative Party – “Conservative and National Liberal” MPs remained in existence up till the 1960s. If we do as you wish, Tabman, we may well have “Conservative and National Liberal Democrat” MPs in the 2060s, but we probably won’t have the independent third force so many of us have spent a lifetime building.

  • Matthew Huntbach – “The number who regard the mere formation of the coalition as fundamentally wrong is tiny.”

    Who form a considerable minority, perhaps even a majority, posting on this website.

    The rest of your post is building a large straw man. I don’t think you will find anyone, even on the “right”, who believes in perpetual coalition with the Conservatives. I can’t say the same about the left – far too many of whom have never studied the lessons of history. The Labour Party has wanted the destruction of our Party since it was founded, and it very nearly got its wish*. Yet we see people such as Liberal Left only ever countenancing coalition with Labour and NEVER with the Conservatives. For us to remain viably independent and not Labour Lite we have to be seen as able to deal with each party.

    * – the Greens are now using the same tactics

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Feb '12 - 10:37am

    Tabman

    Matthew Huntbach – “The number who regard the mere formation of the coalition as fundamentally wrong is tiny.”

    Who form a considerable minority, perhaps even a majority, posting on this website

    Who are they? Name some of them. It can’t include me, because while I’ve been unhappy with the way the leadership have played the coalition I’ve always firmly defended its formation. The only people I can recall posting to this newsgroup who have taken the position that the formation of the coalition was fundamentally wrong are people who were never members of the party and one suspects are and were always Labour party supporters.

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