Opinion: The importance of party unity over the economy

There has been a rise in factionalism across the Liberal Democrats during their time in the Coalition Government – with the Liberal Left, Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Reform and other groups, all promoting their different perspectives. At Party Conference a left/right divide over economics and fiscal policy was very noticeable.

My thesis is that this divide is a serious one which is widening, not narrowing, and without measures to halt the fragmentation, the Party could face problems in establishing a common ‘pan-party’ position at the next election – especially on the economy. Further, I believe that signs of an improvement in the economy may deepen the divide.

The basis for my assertion is that the divide is not based merely on technical arguments over the finer points of economic evidence. It is to a great extent based on quasi-ideological positions -where the facts are made to fit a narrative on one side or the other.

Factionalism has also tended to exaggerate differences. Perspectives now range from laissez-faire ‘market religionists’ to ‘magic money’ ultra-Keynesians’. Some of the latter even argue that the state should distribute free money to the entire population. Will an improvement in UK economic conditions be a victory for fiscal conservatives who attribute low cost UK borrowing to the UK’s austerity programme, or a victory for those who attribute such  improvements to monetisation and regional and infrastructural stimulus programmes ?

There is a job of work to be done to better address such a fissure across the party, and to face up fully to the fact that the Party is divided quasi-ideologically on economics. By contrast many in the Party see the leadership as identifying itself with one particular end of the divide. Such work will, I believe, also help us set out a more robust and distinct economic position at the 2015 election, as well as help unite the party.

There is plenty of scope for reconciling opposing views across the party.

Some in the party wrongly interpret Keynes’ prescriptions. Keynes never argued for a general (ie non-cyclical) stimulus to the economy via debt-financed spending.  On the other hand pro-Keynesians have been wrongly accused of wanting to put the country at risk of bankruptcy.

Pro-market advocates in the party have tended to assume that businesses are less regulatory-dependent than they really are.  They have been accused of wanting to de-regulate the UK back to the 19th Century, despite their emphasis on the ‘quality’ of regulation.

Both sides have been weak on systemic remedies to develop the ‘real economy’ – one side due to an apparent culture of disdain for the private sector, and the other because market ideologists often wrongly assume that markets imply a ‘hands off’ state.

In the real world of commerce and finance  the economic battle lines are much more blurred. For example, are measures to make it easier for non-state investors to finance infrastructure really ‘demand measures’ or ‘supply measures’ ?

It is also patently the case that there are many contributing factors to the UK’s low international borrowing costs: eg the quality of UK debt  and cash management;  the UK’s political determination to keep debt under control;  low inflation expectations; expected stability of Sterling; and expectations of a return to trend growth. The Tories’ over-emphasis on the austerity factor alone, and our own party leadership’s perceived support for this mantra, has been like  a red rag to a bull to the ultra-Keynesians in the Party.

I want to see the Party working through its differences and coming out stronger and more distinct. I don’t want to see opposing groups fixing the facts around their pre-determined positions. I wish to be a member of ONE party, and not feel obliged to choose between factions. I trust that the leadership will recognise the extent of the problem, and react accordingly.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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  • The divide is not just on questions of socio-economic matters, it is also fuelled by the unavoidable moral consequences of the full-monty, 5-year coalition that we were signed up to. Almost all the policies which are hurting ordinary people, starving communities and councils of funds, truncating local services, cutting benefits and harming disabled claimants – derive from the Tories long-standing hate of the welfare state. A grotesque self-mutilation is being inflicted on the poorest and most vulnerable yet this party’s leadership stands by almost mute, seemingly numb to the anguish and trauma which is being suffered by those least able to defend themselves. Oh yes, I have heard the argument about how much worse it would all be if we hadnt gone into full coalition, but that offers no succour to those undergoing the careless cruelty which attends nearly all Tory social policies. When one is being slapped in the face 5 days out of 7, it is little consolation to be told that one has a friend in high places stopping the jailers from slapping us in the face 7 days a week.

    The actions of the Coalition have been despicable, and the moral insensibility of the Clegg leadership has been scarcely believable as being those of Liberal Democrats. How could you call yourselves the inheritors of the Liberal and Social Democrat ideals, yet continue to share government with these hyenas?

  • Norman Fraser 31st Oct '12 - 11:56am

    Whilst I have sympathy for the wish for Lib Dem unity, I think it cannot be achieved because the ideological differences outlined are real. The Party leadership has crystallised the problem by deliberately ignoring the views of a large segment of the membership, firstly ditching by the economic policy outlined in the 2010 manifesto and then by continuing to collude in a programme of cuts which go too far too fast. There is not only a disagreement on economics here but also on the fundamental scope and role role of the state. I see no prospect of squaring this circle because neither side will give up on what in effect are different views of Liberal Democracy.

  • I don’t really understand why this article is illustrated by a photo of the Iraq war march!

  • Is this article not simply wishing for the impossible? A sort of ‘if only we could take the politics out of politics everything would be fine’. Has there really been an increase in ‘factionalism’ (which I take to mean less willingness to compromise/ coalesce around some sort of consensus)? Or is it simply that the economic issues are more stark now than in times of complacent ‘growth’ and the room for the Lib Dems to fudge much less given the responsibilities of government? What I see is a leadership that was much more comfortable with an austerity agenda than many in the membership. The sadness, for an old fogey like me, is the total absence of any radicalism in the Lib Dem agenda. I know it is easy to say’ radicalism’ but what I have in mind is, for example, support for mutuals and co-operatives, a real commitment to a belief that the future lies with green industry and so driving investment in that area, and looking again for opportunities to increase employee involvement in the decision-making, and ownership, of corporates. Of course, the problem is all of that is what I believed 40 years ago – but then it seems it is OK for Heseltine to argue ‘forward to the past’ so why not . So long as the Lib Dems define themselves simply as not as bad as the Tories, not as mad as Labour then they will not inspire commitment.

  • Looking from the outside in looks like this is the consequence of being out of Government for so long and not actually realising what a Coalition would mean.

    The LD have always contained a large wathe of opinion from the likes of Laws on one side and, may I say, a Tong Greaves on the other. There is a common thread but it is very much stretched by the other things they do not hold in common.

    Outside Government this can be coped with as there is no common reference point (voters in Yeovil and Pendle have different priorities) but once in Government this becomes difficult to manage. I think the other parties have similar problems but they have managed to find a way to live through it when in Government.

    I see now that the leadership lacked any preparation for this and their approach since then has not showed any improvement. An example for this is the choice to bring back Laws – he is a Tory i all but name and gives an indication to those on the left that this is just a game for those on the right. Surely using people who could show more of a difference between you and the Tories would have been ‘smarter’. The only social democrat I can see (there may be others hiding away in not very prominent posts) is Cable and he is continuously undermined by both the Tories and his own leadership.

    The issue to me is a lack of real leadership and empathy, rather than a fundamental problem with the party

  • sorry for spelling mistakes in the aboth post ‘Tong Greaves’…..apologies

  • Andrew Tennant 31st Oct '12 - 12:49pm

    Did I participate in a different General Election then? Only I distinctly recall Vince criticising Labour and the Tories for understating the problems facing the country and the fiscal retrenchment required to resolve. I remember Vince publishing this Reform pamphlet (http://www.reform.co.uk/content/4721/research/economy/tackling_the_fiscal_crisis_a_recovery_plan_for_the_uk), and I see more Lib Dem than Tory in the coalition’s current economic policy.

    There is no option to continue wasting money on that which is unsustainable or ineffective – to pay our way in the future we can invest on that that will provide a return, but to do so we need to stop throwing good money after bad.

  • Fair description of the problem, don’t see any solutions proposed tho.

    Tom gets closer but I think we need more debate. Hence big debates at conference, better representation of people from both “wings” on FPC and FCC (and to do that we’ll need every member to have a vote) and encouragement of more debate.

    I believe human nature is to form tribes in groups of 40 or over. Therefore, like companies, we need to motivate people to bring the arguments to the table and have them out against each other. At the moment, there is too much vested interests in the status quo, so both wings retreat to their bunkers, charicature the opposite side and throw rocks at each other. Labour and the Tories do this to each other, but we are supposed to be better than them, aren’t we?

    Enlightened types on both Liberal Reform and the SLF find points of agreement – so it can be done – I’d like to see more of it and wonder why conference doesn’t hold more debate between the two wings, or why such nonsense as voting against planning reform is passed by such huge majorities?

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 1:05pm

    I agree with John Leston. The philosophical divide is a real one and cannot simply be wished away.

    This divide is being explored by philosopher Michael Sandel in his current Radio 4 series (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nl6h6). Basically, either you believe that people are freer the more you remove the state, and that people’s achievements are down to their own efforts, or you believe that people cannot be free and cannot realise their full potential without the support of society, and that their achievements are dependent on the support of other people.

    It is the divide between classical liberals (who believe only in negative freedoms, ‘freedom from’) and social justice liberals (who believe also in positive freedoms, ‘freedom to’). This moral divide is so deep, with such profound consequences for policy, that it cannot be contained in one party. The opening sentence of the preamble of the Liberal Democrats’ constitution makes it clear which side of this divide the party stands: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

    Paul Reynolds is wrong to spread the blame around evenly for the divide in the party. There were very few ‘economic liberals’ to speak of in the party until David Laws and hedge fund millionaire Paul Marshall began working their dark arts about a decade ago. We now have a split because of the efforts of them and their allies.

    The question for Laws, Marshall and their chums is why they have sought to hijack the Liberal Democrats and effect a fundamental change in the party’s philosophy, when a more logical approach would have been simply to join the Tories.

  • mike cobley 31st Oct '12 - 1:12pm

    Sorry, Dave P, but I dont do emotional diatribes: I am, however, pretty good at angry denunciations, which is what that was. As for the moral and logical unjustifiability of my position (which as you correctly deduced is to end the Coalition), I have to wonder at what point will the Clegg leadership actually pull the plug. What obscene proposition falling from the lips of Cameron or Osborne etc will actually provoke in Nick Clegg a revulsion so profound that he will immediately get up from the table and call a press conference to announce the end of this hellish and insincere brotherhood? What are the red lines? Are there any?

    Y’see, Dave, I watched Mark Littlewood on BBC News a week or so ago urging the government to cut harder, deeper and faster, then in the next breath rejected criticism of the cuts since it was only amounting to a mere few percent of overall government spending. I sat there, stunned, not just because this man had once been Head of Communications at Cowley St but because he was clearly at peace with the idea of the uprooting of civil society, the dismantling of the NHS (which is what it is), and the de-democratisation of public services. That argument essentially comes down to let’s not curtail tax evasion (now equivalent to the deficit), or place a temporary surcharge on high net worth individuals; no, let’s make life unutterably crap for those with nothing or next to nothing. Let’s set Iain Duncan Smith loose on the disabled, let’s allow private sector exploiters to leech off the NHS budget, and let’s use the benefit system as an excuse to use coercive, low-level indoctrination on claimants.

    Now, see how I couched the above points in a personal style, complete with certain techniques of invective? I suppose that if I had merely described those points in dry, flat language then dear old Dave Page would have been less put out by it. But since when, in the history of dissent, of progressive argument and campaigning, did dry, flat language ever make an impact? Yes, I am a polemical writer and make no apologies for it, and its worth pointing out that the things I write angrily about do actually exist, that the anguish and suffering going on now in this country as a consequence of Coalition policies are actually happening. It is a burden on my conscience that the party I have been a member of since its inception (barring the odd penurious year) is collaborating in such an outpouring of cruelty and stupidity. A collaboration which I say is neither morally nor logically justified.

  • Bazzasc – you’re wrong on two counts. Laws is not a Tory and Cable is not a social democrat. Both are Liberals, and I suggest hiya actually read what they’ve written before giving into knee jerk stereotypes. Cable, in particular is very pro business and pro enterprise; he’s just not slavishly pro big business. Laws, again, has been a strong advocate or.redistribution. Those of us inside the tent can see this.

    Chris Huhne was also a balancing voice but has ruled himself.out.

  • “There were very few ‘economic liberals’ to speak of in the party until David Laws and hedge fund millionaire Paul Marshall began working their dark arts about a decade ago. We now have a split because of the efforts of them and their allies.”

    Explain, then, why Jo Grimond is quoted as saying that much of what Thatcher and Keith Joseph did was in the mainstream of liberalism, for example? Or that the party promised cuts even in 1997, years before Laws joined, as well as reduced taxes on goods, wealth and jobs? Conspiracy theory nonsense.

  • Geoffrey Payne 31st Oct '12 - 1:21pm

    I cannot claim to be an economics expert so I make my judgement on who has the best track record in predicting the economic crash in 2008 before it happened. The answer to that question was Keynesian economists such as Joseph stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and George Soros. I think it is entirely unfair to patronise them as “magic money” Keynesians at a time when the current economic orthodoxy is so ineffectual.
    At the time of the 2010 general election campaign I thought Vincent Cable was roughly on the same page; our critique of the Tories back then suggested this was the case. The sudden volte farce after that election when we suddenly agreed to George Osborne’s timetable for budget deficit reduction was simply the opposite of what was required and lead to a double dip recession we were told was not going to happen.
    I was amazed that Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, David Laws and Vincent Cable all agreed on the same day to change their position and support George Osborne. I cannot think of any other significant economists outside of the Lib Dems all changing their minds at the same time. The 4 showed remarkable discipline in terms of presenting a united front but if they made the wrong call then the party needs to change back again if we are ever to be credible again.

  • Tabman

    I believe that Cable was a member of Labour and then the SDP so he is on the social democratic wing of the party – I perhaps should have made it more obvious that is what I meant. I do not think he is obviously a ‘Labour’ misfit though and would consider him as being clearly a Liberal Democrat

    Laws is a Tory (as is Littlewood) in my view – perhaps a ‘wet’ but he could easily fit into the current Tory party. I have yet to see an opinion from him that would alter my belief. Heseltine is also big on redistribution – would you call him a Liberal Democrat – to me he is more to the left than Laws is? Laws believes in the markets/private sector and using them as the main way to get redistribution

    It amuses me that you only define members of the party as ‘Liberals’ – what does this mean? The Liberal Party is , I believe, alive and kicking and the Liberal Democrats were formed via a merger of two parties. Do you really see people such as Cable, Williams as being old-fashioned Liberals because I do not!

  • Z

    Wasn’t 97 when they agreed to put 1p on tax to fund spending?

    I also come back to the point I made to Tab,am. Grimond was the leader of the LIBERAL Party , have you forgotten that this pasrty merged with a significant number of Social Democrats? This wing of the party was not so supportive of the policies of Thatcher I think you will find

    It seems this is one of the issues – the current party is focusing on the Liberal (Libertarian???) and forgetting the Social Democrat part

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 1:40pm

    @Z – I repeat, there were hardly any ‘economic liberals’ in the Liberal Democrats (or the Liberal Party beforehand), from the departure of Arthur Seldon et al in the early 1960s until about 12 years ago. Your ‘evidence’ to the contrary is baseless.

    Jo Grimond’s remarks about Hayek were considered eccentric within the Liberal Party at the time and were certainly not in line with the policies he had promoted throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In any case, they had no influence on the rest of the party.

    As for the 1997 manifesto, by no stretch of the imagination could it be described as ‘economic liberal’. Readers can judge for themselves by reading it here: http://www.libdemmanifesto.com/1997/1997-liberal-manifesto.shtml

    You say “Conspiracy theory nonesense”. I’m afraid you have fallen vicitm to the historical revisionism that has been going on recent years.

  • Completely agree –re the economic ideological split in the party is there & is very worrying. There’s a link below to what I think is a brilliant presentation in terms of data. (Obviously it fits in with a certain ideological narrative, which I don’t entirely agree with, but there’s useful info in it for people of any ideological persuasion). Two highlights are:
    Page 37 showing budget deficit since the mid 1990s and illuminates the Labour line of sticking to tough Tory spending in its first years in Government; the chart shows for the late Major Government running a budget deficit, as was basically the case under Labour for every year 1999-2001 being the exceptions. So whether the Coalition’s cuts should have happened sooner or later is I think something the party needs to move on from. Postponing hard choices can’t continue for the best part of another 20 years. (personally I think that more of a delay would have allowed for better planning & targeting of cuts but also unrealistically idealistic).
    Pages 53, 54 & 60 which highlight spending areas and their impact on growth. To eco / paraphrase what Nick Clegg said in his Brighton Q&A – that we can’t just “scoop out” vulnerable sections of society from benefits system (despite there being massive pressure to do so). Suggestions of how we can approach this ought to be things we can unite around instead of trying to turn the clock back.

  • Peter Bancroft 31st Oct '12 - 1:47pm

    I think Paul’s article is a pretty well reasoned one, but doesn’t really get to the bottom of how you reach consensus.

    I suspect the reality is slightly different – there will not be consensus as the party pulls in perspectives across the economic divide. This is particularly visible now due to the state of public finances, the economy and us actually being in government.

    For what it’s worth, the trick here is constructive cohabitation rather than an attempt at re-education or purges.

    Mike Cobley either not understanding or deliberately villifying the views of less statist liberals than him is unhelpful – can anyone argue that spending as much time attacking each other within the Lib Dems is going to make us more successful than if we were concentrating our firepower on the opposition? To be effective we should be first and foremost working together as a team for the same ends, whilst acknowledging that we have differences of opinion about how that is to be achieved.

    Simon argues that we should splinter into multi-party groups, which would almost be a viable option in a European style of proportional government – if he aspires to be a member of a party which secures 3-5% of the vote in each election (like the Dutch D66, the Norwegian Venstre, the Danish Radikal Venstre, etc etc). In our FPTP system, it’s electoral suicide and a derogation of the duty that we all have as liberals to work for individual freedoms in the UK.

  • “For what it’s worth, the trick here is constructive cohabitation rather than an attempt at re-education or purges.”


  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 1:57pm

    @ Peter Bancroft – “Simon argues that we should splinter into multi-party groups”. I said nothing of the sort.

    Most members of the Liberal Democrats subscribe to a broadly social liberal ideology. The market fundamentalists are influential but small in number (despite the attempts of trolls on this website to create a contrary impression). If these fundamentalists left to form their own party, any small loss in support would be more than compensated for by the Liberal Democrats becoming more united.

  • Peter Bancroft

    A weakness in your argument

    Who is the opposition?

    I only see consistent attacks on the Labour Part (and even your own social democratic wing)y with sniping and whinging about the Tories but nothing substantial and it weakens your position when you march behind them through thelobbies, or at best abstain.

    When will you start putting clear orange water between you and them?

    There is no equidistance and your dismissal of the concrns by those on the ‘left’ of the party is lacking the empathy that I mentioned above. It is your leadership that is making the situation worse, noone else!

  • Paul Reynolds This divide you see as urgently needing addressing, has, in fact been there for the time I have been attending Assembly and Conference (I speak as a former Liberal). It runs very deep, and unless you are suggesting a purge (as I believe some have done), your idea is unrealistic – just as it would be unrealistic for Blairites or “New old Labour” to do the same in the Labour Party. I believe this schism will only be healed when the pro-market side finally realise that what they propose is unrealistic in the modern world. We are already seeing some movement here, with IMF specialists at least partially recanting their former beliefs. I think where you are right, is to see this in quasi religious terms. You will know, then, that it is not likely to happen (the healing process) in the way you would like. You say that the leadership should act – it has tried to, but is tainted, and until we have new it will just not happen. Sorry, Paul, if this disappoints you.

  • Its not ideal that our cabinet representatives seem to be to the right of Hezza, at least in terms of action.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Oct '12 - 2:29pm


    Cable is not a social democrat

    So why was he a member of a political party called “The Social Democratic Party”? At what point did he reject the ideology associated with that party?

  • Peter Bancroft 31st Oct '12 - 2:32pm

    Simon – I agree that there are few if any market” fundamentalist”s, but I suspect that you include a large part of the party leadership in that grouping. Bearing that in mind, it’s unrealistic to imagine that people with what I would call “social liberal” views exist at all levels in the party.

    Ultimately, it’s going to be much more interesting talking about who we want to be rather than obsessing over who was around in the 1980s. We can be a party which very explicitly carves out a niche in the “most liberal left-winger” side, we can become an FDP-like party and be un-conservative right-wingers or we can be an alliance of all people against the authoritarians who control Labour and the Conservatives. Which would you prefer?

    bazzasc – The fact that you have to question who the opponents are shows just how much of a mess we are in! Labour and the Conservatives are our opponents in equal measure, whilst we do have other opponents in the form of the SNP, Greens locally, etc.

    When in a coalition it’s obviously most difficult to put clear distance to your coalition partner. Whilst I understand why people think that reactively explaining why we hate the Tories is a good idea, it would be much better for us to spend much more time and effort crafting our own identity and then let Tories complain about how they hate us.

    Of course, the party will never be able to come up with an identity and narrative as long as large and influential groups and individuals within the party are spending their efforts trying to eviscerate other party members rather than defining what we as a party do collectively stand for.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Oct '12 - 3:14pm

    My problem is I find myself caught between the way the leadership has played the coalition and criticism of it of the sort offered by Mike Cobley. Let’s take the latter first:

    Oh yes, I have heard the argument about how much worse it would all be if we hadnt gone into full coalition, but that offers no succour to those undergoing the careless cruelty which attends nearly all Tory social policies.

    This line in many variant forms has been repeated endlessly by almost all critics of the Liberal Democrats who are not to the party’s right since the coalition was formed. However, it simply does not deal with the fact that the people of this country chose to elected a Parliament in which the only viable coalition was either a Conservative-LibDem one or a Conservative-Labour one, with neither side willing to consider the second of these. One might question the legitimacy of this Parliament, since its composition depends on an electoral system which tends to overrepresent the largest party and underrepresent third parties (except those like the Ulster Unionists whose support is all concentrated in a small geographical area). However, the argument “This Parliament is illegitimate because of the distortions of the electoral system” was destroyed by the referendum on this topic where the people of Britain voted, by two to one, to reject even a small reform of it, after a campaign in which the successful “No” side argued that the distortion of the current system was its best feature.

    Therefore, we have to live with what we have, which gives us a Tory-dominated government. It’s what the people voted for in 2010 and even more so when they endorsed its legitimacy in the 2011 referendum. We might not like it, but that’s democracy for you, the people have a right to vote for a government you find unpleasant, you have to live with it. The Liberal Democrats were placed in the unfortunate position of having to be the ones who said “OK, we accept what you voted for” by agreeing not to undermine it by making the country ungovernable – which is what would have happened had all three main parties sat back and said “We will reject any plans which are not 100% from our own manifesto”. Had the country been ungovernable for this reason, the interim Prime Minister would have been David Cameron, he would have had the right to call another general election to try and get a Parliament that would make it governable – easily done, just don’t vote LibDem, which I think is how most people would have seen it and voted accordingly.

    The silly thing is that had the LibDems not been so successful in targeting their vote, it would have been more spread out, there’d have been fewer LibDem MPs, more Tory MPs, and a majority Tory government. It seems to me those ranting and raving about how bad it is to have a coalition would rather have that. The natural corollary of the line “I wish there were no LibDems so we didn’t have a coalition” is that we should have a pure Tory government now. I wish all those criticising the LibDems for entering the coalition and saying “I’ll never vote LibDem again because of that” would have the honesty to admit that’s what their argument leads to – a majority Tory government NOW.

    The argument that somehow the LibDems could force the Tories to abandon Conservative policy and adopt Liberal Democrat policy seems to me to be silly. How? If there were enough Labour MPs to make a Labour-LibDem coalition viable, threatening to go off and form one might work, but there isn’t. The reality seems to me that the most the LibDems can do is weigh the balance, so that if there’s a policy which 45% of the Tories support and 55% oppose, the LibDems might just swing it so the 45% policy gets through.

    Sorry – anyone who doesn’t like that shouldn’t blame the LibDems, they should blame the way the people of this country voted in 2010 and the electoral system which the people of this country chose to support by two-to-one when given a chance to get rid of it in 2011.

    Now, let’s take the other side of the trap I feel I am in: the Liberal Democrat leadership. The way it constantly puts forward the situation we are in as some sort of triumph for the Liberal Democrats, as the conclusion to what we have been working for over decades, just plays into the hands of the critics whose line I’ve denounced above. By playing it this way, it makes it look as if they are very happy with the government we have now, rather than disappointed that we have a government which is largely of another party. By exaggerating the real influence we have, even to the point of issuing a claim that sounded (even if it wasn’t really) like we were saying 75% of this government’s policies are ours, they have wrought ENORMOUS damage to our party. It looks either like defeatism, that we are so pathetic that we are satisfied with what little we have really obtained from it, or as if we really were telling untruths in the election and our real wishes were much closer to the Conservatives’ than we admitted.

    It needn’t have been this way, it really needn’t. Had the Liberal Democrat leadership at the start been honest about the situation, made it clear it was entering the coalition reluctantly purely in order to give a stable government and in recognition of the way the people voted, and made clear also that with just one sixth of the coalition’s MPs (thanks to the electoral system) and no alternative coalition possible, it did not expect to achieve much – sorry, we have an essentially Conservative government, if you don’t like it, next time don’t vote Conservative or back electoral reform so it never happens again – I believe it would have received a much more sympathetic hearing, and be in a much better situation to be offering an alternative once people had seen the reality of a government dominated by today’s Conservative Party – one so extreme that it makes Margaret Thatcher’s party look like a social democratic party.

  • Tom Papworth

    On this name calling:

    I called Cable a ‘Social Democrat’ and in my answer to Tabman said that did not make him a Labour stooge, rather someone who had taken a path that led him to be in the Social Democratic Party which, as some here seem to forget, merged with the Liberal Party.

    Secondly, to someone who is, at the end more important to you than a member, ie a lapsed voter who you should be trying to win back, I see no difference to him and a conservative such as one of the 2010 intake. He is clearly a social liberal but that is not a position that is necessarily a Liberal Democratic one and from a economic point of view he is firmly in the Tory camp. It may be a false perception but whenever I have heard him speak on policy he comes across to me as indistinguishable from a Cameron supporter.

    If you are unhappy with this perception, I would suggest he is kept out of the limelight and away from Government – in any case he should not be there due to his expenses carry-on

  • Andrew Tennant 31st Oct '12 - 3:33pm

    @Simon Titley
    I’d describe myself as an economic and social liberal, desiring for all the capability to exert influence and choice on the direction and experience of their own lives. I reject your characterisation that individuals must be either one or the other.

  • Paul,

    this is a well-written and thoughtful article. I fear however, in common with other commentators here, that what you seek will be difficult to achieve. We pride ourselves as a party on evidence-based policy making. Unfortunately, in the sphere of economic science, there is not a broad and consistent consensus on the evedintial basis from which policy should be formed.

    Economic arguments are most often portrayed in political or ideological terms as oppossed to purely evidential terms.
    Even though much of keynes objective analysis has been proved right over-time, when it comes to implementation of
    policy it has always been piecemeal (and forgotten when the econmic cycle is in an upswing) or policies applied to address problems for which those policies were never intended.

    Harold Wilson tried separating the economic management funcions of the treasury from tax and spending control functions, with the creation of a separate economic planning department, but the initiative was short-lived.

    One possible way forward may be in clearly delineating short, medium and long term economic measures so that a coherent economic strategy can be developed that address both immediate concerns, economic growth and inequality measures over the term of a given parliament and long tem sustainability of public services and debt over a ten year time horizon. In this way we are forced to address the legitimate concerns around the longer-term impact of measures being taken in annual budgets.

  • Andrew Tennant 31st Oct '12 - 3:37pm

    There are a number of Conservative cabinet members who could easily, and would be welcomed by many, be Liberal Democrats at another time. It is my expectation that, when the Tory right seeks to exert their power and to remove Cameron as leader, that many would give serious consideration to leaving the Tory party and joining the more moderate Liberal Democrats.

  • Andrew Tennant

    Who would you consider Liberal Democrat/Tories in the Cabinet then? Do you see any in the Labour Party as well?

    Do you see Cameron as being one as I find it difficult to distinguish him from Laws.

    I think that your post exemplifies part of the problem – you are trying to outflank Labour on the left (or have tried doing so in the past) but are also trying to woo the Tory wets. You are going to have to choose where you position yourselves and I think your economic liberalism (laissez-faire in old speak) holds sway at the moment.

    For those of us who vote(d) for you and consider ourselves to be more from the social democratic standpoint then this does not work anymore and we will look elsewhere. I am not saying you are ‘wrong’ and I am ‘right’ it just means the two of us cannot vote for the same party.

    The fact that your party insists in marginalising the social democratic wing (even to deny that social democracy had any part of the formation of your party) seems to indicate that they either do not have the emotional intelligence to realise it or just don’t care.

    2015 I see a LD/Tory pact in order to progress the Coalition post-2015. You Head of Communications and LIb Dem Voice Liberal of the Year has suggested the same thing so it is not exactly an off-the-wall view

  • Paul Pettinger 31st Oct '12 - 4:02pm

    Matthew Huntbach – Vince was a member of his University Liberal club before he joined the Labour Party or the Social-Democrats.

  • I’d like to talk about who I feel talks a lot of sense :

    Kel Blundell
    Prateek Buch

    Tom Papworth (not sure where you would identify Tom so didn’t put you “in” Liberal Reform but you might like to clarify

    Liberal Reform:
    Mike Bird

    Stephen Tall
    Mark Pack

    And that’s just in our party. Some people in other parties speak sense too, but at the risk of LDV Armageddon that’ll have to wait for another day.

  • Paul Pettinger

    So? Are you denying he was also a Social Democrat?

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 4:35pm

    @Peter Bancroft – “Which would you prefer?” – Well, I’m not the one forcing a division. After the merger had settled down, the party wasn’t seriously divided until the present wave of right-wing activity began around 2001. And if Richard Reeves’s recent Demos pamphlet and New Statesman article are anything to go by (not to mention Nick Clegg’s derogatory reference to “the party we were”), the right is now telling social liberals they should leave the party, not vice versa. If you are so keen on party unity, why not address your criticisms in that direction?

    @Tom Papworth – “To suggest that there were no classical liberals in the party before David Laws and Paul Marshall joined is silly.” – In that case, who were they? The first instances I can think of were in 2001, when Mark Oaten founded Liberal Future and the Peel Group, and Mark Littlewood and his libertarian pals arrived. If there were any classical liberals in the party before that time, they must have been keeping very quiet. “To talk about their publishing the thoughts of nine current or future MPs as “working their dark arts” sounds rather paranoid.” – I assume you mean the Orange Book but I made no reference to it. The activities of Laws and Marshall and their allies went way beyond publishing a book, and it is those to which I am referring.

    @Andrew Tennant – “I’d describe myself as an economic and social liberal… I reject your characterisation that individuals must be either one or the other.” – I hope that sitting on the fence is not too painful. But in the meantime, why not ask Nick Clegg’s former adviser Richard Reeves why he has been repeatedly calling for social liberals (i.e. the majority of Liberal Democrat members) to leave the party and join Labour?

    For anyone else concerned about factionalism and splits, I will repeat: The main impetus to divide the party and drive out one group has come from the right, not the left. When the social liberal majority belatedly reacts and stands up for its interests, it’s a bit rich to accuse them of being divisive.

  • mike cobley. You have a (very accurate) way with words. Well said!

  • @Andrew Tennant – “I’d describe myself as an economic and social liberal… I reject your characterisation that individuals must be either one or the other.”

    Yep, me too.

  • I agree that many on the ‘tory’ right have a visceral hatred and ideological opposition to all forms of the social state, just as I recognise that there are those on the ‘loony’ left with a visceral hatred and ideological opposition to any form of the civil state.

    On the one side you can see attacks on welfare security, on the other you can see imposition of ID cards and centralised databases etc.

    I see no need to attempt any reconciliation between those factions.

    LibDems are united in our rejection of their mad, bad and unworkable proposals, and we are united in our rejection of their ideological conflict with each other.

    Because liberal democracy is a meta-philosophy which is capable of engaging, incorporating and balancing all competing viewpoints – liberal democracy is not an ideology, but a methodology. It is about community politics.

    Britain is a liberal democracy. LibDems should be more like Britain.

  • Liberal Eye 31st Oct '12 - 5:22pm

    An excellent and timely article from Paul.

    It has long seemed to me that the LDs are like the blind men of Indian legend who all get hold of different parts of an elephant and then fight over what an elephant is most like – a tree according to the one who finds a leg, a hose to the one who gets hold of the trunk and so on. Twenty years ago the big problem I saw with the party was that it was all leg men (so to speak!) with remarkably little in the way of economic thinking to bind it together. Such as there was came largely from specialist policy working groups (becaue a political party has to say something at election time) but had little detectable impact on the grassroots.

    This matters because economics is to politics as theology is to religion. It is a group’s shared understanding about how the world works with respect to God or to organising society as the case may be. If there is no shared understanding then there is no real group; only a rag-tag collection of people who happen to be in the same place for a time.

    Because the LDs traditionally didn’t ‘do’ economics the Party has instead spent over 20 years attempting to parse that shared understanding out of concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’; too often it has come down to the latter-day equivalent of arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. At any rate by the only criterion that ultimately matters – the judgement of voters – it is a project that has failed. What was it Einstein said about insanity?

    So I for one was delighted when the Orange Book was published – here at last were others wanting to redress the balance and introduce the missing economic thinking. That was, until I read it. For what became increasingly clear was that much of it was an attempt to put a human face onto a reheated Thatcherism. That is like Methodism compared to the CoE – a faction rather than something essentially different. And so it has proved.

    The result is a party fractionating under the pressure of government into different economic camps. Inevitably these are the existing and familiar camps – vaguely lefty-labour on the one hand, neoliberal on the other. Yet both these have failed badly, both thought that ‘boom and bust’ had been abolished, neither has a clue how to respond to the crisis. And my reading convinces me that this is because neither side is reality-based. As Paul puts it both are “quasi-ideological positions -where the facts are made to fit a narrative on one side or the other”.

    The opportunity therefore is for us to develop a new economics that is reality-based. The hope is that most current supporters (and a flood of new supporters) will be attracted to this. The risk is that some will prefer to stay in their fantasy-based universe and decide to depart the Party. (Since much of the point of neoliberal economics is to justify plundering the public purse it is virtually inevitable that some will take the oligarchs’ shilling and we will be well rid of them).

    The difficulty is what it’s always been – a lack of good leadership. Better leadership would have focussed on making the Party fit for purpose; it would have challenged the membership to search the world for better insights and to upgrade its economic thinking to mount an serious attack on the establishment. Once the crisis arrived it would have given us the priceless advantage of having a viable plan to put to the voters. And I have confidence that key values like ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ would prove to have been baked in rather than being just sprinkles on top of the cake.

    But how do we get better leadership?

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 5:25pm

    @Louise Shaw – Then you haven’t thought very seriously about the issues.

    Do you believe that freedom consists only in freedom from restraint (i.e. negative freedom), and that any attempt to redistribute income or provide public services from taxation is a form of ‘coercion’? If so, you’re a classical liberal. Or do you believe that to be truly free, you must also be free from “poverty, ignorance or conformity”, and require public services to achieve your full potential (i.e. negative freedom is not enough and you also need positive freedom)? In which case, you’re a social justice liberal.

    Do you believe that all social phenomena can be reduced to economic dimensions, and that the market is a value, which trumps other values? In which case, you’re an economic liberal. Or do you believe that the market is a useful mechanism for distributing goods and services, but that it’s not the be all and end all, is not perfect, can never meet every human need and is not the answer to everything? In which case, you’re a social liberal.

  • Peter Bancroft 31st Oct '12 - 5:32pm

    Simon – Richard’s not in this discussion, but if he were to contribute and ask that self-defining liberals on “the left” should leave, I’d have no problem disagreeing with him. Just as I think that anyone asking all liberals “on the right” and even “centrist” liberals should leave.

    You’re too thoughtful a person to call for vast swathes of the party to leave just because you feel Richard Reeves has called for you to leave, so I go back to my original question!

  • @Simon Titley – thanks for your comment. At least it’ll serve as a response to all the people that tell me I think too much 🙂

    I’m going to drive home now but will come back to you later.

  • paul barker 31st Oct '12 - 5:34pm

    In a couple of hours we will see the labour party siding with the right-wing of the tories, demonstrating how little following any sort of principles have in labour ranks, & how divided the tories still are. I dont see any divisions in the libdems that even remotely compare with the splits in the other two major parties. I was never officially a member of the two “ancestor” parties but I have no problem calling myself a liberal & a social democrat. We need a sense of perspective here, its only a couple of years since a labour figure (cant remember thje name) complained that the libdems were “seriously under-factionalised”, a bad thing apparently.

  • Andrew Tennant 31st Oct '12 - 5:37pm

    @Simon Titley
    I believe that democracy is the process of agreeing collectively what aspirations we have for society, what we do best ourselves, and what we achieve more effectively by funding and working together.

    I believe that liberalism is ensuring that our aspirations for society can be achieved by the broadest possible number. I am non-ideological about the method of delivery.

    That’s why I’m a Liberal Democrat.

    But I’m also a pragmatist, and I know everything has a cost, and costs must be paid for. That’s why I reject the idealism of unsustainable spending beyond that which can be gathered as tax revenue. We serve no-one by placing an unreasonable and unbearable burden on a few to pay the bills of everyone; for it’s better to have a smaller slice of a larger pie, than to have a larger slice of nothing.

  • Simon Titley,
    the main impetus to divide the LibDems has not come from either the right or the left, rather it has come from the unholy marriage of interests between extremists.

    This occurs as those on the extreme left characterise everyone else as on the right, and those on the extreme right characterise everyone else as on the left.

    This conspiracy of competing extremes implements a ‘squeeze’ from opposite sides because they both recognise the threat to their shared interest in maintaining power – LibDems in coalition!!! whatever next? LibDems may become the largest single party, or hold an overall majority for a century, preventing them from taking advantage of the excessive and unwarranted privilieges they designed for themselves.

    A two-party system is inherently unstable, and inevitably creates a twin-track process of increased volatility and stagnation.

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 6:06pm

    @Andrew Tennant – Politics is ultimately about making moral choices. If it were simply a matter of ‘pragmatism’, there would be no need for democratic politics and we could delegate decisions to a bunch of technocrats. And this is not about “unsustainable spending”, which you seem not to realise is a value-loaded term. The point is one’s view of what it means to be ‘free’ and one’s concept of autonomy, where liberals must make some stark choices. When you have decided your view of that fundamental question, and can articulate it coherently, we will know what your ideology is (even though you claim not to have one).

    @Oranjepan – Yet another bald assertion. The history of internal politics in the Liberal Democrats since 2001 suggests otherwise.

  • Andrew Tennant 31st Oct '12 - 6:13pm

    @Simon Titley
    What right do I have to define freedom for anyone but myself?

    Unsustainable spending is not a ‘value loaded term’, it’s when any individual or body spends more than it can raise. It applies to countries as much as anything else.

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 6:20pm

    @Tom Papworth – In the same sentence, you say “I avoid identifying myself as part of a group” and “I am still part of Liberal Vision” [a right-wing libertarian faction]! Who do you think you are kidding?

  • Simon,
    assertions are not necessarily fictional, incorrect or untrue, so it amuses me for you to attack mine on that basis by returning the favour with another, albeit one lacking any relevance or validity.

    I’d also suggest you referain from seeking to impose your own definitions, as by it’s nature in a broad political discussion definitions are up for debate.

    re: “politics is ultimately about making moral choices”. Politics can mean many different things to many different people, such as ‘getting things done’, or ‘offering choices’ as well as ‘making choices’. None are the whole story so I wholly dispute your assertion.

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 6:38pm

    @Andrew Tennant – “What right do I have to define freedom for anyone but myself?” – We do not live in isolation and no-one is in a position to define freedom for themselves. We live in a society, in which we collectively make laws and resource allocation decisions that, amongst other things, define freedom for all of us. What those laws and decisions should be is a moral choice. Democratic politics is how we make those choices. Whether you like it or not, if you’ve ever voted or participated in politics, you have been defining freedom for other people.

    As for your definition of ‘unsustainable spending’, it implies that all borrowing is unsustainable. It’s a good job you weren’t in charge during the Second World War.

  • Tom Papworth – thanks for reproducing that quote from the OB by Laws. It blows away all the strawmen and kite flying by those who seek to portray Laws as what he is not.

  • Simon Titley – WW2 borrowing was unsustainable ultimately. We could not afford the troops to sustain the Empire and it wentin short order.

  • Andrew Tennant 31st Oct '12 - 6:56pm

    @Simon Titley
    I’m reluctant to ask, but I don’t suppose you are familiar with Godwin’s Law?

  • Simon Titley – You assert that the majority of lib dem members are social liberals. Evidence?

  • Simon Titley – “Or do you believe that the market is a useful mechanism for distributing goods and services, but hait it’s not
    the be all and end all, is not perfect, can never meet every human need and is not the answer to everything?”

    I do, and I’m an economic liberal.

    Straw man arguments are fun but not very illuminating.

  • Tony Dawson 31st Oct '12 - 7:08pm

    “Andrew Tennant:

    There are a number of Conservative cabinet members who could easily, and would be welcomed by many, be Liberal Democrats at another time. ”

    In your dreams ! (and our nightmares). There was one. He is no longer a Conservative Cabinet member. These two facts are not unrelated, in my view.

  • Tabman

    Your party is the Liberal Democrat Party and is not a solely classical Liberal Party – or so you have had us believe since the merger. Laws saying is a social and economical liberal does not blow anything out of the water. I would say the same about Cameron. His idea of economic liberalism is small state and laissez-faire capitalism with low levels of regulation. I would not say that is too different from the approach of Laws

    I asked Andrew Tennant which Tories would be accepted into thevLib Dems. I am interested to know.

    I see on this forum similar arguments I see on ConHome ( especially on economics). Mark Littlewood is a favourite over there

  • Tony Dawson 31st Oct '12 - 7:16pm

    A truly excellent, well-argued article from Paul Reynolds.

    The point of publishing it on this particular public forum?

    Well, judging by results, to get prominent Lib Dems to kick chunks out of each other in public, fanned on from the sidelines by the usual suspects.

    Whoopee! 🙁

  • Bazzasc – classical and economic liberalism are not the same.

    I agree, the party is a broad church. You seem to think there is no place for economic liberals; I beg to differ. I’m happy to share a party with differing views but reserve the right to debate with anyone who thinks that makes me a Tory.

  • I never said that there should not be a broad church in the party but I see very little influence from any accept the economic liberals who are indistinguishable from the Tories. Similar to the days of New Labour.

    That is my perception and prevents me from voting for you. It seems I am not alone

    It is a shame because I think that, if managed differently by the leadership, it could be different. The bringing back of Laws was an awful decision and sends all the wrong signals

  • Bazzasc – you credit Laws with far more influence than he actually has. You also seem unon able to see .beyond economics. Simon Titley and I split hairs on economics but outside that we would agree on most things.

  • I wouldn’t call it splitting hairs to be honest

    I f you read my posts you will see that I think the party can exist as a broad church but it needs good leadership- something your party is missing. Look at the comments of people who Simon has referred to above

    Laws’s return is symbolic of that

    It was also Andrew Tennant who declared that there would be plenty of Tories cabinet ministers who would be happily welcomed into the LD. I am still waiting for who


  • Mike Cobley

    Thank you, you have summed up very accurately what so many people think and why the Lib Dems have lost so much support in the country.

  • bazzasc,
    if a minister or ordinary member from another party is prepared to support the LibDem fight to promote and defend Britain’s liberal democracy then I am willing to accept them and the party would be foolish not to. You can’t pick and choose your members because they make their own decisions.

    I think it is bizarre to call for a broad church and then castigate specific individuals participation in it, except where they directly call for a narrowing of that congregation. Ex-communication is not a first resort.

    It is also not the libdem way to set too much store by labels, as argued above, these are used to cause division and unrest – which is only wonderful if you don’t want to develop sound policies capable of resolving problems in the world around us.

    Good ideas can come from anywhere, automatically rejecting the possibility that they may come from one direction or another is not good sense.

  • Phyllis, thank you for contributing to the discussion.

  • Bill le Breton 31st Oct '12 - 8:32pm

    You really only get to know your true values when your vote makes a difference. In Government, local, national or European, the easy decisions have been made before they reach you.

    The leadership’s big decisions did not really include whether to enter government or not. They were how to style that process of governing with another party, how to manage fiscal consolidation – the pace for the elimination of the structural deficit – and whether or not to change the commission given to the monetary authority –what do you about the shrinking money supply.

    To characterize the economic choice as ‘Keynsian magic money’ or ‘fiscal conservatism’ is to trivialize the many approaches that have been adopted by other currency issuing countries in response to the global economic crisis and which are reflected in the views of Liberal Democrats here and elsewhere.

    To claim that ‘signs of an improvement in the economy may deepen the divide’ is to reveal prejudice. There has been no improvement. There is no sign of improvement. We’d all welcome any such signs.

    The second big decision; the positioning of the party in relation to the coalition partners and the manifest style of our relationship with the Conservatives – despite much recent protestation of differentiation – remains in the minds of the electorate as light blue which the polls confirm is anathema to non-blues and as irrelevant to blues who will continue to support their team.

    Matters must change. That is why there is agitation within the Party. That is why those who agitate are right to do so and those who believe accommodation should be reached have already taken sides.

  • Oranjepan

    That is all well and good as a perpetual opposition but being all things to all men is not sustainable in Government. I have lived in the north and south and the canvassers seemed to be from different parties!

    Now the realpolitik has arrived and things are becoming difficult. The position that seems to have been taken is to support laissez faire economics with reduced regulation and this is espoused by those in your leadership and supported by many on here. Clearly there is also social liberalism which is where I am in support.

    In order to maintain unity would require a much more robust leadership and not just these faux outrages from Clegg with eventual capitulation (waiting for the boundary change compromise…..)

    The bringing back of Laws, a man who is symbolic of this closeness to the Tories, was misguided an reinforced the impression. This is despite him also being an expenses cheat thus making Clegg look like a hypocrit as well.

    I don’t suppose you agree but most of my LD voting friends think the same and will be looking elsewhere in 2015 . We will see in May 2015

  • Oranjepan

    “Phyllis, thank you for contributing to the discussion.”

    Welcome! Am learning a lot on this most illuminating thread.

  • Bazzasc – which do you dislike in the Labour top team and why?

  • Phyllis – Mike Cibley produces much heat but not a lot of illumination Full of easy platitudes,assertions and no evidenced argument. Calling people “hyenas” doesn’t really lend weight to his point of view.

  • Tabman

    Don’t see the relevance to be honest but not keen on Balls. Flint is highly annoying and there are many others. In general there are too many young, inexperienced politicians. I quite like Miliband. Clegg is a weak leader in my view but think he has been dealt a difficult hand. Alexander is. Not great and Laws I have no opinion of from a personal point of view but think he is very look to still be in Parliament. I know Wille Rennie and like him a lot

    I despise Cameron and Osborne

  • Sorry for misspelling. My ithingy is not easy to type on and autocorrect catches me out!

  • Bazzasc – I ask because your dislike of Laws is projected on the party as a whole. Would you project yiur dislike of Flint onto Labour and use it to justify not voting for them?

  • Tabman

    Let me be clear on this. Laws is a symbol of Clegg’s poor leadership and inability to differentiate from the Tories

    It is no secret the Tories love Laws and see him as being a true believer. This in itself is not a problem if he had not been forced to resign over his ‘economy with the actualite’.

    I can find no other other example since the war of a politician being brought back into Government after being found guilty of such an offence., made worse by it being in the same Parliament.

    The message it sends to people like me is not a good one, emphasising the love-in between the Top Tories and Lib Dems. It is that relationship and the policies they enact which are the problem not Laws himself

    Just for info. I’ve only voted once for Labour since 87. All the other times were LD

  • If David Laws was a Tory, why on earth would he not just join the Conservative Party? I am sure they could find him a constituency.

  • Missomole

    At the moment I would say he doesn’t need to!

    Also, swapping parties is not common at a senior level. Most of the people crossing the floor are not particularly well-received and are seen as untrustworthy.

    I would imagine that if he was joining a party in 2010 then he would have seriously considered the Tories as he seems quite happy to have jettisoned a number of LD policies during the negotiations – with undue haste in my view. Don’t think I would like to have him negotiating for me !

  • Andrew Tennant 31st Oct '12 - 10:25pm

    Sorry for keeping you waiting on an answer – I’ve been celebrating my wedding anniversary this evening, so you’ll understand I hope that leaping to your whims hasn’t been my most pressing priority!

    I’d personally welcome David Willetts, Ian Duncan Smith, and Ken Clarke. And I’d allow David Cameron and William Hague to confess their past sins and make a case.

  • Missomole – quite. It’s not as if he couldn’t have if that was where his convictions lay. That he didnt when it would have been so easy says all you need to know.

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 10:29pm

    @Andrew Tennant – “I don’t suppose you are familiar with Godwin’s Law?” – I am familiar with Godwin’s Law, but since I have not drawn any analogies with the Nazi or Hitler, I fail to see what relevance it has here. My reference to the Second World War was to do with British government borrowing at the time.

    @Tabman – “You assert that the majority of lib dem members are social liberals. Evidence?” – Evidence? A poll here on Liberal Democrat Voice (30 April 2011), in which two-thirds of respondents defined themselves as social liberals and only one-third economic liberals. I’d call that a comfortable majority.

  • Simon – the two positions are not exclusive.

  • Signing out for the night

    Andrew Tennant

    A right motley crew there. Says it all really. Interested to see how you fellow members see that you would see that lot as natural soul mates. Happy Anniversary by the way


    There was no way Laws could have joined a pre-Cameron Tory party with his socially liberal views. Now I think he would be more comfortable but it is too late. I again ask why he would do so at the moment – he is where he wants to be. If there is a suggestion of a Labour coalition in the future he may reconsider but until that happens he has nothing to gain. Crossing the floor is not a good move in normal circumstances

  • Stephen Donnelly 31st Oct '12 - 10:44pm

    @Simon Titley: “Therefore an ideological debate between the state and the market does not settle the issue as far as most liberals are concerned. The question we should ask is where power rests and what provides each of us with greater ‘agency’ and greater life chances. And if state power is too centralised, the answer is often greater democracy rather than marketisation or an entirely abstract limit on public spending.” This post, by you, not long ago, was a good attempt to find common ground.

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 11:00pm

    @Tabman – “the two positions are not exclusive” – If all the people who opted for ‘social liberal’ or ‘economic liberal’ had chosen only one of these, then social liberals would outnumber economic liberals by 64% to 35% (roughly two to one). However, some respondents may have agreed with you that “the two positions are not exclusive” and voted for both. If so, the more who voted for both, then of the remaining respondents, the greater the majority of social liberals over economic liberals. Whichever way you look at it, economic liberalism is a minority pastime.

  • Simon Titley 31st Oct '12 - 11:22pm

    @Stephen Donnelly – Yes, I stand by that position. I believe that freedom is essentially about ‘agency’, by which I mean people’s capacity to make meaningful decisions about their lives and to influence the world around them. I do so because I think freedom should be real and felt, and not merely an abstract or legalistic concept. I object to any attempt to place ideological constructs before human considerations. I also object to economism, by which I mean the reductionist idea that all social phenomena can be reduced to economic dimensions. I therefore object to attempts to define liberalism purely in terms of economic relationships, since if buying and selling are the only means of agency we have, it severely limits what we can say and who we can say it to. I therefore also object to a dogmatic insistence on forcing markets and competition into every nook and cranny of our lives, since this dogma pays no heed to the human consequences. It is because most ‘economic liberals’ take the opposite view that I object to them.

  • Paul Reynolds 1st Nov '12 - 5:49am

    Good to see thoughtful and generally good-humoured contributions. There will always be divisions in the party, especialky a left/right split ‘from the heart’. My essential point is first that more effort is needed from the leadership to reconcile differences creatively, and second that differences have been exaggerated somewat… for example those who describe themselves as ‘demand siders’ or ‘supply siders’ when the economy neds measures on both sides and when i reality the distinction between the two is blurred. Sometimes a bit more intellectual rigour and a bit more of a sceptical pragmatic eye when it comes to grand economic theories can do wonders.

    Personally I do have strong views about not only how to reconcile many opposing views but also about those interpretatios of liberal democracy for the UK’s problems, which strike notes distinct from our electoral competitors and address the UK’s problems more effectively for the public. But those views are best discussed in LD fora…in the context of others views. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom but liberal democrstic approach do geta bit closer! ha ha

  • Simon Titley – I would describe myself as a social liberal; the bigger surprise is 36% didn’t. I don’t think the phrase is well defined and not everyone would agree it means “in favour of increasing state interventiont”. That, to me, is social democracy/socialism. Economic liberalism is about exploring alternatives to centralised state provision.

  • bazzasc,
    ‘being all things to all men’ is a complete inversion of what we’re about (and the evidence of the painful choices we’ve made in coalition disproves it anyway).

    We encourage participation at all levels and are open to productive discussion – as Paul describes, none of us has a monopoly on wisdom, so personal ideology can only a starting point and active decision-making on policy matters will usually involve meeting each other at least part-way.

    Openness corresponds with liberty, participation corresponds with democracy. Each side of either equation requires the other and all outcomes entail balance.

    On which note I’ll add that the phrasing of that cliche is unfortunate since it pointedly excludes women.

  • Geoff Crocker 1st Nov '12 - 9:22am

    ultra-Keynesians’. Some of the latter even argue that the state should distribute free money to the entire population

    I fully and openly own up to being one of these wayward people. It’s not the nonsense idea which you suggest. We can argue ad infinitum about who interprets Keynes best. But he was a man of his time and the current reality is that the crisis continues because its roots have not been fully understood. My claim is that the root of the crisis is the divergence of productivity from real wages which leaves us with higher output GDP but insufficient consumer income to buy it. There is a demand deficit. This causes either rampant unsustainable consumer credit (which jumped from £17bn to £55bn in the UK in 2007) or to managed recession as the government seeks to eliminate the inevitable debt this causes. You appear to be financially orthodox. But your orthodoxy has not averted the crisis. My proposal for a citizen’s income is perfectly defensible intellectually. Take the thought experiment of a fully automated economy with massive output and no wages to buy it – this would force government voucher distribution or a citizen’s income. More is in the paper referred to at the end of my Op-ed https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-why-austerity-is-the-wrong-answer-to-debt-30167.html

  • wow Oranjepan

    Thanks for that, I seem to have forgotten what a sexist I am as shown in that throw away phrase I used! Perhaps I am racist as well as I am sure I used the work ‘black’ in a phrase somewhere in one of my posts

    Remind me though, how many ethnic minority and women MPs do you have?

    All this philosophical debate is very nice but we are frequently driven by perception, however unfair it may seem to you. If it talks like a Tory, walks like a Tory and, in most case, votes like a Tory then it may well be one. If it then has a big grin on its face whilst doing so then then that does not help undermine the perception does it?

    This perception seems to be strong so what, as a party are you going to do about it? This is where I am coming from. The attitude of your leadership deepens that perception which is why I suggest a change in attitude may help somewhat. By giving people something to think about it may start to make them listen again. I listen but don’t like what I hear, unfortunately.

    You may not care, or believe, it is the case – in which case let us wait until 2015 and we can discuss again

  • Dominic Curran 1st Nov '12 - 9:57am

    @ Matthew Huntbach
    “It needn’t have been this way, it really needn’t. Had the Liberal Democrat leadership at the start been honest about the situation, made it clear it was entering the coalition reluctantly purely in order to give a stable government and in recognition of the way the people voted, and made clear also that with just one sixth of the coalition’s MPs (thanks to the electoral system) and no alternative coalition possible, it did not expect to achieve much – sorry, we have an essentially Conservative government, if you don’t like it, next time don’t vote Conservative or back electoral reform so it never happens again – I believe it would have received a much more sympathetic hearing, and be in a much better situation to be offering an alternative once people had seen the reality of a government dominated by today’s Conservative Party – one so extreme that it makes Margaret Thatcher’s party look like a social democratic party.”

    Thank you, and well said. This sums up my feelings exactly. Could you email ths para to every MP, please?

  • Dominic

    When it comes to this subject I find myself agreeing with Matthew as well, not in every point, but he makes me review my opinions. He writes with such passion and feeling and I perceive that he understands the problem some of us have with the messages coming from the leadership which seem to mask the rest of the party

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Nov '12 - 12:12pm

    Dave Page

    Anybody who’s actually read the Orange Book can see the difference between David Laws and F.A. Hayek;

    Yes, Hayek said these things when they were original and needed to be said and said them with a true spirit of liberalism underneath, while Laws just pours out the tired old slogans, derived from this stream, but without regard to how the world has changed.

    Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is a good liberal book, a great improvement on almost all its successors in this ideological stream, I’d recommend it as essential reading for any true liberal.

    The point is when Hayek as writing, socialism was the dominant ideology, and it took intelligence and guts to argue against it. Third rate people would just echo the tired old lines of this dominant ideology without deep thought, but look very clever doing so because it was the fashion. Now the table has turned – simplistic free market economics is the dominant ideology, so the ideology whose assumptions need challenging as Hayek challenged the then dominant assumptions of socialism.

  • Geoff Crocker 1st Nov '12 - 1:22pm

    Surprised to read Matthew Huntbach in favour of Hayek amd ‘Road to Serfdom’, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite reference book. Nicholas Wapshott’s book on Hayek vs Keynes details the argument and shows Keynes triumphant. http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0393343634/?tag=libdemvoice-21

  • Paul Pettinger 1st Nov '12 - 3:05pm

    bazzasc wrote; “So? Are you denying he was also a Social Democrat?”.

    I wasn’t meaning to. I think Vince Cable can best answer about his own beliefs, but as you have raised this question, I think of him as a social-Liberal, rather than a Social Democrat. However, there many Liberal leaning Social-Democrats in the Party, a few who joined at the time of merger (and not all from the SDP) and lots since then , and I welcome them.

    Bill le Breton – thank you for more wise analysis.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Nov '12 - 6:12pm

    Geoff Crocker

    Surprised to read Matthew Huntbach in favour of Hayek amd ‘Road to Serfdom’, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite reference book.

    Yes, it’s always a good technique in politics – when they’re expecting a hit from one direction, sock it to them from the other.

    The crude misinterpretation of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom by those who claim to be his modern disciples misses a lot of his subtlety. I don’t have a full copy to hand, so I can’t give immediate quotes, but even the condensed version which is easy to find on-line (which is not to be trusted for capturing the original without bias) contains, for example (page 38):

    The successful use of competition does not preclude some types of government interference. For instance, to limit working hours, to require certain sanitary arrangements, to provide an extensive system of social services is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. There are, too, certain fields where the system of competition is impracticable. For example, the harmful effects of deforestation or of the smoke of factories cannot be confined to the owner of the property in question.

    So, Hayek is here in favour of protection of workers rights, of a state provided care system, and of environmental protection. All things which those who claim to be his modern disciples often oppose fanatically. If Hayek were to come back in disguise and say these words now, they’d be denouncing him as a socialist. Bernard Harcourt gives a bit more on similar lines here.

    Hayek himself became more shrill and dogmatic and lost some of his underlying liberalism later in life, which is why I recommend Road To Serfdom but not particularly any of his later works. That’s similar to what we see from others who advance good and interesting political ideas – if they are successful and win plaudits they often degenerate into caricatures of their earlier selves.

    Obviously Hayek was writing for his time, the underlying assumptions of his day are very different now, much of what was established wisdom he was attacking then is now deeply unfashionable, much of what he put forward then as a brave new way of thinking is now a commonplace assumption. Society has changed, in particular as I keep saying the rise of the huge corporations challenges some of the liberal assumptions Hayek could make about free market economics. So an intelligent and creative thinker needs to be working on why as we have moved towards Hayek’s ideas and away from what he was attacking, we have not perhaps reached the true freedom he wanted to see, indeed some of what he was out to oppose has reappeared in new forms. The crude third-rate thinker, however, carries on using Hayek’s slogans without deep thought, even when, as Brian Harcourt points out, he is ends up using them to support positions that Hayek was against.

    A good part of what has gone wrong is that whereas genuine liberal feeling was clearly motivating Hayek when he wrote Road To Serfdom, most of those who quote him today to defend simplistic free market politics have as their first motivation the defence of wealth and privilege, or they are the type who just pick up on current fashions and stale tracts produced by the powerful to keep the masses under control and cannot see how they are being used by those with an ulterior motive.

  • Geoff Crocker 1st Nov '12 - 8:22pm

    Matthew Huntbach.

    You clearly enjoy ‘socking it’ to people as you put it . I hope you enjoy this sport if you find it constructive . I’m probably one of the ‘third rate’ people you keep referring to so dismissively. Since you challenged another poster to identify the people he was alluding to, perhaps you could identify those you refer to as ‘third rate’?

  • bazzasc,
    so you see what I mean then?

    I didn’t accuse you of sexism, and I’m a little bit offended at the thought I may have, I merely suggested that using such ‘throw-away’ phases become bones of contention with ‘unfortunate’ and often unwanted consequences in online discussions because in this medium people look for reasons and excuses to self-justify and self-affirm (often via disputes and point-scoring – yes, that means me too) – so even minor word usage gets twisted through interpretation into a raging argument.

    Everyone wants clarity, but because different people have different perspectives we often end up talking about things at crossed purposes.

    The endless scope of the internet allows everyone to focus in on topics and make connections between issues like never before, but in doing so it starts slanging matches about who said what to who (cf Mark Clattenburg), or who meant what when they said such and such, and completely misses the bigger picture that we can be proud of the advances we’re making.

    I assume you’re not a sexist because you’re commenting here knowing that it would be unacceptable, that this participation in discussion implies your support for democracy, and your openness to engage with criticism implies you are a defender of liberty. Even if you’re not a fan of the party (and I’m sceptical of fanatics and extremists alike) I know we have much in common and should be able to work constructively together.

    Don’t you find it strange how a call for toleration, moderation and a bit more care and attention in use of words is read as fighting talk?

    Perversely, the ability to drag out conversations online also has consequences for the patience of participants within the time available – I, for one, find it difficult to concentrate on some lengthy comments and threads and sometimes find myself involuntarily disengaging. Which reminds me of a recent post here that Cameron’s ‘little and often’ style in this media climate may be a less effective strategy…

  • I’ll try to offer a succinct conclusion:

    Political unity is more important than economics because politics shapes economics and without unity the economy disintegrates.

    LibDems have an essential role to play in balancing political debate to ensure outcomes are more constructive and productive.

    And LibDem party unity is therefore more important than the specific policy we adopt at any particular moment in time.

  • Oranjepan

    I think the use of the word ‘man’ instead of ‘person’ in a well used phrase is pushing the boundaries a bit don’t you?

    The rest of your post would totally agree with and appreciate your politeness

  • Paul in Twickenham 1st Nov '12 - 10:19pm

    Some of the criticism levelled here at the party’s change of position about the economy in the days after the general election is unfair.

    While I don’t doubt that a lot of it came from the realpolitik of imminent coalition, it’s worth remembering that it was at exactly that same moment (quite literally in the few days leading up to the UK general election) that the full extent of the Greek situation emerged as Greek debt was downgraded to junk and their government announced that they were on the verge of default.

    Never has the economic shell game been reified so suddenly or explosively. The whole system was turned on its head as sovereign debt stopped looking like a good proposition to investors and instead started looking like a haircut waiting to happen. Everyone in the markets was looking at debt-to-GDP ratios and doing calculations and politicians had no choice but to react.

    In addition to this, the party’s leadership had already made it’s position clear: Clegg used the phrase “savage cuts” during the election campaign – and he used it in relation to what a Lib Dem government would do.

    It’s my impression that the policies we’re seeing pursued now are essentially the policies that we campaigned for in 2010.

  • bazzasc,
    yes, absolutely, though it’s in those commonly accepted phrases that undesirable attitudes find sustenance and are allowed to build. We all need to be a little more careful because others aren’t so tolerant as you or I.

  • Oranjepan

    I still dispute your sweeping generalisation of any phrase/word using the word ‘man’ is the end of civilization as we know it. Millie Tant from Viz would be proud of you

    I also would say that if you were serious about ‘protecting’ women you would not support the austerity programme supported by your ministers that is commonly reported as having an disproportionate effect on women (link as an example)


    I would think that more women would be more worried about coping with that than me using the phrase ‘all things to all men’. A bit of consistency and proportionality is called for I think

  • bazzasc,
    again, absolutely, however for my intended purpose of demonstrating how social media discussion is framed by its context I think it was a good example.

    I’ll also go further and highlight the ability to cite online sources as a destabilising factor in political debate, especially popular sources. As Napoleon famously said, “you can’t always trust what you read on Wikipedia.”

    But that’s not to say I disagree with the thrust of the point about policy regarding equality, rather there’s scope to argue that the Guardian economics editor’s presentation of the facts laid out in a report by the Fawcett Society may not be complete, fair or balanced.

    Here and now probably isn’t the best place to go into it, but to me that article strikes the wrong note on equality because it’s a thinly disguised partisan attack which actually defends lower aspirations and traditional gender roles for women, and argues towards it’s conclusion that those majority of conservative-minded women can now find a welcome home with Labour.

    Consequently I’ll say the headline effect bears little correspondence with the body of content in the article, and this is a widespread standard method which is used for party political benefit at the expense of those it pretends to support – and has serious negative implications for wider engagement with political debate.

    Call me sceptical if you like, I’ll call Heather Stewart cynical.

  • I have read the article about three times now (once in the paper on Sunday). I can’t see what you’re getting at, Oranjepan. I recognise clearly the journalistic trick you are describing, and often get hot under the collar about it, but as far as I can see the content of the article does accord with the headline.

  • Oranjepan

    This is not the only article on this subject and I would suggest that, looking at the target of the cuts, it is not far way from the truth.

    As I said though women are probably comforted greatly by the fact the LD half of the Government is protecting them so well by attacking common phrases with the word ‘man’ in them.

    Who says your party is out of touch……..

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Nov '12 - 12:28am

    Geoff Crocker

    Since you challenged another poster to identify the people he was alluding to, perhaps you could identify those you refer to as ‘third rate’?

    David Laws – seems to me to be way overrated, haven’t seen anything from him that isn’t boring conventional “me too” to stale old ideas stuff.

  • Geoff Crocker 3rd Nov '12 - 9:40am

    Matthew Huntbach

    It’s a relief to see there’s only one person named in your list of ‘third rate’ people. Being ‘overrated’ ‘boring’ and ‘stale’ seem to be the only crimes you suggest are necessary to receive a ‘third rate’ categorisation?

    What would you plan to do with such ‘third rate’ people in your ideal liberal society? It’s important to know because I don’t want to start feeling sympathy for David Laws.

  • Geoff Crocker

    Be fair now, you challenged Matthew to name names and he did – that’s more than Andrew Tennant did when challenged by Matthew!

  • can’t see what you’re getting at?

    I’m merely offering the mild suggestion that The Guardian isn’t quite the gospel many hold it for, as it’s religion is holier-than-thou.

    It is an opinion-paper, it is both explicitly and implicitly biased with a continuous screed of highly partisan defamation and flattery – even it’s sport section is politicised!

    Readers should take it with a dose of salts, or not at all.

  • Bazzasc

    “There was no way Laws could have joined a pre-Cameron Tory party with his socially liberal views. Now I think he would be more comfortable but it is too late.”

    Not to mention the fact that Tory Party not always been very welcoming to gay people.

  • Geoff Crocker 3rd Nov '12 - 11:13am


    I agree that Matthew did supply one name in his illustrious ‘ third rate’ category of people. However his original post did suggest that there were many more of them.

    And it is fair for me to press my challenge in its two dimensions, not only as to the identity of these unfortunate people, but also as to how at all, and by what criteria, Matthew can justify labelling people as ‘third rate’ in what he claims is a vision of a liberal society, and how he proposes such a society would treat them ?

  • Bazzasc,
    just for clarification: You’re attacking LibDems here was for not being socially liberal enough and moving away from the left, and you’ve offered in support a socially conservative source which argues for a move to the right.

    You’ve offered impeccible credentials as a past LibDem voter, and said you can no longer support us because we’re not doing both what we previously said, which you say is what you want – implying that if we did what we said you would continue to support the party.

    So your facts support a different conclusion than your analysis would suggest. Which is, frankly, confusing.

    Either you’re a natural supporter offering an incoherent critique, or you’re a natural enemy trying to cause trouble. My tendency is to plump for the former and agree with your sympathetic sentiment towards vulnerable groups, however this still doesn’t resolve the problem with your argument.

  • Geoffrey Crocker

    Quite honestly I would struggle to name a ‘first rate’ politician these days. I can’t actually think of one! By first rate I mean competent, inspirational and charismatic.

  • Geoff Crocker 5th Nov '12 - 9:51pm


    Your cynicism may have substance but is sad. But it doesn’t answer my point that writing people off as ‘third rate’ is not liberal. And my name is Geoff.

  • Max Wilkinson 6th Nov '12 - 8:28pm

    If the party aligns itself on the centre right of the economic argument, it may as well join the Cameron Tories.
    For me, the debate can be reduced to one simple question: why would any organisation (not just a political party) seek to take up a new position that renders it irrelevant in its market place?

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Nov '12 - 12:05am

    Geoff Crocker

    What would you plan to do with such ‘third rate’ people in your ideal liberal society?

    Nothing. What else do you suppose? Just because I’m not personally very impressed by various people doesn’t mean I would want to round them up and shoot them or whatever else you may be thinking of.

  • Max Wilson – let’s rewrite your post a little:

    “If the party aligns itself on the centre left of the economic argument, it may as well join Miliband’s Labour.

    For me, the debate can be reduced to one simple question: why would any organisation (not just a political party) seek to take up a new position that renders it irrelevant in its market place?”

    See what I did there?

  • Max Wilkinson 7th Nov '12 - 8:30pm

    @Tabman – I agree entirely. We must continue to make decisions based on evidence, good sense and rational thought, rather than a belief in either right or left. However, some of the rhetoric from those at the top seems to suggest alignment with free market fundamentalists like those in the Tory party is the future of the Lib Dems. My view is that such a move would alienate to the apparent majority of the membership, and, I suspect, many of those who have previously voted for us.

    If I was being purely cynical, I would suggest that appearing to be on the soft left side of the economic argument would be more likely to win us votes, or at least lose fewer than we are apparently destined to, in 2015. How many classical economic liberals are out there in the country at large? I don’t know many and I suspect those who do hold those views would vote for a party that has a chance of forming a Government – the Tories. I do, however, know a lot of people who have broadly centrist or soft left views on the economy and share our opinions on issues like reform of the political system, and equality.

  • MW – I don’t think we’ve had a truly liberal economic policy. Tory economic policy is as producer-friendly as Labours, just a different group of producers (private as opposed to state monopolies and oligopolies). And the Tories don’t favour free markets; they prefer to tilt the playing field in favour of big business. Plus liberal economics is indivisible from liberal social policy, opportunity and meritocracy. We are the only party to offer that to the British people. We need to persuade them that monopoly or monopolistic providers, whether state or private, are not in their interest.

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