A longer listen for the weekend: Can liberalism be better advanced by Lib Dems or Tories?

That was the topic up for debate at a fringe event a week ago at Spring Conference, hosted jointly by the Electoral Reform Society and Liberal Reform.

Lisa Smart, PPC for Hazel Grove, chaired the discussion, with Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne, Conservative and Director of Bright Blue Ryan Shorthouse, and the ERS’s Nick Tyrone completing the panel.

As Jeremy indicates at the beginning of his remarks, he can answer the question shortly: the Lib Dems are the proper home for liberals. But fortunately for the audience he elaborated a little, including some challenges that he thinks the party has to meet if it is to remain at the liberal cutting edge.

The hour-long discussion can be listened to below – please do share your thoughts in the comments below.

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46 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Mar '14 - 12:21pm

    Jeremy is turning into quite a leader, but I have some problems with economic liberalism. Having said that, there is no perfect ideology for everyone.

  • Personally, I’m not a big fan of economic liberalism and see the tories as too bound to traditional class divisions to be in any other sense truly liberal. I think this is why they are unable to attract younger voters and are at the same time so spooked by UKIP, who have tapped into the fears of some older voters.

  • This is all just part of the master plan by a “cohort” of MPs to change the party beyond recognition.

    It was all set out in a newspaper article in April 2011.
    Here is an extract —
    ” It would be a mistake to think that the Lib Dems are where they are because of circumstances alone ….
    Clegg heads a serious and ambitious cohort of MPs who have no interest in the politics of perpetual opposition.
    They want to change the country.
    But they also want to change their party, and change it…. ………there is significant latent support for any party of the centre that can capture the public imagination. ”

    If anyone has seen at tangible evidence of this ‘Centre Party’ strategy “capturing the public imagination” they are keeping very quiet about it.
    As one columnist put it after his DPM Questions on Wednesday of this week Clegg is universally loathed, not just by Laour and Conservatives, but by most Liberal Democrats as well.
    He is getting a tad desperate now with his personal 60% disatisafaction rating and permanent position in fourth place behind UKIP.
    He has been working on this subversion of the party for eight years since he first became an MP.
    It is another one of his failures.
    14 months away from the next general election and all he can offer is enthusiasm for the shipping forecast and other platitudes. His strategy of a Centre Party is a rusty hulk holed below the water line.
    The thing about the shipping forecast is that it shows which way the wind is blowing.
    And it is blowing against Clegg and his cohort of failures.

    One is left asking why they did not just join the Conservative Party in the first place.

  • A Social Liberal 15th Mar '14 - 7:53pm

    Funny how you ask that of any liberal who isn’t on the right, Simon (and where is that damned rolling eyes emoticon)!

  • Hello Simon Shaw, some might think that your question far from being “more pertinent” is actually a tiny bit impertinent. But I will try to answer it straight and hope that you will respect an honest answer.

    I have never been attracted to the Labour Party. I do not believe in what the Labour Party has stood for during my lifetime. When they have been in power they have been little more than a second division conservative party.
    On specific policy areas which are key for me I have for fifty years disagreed with their policies on the following —
    Nuclear power, nuclear weapons, the monarchy, electoral reform, the House of Lords, local democracy and subsidiarity, immigration, secret courts, and a long of human rights issues, Palestine, European Union.
    I have also been put off by the Labour Party’s failure to deliver when in government what it’s supporters believe in and work for and particularly by Blair’s war mongering and cosying up to the rich and powerful.

    Quite simply I have far more in common with the Liberal Party which like you I first joined over forty years ago and the Liberal Democrats who I have worked for since the party was set up. I believe that as an individual involved in politics I should work with people to take and use power. That to me is fundamental for anyone on the left who believes in a participatory democracy. There are some people in the Labour Party who might share some of my views, but the institutions of that party are stacked against genuine democratic participation.
    I am guessing you might have similar reasons as you have been a party member and activist for almost as long as me.

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th Mar '14 - 8:35pm

    Hi Simon
    Surely you are not suggesting that the Labour Party is a proper home for any person of a libertarian radical persuasion? The present “Stronger economy, fairer society” slogan is dreadful and doesn’t do justice to what Liberal Democrats have achieved in Government. It is however soundly centrist and I think that is what grates on many of us. Speaking topically, in my younger days I thought of myself as a libertarian Socialist, however, like many other non-class obsessed, non-collectivists, I soon came to the conclusion that I was actually an egalitarian Liberal and that the Liberal Party was in fact the more radical of the two parties. I believe this still to be the case, even under Clegg. However, if everyone objecting to the recasting of our party as being first and foremost a centre party were to depart, membership, not to mention the number of Liberal Democrat councillors and MPs would, I am sure, be somewhat smaller.

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th Mar '14 - 8:50pm

    @John Tilley
    “On specific policy areas which are key for me I have for fifty years disagreed with their policies on the following –
    Nuclear power, nuclear weapons, the monarchy, electoral reform, the House of Lords, local democracy and subsidiarity, immigration, secret courts, and a long of human rights issues, Palestine, European Union.
    I have also been put off by the Labour Party’s failure to deliver when in government what it’s supporters believe in and work for and particularly by Blair’s war mongering and cosying up to the rich and powerful”

    Exactly! But only thirty-odd years in my case. I’d also add class rhetoric (because they singularly failed to do anything about inequality) and ‘I’m all right Jack trade unionism’ and I say that as a life-long trade union member. In my experience ‘Labourites’ would become Tories over night if they had money. The majority of Liberals would find this metamorphosis very much more difficult – it just isn’t in our DNA.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 15th Mar '14 - 8:51pm

    John, I wonder if you have listened to the recording (and particularly the latter part of it)? Because it is odd that you have posted a critique of the party’s current strategy as if it is a view espoused by Browne, given that he expresses his doubts in the Q&A about us becoming purely a “centrist”, moderate party (like that headed by Birgitte Nyburg in Borgen!).

    The “why don’t economic liberals just join the Tories?” line ignores the crucial fact that the Tories are in a number of respects not particularly economically liberal. They often come down on the side of entrenched privilege instead of merit and entrepreneurialism . And they let prejudice and nationalism get in the way of solid arguments for free trade (I support our membership of the European Union *because* I am an economic liberal). And they are certainly less consistently liberal on other areas (personal freedom, political reform etc).

    I agree with John on why liberals should not join Labour. Neither Labour in its original form nor New Labour can be considered liberal. Statism is the primary thread that runs through all incarnations of the party, and it seems to me is the antithesis of liberalism. Though that is not to say that there are not statists in the Lib Dems…

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th Mar '14 - 10:06pm

    I have now listened to the recording. Yes, interesting and genuinely challenging in places but I am very tempted to use a recent ‘Laws-ism’ regarding Browne’s assertion as to the economics of the past 30 years being liberal. If economic Liberals genuinely believe this, then not only is it they who are they in the wrong party but also on the wrong planet. I wince when they are described as neo-liberal but to hear a senior Liberal Democrat claiming the economics of the pig-trough to be ‘liberal’ is indeed thought-provoking!

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Mar '14 - 10:30pm

    Nick, I don’t think it is necessary to be that rude towards Labour. There are many moral arguments against economic liberalism, including:

    1. Why is state intervention bad unless it is enforcing property rights?
    2. What about digital property rights, such as patents and copyrights?
    3. It is hard to separate equality of opportunity from equality of outcome.
    4. Economic liberalism can increase poverty, especially in the short-term.
    5. It is sometimes too eager to resort to violence through military force.
    6. Its uncompromising style can infringe of religious freedom and help create violence.

    I’m not saying you have to agree, I’m just saying we could improve the tone of debate, given the counter-arguments that exist.

    Regards

  • Nick Thornsby, Apologies, this answer to our question has turned out to be much longer than I intended. I deliberately did not want to engage with what Jeremy Browne said on this occasion because he adjusts his tack depending on the circumstances. It is the underlying plan that is important. That is why I made reference to the Julian Astle piece from three years ago. It provides the context.
    By the way, I do not thnk that Centrism is the party’s current strategy. It may be the strategy of an entryist group, or a ‘party within the party’. But it does not reflect the important words in the constitution of the Liberal Democrats, which set out the purpose of the party. You will not find any reference to Centrism there. Neither does it reflect the last manifesto nor the Coalition agreement.

    ”Economic Liberal” is a term which currently means different things to different people in the party and outside the party. Keynes was a Liberal and an iconic economist, but he would be rejected by some of those people who describe themselves today as economic liberals. I actually do not think some of those who describe themselves in this way actually know much about economics at all. They seem to believe in a sub-Thatcherite view of the world and attach themselves to simplistic policies like balancing the budget by hitting the poor. In fact there is an almost self-destructive, masochistic element to them when it comes to “taking difficult decisions” which is that the more unpopular something is the better because that will demonstrate that they are grown up and responsible.

    I was amused by the Danish TV moderate party headed by Birgitte Nyburg in Borgen because I lived through the years of the creation of the SDP. My friends locally in Kingston who came from the SDP will remember how I and other radical Liberals were distinctly unwelcoming to them in the early 1980s. At national level the SDP had three strands. Some were ex-Labour right wingers who could not stand their colleagues in the Labour Party and who eventually found their logical home in the Conservative Party. The second strand were genuine social democrats like Shirley Williams . The third and by far the biggest group were newcomers to politics, mainly middle-class and professional and just like the sort of people who turned up at Birgitte Nyburg’s when she formed her new party. Most of this strand of the SDP stayed in the Liberal Democrats and have proved to be excellent people. Some even discovered that they were really Liberals all along.

    Clegg’s Cohort just strike me as not really Centrist or Liberal but as Conservative. Clegg himself is a Class A Conservative. His family links to the Conservatives, his introduction to politics via Lords Carrington and Leon Brittan are the perfect background for an aspiring junior minister in the Conservative Party. In fact I think he would have been much happier if instead of leading a party with people like me in it, he could have been a junior minister at the foreign office in a Conservative majority government. Maybe after 2015 that is exactly what will happen and he and Jeremy Browne and David Laws will be rewarded with ministerial office for wrecking the Liberal Democrats.

    The part of the question in the headline to this piece — “Can liberalism be better advanced by the Tories?” is deeply offensive. For some of the reasons that you mention , particularly the fact that they are the party of entrenched privilege, the Conservative Party can never be a vehicle for anything other than its usual ragbag of privilege and prejudice. It is the natural opponent of Liberalism, not just in this country but worldwide. The consistent philosophical strand in Liberalism which can be traced back in this country to the 17th Century sets us against the rich, the powerful and the prejudiced. Apparently the Liberal MP Sir Isaac Foot (father of Michael Foot) used to divide everyone of his contemporaries in politics by assessing which side he assumed they would have been on in the Civil War. Quite a good test if you think it through.

  • I agree with Stephen Hesketh 15th Mar ’14 – 10:06pm
    … to hear a senior Liberal Democrat claiming the economics of the pig-trough to be ‘liberal’ is indeed thought-provoking!

    The thought it provokes in me is the ending of Orwell’s Animal Farm. —“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

  • “A more pertinent question is why people like you don’t just join the Labour Party.”

    Simon, I’d be interested to know how long you have been a member of the Lib Dems. Certainly when I joined the party 26 years ago – when Thatcher was still prime minister – your views would have put you in a tiny minority. Were you a member then?

    It’s interesting that people on the right these days have sufficient confidence not only to argue for the policies they favour, but actually to suggest that those who disagree with them have no business even being in the party. And it will certainly be interesting to see what happens to them after the next general election.

  • I am shocked. I heard Jeremy Browne on Daily Politics. I came in after the introductions and I honestly thought he was a Tory.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 16th Mar '14 - 10:48am

    My interpretation of what Jeremy was saying was that economic liberalism (by which he and I broadly mean capitalism) has been incredibly successful around the world.

    If we look at countries that were at similar points of development in the past and where they are now, I think the evidence is clear. Those economies where markets have not been embraced and there is a high degree of state planning: North Korea, Venezuala, Cuba, Zimbabwe. Contrast with those countries that have embraced markets: South Korea, Brazil, Mozambique, Tanzania.

    In the latter countries, and in India, China and many others, millions upon millions of people have gone from destitution and absolute poverty to relative comfort, not because of the state but because the market has delivered astounding levels of economic growth.

  • Nick Thornsby
    You highlight the point that for you and Jeremy Browne the term “economic liberalism” simply means capitalism.
    In future, why not use the word “capitalist” to describe yourselves ?
    This would save confusion about any connection with Liberalism and clearly and honestly nail your colours to your mast.

    You list countries as evidence that capitalism is splendidly successful. But you do not give a definition of success.

    If you would agree that literacy rates and life expectancy are good measures of success, how do you think Cuba and Venezuela would compare to other Caribbean and Latin American countries with a proudly capitalist economic model?

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 16th Mar '14 - 11:37am

    John,

    “But you do not give a definition of success.”

    Ok, here’s one: being able to afford adequate food, housing, healthcare, education and then as the economy develops further being able to afford increasing amounts of leisure time.

    That is exactly the trend in, for example, South Korea and is the opposite of the trend in, for example, Cuba (have you seen the standard of housing in Cuba?).

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 16th Mar '14 - 11:42am

    There’s a very good BBC documentary on Cuba here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LoFX3uhctI (you can see some of the housing problems at 9 minutes ff).

    At least washbasins are now on the list of things people are allowed to buy!

  • Paul in Twickenham 16th Mar '14 - 12:30pm

    @Chris – I think (but may be worng) that Simon Shaw is not actually suggesting that John Tilley should join Labour but instead intends to create empathy for the reaction of those on the economic right of the party to the suggestion that they would be better to go to the Conservative Party.

    However I completely agree with you that the economic (and sometimes the social) views of some of those who have recently achieved high profile in the party would have been viewed as , shall we say ,”crypto-Thatcherite” by the rank-and-file membership as recently as 10 years ago. Views evolve and parties must adapt, but the Liberal Democrats are 2/3rds of the way through a transformation from a radical non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives, into a drearily centrist, insipid and triangulating British version of that other failed venture, the FDP.

  • 2. What about digital property rights, such as patents and copyrights?

    The idea that these things are “property” is actually a fairly recent development. At their heart, patents and copyright are state-backed protection instruments, and both actually started out as tools for state control: the former for granting monopolies, and the latter as a means of censorship. They evolved into mechanisms for encouraging innovation and creativity, which is fine in so far as they actually do that. However, in the recent decades, intellectual property law has in practice turned back into the special-interest protection system that it started out as. Examples include copyright laws making it illegal to tinker with your own media playback devices and legitimately purchased media just in order to read/watch/listen to it (e.g. to bypass DVD region codes); web-blocking and Internet disconnection without due process; the rise of patent trolls due to lax patent granting rules and expansion of patent protection to fields where it is inappropriate (e.g. software); in-transit seizure and confiscation of generic drugs at EU ports when they are not intended for the EU market.
    In these cases, as in many others, it is the right who tend to protect the special interests in a corporatist, mercantilist fashion, and the left who take a more free-market position. Unfortunately these laws tend to be laundered through international “free-trade” agreements so it is difficult to get out of them. The European Parliament rightly rejected ACTA, and needs to do the same with TAFTA/TTIP if this contains similar language on IP law.

  • “I think (but may be worng) that Simon Shaw is not actually suggesting that John Tilley should join Labour but instead intends to create empathy for the reaction of those on the economic right of the party to the suggestion that they would be better to go to the Conservative Party.”

    Well, if that was his intention he has (whether intentionally or not I can’t tell) completely misconstrued the question he was replying to, which was: “One is left asking why they did not just join the Conservative Party in the first place.” [my emphasis]

    As far as I can glean, Clegg, Laws and Browne joined the party in the early 1990s, when it had very little sympathy for right-wing free-market ideology. So the question is a very valid one.

    It has been claimed that the reason Laws didn’t join the Tory party was its support for Section 28 (banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities):
    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/may/27/david-laws-profile

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Mar '14 - 2:03pm

    Thanks Alex, that is an interesting post. I analysed this once and came to the conclusion that digital property rights are fair because even though the products are not scarce, the time and money used to create them is. However, I still think the public should keep an eye on them because they can be abused. It is also useful to bring up when the right say the state should get out of the way.

    On another point: I thought the sale price for WhatsApp was ridiculous and to me it sounds like property rights might have got out of control. I would like to know more about this.

    I’m also not comfortable with the EU – US free trade agreement. If we don’t want to tax imports then just don’t tax them, harmonising regulations can be useful, but it needs to be more transparent.

  • Chris Manners 16th Mar '14 - 2:24pm

    “In the latter countries, and in India, China and many others, millions upon millions of people have gone from destitution and absolute poverty to relative comfort, not because of the state but because the market has delivered astounding levels of economic growth.”

    China has an incredibly strong state, and has taken 30 odd years to get even this far into the free market.

  • Chris Manners 16th Mar '14 - 2:29pm

    “Ok, here’s one: being able to afford adequate food, housing, healthcare, education and then as the economy develops further being able to afford increasing amounts of leisure time.”

    That’s two criteria, and many countries who have very little in the way of the state haven’t even met the first one yet.

    We’ve been hearing about how some impoverished country is going to do a South Korea for ages now.

  • Stephen Hesketh 16th Mar '14 - 2:35pm

    @Nick Thornsby “My interpretation of what Jeremy was saying was that economic liberalism (by which he and I broadly mean capitalism) has been incredibly successful around the world.”
    Yes, indeed it has and has provided much material advancement for many people. However, the free-market economics of Thatcher, Reagan and their successors has done much to concentrate power and wealth in ever-fewer hands, to widen the gap between rich and poor, to squeeze out small and medium size businesses and has landed us with the worldwide economic crisis we are still attempting to deal with. This all sounds more like an extreme form of unregulated right-wing conservative capitalism than anything I would consider big or small L liberal – be it economic, social or environmental.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Mar '14 - 2:52pm

    Stephen, interestingly I used to have Thatcher style conviction that the financial crisis happened because there wasn’t enough free market capitalism. I used to work in finance and got these views from my experience of the industry, not from a political theory.

    My views have since moderated, but we need to almost go non-ideological and look at which regulations are bad and which are good. It’s too simplistic to think “more laws = good” or “fewer laws = good”. We need to avoid jumping to prejudiced conclusions, if at all possible.

    Regards

  • A Social Liberal 16th Mar '14 - 4:14pm

    I agree with John Tilley and Stephen Hesketh.

    Paul in Twickenham – Simon has form when it comes to this question, which he has posed to more than one member.

  • Stephen Hesketh 16th Mar '14 - 5:11pm

    @Eddie Sammon I am perfectly happy with your line of thought – legislation does need to be appropriate and proportionate in all areas.

    I’d be interested to know which of my comments regarding the concentration power and wealth in ever-fewer hands, the widening gap between rich and poor, the squeezing out small and medium size businesses and the on-going global economic crisis, if any, you consider to be matters of prejudice.

    If Clegg and the MPs closely surrounding him continue in their attempt to force their ‘economic liberalism’ (by which we now know them to mean free market capitalism) views on the rest of us, that doesn’t sound much like them being non-prejudiced or ideological!

  • @ Nick Thor

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Mar '14 - 6:00pm

    Hi Stephen, I didn’t think it was a particularly prejudiced post, I just wanted to challenge the idea that too little regulation caused the financial crisis when I have experienced first hand too much regulation keeping smaller firms out of the market. For instance, I can’t afford to enter the financial advice market because the regulatory fees cost hundreds each month, so I have to make do with being in the admin market for the time being. I also wouldn’t get a finance licence with the amount of capital they expect you to have first, so it is going to be a while yet. You can get regulated by joining a network, but then the costs increase to £800-1000 per month.

    The greater regulation since the crisis has killed off hundreds of small businesses in financial advice over the past few years and replaced them with a public option (the Money Advice Service, funded by more regulatory fees). I don’t know where you stand, but it seems to be when the left talk about helping small businesses they don’t mean it with conviction because they aren’t comfortable with the profit motive and are more likely to do a “Money Advice Service” and replace small businesses with a public or mutual alternative. It especially grates when this option is funded by more regulatory fees.

    It gets more complicated than that and even in my kind of free market ideologue days I agreed with banning commission, but firms with less risky business models should have to pay lower fees, but last time I checked it was just based on the size of the firm and the costs of some of the bad companies were getting spread across the whole industry.

    So in summary, when the left talk about helping small and medium businesses I don’t think a lot of the time they mean it, they are just looking for more justifications to hit the rich, but small businesses are also dependent on large ones and we can’t separate big business from small entirely and say “we are going to hit these, but not these”, when it is all interconnected.

    I’m not sure where you stand on the political spectrum, it is just if there is anyone to save the finance industry I wouldn’t put someone from the left in charge – people need their fears reassured.

    Thanks for reading.

  • @ Nick Thornsby. If you look back at your comments you have shifted ground each time you have commented. Shifting from comparing countries “at similar points of development in the past and where they are now” and ending up comparing Cuba with South Korea. In which decade were these two countries ever at a similar point of development? Is this evidence of a weakness in your original claim?

    The following records your shifting of ground from your original statement. —

    In your earlier comment you said —
    “…If we look at countries that were at similar points of development in the past and where they are now, I think the evidence is clear. Those economies where markets have not been embraced and there is a high degree of state planning: North Korea, Venezuala, Cuba, Zimbabwe. Contrast with those countries that have embraced markets: South Korea, Brazil, Mozambique, Tanzania.”

    I responded —
    “….If you would agree that literacy rates and life expectancy are good measures of success, how do you think Cuba and Venezuela would compare to other Caribbean and Latin American countries with a proudly capitalist economic model?”

    You shifted the goalposts in your last comment —
    “….Ok, here’s one: being able to afford adequate food, housing, healthcare, education and then as the economy develops further being able to afford increasing amounts of leisure time.
    That is exactly the trend in, for example, South Korea and is the opposite of the trend in, for example, Cuba (have you seen the standard of housing in Cuba?). ”

    And just for information, if you check back on the economic development of South Korea during the last 50 years you will find a considerable amount of state intervention both from the government of South Korea and from the government of the USA. It is not exactly a glowing example of a”free market” capitalist model.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Mar '14 - 6:13pm

    Maybe bigger firms could do with more regulation (maybe), but the last thing small finance firms need is more regulation. This brings me back to an old idea of mine “progressive regulation”. Also “smarter regulation”, such as risk based rather than mainly just size based regulation. There are good big companies and bad small ones too.

  • Stephen Hesketh 17th Mar '14 - 6:26pm

    Hi Eddie
    Re my politics – I am a long-term member of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat parties and sometimes sign myself as a green, egalitarian Liberal so if you are a member of the Lib Dems, from what you say above, we probably reside on different wings of the party. However I too have a ‘proper’ job (as an industrial chemist) so have first hand knowledge of the decline of British manufacturing industry. In my experience, this has had less to do with over-regulation than the more balanced approach of many of our National competitors with respect to the macro-balance between the financial and manufacturing sectors, between long term investment and short-term gain between positive and negative attitudes towards industrial democracy, employee involvement etc. I have been witness to many site closures, and the transfer of jobs and work to Germany, Italy, Belgium and Netherlands, and, interestingly, less so to lower-cost countries such as Poland, Turkey or even India and China.

    I did previously comment that legislation needs to be appropriate and proportionate in all areas and agree 100% regarding the size of an organisation being no guide to business ethics – you get cowboy builders and, as we now know all to our very great cost, well-heeled cowboy investment bankers.

    I also agree that some on the left do only pay lip service to the support of SMEs. I must say however that I have never met a single Liberal Democrat who fits that description. It is very interesting to note that our most successful competitors also have much more thriving small-business communities than the UK and that successive Tory and Labour governments have favoured big business over the small.

    Regarding not putting someone from the Left in charge of finance – I think we did (a Mr G Brown) but on the other hand, neither would I place anyone from the political Right in charge of anything that required a long term balanced view – be it social, economic or environmental. This is why I am a mainstream Liberal Democrat.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Mar '14 - 10:23pm

    Thanks Stephen, it is interesting to hear your views and they sound very reasonable. I used to be a member of the party, but I’m on protest for a few reasons, plus I can’t afford to renew my membership! I don’t mind being so transparent.

    Academically I’m a moderate / liberal with no adjectives, but due to personal biases I can’t yet say I don’t lean a tiny bit to the right. Anyway, to get back on topic: I don’t really like economic liberalism, but I can’t say I don’t lean that way slightly.

  • John Tilley asked an interesting question; one that I have asked.

    Nick Thornsby does give an answer and it does have the EU as a reason, which I think is the main reason. However in a later post he gives a definition of what an economic liberal believes in – “capitalism”. However today capitalism usually means a mixed economy and does not mean that everything should be delivered by a free market. So maybe what he and Jeremy really mean is that the state should do little and a free market is nearly always the best way of providing goods and services. He goes on in his first post to state that there are Statists in the Lib Dems. Maybe what he means is that in the party there are people who believe that government should provide some services, in the same way that in the nineteenth century Liberals believed that local government should provide such services such as welfare, housing, sewerage services and water.

    His view of capitalism can be called neo-liberalism and it appears to me to be an extreme form of Thatcherism and its natural home is in the Conservative party as it changed under Thatcher from 1975. My hope is that one day the Conservative party will cease to be anti-EU and those who are anti-EU will have joined Ukip and so the economic liberals will be happy in the Conservative party. Until then Conference should be used to limit their influence on our policies.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Mar '14 - 12:49pm

    @Amalric “My hope is that one day the Conservative party will cease to be anti-EU and those who are anti-EU will have joined Ukip and so the economic liberals will be happy in the Conservative party. ” I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that as obviously a number of good Liberals – Clegg included – are of that persuasion.
    @Amalric “Until then Conference should be used to limit their influence on our policies.” Yes, 100% agreement. The Parliamentary economic liberals do indeed slant our coalition policies in an economically conservative direction to a far greater degree than their support in the wider party would justify.

  • @ Stephen Hesketh – “I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that as obviously a number of good Liberals – Clegg included – are of that persuasion.” I am not sure how “good” a liberal Nick Clegg is, because in government he has agreed to lots of things not in the coalition agreement which are not liberal. However even if he is a “good” liberal it might be good for the Conservative party to have liberals in it as it had in the past (at least from 1912 and maybe before this). Also I believe that the party should have kicked out all our MPs (including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable) who broke their pledge over tuition fees because they clearly brought the party into disrepute.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Mar '14 - 8:40pm

    @Amalric. Yes, Clegg has agreed to many things that we, had we formed a majority Government, would never have agreed to (or been allowed to agree with) but sadly that is not where the electoral result placed us. Also, if we genuinely believe in PR, in Britain, the usual result would be ‘no overall control’ and coalition government; not ideal but better than the alternative Lab-Con-Trick we have been subjected to for much of the past 100 years. If the libertarian radicals cannot find room for those more economically conservative Liberals, we are going to end up 1) looking like the 1980’s Labour party and 2) behaving just as badly as the economic liberals do today.

    As for breaking the tuition fee pledge, the Tories and Labour must have held one hell of a party the day we agreed to that. This single decision will define us for years to come to a generation of present day students and their parents.

  • I couldn’t join the Lib Dems for several reasons:

    a) Firstly the ambiguity about economic liberalism as mentioned by Jeremy (and even those who claim to be economic liberals in the Lib Dems are not sufficiently so for my liking.

    b) A total lack of euroscepticsm. I find it baffling that a liberal party that is obsessed by PR (and yes I agree with you on that front) and as such clearly has respect for democracy is happy with laws not necessarily reflecting the democratic mandate of a party elected in this country.

    c) A lack of what I call “civic” nationalism. E.g. The liberal democrats are against smoking in pubs. I

    My personal views are something like Jeremy Browne’s, but probably a bit more economically liberal. I have problems with a lot of tories, about 50% are dinosaurs, but I find some willingness for real liberal reform on the liberal wing of the party. A lot of what Nick Clegg has done in government is to stop liberal reform by the tories, e.g. inheritance tax cuts, profit making by free schools, regional pay, etc. etc. I will of course give him credit on trident and the communications data bill.

    As things stand I could countenance a tactical Lib Dem vote to stop Labour, but I do prefer the tories all in all. I don’t trust the Lib Dems not to go back to their bad old ways. The tories may not be a liberal party, but they are certainly more liberal than a Lib-Lab coalition would be.

  • Matt Hemsley 19th Mar '14 - 9:04am

    I am late to this debate, but I attended the fringe at Conference and largely found it interesting (if I’m honest the speech from the ERS chap was a bit iffy).

    I thought Jeremy Browne made some very challenging, but perceptive, points – notably as to whether or not Liberal Democrats are actually confident in being liberal. I think this is an even greater problem the more local the party gets – with our emphasis on hard work and standing up for communities, I often wonder if liberalism is even a consideration in what we do at a local level. Even if it is, I’m not clear many of our Cllrs and candidates are instinctively liberal.

    Canvassing once in Cardiff I was challenged by a voter who said that the main story on the ward’s latest Focus was “illiberal” and he wondered what he stood for. I had to agree with him – partly because I had challenged the local Cllr on this point just days earlier.

    At a national level – which is obviously more where the fringe focused – it does seem clear that the party is much more comfortable criticising Ministers such as Gove and Duncan Smith rather than providing liberal alternatives, or indeed willing to defend their record while adding our own priorities. It adds to the issue that no-one knows what we stand for.

  • Stephen Hesketh 19th Mar '14 - 1:18pm

    @Joe “I couldn’t join the Lib Dems for several reasons:” … such as you not being a Liberal?

  • @ Stephen Hesketh – I mostly don’t have a problem with the coalition agreement, which should have been the coalition government’s programme and nothing should have been added to it. The reason why I don’t consider Nick Clegg a fit leader for the party is because he agreed to Conservative policies not in the agreement. Libertarians are not necessary liberals as a blogger wrote, “while both have similarities in terms of the rights and freedoms of individuals and both suspicious of government power, liberalism (modern) sees the Governments primary role as protecting and enhancing those individual freedoms, while a libertarianism feels freedoms can be achieved by government involving itself as little as possible in anything.”

    @ Matt Hemsley – “I’m not clear many of our Cllrs and candidates are instinctively liberal” (sic). It could be broader – some of our members, councillors, candidates, MP’s and Lords are not instinctively liberal. This is because there is no liberal test for people who wish to join the party. I have often asked Liberal Democrat potential candidates why they joined the Liberal Democrats and I remember one person saying recently because they agreed with fairness, another because of the way we help people in the community. My own answer given in 1989 didn’t refer to fundamental liberal beliefs either. Is it possible to test people to discover if they are instinctively liberal? Do members become more instinctively liberal the longer they are in party?

  • Max Wilkinson 21st Mar '14 - 11:42am

    @Amalric

    I’d suggest that members, if they’re active in the ‘community campaigning’ side of things, either as cllrs or campaigners, are bound to become more illiberal. At least, they will inevitably have to be involved in campaigns to stop things, place levies on things or ban things. It might be late night drinking, housing developments, later shop opening times or gentlemen’s clubs. I’m not necessarily saying this will always be the wrong thing to do, but they will rarely be pursuing ‘liberal’ solutions. In most cases, they will be doing whatever is popular with the local residents.

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