Liberal Conspiracy: a shortage of liberalism?

The launch of Liberal Conspiracy has generated a fair amount of discussion over whether it’s really about liberalism (the founding document only refers to the Labour party, only one Lib Dem blogger was at the launch etc) or rather just a collection of terribly nice left of centre middle class moderates.

Today’s post about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome (which seems to be one of the issues coming up in the Liberal Democrat leadership debate) rather neatly highlights the question over Liberal Conspiracy: the “left” features seven times in the piece, with just one passing reference to “liberalism”. Phrases such as, “I reckon the Left should face the fact …” make the piece read as if it’s really addressed to Labour and former Labour supporters rather than reaching out to any liberal community.

As a group blog, it’d be unfair to paint the whole site with the outlook of just one contributor (though they’re not the first to seem to have only a passing interest in liberalism), but it does rather highlight the question: where’s the liberal meat in the Liberal Conspiracy?

(All that said – it’s a good site, with interesting content and from an interesting range of people. But if you pick a title with “liberal”…)

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32 Comments

  • Peter Bancroft 8th Nov '07 - 3:34pm

    I think that Liberal Conspiracy is clearly primarily a group of thinking New Left types, but highlighting their lack of liberalism exposes some of the lazy terms that we ourselves use.

    Whilst talking about “us on the left” rather makes it clear that these people aren’t “us who are liberals”, we had a debate just a couple days ago on this site about describing the other two parties as a “centre right conspiracy”.

    When we allow our own vocabulary and indeed thinking to become so soggy, it’s no surprise that it starts to become complicated to understand where legitimately the line should be drawn between liberals and social democrats or even unreformed socialists.

    Liberal conspiracy showcases the debate in social democracy about equality versus opportunity – I’d have never thought that debate could exist inside liberalism, but I’ve been proven wrong.

  • Surely this is an issue of semantics more than anything? What is important is that the writer is talking frankly about how socialist agenda’s might be able to talk the talk but it could be impossible for them to walk the walk, regardless how virtuous their intentions.

    Is socialism liberalism? I don’t know these days, it seems every liberal has their own meaning and definition for their political persuasion and it is ultimately that which Liberal Consipiracy’s lot will have to tread carefully around…but surely we should give them a fair run before criticising what it is that they actually stand for?

  • Richard Huzzey 8th Nov '07 - 5:07pm

    [Double post – sorry!]

  • Richard Huzzey 8th Nov '07 - 5:11pm

    Peter,

    I think you leave “equality” undefined when casting it against “opportunity”. For example, is it “equality of opportunity” you think is illiberal? (I’m sure not). Is it “equality of outcome” you find illiberal? (I’m sure it is).

    Is the language of Chris Huhne about “the equal start as well as the open road” a commitment to equality of outcome? Doesn’t sound like it to me. It’s a different formulation that is missed by a commitment to ‘opportunity’ alone. It’s pointing out that creating ‘life chances’ is about giving everyone a decent start if we are all to have a meaningful choice over their lives.

    Secondly, the Brack/Huhne point about inequality causing harm to others is interesting. Brack’s _Reinventing The State_ chapter points out how gross inequalities seem to cause social alienation and crime that harm the quality of life for all society. It isn’t about being envious of relative inequalities rather than concerned with absolute improvements for the poorest. Even if unmoved on other grounds, you have a self-interest in taking concern in equality.

    As the anniversary of 1909 approaches, is the Liberal party no longer interested in demolishing bulwarks of privilege that harm their opportunity to control and choose their own life choices?

    Yours,

    Richard.

  • Neil Craig, if I understood correctly, you weren’t expelled for supporting traditional liberalism, but because some potentially libellous things you wrote about Paddy Ashdown in your blog.

  • Peter Bancroft 8th Nov '07 - 5:49pm

    Richard,

    I haven’t been playing around with definitions of “equality”, because I think that in terms of the leadership campaign it’s all a bit of a game to sound off the right noises to people – of course the downside is that it risks turning other people off. Whilst I freely admit that I had no intention of voting for Huhne before, the shrill tone of his manifesto and approach to “redefining liberalism” make me think that this election is more important than most first thought.

    It’s a claim at a new “third” type of liberalism.. First classical anti-church/state liberalism, then social liberalism.. now social democracy. I’m afraid that I just don’t buy it.

    I fully understand and rather unsurprisingly disagree with the Brack line that inequality in itself causes societal damage which supercedes the advantages of a freer state.

    The data inevitably focuses on inequality as a proxy for poverty – we make ridiculous statements like saying that education in this country would be better if schools were more equal.

    Clearly if this was true, we’d just go for a quick win and close down the top 100 performing schools in the country. Our education system would be saved.

    Social democracy is divided along these lines – they don’t consider personal liberty an end in itself and can rationally step back and analyse overall outcomes of a state with a high level of equality versus a state with a lower level of equality. I don’t think that analysis makes sense from a social liberal perspective, but there we go. I also disagree that local govt is inherently better than individual choice (Howarth) and various other traditional hard left claims which are occasionally made in the party.

  • Richard Huzzey 8th Nov '07 - 5:55pm

    Peter,

    As always, I find your response intelligent if wrong! 🙂

    Also, I think we’re still with the second liberalism – social liberalism – not a third.

    Cheers,

    Richard.

  • Geoffrey Payne 8th Nov '07 - 6:03pm

    The economic theories of Keynes and Beveridge improved the lot of the working class more than any socialist ever managed, in the UK anyway.
    No wonder Liberalism is an ideology of the left.

  • Good to hear from you both Sunny and Chris (though – Sunny – I suspect a fair few Lib Dems will say that the party is – or should be – about more than just electoral matters :-))

  • Martin Land 8th Nov '07 - 7:47pm

    Cochrane (my hero!) was from a Whig family and actually served as a Radical MP for Westminster for a while. How did this son of the scottish aristocracy end up as our greatest ever sailor? His father, a fanatical Whig sent him to join the Army in London, in a bright yellow suit! Pelted and stoned by a mob in the tory cause, he decided that a career at sea was probably more suited to someone enamoured of Liberty!
    Right or left, I don’t know, but I do know that the division between those opposed to privledge and those who would seek to rule us from above is the consistent theme in our history for centuries. Those who think that my attitude is old fashioned, consider this. The Tory Shadow Cabinet has more public school boys in it than Disreali’s last government and you are more likely to be a member of the shadow cabinet if your name is David than if you are a woman! And Labour? We all know now where they stand in the cause of Liberty!

  • Peter Bancroft 8th Nov '07 - 8:02pm

    MatGB @ 13 – I’m really not sure that this attachment to left-wing as all things good is at all effective.

    I come from a more international perspective to political debate, and it strikes me that in Georgia I’m seen as obscenely right wing (minimise govt, rip through regulations, flat tax, etc), but in Estonia I’m far-left – I want to build up public services and invest heavily in education. In the UK I was “centre left” before Labour invested in public services and am now probably seen as centrist or even “right wing” because there are areas that I’d like to cut out and other areas that I’d like to beef up.

    Equating “left wing” with “good”, “challenging priviledge”, etc is just playing with definitions.

    Some of the time we’ll want to challenge the excesses and abuses of the state, other times we’ll want to strengthen its liberty-providing capabilities.

    Some of the people naturally on our side would see “left-wing” as more of a threat than “right-wing”, others see either as a cop-out. I’d like to see us work with people who are “of the left”, “right-wing” or who just don’t care, so long as they’re liberal and they’re willing to help us make this a more liberal country. I can’t imagine that there’s a better political strategy out there.

  • Simon Titley 8th Nov '07 - 9:05pm

    The “right-left” conceptual model never did do Liberalism justice.

    Might I suggest that, before any of you continue this argument, you take the Political Compass test (at http://www.politicalcompass.org).

  • Chris Keating 8th Nov '07 - 9:37pm

    I started thinking about this and ended up blogging about it.

    Basically, we’re fundamentally progressive: but that doesn’t mean that we should let ‘the Left’ always be inviting us to the Party.

    My fuller thoughts are here: http://clickeral.blogspot.com/2007/11/left-right-forward.html

  • 18 – Simon Titley; Oh please not again! No more Political Compass! It’s asking questions about whether you believe in astrology or not and about your taste in arts. And it’s supposed to measure political views!

    Political Compass is actually a very cheap copy of the original two-dimensional political test, World’s Smallest Political Quiz, but Political Compass is made by people who aren’t actually understanging what they are measuring. Therefore they have also incorporated elements from The F Scale which is supposed to measure how authoritarian personality a person has, but which isn’t really scientific, either.

    Beside the original World’s Smallest Political Quiz I could recommend two variations of it, World’s Enhanced Precision Political Quiz and Politopia Quiz. (Unfortunately all of these three tests are using American political vocabulary.)

  • Political compass is an idiotic tool – it simplifies questions and expects simple answers, but life isn’t that simple – what happens, after all, if you hold no strong opinion either way, or think that different circumstances require different answers?

    A lot of effort has gone into getting others to accept and submit to this type of contextualisation of the world.

    In the same way the left-right divide is a distraction from the real issues to get you to submit to pre-existing hierachies.

    I mean – why vote LibDem when you are given between the lesser of two evils..? You can always emigrate!

  • 24 – MatGB, that might make arts political, but the test is supposed to be international, so it should also apply in countries which don’t fund arts publicly, or where there isn’t fuss about the funding.

    And the actual question was “Abstract art that doesn’t represent anything shouldn’t be considered art at all.” You can answer “agree” to that even if you would support public funding for it anyway, or “disagree”, even if you oppose public funding for any arts.

    And then there’s the question “Astrology accurately explains many things.” What is that supposed to measure, and what does it have to do with political views? I “strongly disagree”, but that doesn’t mean that I would want to forbid anybody making star charts, or following them in his or her daily life.

    I agree that a two-dimentional graph is much better than a one-dimentional, but why buy the cheap copy, when you can get the original? See the tests I refered to, they all are based to a political map with two axes, and they all have only questions, which are somehow related to political views, which they are supposed to measure.

  • #27
    Dimensions are not only measured in two directions, or even three for that matter. So however you try to frame the concept it is a conceit to claim that you have the absolute or absolutely correct answer.

    And here I take issue with the ‘irrelevance’ of astro-sciences.

    Even a cursory inspection of the mathematics that constrains the orbit of many spacial bodies provides lessons from which relevance can be drawn in any number of areas.

    Just please don’t be so small-minded to assume that even primitive attempts at theoretical science and logic cannot provide the crossover from astral example to intellectual understanding and mechanical application (however obscure and complex it appears at first glance), as the limits of research are similarly unknown, and the results of examining the behaviour of particles at places like CERN wouldn’t have enabled the development of useful tools like our increasingly inescapable and ubiquitous internet-web thing-um-a-jig had this possibility been precuded.

    It is a deception for the authors of such quizzes to force subsequential conclusions when the defining question is so badly framed by their own biases. So, is it any wonder that so many people grow to be frustrated and apathetic when they are ignored and discounted for their rejection of the available choices?

  • #28 I didn’t say that dimensions are only measured in two directions, did I? I just said, that a two-dimentional graph is much better than a one-dimentional.

    I have also seen a three-dimentional political map somehwere, but at least in that case the third dimention added was irrelevant for me.

    I wonder if you are mixing up astrology and astronomy? Please read again what I actually wrote.

    But if you actually understood what I wrote, I have as good right for my opinion about astrology than you. I told, that I don’t mind if somebody else wants to follow astrology. I’m also supporting freedom of religion, people have the right to believe in god(s) or not to believe. How about you? And which one of us two actually is small-minded?

  • Geoffrey Payne 10th Nov '07 - 12:22pm

    I remember the Liberal party in the 1980s, and back then the issue of equality was a lot less controversial.
    The article by Duncan Brack in “Reinventing the State” would not have raised an eyebrow. It was common sense that this was what we believed.
    In the 1960s Jo Grimond set us on a course for “Realligning the Left”. It was probably for that reason that Ming Campbell was happy to call himself “Left of Centre”. In the 1980s, the left of the Labour party believed in “Libertarian Socialism”. Civil Liberties, feminism, the green and peace movements actually defined the left in those days, as well as workers rights of course. Liberal publications such as Liberator and Radical Quarterly, plus the Liberal Information Network (LINk) and the Liberal Movement were all keen that Liberals get involved with these movements too.
    Mrs Thatcher was an authoritarian, instinctively opposed to civil liberties, hated multiculturalism and gay rights. Her economic policies, although supported by Jo Grimond, were widely loathed in the Liberal party at that time. Freedom for multinationals to expolit workers did not equate to freedom of the individual as we saw it.
    Now the effects of market forces are complex, and are not always malign. Fundamentally a predominantly capitalist mixed economy would seem to be the only viable system for European economies. The Liberal party has always recognised that, and was strongly opposed to the very socialist 1983 Labour manifesto that proposed “nationalising the top 20 capitalist manopolies”.
    But now that we are debating equality and whether to redistribute wealth, then I would say that the Lib Dems have shifted to the right, and I hope we do not become a third Conservative party, because from my historical perspective that seems to be the direction the party has been moving in for a number of years.

  • #29 apologies for the strong language – i didn’t mean to make suggestions of that type, nor did I wish to add confusion.

    I hope I was defending all knowledge against specific, fixed and final definitions as part of the evolution and continuous development of understanding, especially considering how things change with time. As an example of which I’m glad that you pulled me up on the confusion between astronomy and astrology to highlight this point.

    It’s because of this that I find left-right-centre references unhelpful (they are relative) – I find they try to describe current topics, morphing arguments and creating artificial associations to suit the agendas of those using them, whereas liberalism is a set of diffuse principles that defy such demagogery.

    For example the challenge to educate is at the core of any good liberal argument, yet the same could be said of opponents to liberalism, although we would characterise the practises of those tyrants as propaganda, indoctrination or re-education: we remain slaves to the medium of languages.

    I’m sorry however that you took my comment a little too much to heart (it was late and some wine had been consumed..).

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