Liberal Democrats for Free Trade

Vince Cable at Social Liberal Forum conference 19th July 2014 - photo by Paul Walter

In my view, trade benefits all countries. It spreads technology and good practice; it stimulates competition and rejuvenates economies.

Vince Cable, less than six months after being appointed Business Secretary, said that back in 2010 as he welcomed the EU-South Korea trade agreement.

Liberal Democrats should loud and proud make the case for Free Trade.

It ought to be inconceivable that we have to have this argument again.

For most of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the bone of contention between Liberalism and Conservatism (including the peculiar form of Socialist Conservatism practised by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party) has been between Free Trade and Protectionism.

Time and again, from the Corn Laws to the Great Depression to – it has been said – the causes of the World Wars, protectionist policies have led to disaster, hurting most the very people they were supposed to protect, alienating neighbours and allowing bad businesses to get away with bad practice.

Wherever free trade has flourished, there has been prosperity and higher living standards and indeed peace.

And yet here we are again, with the current referendum brewing up a toxic alliance between the Nigel Farrage-ist right who want to throw up barriers between us and the Twenty First Century and the Big Statist left who spread paranoia about the supposed evils of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

“Charity begins at home”, look after your own first – it’s such an easy sell. That’s why the populists sell it.

And yet it’s the ordinary man in the street, or woman doing the shopping, who are hit by the tariffs.

Trade barriers actually help big business. Their prices go up, so they sell a bit less but they have the scale to absorb it. It’s the little guys who are forced out. And it’s the customer who pays. And then the big companies without competition become lazy take the customer for granted and exploit them.

And we all suffer. Prices go up, so sales go down and a little bit of the profit is lost along the way. The economy shrinks, the government gets less taxes, we’re all paying more for stuff and everyone is a little bit worse off.

The great advantage of free trade is that it gives the small business an edge over the corporate giant: the ability to change, innovate, create new products and bring them to new markets. More people able to trade means more choice for the consumer and lower prices and more new ideas.

The Tory government’s obsession with immigration is all about throwing up barriers to free trade – the trade in people’s skills and labour. And at the same time they are increasingly serving the interests of big businesses and big banks, pushing policies to make it easier for them to exploit near-monopoly status. The Labour Party – when it can forget its internal strife long enough to have an answer – thinks that nationalisation is the cure to all ills. Liberals are properly wary of anyone having that sort of power, state or big business.

Free Trade is such a win-win for Liberal Democrats: it’s individual and it’s internationalist. When people ask us “what are the Lib Dems for?”… this is it!

We need to be strong on the economy, to make this an issue where people know we are the party on their side, who will make them better off.

The economy motion that we passed at Federal Conference in York, while good in its own ways, had a big hole in it where Free Trade, the most important issue of the day, should have been.

That’s why I’d like us to bring a Free Trade motion to Brighton.

And our draft –A Liberal Approach to Free Trade in a Globalised World Economy is available to read online here.

Sir Vince is on board and Catherine Bearder, for the European dimension, has made valuable contributions, and I am looking for more people to sign up to support. Please help us reclaim our title as the party of free trade by taking these three steps:

  1. Sign the motion here (all Lib Dem members can do so);
  2. Share this post and the link to the sign-up form with other members;
  3. Ask your local party to support the motion (a representative of any local party willing to support can fill in the same form, ticking the box at the bottom).

* Richard Flowers has been a Party member for 20 years. He’s campaigned in many an election, stood as a local councillor, and Parliamentary candidate, was Chair of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats, and in 2020 will be Liberal Democrat candidate for the Greater London Assembly constituency of City and East. Thanks to Liberal Democrats in government, he is married to his husband Alex Wilcock. He also helps Millennium Elephant to write his Very Fluffy Diary.

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69 Comments

  • A brilliant article

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 12th May '16 - 2:00pm

    Great stuff Richard. I think there’s a real opportunity here for us to become the party of genuine free trade and enterprise, supporting entrepreneurialism and properly tackling monopoly practices.

  • simon mcgrath 12th May '16 - 2:08pm

    Completely agree.

  • Matt Hemsley 12th May '16 - 2:14pm

    Marvellous

  • Bill le Breton 12th May '16 - 2:18pm

    Richard, where does fair trade fit in with this?

  • Richard Underhill 12th May '16 - 2:23pm

    Yes, but there are limits.
    Please see Jeremy Paxman’s TV programmes about opium being sold from India during the Raj to China, against the wishes of the Chinese Emperor.

  • Max Wilkinson 12th May '16 - 2:25pm

    Well done Richard.

  • Richard Underhill 12th May '16 - 2:27pm

    Party policy also opposes slavery, the slave trades, human trafficking.

  • Liberal Democrats should loud and proud make the case for Free Trade.

    But TTIP (and all the other bilateral trade agreements the US initiated at around the same time) isn’t about this type of “Free Trade”, it is all about protecting US trade with it’s ‘partners’…

    If Libdem’s really believe in “Free Trade” then they need to be putting pressure on achieving agreements in recognised trade organisations that are open to ALL…

  • Tom Papworth 12th May '16 - 3:21pm

    @Richard Underhill: “against the wishes of the Chinese Emperor” but not against the wishes of the Chinese people. An early first example of liberal interventionism :oD

    Seriously though, the working assumption of all those advocating free trade is that the importing country is entitled to exclude prohibited items. The UK could declare unilateral free trade (as we did, under Liberal governments, in the 19th century, with great success) but it would not grant sellers of narcotics free reign to import contraband. For that to be permitted, we would need to domestically legalise those drugs (which I hope, under a Liberal government, we will do in the 21st century, with great success).

    There is a profound political-philosophy question here, though. If a tyrannical regime is denying its people access to some good, are we allowed to over-ride the prohibition and impose “free trade”? Perhaps the question should not be “what are the limits to free trade?” but rather “what are the limits to state prohibition?”

  • Tom Papworth 12th May '16 - 3:26pm

    @Roland: “If Libdem’s really believe in “Free Trade” then they need to be putting pressure on achieving agreements in recognised trade organisations that are open to ALL…”

    Spot on! However, we have to work with what we’ve got. At present, global trade negotiations are largely bi- and multilateral. Truly global free trade agreements are rare and difficult (as the WTO’s Doha round continues to demonstrate). As a result, these kind of intra- and inter-regional trade agreements are the only game it town. It’s a suboptimal game, but at least it’s a game.

    I see them as a slow elimination of trade barriers; first between countries; then between regions; and eventually between blocs. One day I dream we will be as advanced as they were 150 years ago!

  • Tom Papworth 12th May '16 - 3:31pm

    @petermartin2001:

    You make a good macroeconomic point, but I think your concern is a little cart-before-horse. A better way to approach it would be “If you don’t want to run a trade deficit, stop running a budget deficit!”

    Incidentally, I made this very point to the fellow in the photograph above, when he was Business Secretary. He conceded the intellectual point, but moved swiftly on to advocating Industrial Policy, which rather ignored the fact that his £125bn deficit was the cause of the problem.

    BTW: You’re right about the EU, too. In many ways it’s a protectionist bloc writ large. Unfortunately, for every Brexiter who wants to recreate the Liberal International Economic Order of the C19th, there are three who want to throw up trade barriers as we did in the early C20th.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th May '16 - 3:57pm

    I know what it is like to work very hard in the private sector and feel outraged because protesters outside are blaming the hardworkers in the office for society’s ills.

    So I’ll never be anti-business. But cheering free-trade too much makes me nervous. Cheering free trade can lead to selling state assets at knock-down prices, running election campaigns that haven’t got a hope in hell and prioritising financial benefits over everything else.

    The higher environmental standards etc. should ease the strong resistance of the left to TTIP, but I don’t feel comfortable with the party becoming TTIP cheerleaders. The public want caution, not “unapologetic” about free trade. Not all aspects of free trade are good.

    What about economic sanctions too? The draft motion argues that free trade can be used to encourage other liberal reforms such as democracy and the rule of law, but what when this doesn’t work? Sometimes sanctions are the answer and not just positive motivation.

  • TTIP has real problems, it imports US standards which we dont want. I dont want to eat food laced with hormones. I dont want large companies to bully smaller ones with spurious lawsuits. I dont want their pollution standards. I dont really want US companies suing the UK government. Is this protectionism? We have in most European countries a clearer distinction between business and politics, I dont want all of our politicians to be owned lock stock and barrel by corporates like many US politicians are. There is a lot wrong with TTIP and it is not about “free” trade in the way the author thinks it is.

  • Conor McGovern 12th May '16 - 5:18pm

    There is nothing free-trade about TTIP, it’s about corporate power. We’re meant to be against concentrations of power, whether state, corporate or otherwise. Let’s be proudly about free and fair trade, yes, but if they back TTIP with stars in their eyes then this new group need to go back to the drawing board.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th May '16 - 6:05pm

    TTIP is suspicious mainly because it is done in secret.We should be strong advocates of human involvement and scale , and of free and fair trade and the social market economy.

    If it is in no way fair trade , we should say in our view , with modern understanding , it is not free trade. Monopoly , no , protectionist , no , more protection of human rights , labour conditions and sensible regulation of minimum standards yes!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th May '16 - 6:19pm

    George

    Please view my strong advocating for the retention of Democrat in the recent thread on economic liberalism and its meaning .

    I often say it .I , as you know was not in the SDP but feel appalled at the denigration of its significance , in wider rather than party reference .”the failure of the SDP” a phrase used.

    It is absurd.The founders of the SDP were Liberals more so than many on the left or right of that word who are often socialists and libertarians in a different party , this one!

    I have no objection to their being here , expect the same for Liberals who are Democrats !Democracy is as needed as Liberalism and we should be promoting them as one and both !

    You need to face up to something , you are a social democrat and Liberal !Your debating free trade is so impressively Liberal , recognise today you are one of the best Liberals on here !

  • Simon Thorley 12th May '16 - 6:26pm

    @George

    The lack of a liberal approach or mindset in Labour ‘moderates’ should temper our enthusiasm for recruiting them to our party, regardless of how their economic outlook may coincide with ours from time to time.

    It was the ‘moderate’ wing of the Labour party that proposed 42 day detention without charge and compulsory ID cards, damaged cabinet government, and oversaw a gross centralisation of power and promotion of divisive identity politics. Why would we want them to join us?

  • Richard Underhill 12th May '16 - 7:44pm

    petermartin2001 Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister?
    Countries with Democrat in their name are not democratic, such as the former East Germany.
    Is the USA united?

  • “the Big Statist left who spread paranoia about the supposed evils of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.”

    It is not necessarily paranoia. TTIP will hand power to big corporations and place unusual and unfair pressures on governments and the population. It would be wrong to completely deny fracking when sufficient research supports its use but fully back back TTIP when sufficient research suggests it would be disastrous.

  • @George Kendall – re: Liberal v Lib(Social)Dem approach

    I agree, on this particular point terminology does matter, a point that is easily answered by conducting a little market research, namely ask people what ideas come to mind after hearing each of the phrases:

    1. “a liberal approach to free markets”
    2. “a social democrat approach to free markets”
    3. “a libdem approach to free markets”

  • Free trade is seldom that, and even when it happens there is a down side as well as an up.

  • Jim Hodgson 13th May '16 - 9:35am

    I’m very nervous about this motion. I joined the Liberal Democrats because I’m an environmentalist, I’m concerned about climate chaos, ecological decline, and the world we are leaving behind for our children. The Liberal Democrats have the strongest environmental policies, based on working within the system we’ve got; we simply don’t have the time or the inclination to pursue the pre-industrial pastoral existence which the Green Party is working towards. As liberals we are realists with ideals.

    If Liberalism promotes rights and freedoms across generations, how can we feasibly advocate deregulation of markets as is implied in this article? Unabated capitalism is killing the planet, hence my concern that this motion is completely at odds with the cornerstones of what this party stands for. As another comment pointed out, TTIP is about propagation of corporate greed.

    I’m not a socialist, I’m a realist. And yes, free market capitalism, generally speaking, improves health outcomes, education, life chances etc. But to paraphrase David Attenborough: “Anybody who thinks that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible is either mad, or an economist”.

    I’m interested in responses to these concerns from other members of the party.

  • @Simon Shaw

    98% of my post was about environmental limits, not TTIP. Interested in your views on that.

  • @Simon Shaw thanks for your comments, as I’m keen to hear more opinions on this (I don’t have a fixed view) so thanks for engaging in this with me.

    Surely deregulated markets are the basis of free trade? Hence my nervousness that we advocate TTIP in its current form…

    I note that the motion mentioned above actually states that TTIP ought to to consult member states to a much higher degree than at present, and generally become more democratic process. Shouldn’t we therefore be supporting a reformed TTIP, as under its current guise it’s an extremely undemocratic treaty and grants huge powers to corporations.

    I do welcome the emphasis on environmental sustainability in the motion above, but my overriding concern is that ‘free trade’ results in consumerism-on-steroids as a result of new powers being granted to corporations. This is the antithesis of the resource-efficient, low carbon future that we desperately need.

    Thoughts?

  • Geoffrey Payne 13th May '16 - 12:54pm

    I find the article too ideological for my taste.
    Historically Liberals supported free trade in Victorian times because – rather like the arguments in favour of the EU, free trade promoted peace. Whether it was good for the economy or not was a secondary issue.
    Today I think free trade is good for similar nations, but it does not mean trade whatever you like. In the EU we have regulations that protect the environment, the consumer and the workforce. Why would we want to trade with products that undercut our prices by not adhering to those standards?
    So I favour free trade on an equal basis, levelling up standards rather than levelling down.

  • Simon Thorley 13th May '16 - 2:10pm

    @George Kendal

    Thanks for your reply. To address your points:

    “I know trying to draw all those different kinds of people into the party worries some, who think we’ll attract the wrong sort. I don’t share that thinking because:

    a) in the main, the wrong kind of people won’t be joining a party with 8 MPs.”

    The ‘wrong kind of person’ is someone who doesn’t share our core beliefs – I’m sure we can agree on that. Now, I agree that they won’t join us if they don’t share our beliefs – as long as we are clear on what we stand for. What concerns me is the idea of tailoring our message – promoting certain elements and downplaying others – to try and attract someone who, if the truth be told, would not join us due to their core beliefs not correlating with our own. It’s a matter of being honest and seeking to promote the things we believe in.

    “b) when I do recruiting on the doorstep or by phone, if I find someone who wants to join, I thank them. I don’t interrogate them to make sure they’re the right kind of member!”

    I would completely agree – but then again, see my point above. I wouldn’t be happy with recruiting a new member if I’d had to twist the LD message into something it isn’t in order to attract them.

    “c) if there’s a realignment, under FPTP, we’ll have to build working relationships with these people anyway. It’s just, if they’ve not joined us, they’ll have formed a separate party.”

    Building a working relationships with people with different views is somewhat different from seeking to integrate them into a party which doesn’t share their core beliefs. In fact, the latter is borderline undemocratic, in my view.

    “d) if we don’t remain a broad church, we’ll elect zero MPs in 2020”

    And if we become too broad a church, we might elect the whole Parliament – or zero MPs, as we aren’t perceived to stand for anything in particular by the electorate. Can we deny that our 2015 drubbing was due in part to our pre-2010 behaviour of seeking to be all things to all electors – an alternative to Labour in certain seats and the Tories in others – which meant that when in government we were perceived to be two-faced and opportunistic?

  • David Garlick 13th May '16 - 2:25pm

    The number of comments illustrates how important this is.
    I am all for the idea, the principle and the policy of completely free trade but in a sense that is not at issue.
    What bedevils that happening is first an international definition of ‘Free Trade’ which has almost as many definitions as ‘reasonable’. If we have to spend years writing up a Free Trade agreement then the likelihood is that what ever is finally agreed will not be truly ‘Free’ and the devil in the detail will mean that someone somewhere will regret signing up to it.
    The second is ‘How do we get there’ even if we can get agreement.
    Moving from where we are will inevitably mean that there are winners and losers. That may be short, medium or long term and may be in this country or in the USA and even in countries that have no role in whatever deal may be struck but are simple currently trading with any of the signatories. If we agree a free trade deal in good old ‘widgets’ with a signatory to the Agreement we will have to consider what happens to our current supplier(s) of widgets who may be severely disadvantaged as a result.

  • Sue Sutherland 13th May '16 - 3:14pm

    I am confused and I think I would represent a large number of the electorate by saying this. The motion proposes free trade and then states quite a number of caveats to free trade as I (mis)understand it. So what is free trade? Is it the free movement of goods and services around the world or isn’t it? How does free trade help small businesses? How does it stop a large corporation like Nestle from exploiting mothers by persuading them bottle is better but who have no clean water to mix baby formula with so babies become ill and die, or who seek solve the problem of solving the lack of that water supply by selling people their bottled water products?
    How will free trade benefit the person in the street, still suffering from the after effects of the recession? I think free trade became a populist movement in the 19 th century because the Government of the day imposed taxes on corn from abroad,and this limited the supply of bread so people starved because they couldn’t afford this basic food. Things are much more complicated now.
    We have to stop relying on ancient Liberals, great though they were, and develop policies, which, I agree, should be based on great Liberal truths, but which are suited to the 21st century and resonate with people today.
    As Bill le Breton suggests maybe Fair Trade is the answer?

  • Joshua Dixon 13th May '16 - 4:51pm

    I’m not one to scaremonger but I’m a bit wary of throwing support behind the final TTIP agreement before we even know what it will actually consist of!

  • I have to say this seems totally bizarre. How can the Lib Dems `promote free trade` when they are `the party of IN` rather than being explicitly the party of reform.

    The EU IS a protectionist racket around a customs union. The only way you can promote practical free trade is to either a) come out of the EU or b) have a leader that makes it one of the main policies to demand change in the EU rather than prattling on about the conduct of the Conservatives in a recent election they didn’t win.

    If the Lib Dems had a stronger leader who would harry the Tories (and Labour) about free trade in the form of putting our fist on the table with the EU demanding a clear timetable for every other country I could understand it. Yet that’s not what’s on offer.

    Tell me – how are you going to be aggressively free trade inside the EU? What if TTIP fails? That’s years of work down the drain that the UK could have used to make a bilateral deal (as the US have with ooh let me think… Switzerland and err Chile).

    No, the only way to get these free trade policies is to come out of the EU and just work on our own bilateral agreements. If it incentivises the other members of the EU that’s a spin off.

  • When was “free trade” ever really free? Was it really an unequalled blessing with no offsetting downsides? Certainly not in Victorian times although the folk memory of a powerful policy stance echoes down the years.

    And in a very different world? The reliably challenging Charles Hugh Smith says not.

    http://www.oftwominds.com/blogmay16/globalization5-16.html

  • This party has no business supporting TTIP if its backers won’t be open about it. The obsessive secrecy can mean nothing good.

    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ozj0qwnMGZ0&w=640&h=360%5D

  • @Gordon. I rather thought the whole point of the Liberal Party was free trade, pure and simple. Questioning its benefits is simply ahistorical.

  • Josh – the motion doesn’t call for Lib Dems to support the final TTIP agreement come what may. It calls on:

    “Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to support the European Commission’s trade delegation in its negotiations with the US and, subject to the final agreement meeting reasonable, liberal tests on transparency, standards, anti-monopoly provisions, intellectual property and support for small and medium-sized businesses, to support the final TTIP agreement in the European and UK Parliaments.”

  • @ WHS 13th May ’16 – 7:53pm ” I rather thought the whole point of the Liberal Party was free trade, pure and simple. Questioning its benefits is simply ahistorical.”

    Maybe that statement was true up to 1932….. but…..

    Joining the then Common Market wasn’t free trade (see for example Roy Douglas’s comments in past year). Roy Douglas / The Fortunes of Free Trade in Britain — 1968
    http://www.cooperative-individualism.org/douglas-roy_fortunes-of-free-trade-in-britain-19...

    And certainly since at least 1960 the party position has been what you describe as ahistorical. Viz. Jo Grimond over 56 years ago.

    Hansard 14 April, 1960 Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

    “Ever since the Coal and Steel Community was first suggested, the Liberal Party has urged successive Governments, both Labour and Tory, to wake up to what was happening in Europe. It is now more and more widely agreed that we were right.

    We suggested that the Government had miscalculated the forces behind the Treaty of Rome. We urged them to go in and take the place which this country could claim, as a leading European Power. But Governments proved unworthy of the opportunities offered to them”.

  • Chris Young 14th May '16 - 9:16am

    I want to support this motion but I think it might be a hostage to fortune in its current form. Like it or not, TTIP is (like the Liberal Democrats in many quartets) a toxic brand. It will make it too easy for former allies to dismiss us as having gone all right-wing and beyond redemption.

    This need not affect the substance of our approach but it has to inform how we present it. I think we need to change emphasis. We are about “making global trade work for people and the environment” – and I would be much happier seeing a motion under that title. And right from the start, we need to define our terms: free trade is misunderstood by many if not most to mean unregulated. It is the very act of regulation that enables the trade to become freer without the “race to the bottom”. We need to show this, with a few clear examples (possibly detailed in greater depth in a supporting paper/website/article). The economic illiteracy of many on the well-meaning left, which means many support counterproductive policies, can only be changed if we bring them with us at every step of the argument.

    Politically, we need to welcome all the improvements made to TTIP. Our support for any agreement has to be based on a thorough assessment of what’s actually in the final draft – not scaremongering, not anything that undermines hard-won European standards. In theory, TTIP can be made to work. I often use the example of the hypothetical small business exporting green technology, thwarted by incompatible testing regimes – I suggest such an example fleshed out would be beneficial to illustrate the whole point of Liberal Democrat support for free trade, which is distinct from knee-jerk economic liberalism and does not put principle before the facts. We need to tap into pragmatism and start stating that loud and clear. The narrative of pragmatism is the only way we are going to get people to realise why we do what we do and be prepared to accept the facts, mistakes and mis-spins of the Coalition era (and indeed the Better Together era).

    I mustn’t overcommit on health grounds but I would really like to take this motion back to the drawing board.

  • simon mcgrath 14th May '16 - 9:45am

    @John Medway “Secondly the ideology is one for which I have no great enthusiasm. Free trade is a good thing in some circumstances but not always. For example, it works to the disadvantage of underdeveloped countries because the law of comparative advantage tends to lock them into being producers of low-value commodities, with diminished opportunity to move into high value-added production.”
    thanks for explaining why it is that Japan and South Korea have remained low value commodity producers…..

  • WHS – you make some interesting points. The old Liberal Party did indeed come together from several pre-existing factions in the early 1840s largely around common support for “free trade”. But why then? Just a few years before the consensus view was to impose tariffs that reached over 200% on some product categories.

    The answer was that steam power came of age – e.g. Stephenson’s Rocket had it’s first outing only a few years earlier in 1828 – and the result was to slash the production costs of textiles. So Britain became the world’s low cost manufacturer and, briefly, the world’s only industrial country. Support for “free trade” was therefore an entirely self-interested position to expand markets and increase profits.

    As the world’s only superpower at the time Britain was able to enforce “free trade” on Bengal (via colonial rule) which saw its formerly important textile industry collapse, its prosperity ruined and its people immiserated. Similarly in China “free trade” (this time involving trade goods rather than manufactured goods) was promoted by military power to force them to take opium, again for profit above morality or decency.

    Even in Britain the result wasn’t entirely good – conditions for working people became much worse than they had been some years earlier as documented by Engels 1845 work “The Condition of the Working Class in England”.

    So, the ahistorical position is to believe that “free trade” is necessarily a win-win policy. Historically, it was the opposite but as the nineteenth century winners we have selectively remembered only half the story, arguably a quarter of the story, that of the rising industrialists only – not that of working people, not that of Bengalis etc.. Hence my earlier remark about “folk memory”.

    The realpolitik perspective has to be that power and money and the naked self-interest of those that control them shape events much more than we care to remember. And that’s a legacy that haunts and disables the Lib Dems today. Arguing for a ‘back to our roots’ approach is to argue to privilege global plutocrats – as if they need it! It’s also remarkably silly when we are far from being the world’s low cost producer and in an age of universal franchise.

    But it does NOT follow that we should opt for protectionism – a false alternative. Bill le Breton is right to point to “fair trade” as a better plan.

  • Chris Young – “free trade is misunderstood by many if not most to mean unregulated. It is the very act of regulation that enables the trade to become freer without the “race to the bottom”. “

    The important thing to ask about regulation is who writes it? Who makes the rules? It’s pretty much racing certainly that they are not neutral, it’s almost impossible to write truly neutral rules even when that is the intention – and I submit it’s almost never the intention (despite what politicians may say).

    So who is calling the shots on rule-writing in, for instance, the TTIP. Short answer: the Americans. Slightly longer answer: Wall Street, big pharma, agribusiness and the usual meg-lobbying suspects. It’s certainly not ordinary Americans or even Main Street America businesses – hence the strong support for non-establishment candidates Trump and Sanders both of whom are opposed.

    You talk of avoiding a race to the bottom but that is exactly what it’s about promoting. Hence the obsessive secrecy (see the Youtube link I posted at 7:27 pm yesterday). We know from the EU experience how difficult and contentious it is to harmonise rules – hence all he nonsense about ‘straight bananas’ and the rest. The TTIP plan is to make an end run around such problems by removing democratic input and giving corporations their own court, staffed by their own picks. AFAIK from various leaks any reference to environmental of other standards are weak and without enforcement teeth. But then we don’t really know because this major constitutional change is all so secret, even from our elected representatives.

    What could possibly go wrong with throwing democracy under the bus for the promise of some minor economic gain? A catastrophic cost for a profit that is at best debatable and which will in any case only go to a favoured few.

    Another clue that it’s all for large corporations is that the average cost of an enforcement action under existing ISDS mechanisms is (IIRC) around $8 million. So the plan is to create an enforcement system with supranational courts not available to smaller businesses. But it’s one that can (and therefore probably will) be used against them. Again, what could possibly go wrong?

  • David Evershed 14th May '16 - 4:13pm

    In my view free trade is a “liberal” type of idea not a “right wing” type of idea.

    We need to make sure that parties are defined as being either liberal or authoritarian rather than left wing or right wing. The Labour party is clearly an authoritarian, central planning type party whereas Liberals have a more liberal and localist attitude.

    That (fair) free trade is beneficial has traditionally been a central plank of Liberal thinking whereas protectionism has been more a trade union/Labour attitude.

  • Peter Davies 15th May '16 - 9:26am

    Free trade restricts the powers of national governments over business. It restricts legitimate powers (e.g. environmental) as well as the power to favour local champions. For trade within the EU, this is not a problem because there is a democratic level of government at which those powers can be exercised.

    The problem with bilateral agreements is that the rules must all be there at the start. If we sign TTIP, we are stuck with it for a very long time. We haven’t seen the final wording yet but it is a reasonable guess that it will be worse than the EU single market rules and better than anything a desperate post-brexit Tory government might negotiate.

  • Dean Crofts 15th May '16 - 4:35pm

    I have a question for all..I support this motion free trade is a key policy commitment with the Liberal Democrats, however no one has yet answered the question of why the UK cannot make its own free trade agreements with countries outside the EU. We have free trade with the eu, we have our own currency, but why do we have to wait for the eu before agreeing free trade agreements with countries outside the UK? I am an In voter which is relevant at this time of year, but should free trade agreements which have responsibility at their core not come with free from government interference in times of boom or bust ?

  • Trevor Stables 15th May '16 - 5:34pm

    Interesting article but I am afraid there is quite a bit that gives me concern. The ultimate Free Trade is a race to the bottom, where societies constantly chase the cheapest labour or those Countries that have no pollution Controls, Minimum Wages, Healtha and Safety just to mention a few.
    What we should be arguing for is equitable and fair trade. take the dumping of Chinese Steel for instance, this was a clear case of the UK Tories support untrammelled free trade without regard to its social consequences.
    We should be using the Power of the EU to trade fairly. The mass closure of Manufacturing Industry across Europe has seen enormous social costs.
    What was good in the 19th Century is not necessarily wholly transportable to the 21stC.

  • take the dumping of Chinese Steel for instance

    Funny how everyone goes on about this, but fails to mention the ‘dumping’ of US coal which has caused the closure of opencast pits in Scotland and Wales. I suspect that TTIP won’t include any provisions that will permit redress against such actions…

  • Stephen Howse 18th May '16 - 10:41am

    “It is perhaps ironic that the often-reviled Orange Book spends its introduction and first chapter explaining the difference between liberal and neoliberal economics and rightly criticising the latter.”

    Half the people who slag off the Orange Book as ‘neoliberal’ and ‘Thatcherite’ have never actually bothered to read the thing.

    This is a superb motion and I will back it with enthusiasm. Finally, a Liberal policy I can champion!

  • Neil Sandison 18th May '16 - 11:37am

    Good article couple of questions on the thorny issue of tariff barriers .If we lose the EU referendum and tariff barriers are imposed has anyone considered the impact on the jobs market .Companies that find their costs go up because of tariff barriers will cut their workforce to offset their increased costs .The bottom line always matters.
    How will we in a liberal free market economy discourage unfair trade dumping for example from China .Will retain anti dumping policies in the single market trading area.

  • Re Ian Shire’s point, personally I’m not sure rebranding ourselves as Democrats tells people much. We are distinguishing ourselves from who, exactly, North Korea perhaps ? New Democrat, as opposed to Old Democrats ?. I tell people I’m a Liberal, because that’s what I am, on social issues and on economic; Also means I’m instinctively pro Free Trade as well, although I recognise some of the caveats above.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th May '16 - 4:35pm

    I tend to focus on the concept of democracy in my personal approach to the party’s rationale, and (whilst I fall within the spectrum of liberalism) the term ‘Liberal’ would not be the first thing on my mental banner…

    … but I am in no way disagreeing with Chris. Keep the name. Reclaim the heritage. Rationalise the past, don’t airbrush it. No cheap gimmicks.

    Besides, the New Democrats are the Canadian sister party of Labour.

  • Daniel Carr 18th May '16 - 6:46pm

    Excellent article Richard. Will be very happy to support come September.

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