Opinion: Ideology is not a dirty word

It has been a year since I first joined the Liberal Democrats. In that time, I’ve slowly learnt but a few of the ropes of a Liberal Democrat member and campaigner; time-limited by my studies, I’ve only been able to savour the joys of leafleting and a couple hours of telling last week. Yet the reasons I joined – my personal Liberal beliefs and a feeling that this party is by far and away the best vehicle for Liberals in Britain to carry their beliefs into action – remain as strong as ever.

I firmly believe this party has managed to deliver substantive, Liberal policy whilst in Coalition and managed to fend off illiberal rubbish from the Conservatives with skill and aplomb. There have been a great many bitter pills to swallow on the way – tuition fees, NHS reforms and spending cuts being perhaps three of the biggest.

Now we are entering the second phase of the Coalition, it is time we knuckled down to some hard-headed thinking on what we should fight for in the second round. There comes a time when good policy can only take you so far; we’ve had some great policy ideas, but the British electorate want more than just a smorgasbord of those. I am increasingly convinced that British politics has lost its appeal to voters because parties have come to treat it like a technocratic chess game, wherein policies are played off against each other without thought to the wider reasoning behind them.

If we are to not only survive this Coalition, but to gain from it in round two, then we must not be afraid to proclaim our Liberal values. Liberalism is a broad enough church that we can all feel comfortable within its distinguished walls; yet its central tenets of freedom, democracy and human rights, coupled with the traditions British Liberalism has brought on board such as environmentalism, localism and the like, are firm bases from which we can build. It will not be enough to come up with bright ideas for our communities and country in future – we must tell the British people what the country we want looks like.

If that sounds like a call to embrace ideology, that’s because it is. Politicians are not managers, and they certainly aren’t technocrats – nor should we pretend that we can be. Ideology is not something dropped from 20,000 feet – it is something already there, in the way we do politics. We just have to come out and say it to the voters. This is why we’re different – because we see a different Britain to Labour. A Liberal Britain of local government, strong democracy, a healthy environment and the rest.

That is the vision I believe we can sell as a party, and one I hope we can start to create in the second of what I hope will be many more years in this party.

* Tim Oliver is a party member in Leeds, who has recently submitted a PhD on British foreign policy at the University of Hull.

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  • Richard Swales 12th May '12 - 8:29pm

    I agree, but trouble is that for seemingly most members – certainly the ones posting here, freedom, democracy and human rights (i.e. libertarian values) are not what it is mainly about. It is about about wealth transfers from the rich (except they are not so easy to catch) and those that are hard-working/willing to learn skills in demand, to other citizens.

    There is a good thought experiment that illustrates the problem more broadly. In Slovakia (where I now live) commercial radio stations, as part of their travel news every half hour, broadcast the positions where the police have been seen setting up speed-traps (there is also a number for listeners to call and report this). They are able to do this, because free speech is protected by the constitution. The experiment is this, as a liberal, would you support British commercial radio stations being allowed to do this? I have never tried asking them, but I am pretty much convinced that virtually no members of any mainstream British political party would support this, because it would not be in the public interest (someone may post and correct me). Free speech worthy of protection is seen as general debate and investigative journalism, i.e. that which has a public interest justification anyway. Philosophically, all the parties seem to be about “the public interest” and you will never hear them say something like “obesity is a matter of individual choice, not public policy” or “if we put taxes higher we would be going past the point where it is simply not our money to take”, because they don’t recognise any limits to their domain. The parties differ in terms of how they imagine the public to be, which part of its interests they prioritise and who they see their enemies to be, but not in terms of thinking that human rights, democracy and freedom can ever trump the need to increase life expectancy by 6 months or lift someone over the statistical poverty line. Watch out for “banning photoshop” being included in our distinctive policies for the next phase of the coalition. The means always justify the ends.

  • Andrew Suffield 12th May '12 - 9:04pm

    It is about about wealth transfers from the rich (except they are not so easy to catch)

    And also that they don’t have as much transferable wealth as people think. We all know the statistics about how a small number of people control the bulk of the wealth, but “control” is a slippery word here, and a lot of that wealth they control is just the investments of everybody else’s pension fund.

    Raiding the pension funds isn’t a very good idea.

  • Mr AC Trussell 13th May '12 - 10:34am

    It would seem that the governments of this country are determined by the floating voters of The Sun. The views of these people can be swayed by subtle ,selective, omissions or inclusions of stories and words that discribe positively or negatively. As this is, just about, the only place that the “uninterested” voter get their views, they can be altered over time- as the editor changes their views.
    Why don’t we ask Rupert Murdoch to change his nasty image by employing a Lib/Dem editor?
    The first bit of this is true- the last bit is highly unlikeley!

  • Paul Catherall 13th May '12 - 11:16am

    Take a look at these poll stats

    Whatever you like to call it, ideology or doctrine, liberalism or whatever, the public are shifting en masse to Labour because the politics of liberalization of sevices and the ideologically-driven austersity measures which are hitting young people and enterprise are being shown as unnessesary, ineffective and ideologically driven. There is no earthly reason for the LibDems to pursue the academies and free school agendas, this represents a massive PFI expenditure simply to relinquish responsibility of the state for schooling into tha hands of irresponsible de-regulated providers and for-profit exploitation, there was no need to sell or lease the national parks, consider toll roads or abolish EMA when the alternatie was rising NEETS claiming benefit instead of being assisted into the workplace,
    I’m afraid the LibDem party must begin listening to conference and pursuing actual LibDem policy, rather than pursue an agenda at 360 degrees to the opposite of what the LibDem leadership, conference and policies have been saying for years. We need a social democratic voice in the coalition, actually opposing coalition policy, not sitting down with Tory ministers to smash careers services, higher education or regional growth, all economic drivers.
    If the LibDem party continues in this ideological path we will see all the social Liberals switch to Labout leaving a hard core of right wing Liberals pursuing an unanted and unelectable agenda of de-centralization, dangerous deregulation of education, safety and health services and abolition of state infrastructure.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 13th May '12 - 9:13pm

    @Paul Catherall

    “…rather than pursue an agenda at 360 degrees to the opposite of what the LibDem leadership, conference and policies have been saying for years.”

    I think you mean 180 degrees. 360 degrees would put you back where you started.

  • We don’t need ideology, we need principles.

    An ideologist is someone who has a fixed theory about how the world should work, and plans on the basis of that theory, whether or not it fits the facts, whether or not it seems to be working.

    A principled politician has clear views on which political actions and outcomes are desirable, and plans flexibly under the guidance of those principles.

  • David Allen
    I think your point is largely semantic – I suppose there is a connotation whereby ideology can take in a vastly detailed set of principles, which of course goes to the heart of the Left and Right wing “sect” issue – “splitters” and the People’s Front of Judaea come to mind! But broadly speaking, for most people, their principles can be called an ideology, IMO.

    Paul Catherall makes the balancing point about Social Democracy – we are the Liberal Democrats, after all. Regarding Tim Oliver’s post – yes, of course we need to demonstrate an ideology to the public. The problem has been, that although the pioneers of “localism” in our Party in the 60s and 70s (I know, I was there) had an ideology, and used local advances to push their wider ideology (principles), since the party got bigger, it has often uncritically taken on ideological members from other ideologies, often in pursuit of a somewhat spurious localism. As Tony Greaves, Matthew Huntbach and others have often pointed out on LDV, the pre-merger Liberal Party was not, for instance a repository of 19th Century ideas of laissez faire economics (even that is not a fair representation of 19th Century Liberal economics!) The party in the 70s and 80s tended to regard elements in the labour party as conservative, and the “soggies” of the SDP were looked at with some suspicion as not being radical enough, either socially or economically! A far cry to many of the comments here about Labour, and descriptions in the uninformed media about “those from an SDP background” supposedly being more egalitarian etc than “Liberals”. A reinvention of history, I am afraid.

  • Geoffrey Payne 14th May '12 - 1:18pm

    @richardswales – you complain about people who post here but you might as well complain about Lib Dem conference. I suggest you propose your policy suggestions in a motion to Lib Dem conference and see how many votes they get. Very few I suspect. I am all in favour of us having an ideology – people need to understand why we believe what we believe. But I am strongly opposed to ideological dogma. For example parking restrictions in London may for some be considered “illiberal”. But if people are allowed to park where they like, driving through London would become impossible. So much for freedom then! But this is the kind of scenario that Liberals often have to consider, freedoms contradict each other and Liberals have to sometimes be pragmatic and work out which freedom is worth having.

  • Tim Oliver
    I find your comment on social democracy baffling, seeing as how our party is a result of a merger between Liberal and Social Democrat parties, not a takeover. And I plead no special interest, having belonged to the Liberals prior to merger.

  • Perhaps my point is that a natural ideologist would see liberalism and social democracy as two distinct ideologies, would choose one as his/her own, and would then feel empowered to slag off the other at great length. As, sadly, all too many people did, at the time of the “Alliance”.

    Whereas if one starts by thnking about principles, one can readily conclude that liberalism and social democracy have mostly overlapping principles, and that it makes sense to adopt and bring together most of the principles which originate from these two underlying philosophies!

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th May '12 - 10:50am


    Thanks for mentioning my name. Yes, the pre-merger Liberal Party had a left wing and a right wing, not formally organised though occasional attempts were made to do so, but generally in party elections you would find slates getting formed and there was one bunch of people who would generally appear together on one slate, and another bunch of people who would generally appear on the other. There was a tendency to avoid the “left-right” words, so the slate that could be described as “left” tended to call itself “radical Liberal”. It tended to endorse economic policies which were to the left, and its suspicions about the powers of the state led to a keenness for devolved democratic forms of government but certainly not to any support for extreme free market policies – indeed it tended to be rather anti-market, in those days we called such policies “Thatcherism”, they were not thought of as a form of “liberalism”. Note it was those who called themselves “radical Liberals” who pushed forward the motion at the 1980 Liberal Party Assembly which stated “economic growth as conventionally measured is neither achievable nor desirable”, almost the opposite of what Tim Oliver is saying in his 14th May comment.

    What might be termed the “right wing” of the Liberal Party in those days was happier to see itself as a moderating centre force between the other two parties, and as such happier to think of what it supposed to be “liberalism” to be something not much different from “social democracy”. It was the right-wing of the Liberal Party which was most keen on merger with the SDP, the left-wing which tended to be against.

    At the time of the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP, the word “Liberal” was treated almost as a dirty word by right-wing members of the Liberal Party and by the SDP. Recall that four members of the Liberal Party negotiating team walked out of the merger negotiations citing as one reason attempts to get the word “Liberal” removed from the merged party’s name – these four were roughly the four who were elected (the Liberal Party had an election for negotiating team members, the SDP did not – says it all) on the left-wing slate. For several years after the merger, it was frowned upon even to use the word “Liberal”, it was seen as a sign you were one of those radical lefties who didn’t really agree with the merger. Remember the keenness of some to get the merged party called just “Democrats”, and the reluctance to concede (which resulted in much mocking of the merged party) to the obviously most sensible name for it, “Liberal Democrats”.

    I have to keep reminding myself this is how it really was because of this onslaught in recent years of people who want to use the word “Liberal” to mean “support of free market economics”, and often from this suppose it was the Liberal part of the merger which was more in support of free market economics. It was not.

    What seems to have happened is that the de facto banning of the word “Liberal” left it an empty term, with the extreme free marketeers waiting around for long enough for the folk memories of what it used to be used for to have disappeared enough for them to be able to fool people into supposing it meant what they now want it to mean. It has been long enough now for them to use it of themselves without it conjuring up images of people with beards and sandals and a distinct dislike of the powers of big money.

    I oppose very strongly what they are doing because to me it is Orwellian – deliberately making use of language and trying to change what it means in order to fool people, rewriting history too in order to stamp out memories and put in their place false memories.

    I intend to continue, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th May '12 - 12:00pm

    I do not know the history of the phrase “freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity”, whether it really was an age-old phrase that had been around for generations in the old Liberal Party, or a comparatively recent introduction, but at the time of the merger what I have loosely called the “left” in the Liberal Party were very keen on it as a summary of what the party stood for, and determined that it should remain in the statements of aims in the merged party’s constitution, while the SDP tended to want to reject it as something too associated with the old Liberal Party and thus not suitable for inclusion in the constitution of the brand new modernising history free party they wanted to create (another disastrous tactical and presentational mistake from the leadership of our party).

    A notable aspect of this phrase is that it does not put “the state” or “taxation” as one of the barriers to freedom that Liberals are fighting against – which is somewhat different to those extreme free marketeers who often give the impression they think the state and taxation are the only bounds to personal freedom, or at least the only bounds worth fighting against. At the time of the merger it was not a notable aspect, it becomes so only in retrospect now one sees what some are trying to make the word “Liberal” mean. However, I do wonder whether the phrase came from past battles within the Liberal Party on these issues.

    The Liberal Party never stood on a platform of regarding the state as the enemy and therefore as wishing to minimise the state and turn over control of everything to market economics. It is wrong to call this sort of politics “19th century liberalism”. If one looks at real Liberals in the 19th century they tended to be pragmatic about state services, and were often in the forefront of the movement to provide services through the state (whether nationally or through local government). They were certainly keen on free trade, but they saw this as a way of breaking aristocratic monopolies. In those days, of course, business was much smaller and more decentralised than it is now. It was not a world where trade and business was dominated by vast global corporations.

    Although the Liberal Party was in a process of collapse from the time the Labour Party became significant until around the 1960s, there was still plenty of thinking going on within it about what should be the Liberal approach to the way the world was in the 20th century. The party suffered several splits with one side of the split going off to join the Conservative Party. So it is fair to say that the modern Conservative Party has already absorbed the more right-wing elements of Liberalism. From this I would argue it is the correct home for those who see Liberalism primarily in economic terms.

    Thinking in the Liberal Party in the 20th century was pretty much dominated by trying to find a “third way” between free market capitalism, now firmly associated with the Conservative Party, and socialism which the Labour Party took on supposing it might appeal to the middle classes (yes – its original aim was just to bring working class people into Parliament, socialism as a middle class intellectual thing, pushed by people like the Webbs). Although there were certain civil liberties issues it championed, it did not identify Liberalism primarily with these. In the early part of the 20th century it still had strong links with nonconformist Christianity.

    I think therefore that the fairest way to describe modern Liberalism is an attempt to build a politics of the left which has a healthy respect for liberty and which avoids the mistakes of socialism. “Freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity” is a good short summary of this. The revival of Liberalism can therefore be dated from the collapse of socialism as an intellectual force. This was very much what Liberalism was about when it began its revival in the 1960s, when it had become obvious USSR-style socialism was an abomination, and the weak form of state socialism offered by the Labour Party had nowhere much to go.

    So it would seem to me that Liberalism is, centrally, about challenging the power of wealth and privileged, with its mouthpiece being the Conservative Party – very much as it always has been. It is NOT just about “freedom, democracy and human rights”, or even “freedom, democracy, human rights, environmentalism and localism”. Power, wealth and privileged may have shifted from the aristocracy and the Established Church where it was in the 19th century, but we still live in a society which is deeply divided on wealth and privilege – and this division is growing wider and has been since 1979 (consider why that date …).

    We differ from socialism in being opposed to the idea of one centralised party of the left whose whole aim is to seize and keep power for itself with little regard for true democracy. And now we can see though the Labour Party may have abandoned all other aspects of socialism, this way of thinking is still central to it. That is why the Labour Party hates the idea of electoral reform and hates us even for existing. In my own discussion and working with Labour Party people, even when there is much where I can agree with them, I often find when it comes to matters of democracy they just can’t comprehend it.

    So, central to what we call Liberalism should be a very different model of political party to the traditional socialist one. Our model should be decentralised, focussed on it being a network which helps ordinary people who lack wealth and privilege come together and challenge it through democratic means. It should NOT be primarily about its leader, nor about developing a central five year plan which is put forward to be endorsed at election time. These are features of political party developed by Lenin. It is a great pity that somehow they have spread so nowadays they seem to be the standard model for all political parties. Well, I am a Liberal, I am against that sort of thing – and I believe our party should be too (which, of course, means big changes from what it is like now).

  • Richard Swales 15th May '12 - 7:59pm

    @Geoffrey Payne, my bit about “people posting here” is just a qualification to say what sample of members I am basing my view on. I am not renewing my membership so I can’t propose anything at conference. Despite all the VAT, employers and employees NI and tax I send to the government (in Slovakia but the principles are the same), more than I take out of my business myself, most of the people here think that businessmen do not pay their fair share and are a drain on society. At what point would it be fair, a 2:1 ratio in favour of the government, a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio? I would be a fool to stay a member of a party where so many of the members believe that people own people, and the leadership panders to them in its rhetoric (if not policy). Yes it’s true that some situations require the state to choose between competing freedoms (the example you give of freedom to park versus freedom to drive is a good one), but when we are talking about the freedom to smoke in a pub versus the freedom to know that there are no private-members clubs in your town that allow smoking – then sorry I don’t believe we are balancing freedoms at all, we are misuing state power.

    @Tim Oliver democracy and human rights are liberal values, but you also listed freedom. If that was a core value of the party then it means we wouldn’t have members talking about intervening in alcohol pricing or magazines’ use of photoshop, because they would believe that those areas are outside the domain of government (note that I am talking about members posting here, not ministers already gone native proposing Skype snooping and so on). Legalising cannabis would be completely uncontroversial within the party. Freedom would be a core value of a libertarian party, and no such party exists in the UK – therefore I don’t want to be a member of one. I will still vote Lib Dem though.

  • Richard Swales 15th May '12 - 11:00pm

    @Matthew Huntbach “We differ from socialism in being opposed to the idea of one centralised party of the left whose whole aim is to seize and keep power for itself with little regard for true democracy.”

    Apart from the internal organisation of the parties where do you see the ideological differences in terms of what a “liberals” and “socialists” want to do for the country?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '12 - 11:37pm

    Richard Swales

    Apart from the internal organisation of the parties where do you see the ideological differences in terms of what a “liberals” and “socialists” want to do for the country?

    I would imagine Liberals to be more in favour of pluralistic and bottom-up solutions to problems. So it mirrors the approach to party organisation. Part of the issue is that I think socialists are struggling to answer the question “OK, if you don’t want USSR-style communism, what do you want?”.

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