Opinion: Against liberalism

Statue of David Lloyd George - Some rights reserved  by GabludlowI am a liberal. I believe in standing up for people and communities against over-powerful vested interests – in business, the State, the media, or the unions. However, I also believe that liberalism alone is an inadequate political philosophy, and an insufficient foundation for this Party.

The problem centres on our determination to play down the significance of Left and Right. We sneer that the concepts are simplistic. We seek to defuse or ignore left-right conflict. The inconvenient truth we deny is that Left and Right do matter, often enough to split our party.

It should be recognised that splits are endemic to liberalism. The 1920s-1930s split was followed by the Owen split of the 1980s and the developing Clegg split of the 2010s. Even Labour have held together better.

There is no single liberal philosophy. There are two. Their adherents can be called Pure Liberals and Social Liberals. They claim to be blood brothers. This is a polite fiction. Like many white lies, it does more harm than most black lies. In truth, Pure Liberals and Social Liberals are often poles apart.

Pure Liberals seek individual freedom and equality of opportunity. This leads them to oppose a State which meddles in business, intervenes in the market to pursue environmental, social or political goals, or constrains free competition in the interests of reducing poverty and inequality. They welcome economic freedom, market mechanisms in public services, and the minimal State. To the charge that this leads to gross inequalities of outcome, Pure Liberals tend to remain silent.

Social Liberals see that inequalities are excessive and increasing, that irresponsible and kleptocratic oligarchies are gaining power worldwide, and that Bullingdon Club leadership is not bothered about trashing the planet. They believe that liberalism is not worth a row of beans unless it can tackle these problems. That must mean an active State and a reform programme for government, based on political ideals and validated by electoral mandate. Such principles are anathema to Pure Liberals, who might point out that Hitler adopted all of them.

A generation ago, these differences were dwarfed and obscured by our differences with a hidebound, illiberal Conservative Party and a doctrinaire socialist Labour Party. Consensualist leaders like Steel and Jenkins had no difficulty in staking a compromise moderate centre-left position, clearly opposing the Tories while toning down activist radicalism. In those days, we also had a plausible ambition for the future – to replace Labour, ditch outdated socialist dogma, and pursue fairness with prosperity in a mixed economy.

The ambition was achievable – until Blair shot our fox by ditching socialism himself. That left us struggling to maintain a clear identity and purpose. Blair’s big mistake on Iraq gifted us a temporary recovery in 2005, and also acted to conceal our longer term difficulties from ourselves. However, we soon reverted to a rather negative centrism, and fell back on local campaigning strength as an indirect route toward parliamentary power. Although we were gaining seats by cleverer targeting, we were quietly losing our way. We were failing to build a strong core vote based on clear political principles.

As Labour swung across to the centre-right, while the Tories gradually moved away from prejudiced narrow-mindedness, we lost strong enemies. We lost the motivation to maintain our own unity. Our internal philosophical differences grew in importance.

The Clegg coup was a rational, hard-hearted, Machiavellian response to that changed situation. The Liberal Democrats are now the critical “swing” party, capable of granting power to either the Tories or Labour, should they so choose. Clegg and his allies had the audacity to strike first, win the leadership with a misleadingly anodyne “consensualist” campaign, and then strive ceaselessly to embed the Lib Dems in alliance with the Tories. It worked. Thanks to Clegg as much as Cameron, state education, health and welfare are on the way out.

What should Social Liberals do about all this? I will leave the question for readers to answer first!

* David Allen is a member of the Rushcliffe Local Party and has been a member of the Lib Dems or its (SDP) predecessor since 1981

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  • Stuart Wheatcroft 31st Dec '12 - 2:44pm

    What? I think you’ve rather misunderstood what the group you describe as “Pure Liberals” actually is.

    The first thing, of course, is that it isn’t. There is no coherent “Pure Liberal” (I hate that name, but I’ll stick with it) approach, any more than there is a coherent “Social Liberal” one. It’s a false dichotomy. It’s true to say that there are differing perspectives within the party, but I would be worried if it were otherwise in any organisation which aspires to liberalism!

    There is a significant movement in the party which is often described as “economic liberalism”, but what you say about silence on the issue of equality of outcome is not actually true. If we lived in a country where they was genuine opportunity for all, inequality would probably be much less, and would certainly be less toxic.

    Eliminating income inequality is a non-starter. It is a fact that some things are economically valuable than others, and people who are good at high-value work will always earn more. But we can make sure people have a fair chance, which at the moment many do not.

    If we turn to your characterisation of Social Liberalism, it actually rings true for most economic liberals. Suspicion of concentrations of power is what defines us as liberals, not what defines us as one sort or another. The state is a tool which can be used to achieve that, but I would argue that some forget that the state is itself a massive concentration of economic power. Interestingly, if we step away from economics, the party is very solidly united in that view.

  • Graham Evans 31st Dec '12 - 3:11pm

    One of the beauties of the English language is that it can distinguish between liberals and libertarians., and therefore it is not necessary to talk of “Pure Liberals” and “Social LIberals”. As far as I know the distinction does not exist in other European languages, which is why British Liberal Democrats find themselves allied in the European parliament with such parties as the German Free Democrats who define themselves as liberals (and on many social issues are indeed liberals) but have traditionally been associated with German big business. The German Christian Democrats on the other hand tend to be socially conservative but envisage a major role for the state in holding the ring between labour and capital. (The Bavarian Christian Social Union even has two recognised wings – the workers’ wing and the business owners’ wing.) What David Allen calls “Pure Liberals” are in fact libertarians, as characterised by the US Congressman Ron Paul, and while in some policy areas they may agree with liberals, in so far as the role of the State is concerned they are indeed poles apart. However, it is a nonsense to characterise Nick Clegg and those who share his perception of the future role of the Liberal Democrats as libertarian, just because they do not fit into the “Social Liberal” category as defined by David Allen. Indeed, there is no main stream political party in the UK which could be defined as libertarian, and in so far as adherents to a libertarian philosophy is concerned they they are more likely to be found in the Conservative Party. As for David Allen’s definition of “Social Liberal” it seems to me that the only UK party which fits his definition are the Greens, but it is noticeable that at a practical levels Greens in Germany, who have actually wielded power in coalition, have more in common with British Liberal Democrats than they do with the Green Party of England and Wales.

  • I seek individual freedom and equality of opportunity. To the author, I guess this makes me a “Pure Liberal”. However I totally and utterly reject all the gross mischaracterisation apparently assigned to my values in terms of the state’s relationship with private enterprise.

    A powerful but accountable state gives us a means to the ends that I cherish (and I hope most of us do too). By intervening in the market, the government directly enhances our freedom and opportunity. It does this all the time, not least when when it educates us or provides us welfare in times of need. The public sector fills in the multitude of holes the private sector leaves behind and smooths the sharp edges that would otherwise be abundant.

  • I can see what you are saying. I’ve always advocated centrism but from a different perspective from the one you talk about – I geniunely don’t think that either the market or the state has all the answers, and think individual problems should be looked at on their merits. I do however think there should be more collaboration between government departments.

    Where I think we should differentiate is by concentrating on what the country needs for the future – better housing, transport – what helps the vast majority of people to get to work, and keep going day-to-day. These are big problems, but while we are worrying about state or market provision of health and education, day-to-day life of people gets more and more difficult – with incomes squeezed and growth sluggish, isn’t it about time we looked for the problems people need us to solve, rather than the problems we have with the other sides’ approach? I do agree however that we spend a lot of our energy either debating with each other or as you say, falling back on local campaigning.

    I joined the Lib Dems for policies like this such as the rise in personal allowance benefitting people that don’t benefit from the other two.

  • Andrew Suffield 31st Dec '12 - 4:05pm

    Everything about this article is wrong.

    It is not productive to sit around dissecting precisely why every piece of nonsense on the internet is wrong. Let’s just leave it at: the author has made up a bunch of stuff and said “look, here is a bunch of stuff” and then stopped, supplying neither evidence nor argument.

  • Simon McGrath 31st Dec '12 - 4:13pm

    Difficult to know where to start with this nonsense. David Owen was never a liberal ( big or small L) and has never claimed to be.
    “Pure Liberals seek individual freedom and equality of opportunity. This leads them to oppose a State which meddles in business, intervenes in the market to pursue environmental, social or political goals, or constrains free competition in the interests of reducing poverty and inequality. They welcome economic freedom, market mechanisms in public services, and the minimal State. To the charge that this leads to gross inequalities of outcome, Pure Liberals tend to remain silent.” I think you are confusing liberals and liberatarians. I have met virtually no-one in the party who doesnt believe that the State doesnt have a role in all of these areas. Neither I suspect have you.

    “Thanks to Clegg as much as Cameron, state education, health and welfare are on the way out.” You mean by protecting NHS spending, making (in the overall scheme of things) minor cuts in benefits and introducing the pupil premium?

  • David Allen 31st Dec '12 - 4:19pm

    I think it would help if respondents spent less time squabbling over the names to use. I considered using the common term “Orange Booker”, but then realised that Orange Bookers hate to be called Orange Bookers, and would indubitably clog up the airwaves with posts excoriating such a choice of language. So I chose to talk about pure liberalism, which is an intellectually coherent philosophy. It is of course open to individuals to argue that they personally accept some facets of pure liberalism but not all.

    Duncan Stott has found a fault in the way I have expressed my argument (which I will neatly blame on LDV’s word limits!) I should have said that to a Pure Liberal, belief in individual freedom and equality of (no more than) opportunity is over-riding: to a Social Liberal, these ideals are also important but must be balanced against commitments to fairness, justice and environmental responsibility. Duncan Stott’s powerful defence of the role of the state puts him (in my book anyway, hope I have got this right!) as a Social Liberal.

  • Dave,

    You begin your article by stating “I am a liberal. I believe in standing up for people and communities against over-powerful vested interests – in business, the State, the media, or the unions. However, I also believe that liberalism alone is an inadequate political philosophy, and an insufficient foundation for this Party.”

    I would agree and argue that Liberalism without Social Democracy is a sterile philosopy. Gladstoniam Liberalism was held togetherby a fundamental shared belief in a societal order based on Christian morals and ethics. The first world war shattered these foundations in a traumatic and permanent manner.

    After world war two, the raison detre for the Liberal Party was hard to discern. Attlees Labour government implemented Beveridge’s welfare state and the social reform program of Llloyd George. In a world of consensus politics -the Conservative party of Churchill and Eden continued a policy of full employment, as espoused by Keynes. The Tories took over the Liberals Space- in adopting what Harold Macmillan called the ‘Middle Way’ – neither socialist nor classically capitalist, but combining freedom of enterprise with public control so as to secure the benefits of both..

    During the Macmillan years, unemployment was neglible and prices stable: government worked amicably with organised labour, and the living standards of trade unionists increased far more rapidly than they were to do in the confrontational years of the 1970s and 1980s.

    The Tory party of today has long vacated the space that Macmillan occupied and the Labour party is a pale reflection of the Attlee administration that brought in the NHS and the modern welfare state.

    Which of the parties today could credibly repeat the words of the first British prime minister to appreciate that Britain’s future lay with Europe:

    As MP for Stockton between the wars, he said of mass unemployment “I havelearnt lessons which I have never forgotten. If, in some respects, they may have left too deep an impression on my mind, the gain was greater than the loss.” He also said “When I am told… that inflation can be cured or arrested only by returning to substantial or even massive unemployment, I reject that utterly.”

    In answer to your question – What should Social Liberals do about all this? Well let’s look at what Macmillan had to say in the 70’s.

    In 1976 he called, as he had done in the 1930s, for a coalition government to secure economic recovery. We can tick that box.

    In 1980 he gave a broadcast in which he criticised Mrs Thatcher’s policy of deflating in the middle of a world recession. We should be making the same criticism of cutbacks in capital investment programs now.

    Finally, Macmillan never confronted the deeper sources of Britain’s economic difficulties and neither have any of his successors. Vince Cable has outlined the path that needs to be followed by way of an industrial strategy and that should be our fundamental message going into the next election.

  • First I echo earlier objections to the ‘Pure Liberal’ terminology. Also, while libertarian is perhaps what the author meant, I suspect that such libertarians as British politics has are firmly embedded in UKIP. A more helpful term might be ‘market liberal’.

    Which leads me to my actual point – there’s no market liberal with any knowledge or understanding of the theory who would oppose any and all state intervention in the market for the purposes of controlling environmental issues, social inequality or poverty. Although there is a lot of differing opinion within this party as to what sort of intervention is needed, under what mechanism, when and where etc, the author’s caricature of so-called ‘Pure Liberals’ does not even represent one side of the debate, let alone help to bridge the gap.

    Finally, though, the diagnosis of liberalism as fatally split because it allows internal debate is an even more fundamental flaw here. The author points to Labour’s unity, to the apparent ideological cohesion of Socialism (not Trotskyism, Maoism, Leninism, Marxism, Stalinism, Blairism, Dirigisme, Syndicalism…, but that’s another debate) and misses the strength inherent in allowing these varying opinions to collide, compete and hybridise.

  • This article is overly simplistic. For a start, many Social Liberals would claim to believe in “equality of opportunity”. Of course, it depends how you define that concept! Back in the 1970’s I remember many people (including the then Labour Education Secretary Shirley Williams) arguing in favour of Comprehensive Education and against the influence of Private Education as a means of promoting “equa;ity of opportunity” from a left of centre perspective. I still share those ideals even if some people in the Party Leadership prefer to forget them! Also, it is difficult to justify the extent of inherited wealth based on the concept of equality of opportunity (or on the basis of improving the quality of life for all/extending freedoms).

  • David Allen 31st Dec '12 - 6:20pm

    The below is the conclusion to my article, which I had to leave out because it fell foul of the LDV word count limit!

    “What should Social Liberals do about all this? Until recently, we were the leading force in the Lib Dems, and we should remember that after all previous splits, the Right have lost, melted away, or merged into the Tories.

    We might swallow our doubts and join Labour. We would not take many votes with us. The next election would be two parties against one. With the Lib Dem vote cleverly corralled to shore up the Tories, the Clegg coupists could win again.

    We might seek to replace Clegg with a consensualist in the mould of Steel or Campbell, who would seek some sort of balance between Pure and Social Liberalism. That would suit our “payroll vote” in local government, who need a “united” national party as a backdrop and support system. But would it make sense? Nationally, what would be our USP?

    For the sake of our party’s future, Social Liberals should be as ruthless and strong-minded as the Clegg coupists were. Alliance with the Tories has failed. It was bound to fail. Only a sea change in policy and leadership can restore public support and enable Lib Dem survival as an effective, independent force in 2015.”

  • “The Liberal Democrats are now the critical “swing” party, capable of granting power to either the Tories or Labour, should they so choose. ”

    Leaving aside the question (crucial though it is) of how likely that is, given the vagaries of the current first-past-the-post system, the next most salient question is:

    Are the Liberal Democrats, as currently constituted and led, really capable of entering into any sort of agreement with the Labour Party?

    I get the impression that with most of the Lib Dems’ left wing having been shed, and the gravitation toward the Conservatives as a result of the coalition, there’s much less appetite for any kind of Lib-Lab alliance, and the common ground between Labour and LibDems is much narrower than before. Add to that the natural political animosity arising from one party being in government and the other in opposition, and it’s apparent that the basic ingredients for an arrangement are lacking: ideological overlap, mutual trust, and channels of communication. Who in the national Lib Dem leadership has maintained friendship and a good working relationship with a counterpart in the Labour Party?

    And if, as I guess, Labour and the Lib Dems are so mutually suspicious that they cannot work together, then the Liberal Democrats don’t really have any place to go except into the embrace of the Tories, or into the political margin. And that makes them, not kingmakers or balance-holders, but (at best or worst) the left extension of the Conservative Party, to be retained or discarded as events warrant. Not that I think that anybody in the Lib Dems wants to be that, but unless the foundations for acting as a true swing party are built and maintained, what are the alternatives? It seems to me that, far from maintaining those foundations, they’ve been systematically bulldozed and dynamited.

  • An excellent piece of analysis I thought.

    Opposition covered the gaps between the left and right of the party who could agree to differ or fudge fundamental differences.

    In government it is not so easy. I think what the experience of coalition has revealed is the left of the LDs have more in common with the Labour party than they have with the right of the LDs*, and by the same token, the right of the LDs have a lot more in common with the Tories than they have with the left of the LDs.

    The LDs are political vehicle which worked well in opposition but is not fit for purpose in government.

  • David is very wrong, most Lib Dems, even MPs and members of the Lords at the top of the party are uncomfortable working with the Tories. There is plenty of room in the Tory party for right wing libertarians, why on earth would they forego likely chance of political power by joining the Lib Dems. No one could have banked on taking part in government by joining the Lib Dems. For career politicians Conservative and Labour parties are the obvious home.

    The chances are that the next election will produce an overall majority as this is what usually happens. However there is a small chance that Labour will be without an overall majority and Lib Dems will have a much reduced vote but not lose proportionately the number of seats. In such circumstances it will be difficult to form a coalition with Labour if the election had a negative verdict on the Lib Dems and it may be that it would be better for Lib Dems to announce that they would not stand in the way of Labour forming a minority government.

    In government I expect Labour to reposition itself mostly back to the right of the Lib Dems as it grapples with the fragile economy, which would create an interesting tension.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Dec '12 - 9:04pm

    Yes, I too object very strongly to the label “pure liberal” being applied to a bunch of people whose policies until recently had a natural home in the Conservative Party. If one looks at any political textbook written more than a few years ago, one does NOT find “liberalism” defined to mean anything like this. The use of the phrase “pure liberals” suggests these are the true liberals, the true heirs to historical liberalism, while “social liberals” are people who are just half-hearted liberals, interlopers, people trying to smuggle another sort of ideology in and pretend it is “liberalism”. I would suggest it is actually the other way round – it is the people David Allen labels as “pure liberals” who are in fact the impure liberals because they have mixed their liberalism with the modern ideology which does not yet really have a name but it’s the one which opposes democracy and believes instead in rule by money, that people who are rich are naturally better than anyone else so deserve the greater power and freedom that money gives them.

    The Liberal Party I joined in the 1970s was one which stood by the idea that it wanted to build a society in which no-one would be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. It also had a growing interest in environmental protection. It assumed there was a role for the state in all of this. The freedom to trade, to offer services and to choose between services offered was just one aspect of the more general liberal idea of freedom, not the only one that mattered, and it was readily accepted that this freedom (sometimes mocked as “freedom to dine at the Ritz”) was not as much as it seemed if there were huge wealth differences.

    The push for this idea of liberalism meaning purely absence of state legislation and taxation originated in people who were firmly attached to the Conservative Party. I remember they would occasionally claim they were the “real liberals” or write articles suggesting this sort of ideology should be adopted by the Liberal Party – but no-one I knew in the Liberal Party took that sort of thing seriously. The bunch of people in the past few years who have tried to infiltrate the party and push it that way are NOT in our party’s historical tradition. I am very sorry to see someone who I thought was an ally of my way of thinking in the party helping promote this band of infiltrators by accepting their Orwellian attempts to change language and rewrite history.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Dec '12 - 9:20pm

    David Allen

    The ambition was achievable – until Blair shot our fox by ditching socialism himself. That left us struggling to maintain a clear identity and purpose.

    No, I don’t think so. If that was the case, why did I spend twelve years, half of them as group Leader, fervently opposing Labour in what was regarded as one of the flagship New Labour councils? I hated what I saw of Labour in that council, and in fact I found the dominant Blairite wing of the party there further away from my way of thinking than the minority who still felt themselves to be “old Labour” socialists.

    In fact it seemed to me the best phrase for the ideology of Blair and the Blairites was “National Socialism”. Sure, they had adopted support for free market economics, but they had kept the Socialist idea of there being one dominant political party. They had no real concept of democracy, they believed they ruled by right, and actually even seemed to lack the mental capacity to appreciate the need for political pluralism – they were genuinely puzzled as to why I felt it so important that there should be an active political opposition to them so therefore had no wish just to join them and so gain instant power. It was power they admired most of all, they wanted more of it to themselves and concentrated, so they were keen supporters of the idea that all power should be placed in the hands of one person, the Mayor at local level, the Leader of the country in the shape of Mr Blair at national level, for whom Parliament and even Cabinet government meant little. They liked big business because they liked the power of big businessmen, and above all they liked to be “modern” – anything that was “modern” was automatically better than anything else, and liking of concentrated power and the power of big money was all part of being “modern”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Dec '12 - 9:51pm

    David Allen

    The Liberal Democrats are now the critical “swing” party, capable of granting power to either the Tories or Labour, should they so choose. Clegg and his allies had the audacity to strike first, win the leadership with a misleadingly anodyne “consensualist” campaign,

    If you look back at my Liberal Democrat Voice postings at the time, you will see that I did not see Clegg as like that, in fact I begged and pleaded for members not to vote for the person I labeled as “The great right hope”.

    and then strive ceaselessly to embed the Lib Dems in alliance with the Tories.

    However, to be fair, it was hardly possible for Clegg to manage to get the balance in Parliament after the May 2010 general election so that the only viable stable government was a Conservative-LibDem coalition. That result depends on so many local factors. For example, the constituency I live in is a marginal which bucked the trend and stayed Labour, hence being a factor in the Conservative Party not having a majority, but that was all down to local factors and the individual candidates of the Labour and Conservative Party.

    The Liberal Democrats are not even now “capable of granting power to either the Tories or Labour, should they so choose”. They cannot grant power to Labour even if they wanted to, firstly because Labour does not want it (seeing, wisely, it was best to be in opposition at this time) and secondly because there are not enough Labour MPs to make a Labour-LibDem coalition viable. The idea that we had that power and chose to put the Conservatives in, having been in a position where we could just as well have put Labour in, has so enormously damaged our party, yet it is simply not true. The only real choice was between forming the current coalition and allowing David Cameron to be appointed Prime Minister of a minority government, getting blamed for standing in the way of government stability, and being slaughtered at the next general election to be held in a few months’ time, with both the other parties fighting it in the lines “get rid of the Liberal Democrats”.

    It is, of course, enormously damaging to our party that our leader has not clearly put across this point, that he has allowed this idea to grow that it was a choice to go with the Conservatives enabled by him and his allies, that he has portrayed as a “success” a general election where we actually did poorly and were diddled out of the share of power we should have had by the distortions of the electoral system.

    Due to this poor leadership, it now looks unlikely the Liberal Democrats will ever be “critical” again. The case for electoral reform has been lost because instead of making the point about how the power we have compared to the Conservatives is so small due to them having five times as many MPs on just one and a half times as many votes, our leader has made out we have almost as much power as they have, hence throwing away the argument for proportional representation. Without proportional representation, the sort of party he and those around him seem to want us to be, just is not going to get any MPS. In the rest of Europe that sort of party gets between 5 and 10% of the vote. I do not believe there is any constituency in the UK that would give more votes to an ideological rich man’s liberalism party than to any other. So, it looks likely the party will collapse, and once again be left in the hands of a few enthusiasts to build it up again from the grass roots. Sorry, I spent half my lifetime helping doing that after the last big mess poor leadership left out party in, I’m too old to do it again.

  • Richard Church 31st Dec '12 - 10:01pm

    Dave Allen says that Liberalism is an inadequate political philisophy and an insufficient foundation for our party. Actually, there isn’t another party that can provide such a united front on a huge swathe of policy, from political reform to environmentalism,internationalism, civil liberties and particularly on tackling vested interests. The reason for that is our shared Liberalism.

    Liberalism by its definition doesn’t deliver a utopia, there is no pure liberalism, There will be disagreements, but to pretend that they are fundamentally greater than those that divide other parties is plain nonsense. The Lib Dems more than any of the other major parties have a unifying political philosophy, but it doesn’t deliver perfect pre-formed answers. Socialism is supposed to be Labour’s creed, but they dare not use the word, and definition of Conservatism changes with the political season.

    Then there is the crude caricature of two irreconcilable factions in the party. There are people who call themselves social liberals, there are people who call themselves economic liberals and there are people who call themselves both. We all believe there is role for the market and we all believe there is a role for the state, none of us are libertarian anarchists and none of us are state socialists, but we will differ over where the boundary should lie. Many of us, me included, are just pragmatists on the state v. the market, we’ll go with what provides the best and fairest and most accountable outcome for people with the least dependency on entrenched interests. Worship of the state or worship of the market does not define our liberalism.

    There is no faction that has usurped control of the party and taken it by a pre-ordained plan into coalition with the Tories, we have all done it by signing up to the pluralism our party represents and voting to enter into a coalition. Of course there are elites around the leadership that wield great infuence, there always have been under every leader we have had in my 35 year membership of the party, and the grumbling about it has always been the same.

    The Liberalism that unites us is as powerful and relevant as it has always been, and it will continue to be the source of endless and healthy debate and disagreement, but its our strength, not our weakness.

  • Andrew Suffield 31st Dec '12 - 10:38pm

    We all believe there is role for the market and we all believe there is a role for the state, none of us are libertarian anarchists and none of us are state socialists,

    Actually I’m pretty sure we do have a couple of both of those. Not many though.

  • The problem for me is that the Lib Dems have succumbed to an ant-social economic orthodoxy and have lost sight of the idea that you can advance the cause of ordinary people. So there’s a passive acceptance of a perverse philosophy that says the rich aren’t rich enough, the poor have too much money and we mustn’t spook the powerful. It’s what happens when voters are seen as less important than pundits, lobbyists and “experts”.

  • You have summed it up well Glenn – at least as regards some of our M.P.’s who are in Government. In my view, those M.P.’s need to think about what Liberalism is, what LIberal Democrat Policies have been for the past thirty years and whether they are being brave enough in challenging the right wing policies of the Tory Policies, their funders and their “Think Tanks”. Maybe this just isnt possible so they need to withdraw from the Coalition before 2015. On a positive note, the Campaign to defend our Constitution, our Principles and our Policies has begun. Happy New Year everybody!

  • ‘Liberals against labels’?

  • tony dawson 1st Jan '13 - 12:42pm


    “ i dispute your logical conclusion that clegg decided to make a British equivalent of the FDP”

    You mean this because the FDP are at least guaranteed to remain in Parliament as long as they beat 5 per cent in the elections? 😉

  • “Liberal” means many different things to different people. I hope we won’t get bogged down arguing about dictionary definitions, as long as we are clear what we mean. In the USA “liberal” is used by Republican campaigners as a term of abuse to mock people with tolerant views. It connotes people who are over-educated, privileged and out of touch with ordinary citizens. They used it against the Democrat John Kerry. Yet “pure liberals” in David Allen’s sense are to be found in the Tea Party wing of the USA Republicans who are obsessed with lowering taxes, because taxes mean government taking away their money and they don’t accept that their ability to make money at all depends on an enabling government. I think what we have in common in our party is something else. The late, great Conrad Russell used to describe our party’s kind of liberalism in terms of opposition to overweening power in all its forms, based on a philosophy that the right to govern can come only from the individual and that no government (or any other institution, such as big business) has the right to trample over the individual for the sake of “the masses”. I think he was right. That is what we have in common. That can take us in policy directions that are shared with other parties, but I think our basic values, our reasons for those policies, are coherent and unique to us in UK politics. It underlies our stance on breaking up monopolies and oligopolies (including in governance), legislating to redress market defects (e.g. the polluter pays principle), protecting individual rights, helping people out of poverty, promoting education and decent housing and fighting oppression and abuses of power of all kinds. To do this, the powerful have to help the powerless. After all, British participation in the slave trade was not ended by the slaves, it was ended by decent people helping the slaves. (I don’t say “the slave trade was ended” because it hasn’t been ended. It is still going on today, and we have to keep on fighting it.) In short I don’t think that there are “pure liberals” in David’s sense in our party. And there was no “Clegg coup” as such. There was a leadership election, he played his cards well and the membership chose him. Grant you he is single-minded on the truism that without power you can change nothing. The 2010 arithmetic gave him a unique opportunity, which he and the parliamentary party and the voting reps at the special conference took. Events, dear boy, events will keep affecting what we do like bad weather on a voyage. It’s how we respond to the events that shows whether we are still “Russellian liberals” or not. The bad weather includes near-catastrophic economic conditions and unfortunately, due to electoral arithmetic, they guy in no. 11 steering the vessel is George Osborne. There is room to argue passionately among ourselves what should be done to save the ship – personally I think we have to reduce the benefits bill and we need masses of investment in green technology and infrastructure – but surely we are all agreed on what our goals are.

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Jan '13 - 2:46pm

    Yes, anyone who has looked at the political compass knows there is more than a single axis to politics. This however is utterly irrelevant if your ideas don’t speak to the dilemmas of the age.

    The obvious flaw in your argument is that the left-right don’t have anything to say about the “dilemmas of the age”, so that is obviously not an important thing to voters.

    What Labour achieved one hundred years ago was convincing the public that they represented a better pole to oppose capitalism than liberal ideology could provide.

    That may have been true a hundred years ago, but there’s no opposition to capitalism in Labour now – the crony capitalism of union bosses is their stock in trade. It is in fact exactly the same basic principle as the Tories: “serve me and I’ll give you some of my riches”. The only difference is who they say it to – Tories say it to people in suits, Labour say it to people in unions. Sometimes these groups overlap, but both parties seek to polarise them and profit from their conflict.

  • jedibeeftrix points out:
    “The previous hundred years have been dominated by the left-right battle between capitalism and socialism………… And the off-tangent lib-dems were quite frankly irrelevant to the great questions of the day.”
    In my early days as an apprentice engineer, it was one of my jobs to periodically take all the tools and gauges used on the workshop floor to the tool-room, where I was tasked to check them, using a set of finely machined blocks of steel approximately the size of a cigarette packet. These finely engineered blocks were called ‘slip bricks’, and were used to test and re-calibrate the tools and gauges being used daily on the shop floor, to make sure their dimensions remained within acceptable engineering tolerances.
    If jedibeeftrix is correct, maybe you are simply asking too much of liberalism. ?
    Perhaps liberalism, can only, (like using the engineering slip bricks), be a test, measure or gauge, to periodically inform us how far ‘out of calibration’, our politics and thoughts are from the ideal.?
    Maybe, whether you are a nurse, a slaughterman, an engineer, or a soldier in Afghanistan, Liberalism is less of a political force, and moreover, a ‘layer of purpose’, that you take with you to occasionally re-calibrate who you are.?

  • What David describes as ‘pure liberalism’ is libertarianism. Roy Jenkins was a libertarian and the inspiration for many libertarians in the party. There is an alternative style of libertarianism espoused by Ron Paul but this is a right wing strand that tends to fall outside the boundaries of our party. The Liberal Democrat party consists of social liberals and libertarians working together.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '13 - 5:29pm

    Thanks for all the comments.

    A number of people have accused me of being over-simplistic. Well, if you are trying to describe and contrast two philosophies and then seek to relate history to current events within less than 1000 words, you have to cut a few corners. Basically the accusation is that I can’t see the trees for the wood. I’ll plead guilty there, but would ask some of the commenters to consider whether they might be at risk of the opposite fault.

    The number of alternative names being put forward for the Lib Dem right wing continues to increase. Everybody seems to think that their own name is uniquely appropriate. I don’t make that claim myself. For what it’s worth, I admit that I might have chosen “libertarian” instead. I avoided that word in order to avoid the implicit association with a weird extremist fringe. I wanted to indicate a philosophy which provides the starting point for the current leadership group and their allies. I accept that most Orange Bookers would claim to have moved some distance away from a “pure liberal” position, but I think that in a sense, it is where they start out from. ( Oh, and Simon McGrath thinks that because he can spot a single counter-example – that David Owen did not consider himself to be a liberal – therefore he has brought my entire argument crashing to the ground. Not so, Simon. As an analogy, just because one Tory Minister might be an ex-miner doesn’t mean the Tories aren’t predominantly a bunch of toffs.)

    Matthew Huntbach takes me to task for choosing a name “pure liberal” and a description which he thinks is altogether too generous to a “band of infiltrators”. Well Matthew, they are entitled to their beliefs, if not their tactics. Rather than write a simple polemical denunciation, I set out to sketch in a short paragraph how “pure” liberalism has a certain intellectual coherence and appeal, albeit alongside obvious faults. It begins with the natural suspicion that strong government is a bad thing, because it can be tyrannical, it can impose flawed philosophies such as Fascism or Marxism on free citizens, or it can simply create excessive bureaucracy, or vested interest, or (as in Greece) a class of state apparatchiks sponging off the productive enterprise or labour of others. This is a dangerously attractive line of thought. It encourages belief in weak government, a diminishing state, the economics of the jungle, and the enrichment of the rich. There is therefore a natural alliance in the making between Tories, who seek to enrich the rich, and pure liberals, whose dominant philosophy points toward the same end result.

    The “band of infiltrators” are real. The Clegg Coup was real (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1908096098/?tag=libdemvoice-21 ). We cannot pretend that these things are not real, or that the Clegg coupists do not aim for permanent alliance with the Tories. If we don’t like it, we need to do something about it.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '13 - 6:00pm

    I said “Blair shot our fox by ditching socialism”: Matthew Huntbach said “If that was the case, why did I spend twelve years… fervently opposing Labour in what was regarded as one of the flagship New Labour councils?”

    Matthew, I didn’t say that Blair’s arrival eliminated every difference between the Lib Dems and Labour. I only said that our main line of attack against Labour, before Blair came along, was that they were doctrinaire socialists – anti Europe, run by union barons, unilateralist, dogmatist, unrealistic belief in pure egalitarianism, etc. Once Blair arrived, we did not have that strong attack line. We did have differences, but these had less public impact.

    You say that you opposed New Labour modernism, concentration of power, and willingness to get involved with big money. Well, you certainly had a point (and Labour have now to a considerable extent learned that you were right!). But would a campaign based on just those issues have won strong support at a General Election? I think it would have looked threadbare. The Iraq issue, which of course was genuinely major, came along and acted to hide the threadbare look.

  • simon7banks 1st Jan '13 - 6:05pm

    Good questions. I don’t think the gulf between “economic liberals” and “social liberals” is quite as wide as you suggest, David: for example, some economic liberals agree the state should intervene against environmental destruction, but p;referably by loading the dice against it rather than by more direct measures. The two share suspicion of concentrations of power in the private sector such as Murdoch’s empire. It’s worth remembering that while modern Liberals have often criticised the right/left measure (and with some justice as it fails totally to measure tolerant versus intolerant or green versus GDP issues), the language of right and left predates the replacement of the Liberals by Labour as the main anti-conservative party.

    Stuart: yes, more equality of opportunity would lead to less inequality of outcome, so there is common ground, but Nick Clegg and the centre-right think-tanks have been given to promoting equality of opportunity as a fundamental Liberal principle despite the extreme vagueness of the concept when it is taken beyond calculations of whether one factor such as race or gender has biased an outcome (if the existence of good and bad schools is a blot on equality of opportunity, why not good and bad parents?) and have implied that anyone concerned about equality of outcomes is some kind of socialist. It does seem to me a fair question to ask these people whether they would be happy with a society which was totally meritocratic (so bye bye one person one vote) or in which equality of opportunity increased but equality of outcome declined (a winner takes all society).

    Whaty often seems to me to be missing from this debate is the point Richard Reeves, to my surprise, made recently about valuing community – and, I’d say, active citizenship and empowering small groups of people freely acting together. This seems to me to be at the very root of historic liberalism, but many economic liberals in particular seem to have forgotten it.

    I’m not convinced Liberalism is an inadequate political philosophy. How free, for example, is someone with no chance of getting a job and who cannot afford a holiday away, let alone a computer? If there’s a weak point in Liberalism, I’d say that it’s the environment: yes, as a party we’re strong on that, but the concern seems bolted on.But I don’t see Labour or the Conservatives – or the SNP – as any better on that in terms of philosophy and they’re worse in terms of action.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '13 - 6:22pm

    Richard Church said: “to pretend that (disagreements within the Lib Dems) are fundamentally greater than those that divide other parties is plain nonsense”.

    I didn’t say that, Richard. I said that our movement was particularly liable to splits because of disagreements – which history demonstrates is true. A number of factors tend to prevent splits in the Tory and Labour parties – in particular, each still has a residual abiding appeal to a form of class loyalty, and in each case, the extremes often feel they have nowhere else attractive to go. We have rightly rejected an appeal to class, but that means the absence of an important unifying factor which our opponents (though they wouldn’t like to admit it) still retain.

    I can’t help noticing that it is people who have been successful in local government who are keenest to insist that we are still all one big happy family. Obviously if you are embroiled in local political issues such as new developments, or hospital closures, or conflicts over schools in your local patch, you don’t want to be distracted by the threat of disunity at the national level.

    But it is ironic. A generation ago, Chris Rennard masterminded a charge into local government, as a spearhead toward our eventual advance at the national level. Now, we have leaders in local government imploring the national party not to rock the boat by addressing its national problems, because that would cause them harm at the local level!

  • Peter Watson 1st Jan '13 - 8:23pm

    @David Allen “A number of factors tend to prevent splits in the Tory and Labour parties – in particular, each still has a residual abiding appeal to a form of class loyalty, and in each case, the extremes often feel they have nowhere else attractive to go.”
    A little while ago somebody at ukpollingreport made the interesting point that our electoral system shows that coalition politics does work: for many years we have had a stable coalition of the right in the Conservative party and a stable coalition of the left in the Labour party. Each houses a range of views on different issues, some of which on both sides overlap with each other (and the Lib Dems), and there are plenty of private and public disagreements, but somehow each coalition has held together with a good degree of stability and electoral success.
    But what are the implications of this? Is the Lib Dem party redundant if it represents a miscellany of policies from each of the other parties with no overarching philosophy? Are voters better served by choosing one of the two major parties and accepting that it comes with compromises which are at least more predictable than the outcome of coalition government between different parties?

  • Dave Allen states

    “For what it’s worth, I admit that I might have chosen “libertarian” instead. I avoided that word in order to avoid the implicit association with a weird extremist fringe. I wanted to indicate a philosophy which provides the starting point for the current leadership group and their allies.”

    This is misleading. The reason for not calling the Orange Bookers libertarians is not that libertarianism is a wierd extremist fringe but because the Orange Bookers are not libertarians at all, in fact they are anti libertarian. Liberal Democrat libertarians have been some the fiercest critics of the Orange Book caucus and the Orange Book faction has been prominent in denouncing libertarianism from the floor of conference. The key issue is ‘muscular liberalism’ which has at its core the banning of ‘hate speech’ seen by libertarians as an attack on free speech. It was not clear from the original post that the Orange Book was being described as pure liberals, it sounded like libertarianism. The Orange Bookers should be termed ‘muscular liberals’

    If we are to talk about the philosophy of the party we need clarity in understanding to what extent libertarianism is a left or right wing philosophy, particularly in respect to libertarians in the Liberal Democrat Party, who are likely to be left wingers. Prominent libertarians Peter Hain and Michael Foot both left the Young Liberals and became Labour MPs, in Foot’s case leader of the party.

    Libertarians in the Liberal Democrats who are comfortable with the label ‘libertarian’ are likely to be geolibertarians.


    I don’t think that this is the ‘wierd and extremist’ type of libertarian that Dave Allen was describing. He was probably referring to the Austrian school who oppose the geolibertarians (more detail would help) such as Rothbard


    This article explains why the idea that libertarianism is right wing is misplaced. The term orignates with Proudhon who was on the left wing


    None the less it is good to see debate of what social liberals should do about this issue. I would recommend moving into the political space previously occupied by the NLYL which was sometimes termed libertarian socialist would be the way forward. Avoiding aligning themselves to the Orange Book’s anti libertarian stance would be a starting point.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '13 - 11:21pm

    Peter Watson,

    Good questions. My take is that the coalition of forces which make up the Lib Dems has been broken by the Clegg coup. We need to react to that. We cannot afford the “keep calm and carry on” advice from those in local government who want to protect their own positions. (Their attitude is understandable and perfectly honourable, but their local interests are outweighed by the national interest.)

    The Liberal “coalition” split in the 1920s and 30s. The Liberal right found no future other than to join with the Conservatives. The Liberal centre / left survived.

    In the 1980s a broadly right-wing maverick, David Owen, forced a split. He lost. Again, those of us in the liberal / social democrat centre and left gained the satisfaction of proving ourselves the dominant force in the Alliance. It was just as well we won that point,because we didn’t win anything else. We came very close to displacing Labour as the main challenger to the Tories, and getting the chance to show what could be achieved by a commitment to fairness, liberal principles and the market economy, long before Blair. We failed because Owen screwed it up for us and turned us into a farcical dual-leadership organisation (the pantomime horse).

    In the 2000s the next right-wing splitters on the scene, Clegg Laws and Alexander, learned the lessons of the past. They knew that a simple overt challenge like that mounted by Owen would simply lose again. So they adopted stealth. Clegg learned how to giggle engagingly and project the image of a bright kid who appeared to be open and honest and would be good when he had grown up a bit more. That image won him the leadership, just as an equally manufactured reprise of the young naive honest reformer pose led to brief Cleggmania in the 2010 election. Then he led his unsuspecting party into a near-merger with the Tories.

    In a sense , I argue, this outrageous behaviour can almost be justified. The other two parties no longer have many of their grossest faults – things like homophobia on the Tory side, things like the anti-Europeanism, Clause 4 socialism and (arguably) unilateralism which drove the gang of Four out of 1980s Labour. Arguably, therefore, we no longer need a liberal centrist force which is prepared to adopt “equidistance” between Tory and Labour. So, why not make a pre-emptive putsch and capture the Lib Dem Party for the Right? After all, the alternative would have been to leave it to the membership, which would probably have anchored the Lib Dems on the centre-left instead!

    So here we are, with a declining but still crucial swing vote of ten percent or thereabouts, which aims to emulate the German FDP in keeping the Right in power. The “keep calm” brigade want to deny the facts and prate on about our wonderful compassionate policies, even as Clegg manoevers to make sure we cannot implement them. What should Social Liberals do?

    The best would be to recapture the party. Clegg knows that he has won an organisational strength, brand loyalty, and a membership base which – even though declining – are of inestimable value to our swing party. Look at just how many Old Labour people went on for decades reluctantly voting for a New Labour they despised. It is that habitual loyalty that Clegg has captured. We need it back.

    If we can’t achieve that, we should set up a new Left Liberal Party. At least that would achieve balance. That is the position (i.e. there are right and left liberal or similar groups) in several European countries. It isn’t ideal, but it is better than letting a Tory – Cleggite alliance run the country for the next generation.

  • Peter Watson 1st Jan '13 - 11:50pm

    @David Allen “If we can’t achieve that, we should set up a new Left Liberal Party.”
    My first thought was that splitting the Lib Dem vote would be electoral suicide for both sides under the current system.
    My second thought was that maybe Clegg deliberately messed up electoral reform in order to maintain a single Lib Dem party that could hold the balance of power under first-past-the-post. No! Cock-up, not conspiracy 😉

  • David,
    just a couple of factual points to clear up:

    The Liberal Party of the 1920s and 1930s bore the effects of it’s actions in expanding participation. Widening debate exposed the scale of the actual political challenge of the time. This split was a natural product of our success, and it is therefore to our lasting credit.

    Owen is another story altogether. He didn’t cause a split, he resisted the merger – which is actually the exact opposite thing. The resulting LibDem party is therefore a standing testament to his failure and our ongoing success.

    If any problem exists it resides in your own insistent self-perception that you stand on one side of an eternal political divide which cannot be resolved or overcome, and does not recognise the changing face of reality. That’s not liberalism, that’s futility!

    You need to refresh your perspective.

  • Richard Church 2nd Jan '13 - 10:12am

    Dave Allen: “Then he led his unsuspecting party into a near-merger with the Tories.” Since when was a coalition a near merger? If Nick Clegg wanted to be a Tory politician he would have done it 15 years ago, he had the contacts, the education and the intelligence to have been fast tracked to a safe Tory seat. Perhaps the plot was so devillish that Clegg et al risked their entire prospective Tory careers to bring down our party for the greater cause of conservatism.

    Does ‘near merger with the Tories’ include publicly disagreeing with them on wealth taxes, Europe, drugs policy, the environment, Leveson and political reform (all of which by the way demonstrate the application of liberal principles)? The trouble with conspiracy theorists is that they usually miss the starkest facts staring them in the face. If Nick Clegg is intent on merger with the Tories is public statements of the last few weeks have hardly demonstrated it.

  • Might I suggest that Clegg represents the interests of a Neo Plutocracy than Pure Liberalism.

  • David Allen 2nd Jan '13 - 12:52pm

    Richard Church

    “If Nick Clegg wanted to be a Tory politician he would have done it 15 years ago, he had the contacts, the education and the intelligence to have been fast tracked to a safe Tory seat.”

    Yes, that’s true. All the indications are that he considered and rejected that option, for reasons which may well be closer to high principle than to low cunning. You might believe that “the plot was so devillish that Clegg et al risked their entire prospective Tory careers to bring down our party for the greater cause of conservatism”. But I don’t. I have to ask you once again to stop putting words into my mouth. It is a dishonest form of argument and it does you no credit.

    With his European background, Clegg will have had extensive experience of the FDP and similar European parties. From a certain perspective, such parties can be seen as playing a useful role in bringing a liberal perspective into conservative or Christian Democrat government. Remember that when the young Clegg chose his party, the Tories were much more deeply steeped in social conservatism than they are today. When the young Laws chose his party, the Tories would have been vehemently opposed to gay rights.

    Matthew Huntbach argues that Clegg was elected as “the great Right hope”. This would imply that he won the leadership fair and square and that we should have expected, at the least, a natural preference for working with the Tories. That is not how I remember things. For me, the wake-up call came at Clegg’s first conference in the leadership, when in the teeth of a deficit crisis, Clegg launched his “big idea” and called for “big permanent tax cuts”. That was a ringing declaration of commitment to the smaller state, to working with the Right, and to total antipathy to the Left.

    Sure, Clegg has tacked a little back toward the centre in recent months – under pressure from a party which would be seriously likely to oppose his leadership if he had not. I also don’t dispute that Clegg has genuine principles on issues such as Leveson and Europe, which he is willing to argue for within a right-wing coalition. Indeed, that’s why he is useful to Cameron, and that’s why Cameron will try to keep him around after 2015 even if he wins an outright majority. Remember John Major, permanently in hock to his Eurosceptic “b*stards” and unable to govern effectively? Clegg is in place to provide a counterweight and help Cameron avoid such problems.

    It isn’t, in principle, a dishonest or invalid political stance for a politician to adopt. My quarrel is that he took over a political party with a quite different set of principles, and ditched them for his own ends!

  • Tom Richards 2nd Jan '13 - 2:09pm

    I think that’s probably a bit of a mischaracterisation of ‘pure liberals’ – or at least the people you describe in the party – action on the environment is probably one of the things all ‘wings’ on the party find it easiest to agree on, and Clegg has been pretty vociferous in explicitly calling for more state intervention in business where necessary (ie the banks). And actually I think it’s pure luck that the Lib Dems are a ‘critical swing party’ not planning – with roughly the same number of MPs since the 90s, it just happens to be the case that the other two main parties configured in such a way as to give that number of MPs the balance of power

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Jan '13 - 2:32pm


    Owen is another story altogether. He didn’t cause a split, he resisted the merger – which is actually the exact opposite thing. The resulting LibDem party is therefore a standing testament to his failure and our ongoing success

    Looking back at this one can sort of see where Owen was coming from. Accepting the merger meant accepting that he had failed – that he had not created a major new political party and so dramatically changed the political environment in the UK, he had in fact just led a small number of people into a slightly more effective Liberal Party. It’s hard for all of us to admit failure, and because of that we often go on pushing for things when logic and common sense would tell us to give up. The failure actually came much earlier, when the SDP started pushing on the Liberal Party for a “fair share of the winnable seats”. What they meant by this was seats which already had a sizeable Liberal vote, this was therefore an admission that the SDP had not been able to tap into new areas of support that hitherto the Liberals had been unable to reach.

    A lesson for today is the way the Liberal Democrats were so damaged by completely misleading reports in the national media. The reality was that the merger between the Liberals and the SDP went remarkably smoothly. It may even have been helped by the over-dominant personality of David Owen not being part of it – the loss of this Westminster focus enabled the party to return to its real strength which was its local organisation. Almost everyone who was an active member on both sides joined the merged party. Those who didn’t tended to be those who weren’t active or were the sort of person who was a hindrance rather than a help. There was more happiness about the terms of the merger on the SDP side than on the Liberal side, since the big split on the new constitution had actually been with the Liberals. However, most of those who weren’t happy with the result nevertheless recognised that for practical reasons they needed to join the new party and make it a success. However, the media reported it as a catastrophic failure, as if the Liberal-SDP alliance had split into several warring parties. As a result, the party’s opinion poll rating slumped. It took years of patient work at local level to build it up again. Also the situation was not helped by the foolishness of those at the top of the party in their image presentation, again the salesman’s patter approach, where they had the bright but catastrophic idea of presenting the merged party as something brand new that had come from nowhere rather than just a continuation of the old Liberal Party with added SDP members.

    Right now we are facing a situation where the belief amongst most voters is that something catastrophic has happened to our party, so they don’t want to support us. The national media’s way of reporting our party solely in terms of its national leadership, and that leadership’s failure to realise that its national image making is actually promoting the misunderstandings that are damaging us at local level isn’t helping. Only the strongest local campaign teams are able to break through and keep hold of something out of this. Local campaign teams that are doing good things but aren’t in a position to really churn out the stuff to stop the negativity coming from the national misreporting are going under.

    What does it need to break out of this? I think for Nick Clegg to sack most of his advisers and pick instead people with longstanding grassroots experience. And for him to admit something like:

    “We didn’t do well in the last election, thanks to the way people voted and the distortion of the electoral system, we were left with only a small influence in a predominantly Conservative government. It’s a LONG way from our ideal, we’ve backed the coalition only because we are democrats, we’ve had to accept it was the only viable government, and we felt that blocking it and so making Britain ungovernable would not have been appreciated by most of the country, seeing as most of the country did not vote for us. I was wrong at the start to exaggerate the influence I and my party could have in the coalition, to make out we were almost equal partners with the Conservatives, when quite obviously with our 57 MPs to their 306 we were not. I’m sacking those of my advisers who urged me to go that way, and bringing in people with good longstanding experience in the party, in order to re-establish the party as one which remains true to its old ideals”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Jan '13 - 2:58pm

    David Allen

    Matthew Huntbach argues that Clegg was elected as “the great Right hope”. This would imply that he won the leadership fair and square and that we should have expected, at the least, a natural preference for working with the Tories. That is not how I remember things. For me, the wake-up call came at Clegg’s first conference in the leadership, when in the teeth of a deficit crisis, Clegg launched his “big idea” and called for “big permanent tax cuts”

    No, I used the phrase “great right hope” during the time of the leadership election. That is, I could already see at that time that Clegg was headed that way and I tried my best to warn against him. To be honest, I was shocked by the number of people who I thought were with me towards the left in the party, but who nevertheless backed Clegg and could not see why I objected to him.

    The wake-up call SHOULD have been the strong backing Clegg was getting from the right-wing press. Just why did this obscure and relatively newly elected MP get pushed forward so strongly as “obviously the next leader of the Liberal Democrats”? One didn’t have to look very far to see he had already made the links with the right-wing pressure groups, and that it was as it ever has been – to the right-wing press, “ability” means “having views that fit in with ours”.

    Such was the clamour of support for Clegg in the national press, and the lack of any mention of the many other MPs who could have done just as good a job but weren’t so firmly linked to shadowy right-wing organisations like CentreForum, that no-one but Huhne came forward to challenge him. However, Huhne himself is hardly a Liberal Democrat leftwinger, though he tacked that way a bit in the leadership election, in part I think because he saw it as a vote-winner.

    Again, I have to say that whether Clegg had a natural preference to working with the Tories is irrelevant. The 2010 general election results didn’t give us an alternative. Had the results been the same apart from the number of MPs for Labour Party and the Conservative Party the other way round, we’d have had no choice but to go in for a Labour-LibDem coalition. Given the economic situation, such a coalition would still be making unpopular decisions, and the Liberal Democrats would still be knocked down in the polls because of that.

    I think in Nick Clegg the party has what it voted for. If he is to be dislodged now I think it requires some of those who backed him then to apologise to those of us who did not for what they did. How about the formation of an organisation “Clegg voters against Clegg”? Given that he only narrowly won, that would be the best way to indicate he has lost the support of the party’s membership.

  • David Allen 2nd Jan '13 - 11:40pm

    Matthew, if I understand you correctly, you are saying something like: “Clegg’s leadership campaign didn’t fool me. But it fooled almost everyone else. Given that everyone else got fooled, the party got what it deserved. So, the way forward is for the gullible fools to come along and admit that they were gullible fools.”

    I don’t think this is a terribly seductive appeal to make. For what it’s worth, I can’t accept the invitation myself, as I voted for Huhne. I also didn’t think at the time that there was a lot of difference between the two candidates’ positions, so you can put me down as a gullible fool, if you like.

    This party has always (long before Clegg) loved its rose-tinted spectacles, but at the moment, they are really jammed on tight. We are seeing desperate efforts to miss the obvious, for example Nick Thornsby’s latest effort, with Panglossian remarks such as “it takes more than a bit of bad news from polling firms to rattle battle-hardened Liberal Democrats” and “Lesser parties – the Conservatives, for instance –” which are sick jokes beyond parody. I don’t think we will persuade these people to throw away their rose-tinted specs by asking them to apologise for being fooled.

    We know what finally worked in 1987. It was to go into an election with a proposition (the double-headed leadership) which in truth we knew perfectly well was not credible, lose an election, get hammered, and then finally see the error of our ways. Maybe we shall have to do the same again. If we as a party had any real intelligence, we would put things straight before losing an election very badly, not afterwards. But do we?

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jan '13 - 1:19am

    David, if everyone who voted for Nick Clegg as leader is still just as happy with him as leader now as they were then, and no-one is thinking “Sh** I wish I hadn’t voted for him”, you have a point. Well, is there no-one who regrets voting for Clegg? It doesn’t require many to come out and say so for the very narrow majority he got (as some say courtesy of late delivered postal cotes) to be overturned.

    Now, I’m sorry, but I do think, having predicted in advance what would happen under Clegg, having been accused in these columns of having some sort of vindictive personal hatred of the man for doing so, but having by events have been proved if anything rather too cautious in my criticism, to have a little bit of an entitlement to an “I told you so”.

    OK, I agree with you, I wish the party would rise up and get rid of the man, but I’m not holding my breath. In practice it does look like we will stumble to a massive slump in the next election and hope there’s enough left of activists at local level to slowly build it up again after that. However, I continue to post what I do in the hope that maybe, just maybe, someone with more influence than I might be able to start some sort of effective “get rid of Clegg” campaign within the party before the next election.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jan '13 - 1:43am

    Richard Church

    The trouble with conspiracy theorists is that they usually miss the starkest facts staring them in the face. If Nick Clegg is intent on merger with the Tories is public statements of the last few weeks have hardly demonstrated it.

    Actually I don’t think Clegg wants or wanted a merger with the Tories. I do think however he’s a rather naive man with little capacity for deep thought, little experience of grassroots campaigning, a social background that makes him out of touch with the way most people think, too many contacts with the political/business elite, and a general capacity to speak from his mouth whatever was whispered into his ear by whoever is surrounding him – which is not by and large ordinary Liberal Democrat members.

    When I called him “the great right hope” at the time of the leadership election, I had in mind the picture of the young man pushed forward by shadowy figures who were using him for their own agenda of which he was only partially aware. I’m thinking particularly of the CentreForum gang who he has been closely associated with, and who have surrounded him and been his main advisers. Look at the CentreForum web page, go to the bottom to see its “corporate partners”, and I think it’s pretty clear what the game is.

    No, they don’t want the Liberal Democrats to be merged with the Conservatives. But they do want the Liberal Democrats to be just another “business friendly” party, to be neutralised in the sort of radical criticism the old Liberal Party once offered of the way things are run in this country, to be “Plan C” after the New Labour “Plan B”.

  • Matthew,
    there’s a number of points worth discussing.

    First, Owen. He was driven by a personal ambition fed by his acolytes. He wanted to be Prime Minister, but he’d forced himself into a position where he needed the SDP to win more ‘winnable’ seats than the Liberals but was (as you describe) dependent on Liberal acquiesence regarding this – a tacit admission his personality wasn’t winning. The mere proposal of merger signified his personal defeat and its’ virtually seamless process made it concrete. Owen’s failure transpired when his ambition came face-to-face with reality.

    For the Liberal Party the effects of the merger were subtler and took longer to become apparent. It was a vindication but not a triumph, as the opportunity we won was wasted. It should be seen as reflective of the end of Cold War-polarisation and the beginning of a multi-polar world wrought by globalisation. Much momentum dissipated as debate shifted onto tory Euro-sceptics as Major fought a successful rearguard action to avoid a similar split, since his success in 1992 meant more moderate forces dominated while in Government rather than the more extreme voices in opposition (as under Foot or Howard). Rather than the suppression and reintegration of militant forces by Kinnock we now have the isolation and establishment of UKIP against Cameron.

    So in the light of history Murdoch shot himself in the foot with his infamous personal attacks on the Labour leader.

    In the midst of this we haven’t changed, the public hasn’t changed, but the way we feel about ourselves has – and this is changing the way the public feels about us. (To paraphrase you) right now we are facing a situation where some LibDem activists loudly proclaim something catastrophic is happening to our party, rather than being able to put it in its proper context – and current polling reflects public confusion at our apparent confusion, rather than any negative public feeling about our direction.

    You’re right to say that the merger brought a massive infusion of energy for the new LibDems, but this was expended on many internal battles. Similarly the move into government planted some fresh seeds of impetus, but reopening old battles does nothing but rub salt into healing wounds, aggravating any limpness.

    Politics is the eternal battle, because nobody ever truly defeats their enemy. All you can do is stand firm while they tear themselves apart.

    If we want to destroy the old and outmoded left-centre-right model and transform political participation into an invigorating and life-enhancing experience which is rewarding instead then looking backwards to the old ways will not move things forwards.

    So look at us – people continue to support us for many different and good reasons. Now look at Conservatives and Labour: people support them usually for very few reasons, and those reasons are always either incoherent or corrupt. It should be easy to regain the advantage if we are resolute.

    And let’s talk about our issues, about freedom and and fairness – about free elections or fair party funding, about good deals and fair prices, about true justice or a free press, about equality and freedom of expression, about proportionality and fair treatment… These are our stock in trade yet we get bogged down as we’re dragged from these issues onto more technical territory of Plan A’s, B’s and C’s.

    If David is correct that “liberalism alone is an inadequate political philosophy, and an insufficient foundation for this party” then he is incorrect in failing to identify what we gained something from the merger – democracy.

    Ideology alone is insufficient, we also need a methodology.

    We have each, but it’s not always apparent that we use them both at the same time!

  • David Allen 3rd Jan '13 - 1:43pm

    Matthew, it’s very generous of you to say that Clegg is not such a terrible fellow, it is just that he has so many terrible advisors and backers. On the whole, I think that those who lead are those who take responsibility for their own behaviour!

  • David Allen 3rd Jan '13 - 1:57pm

    Richard Church,

    When you criticise the term “near-merger” which I used to describe Clegg’s ambitions with respect to the Tories, you have a point. I should have said “permanent alliance”, which has a clearer meaning.

    The rationale for a party like the German FDP is not simply to merge into its larger ally and fade away. It is to provide stronger support, and sometimes also a more effective critical voice, than could be achieved by merger. Clegg would like to persuade a smallish voting block amongst the general public, those who consider themselves liberals but not left of centre, that their future lies in alliance with the Conservatives. To do this, he has both to demonstrate loyalty to the Conservatives, and to demonstrate that he can influence some of the things they do in a more liberal direction. That is what he is doing. Meanwhile, his friend Ken Clarke is doing much the same from inside the Tory Party. But Clarke is doing it in a much more open and honest way.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jan '13 - 11:31pm


    You’re right to say that the merger brought a massive infusion of energy for the new LibDems, but this was expended on many internal battles.

    Actually it wasn’t. That was my point, The most surprising thing about the merger was how smoothly it went, how very quickly we forgot who came from where. Most of those, like myself, who didn’t really agree with it or at lest nit the terms it concluded with, nevertheless accepted it had happened and worked hard to make it work. The fact that it worked so well is illustrated now by the way people have so forgotten what the issues were that we get all thus rubbish which assume the Liberals were the right-wing and the SDP were the left-wing when actually out tended to be the other way round. And now I find many of the old SDP people who I night have regarded as “the other side” back then I regard now as my allies against the new “other side”, which David Allen so wrongly calls “pure liberals” as in those days we would have called them “Thatcherites”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jan '13 - 11:43pm


    (To paraphrase you) right now we are facing a situation where some LibDem activists loudly proclaim something catastrophic is happening to our party,

    No, actually my point was that, as it was back then, it was more the press who were constantly on about something catastrophic happening within the party, and actually totally failing to report the reality, which is that the merger was going very smoothly. But then, as now, the doom-mongers in the press were aided by remarkably poor judgement from the PR people at presenting the party’s national image, who seemed determined to do whatever was needed to make the press look as if they had got it right.

    Back then the need was to stress continuity, that the merger had gone smoothly, that the new party was the legal and natural successor to both the Liberal Party and the SDP, that all of us in it would be carrying on doing much what we were doing beforehand. So the PR people insisted we had to make it look as if the merged party was some brand new thing that had emerged from nowhere.

    Now the need is to ensure our voters that we have not changed, that we are not the sort of people who just want political office and will say anything to get it, that the reality of coalition pushed on us by circumstances does not mean we have merged with the Conservative Party. So the PR people insisted we had to look oh-so-pleased with ourselves for having got government jobs, not say anything which might make us look different from the Conservatives in government, and make out the weak position we were in was some huge triumph.

  • “I am a liberal. I believe in standing up for people and communities against over-powerful vested interests – in business, the State, the media, or the unions.” But you support EU power at a guess (?).

  • David Allen 4th Jan '13 - 11:45pm

    David, why guess?

    I support British “power”, in other words I favour having a government of some kind, in preference to total anarchy!

    I also think we should be in the EU, though there are plenty of things about it that I don’t like, and where it acts as an over-powerful vested interest, I will oppose that. But that doesn’t mean we’d be better off with anarchy (or ongoing wars) in Europe.

  • Matthew,
    you’re contradicting yourself – you can’t say the merger went smoothly because members quickly forgot their differences and then say it went badly because the leadership didn’t emphasise continuity. That’s having your cake and eating it when things were a weensy bit more complicated.

    The various name changes certainly didn’t help promote any sense of clear and distinct identity, and the series of losses between the merger and ’91 didn’t go down smoothly either.

    But on an individual level I perfectly accept that members determined to work together come what may against the ‘nut-jobs and lunatics’ of the other parties at the time, but that didn’t really start to happen for several years as many empty nostalgic attachments remained.

    I joined the LibDems where I wouldn’t have joined either of our antecedents precisely because the party is an evolution of the two to keep up with changing times: we needed to go beyond the destructive left and right-wing polarisation of the Cold War to leave that period behind and start to have more than a marginal impact.

    So I don’t agree that we haven’t changed, but I do agree that we should continue to oppose the cynical and corrupt stereotype of politics and resist the bully-boy tactics of those who shout loudest from the wings.

    Europe is a particular case in point.

    What is ‘EU power’? Originally it was opposed as being a stitch-up by right-wing bosses from ‘over there’, then it was criticised as a stitch-up by the left-wing masses from ‘over there’, and now it is criticised simply as being from ‘over there’. Yet London is probably the most European city in the continent!

    Europe and international integration was one of the big issues which LibDems rallied around originally, but we’ve allowed critics to gain ground by ignoring their challenge and failing to scrutinise their lack of alternatives.

    I mean, how do we clamp down on tax evasion without concerted attacks on tax havens? UKIP talks about Switzerland as a good economic model, yet they still have some of the most opaque banking laws going. They talk about pulling out of the EU, but their MEPs are among the most regular attendees.

    I’m not uncritical of the EU, but Anti-europeans are the most cynical, most hypocritical of the lot.

  • Liberalism means a core commitment to individual liberty through the control of power. I think every Liberal can sign up to that definition. The difference between a so called ‘pure liberal’ and a ‘ social liberal ‘ will be a belief in how much state and collective action is appropriate to support freedom. This is not the same as the difference between left and right, or the difference between a conservative and a socialist. The core commitment to liberty is there for all liberals , and personally I am always more comfortable with any strand of liberalism than I am with the inevitable authoritarian instincts of left and right.

  • David Allen 5th Jan '13 - 7:33pm

    Ian Morley, also Louise Shaw and a few others,

    I have pointed out that there are two distinct camps within our Party, which are a long way apart: I have described past leaders who have worked to keep both sides on board as “consensualists”. You have responded, fairly enough, to the effect that you genuinely hold opinions which place you somewhere in between the two camps.

    I accept that there are a fair number of people in some sort of “centrist – Lib Dem” position (though there are still differences – Ian Morley emphasises the principle of liberty whereas Louise Shaw is more interested in practical policies, for example). However, I don’t currently see a “big idea”, an election-winning programme, a tent that the masses will flock to, emerging from the centre of the Lib Dems.

    Whether for good or ill, the Left – Right division holds sway in our politics. The Tories and the Pure Liberals are on one side of that divide, Labour and the Social Liberals are on the opposite side of that divide. Centrist Lib Dems are a minority within a minority. You may say, and you may have quite a lot of valid reasons to say, that to see politics in this way is to miss a great deal that matters. The great British public would overwhelmingly disagree. And what they say goes.

  • David Allen 6th Jan '13 - 8:26pm

    OK Jock, you have a point. Any attempt to explain life by dividing people into two opposing camps is liable to be objected to by those who don’t fit the categorisation, even if the truth is that most people do. So yes, a pure liberal philosophy does not always and automatically result in alignment with the Right. But – most often it does, though!

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