Opinion: Liberal Democrats must stay true to our traditions post 2015

The period between now and the next general election in 2015 will be crucial in deciding the immediate future of the Liberal Democrats-but the post general election period will have a much longer term significance. I have long been one of those Liberal Democrats who believe that the word ’Liberal’ has been a little to silent in the party name – as policies around goldfish at fairs and ever increasing public spending without corresponding accountability have cast the party a long way from the roots developed by Beveridge, Keynes and Gladstone.

But while there are many interpretations and views as to what modern liberalism should entail, there should be no debate among Liberals as to what democracy should be about- yet some recent commentary from within the party seems to betray both the liberal and the democratic traditions of the party

The idea that due to a potential Labour gain in the upcoming Corby by-election the numbers would permit a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition so we should embrace Labour until 2015 betrays the traditions of our party.

The Liberal Democrats have long advocated decentralising power away from Westminster and into the hands of the people. To cut a backroom deal with Labour now to make Miliband PM – for whom no one has ever voted to be Prime Minister-at the expense of Cameron, who leads the party with the largest number of votes-would be to betray our power to the people tradition.

Others have suggested that we should declare now that post-2015 the current coalition must end and we should declare ourselves happier to coalesce with Labour post-2015. This would be incredibly naive (declaring which offer you will accept before negotiations have even commenced is a very good way not to get your policies implemented) but would also be profoundly undemocratic.

The only democratic approach pre-election to post-election coalition possibilities is the one Nick Clegg espoused pre-2010, that the party with the most votes and the most seats has the moral right to have first try at forming a government. Anything other than that reduces the Liberal Democrats to advocates of back room deals in smoke-filled rooms-and is as far from the community politics tradition as it’s possible to get.

Nor is this article a plea for a return to the equidistance policy advocated by previous Lib Dem leaders in relation to the other two parties. Equidistance is impossible when Labour can move from their traditional positions under John Smith to being led by a ‘conservative’(his own description) in Tony Blair.

David Cameron has moved the Tories from their several of their traditional positions to a point where they are closer to the centre than at any point in their history.

The traditional Liberal position on most matters of policy is to take an evidence based approach-embracing parties in advance of the publication of the manifestos is contrary to this – and counter to the traditions which have kept Liberalism alive in the UK even as the slings and arrows of history should surely have rent us redundant.

* David Thorpe was the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for East Ham in the 2015 General Election

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65 Comments

  • david thorpe 15th Aug '12 - 1:24pm

    there appears to be a typo-towards the end of the `final paragraph it should read “in advance of the publicaiton of manifestos”.

  • Again, another post that talks about unelected Prime Ministers.

    Please tell me, do we vote for a prime minister in this country or do we vote for a MP to represent us in Parliment?

  • “To cut a backroom deal with Labour now to make Miliband PM – for whom no one has ever voted to be Prime Minister-at the expense of Cameron, who leads the party with the largest number of votes-would be to betray our power to the people tradition.”

    Mr Thorpe knows perfectly well that nobody voted for Cameron to be Prime Minister — that the premiership isn’t an elected position — and he also knows that a majority of voters in 2010 voted against the Conservatives.
    “Power to the people” isn’t a meaningful slogan in terms of coalition politics. 2010 showed that “the people” rejected all the parties and weren’t willing to commit power to any of them. In this context, coalitions aren’t about giving power to the people; they’re about muddling through until the next election. If “the people” were saying anything, it was “throw the rascals out”. The rascals, of course, stay in, since the system doesn’t really allow for a reboot.
    As for Corby, the proposal for a Lib-Lab coalition was not terribly realistic — at least with the current numbers — and I gather was more of a thought experiment than anything else. But the notion that there’s something terribly immoral about a coalition of one group of parties rather than another is absurd. Coalitions are, by their nature, hopeless muddles. The idea that there’s more democratic legitimacy to one muddle over another has nothing in it. If Lib+Con adds up to one sort of popular majority (though viâ a compromise which a majority of neither party really wanted), then too does Lib+Lab equal another popular majority. And, if one looks at the polls, arguably one which is more in line with the sentiment of 2012, which is no longer than of 2010.

  • david thorpe 15th Aug '12 - 1:41pm

    David

    The mundanity of the law is that no one voted dircetly for cameron, but those of us who punded on doors for the lib dems know how many people dsaid to us that they were voting tory because they wanted cameron.
    a majority voted against blair at least twice, does that mean he shouldnt have been PM?
    I challenge you to find the last UK PM that got a majority of bthe votes cast?
    While all parties were rejected, more wanted a Tpory PM than wanted any single other option-so morally the lib dems had to talk to them first.
    Milliband has vnever faced an elecorrate.
    Power to the people isnt a slogan-its a method of government-called liberal democracy-I am kind of hoping Liberal Democrats embrace it

  • david thorpe 15th Aug '12 - 1:42pm

    and as for the polls-they matter not a jot-they are samples of 1,000 or so people at a time-a useful snapshiot-a national election is much more than that-and should be accorded much more repscet than memre opinion polls

  • Peter Watson 15th Aug '12 - 3:16pm

    @David Thorpe
    I think that the biggest flaw in your argument is that it is based upon a snapshot in May 2010, and politics (like everything else) is not static. Every by-election is a change to the number of votes and the number of MPs, so at some point – the most democratic thing would be to reflect that with a change in coalition. Even if the electoral arithmetic justified a change, I would have some sympathy for staying the course with a LD-Con coalition if it was representative of what we stood for in 2010, but it is not. If a rainbow coalition becomes feasible then a reversal of our actions in government could be more consistent with the promises we made to the electorate.

  • Charles Beaumont 15th Aug '12 - 3:30pm

    David – I think you are broadly right about Miliband – a grubby deal behind closed doors would make us look even more slippery than ever. Anyway, the Corby stuff is just fantasising. Why would Miliband want to be PM with the current mess? Far better from his perspective to let things run onto a general election at which he is likely to get an outright majority thanks to the failure of the boundary review (albeit at some advantage to our party).

    You write, correctly, “The Liberal Democrats have long advocated decentralising power away from Westminster and into the hands of the people”. And yet I see next to no evidence that this is the main trajectory of our policymaking and campaigning. If it were, more people would take us seriously as the real alternative.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 15th Aug '12 - 3:33pm

    It staggers belief that anyone can still believe that Clegg’s approach of saying as little as possible to the electorate about what are and are not priorities in coalition negotiations can be considered democratic by any stretch of the imagination. The electorate are not stupid and will understand that in negotiations some things will have to be given up, but they would like some transparency about this rather than the weasel words we got in 2010. Of course all parties should tell the electorate what there approach is likely to be in the event of a hung parliament. I think you will find that having given the LibDems one blank cheque on this, you will find that the electorate are unlikely to give a second one.

    I think you forget that Clegg only made clear that he had doubts about his party’s policy on the speed of deficit reduction after the election – which he then used as the justification for abandoning the policy he put to the electorate, and in effect throwing his lot in with this key policy that has proved to be economically disastous and which was not supported by the majority of the electorate.

  • jenny barnes 15th Aug '12 - 3:59pm

    OP David Cameron has moved the Tories from their several of their traditional positions to a point where they are closer to the centre than at any point in their history.

    J: I’m sorry? just because they appear to be in favour of gay marriage, having supported Section 28 in the past, doesn’t make much difference. They are still the party of the very rich, and taking money and services from the poor. I don’t remember saying the LDs would support that in the 2010 manifesto. Nor quite a few other things.

    OP The traditional Liberal position on most matters of policy is to take an evidence based approach
    J Good. I’m looking forward to an entirely different approach on the economy, as the evidence ( and the theory, if anyone had listened to an economist apart from Mervyn King) is that our current approach is not working.

  • david thorpe 15th Aug '12 - 4:04pm

    thanks for all the comments.
    Tory boy-the priorities in ant negotiations are in the party’s manifesto.
    @ jenny
    thats why when the evidnece said change we are changing-more infrastructure spending in the short term
    @ charles
    I agree somwhat the the party does have a bunch of people who like to centralise-it frustrates me-but at the same time-the lib dems have been in favour of things like more uatonomoy for local councils-who are more likely to be influencable by local communities than far off whitehall mandarins

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Aug '12 - 4:30pm

    David Thorpe

    David Cameron has moved the Tories from their several of their traditional positions to a point where they are closer to the centre than at any point in their history.

    On a few social issues, yes. On economic policy, he is way to the right. Mrs Thatcher’s government did not propose semi-privatising the NHS, making university students pay tuition fees, and it kept the highest rate of income tax way above what it is now.

    When you write

    To cut a backroom deal with Labour now to make Miliband PM – for whom no one has ever voted to be Prime Minister-at the expense of Cameron, who leads the party with the largest number of votes-would be to betray our power to the people tradition.

    this really is clutching at straws. The “Power to the people” tradition is not about Westminster dealings on who should be Prime Minister. What you have written shows you do not understand our party and its tradition at all. We believe in collective government by a representative assembly, not a presidential system. To describe the representatives meeting together and together coming to the policy which has the most universal agreement as a “backroom deal” is not the way a true Liberal would think.

    Forming a new coalition form the present Parliament would indeed be a demonstration of power to the people as it would show it is Parliament in control, Parliament, the assembly of the representatives of the people having the right to change the executive if it believes the executive does not fit the people’s will. I think it perfectly possible that LibDems may start off thinking a Tory-LibDem coalition best fits what the people would like, but on the basis of experience and feedback and renegotiation switch to a Labour-LibDem coalition. If you really must, our history goes back to 1689 when we switched support from James II to William III. Was that a shady backroom deal?

    Now, reality is that thanks to our distortional representation system a Labour-LibDem coalition is not a practical possibility in this Parliament. Since the people of this country voted by 2 to 1 to keep that system, the system which gave the Tories most of the power on 36% of the vote and reduced us to having a very minor influence, I suppose they must have it. But let us make it clear to the people – it is YOU THE PEOPLE who in effect voted to keep the current system with its distortion which made the current government the only possible one, you did it just over a year ago, don’t moan at us if you don’t like it, we supported what you rejected then.

    The 2010 general election result made it quite clear that what coalition is formed depends on a variety of things, it is not always or even most likely to be a situation where all the choice is down to the third party if neither of the first two has a majority.

    There is some value in talking of a coalition with Labour now just to make that clear. Too many commentators insist on describing the current coalition as a “marriage”, something intended to be permanent and based on love. It isn’t, it’s a business deal, it’s what results from what 2010 gave us, it isn’t by any means our ideal, and if we need to talk of alternative coalitions in order to get that into the heads of those who comment on the media, then let’s do so.

  • Charles Beaumont 15th Aug '12 - 4:48pm

    David – you’re absolutely right that the Lib Dems have a strong record on pushing for greater autonomy for local councils. But we haven’t made it (and the general point of pushing power to localities) our central message – which would, in my opinion be a bold and successful piece of politics. That was something I proposed back in June: https://www.libdemvoice.org/2015-election-campaign-28874.html

  • “To cut a backroom deal with Labour now to make Miliband PM – for whom no one has ever voted to be Prime Minister-at the expense of Cameron, who leads the party with the largest number of votes-would be to betray our power to the people tradition.”

    What are you talking about ?

    There is no way Miliband will be PM without an election – it’s simply not a case of jilting Cameron to hitch up with Miliband.

  • david thorpe 15th Aug '12 - 5:33pm

    given that labour semi-privatised the NHS-that would make labour-including several members of the current shadow cabinet-to the right of thatcher-

    liberal democrats generally divide into two camps-those who want to take power away from westminster and give it to local councils.assemblies etc. and those who want to take it away and not have it go anywhere else-ie reduce the size of the state….

    cameron has moved his party to the cnetre on social issues-and on others-economically-he is clsoer to the one nation traditon than the thatcher one-and not any further to the right that tony blair-given that blairs chancellor was brown and his adviser was milluiband-what deos that make milliband-

    cuts are part of the liberal tradition if done at the right stage of th weeconomic cycle-whether we are at the stage is a matter of judgement not ideoligy-the differentce is I suspect cameron is not aware .

    everything the lib dems do-from proposing a smaller house-to proposing AV-to proposing lords reform-is abotu ending backrrom deals(appointed lords are the beneficiaries of deals and crierion to which the public havent been made aware)
    mos parachuted into safe seats are the beneficiaries of deals the public havent been made aware of(AV reduces the number of safe seats)

    if you think cameron hasnt moved the tories look at his attitude on matters of social policy-and economically his support for the pupil premium-econimcially tahterites dont agree with him-john redwood is further from the coalitons economic policies than Ed Balls is-but Balls has to pretend differently-

  • This is a very interesting article, but it still begs the question as to what one will get should one cast a vote for the Liberal Democrats, something that I think needs closely defining to ensure supporters vote for the party.

    It looks like the Lib Dems may continue to hold the balance of power for the foreseeable future in UK politics. In 2010, given the economic situation and the first hung parliament for a generation, I think the Lib Dems only had one justifiable option – to go into coalition with the Conservative Party as they scored the highest number of seats.

    However, I think now there needs to be a clear policy as to what the Lib Dems would do in a similar situation – more than ever before coalition is on the cards (and in voters’ minds).

    I think you answer this by stating “the party with the most votes and the most seats has the moral right to have first try at forming a government.” – and that this is subject to the Lib Dems getting a number of red line policies through.

    I do worry that anti-Conservative Party rhetoric within the party might prevent a Lib-Dem-Tory coalition even if the Tories (somehow) scored more seats and offer the Lib Dems what they wanted – a situation that I would find undemocratic myself.

  • David Allen 15th Aug '12 - 6:01pm

    Hmm. You say you don’t like “equidistance”, and then you make complimentary remarks about Cameron being “closer to the centre”. Presumably this means you favour the Tories, but don’t want to articulate that out loud?

    Then you say that “the party with the most votes and the most seats has the moral right to have first try at forming a government”. Well, yes, in 2010 that was indeed the formulation that Clegg used to enable him to favour the Tories without having to articulate it out loud. However, in 2015 this same formulation instead seems rather likely to work in favour of Labour, who are nowadays consistently ahead in the polls, just as the Tories were before 2015.

    Oh what a tangled web we weave…

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Aug '12 - 6:05pm

    This is terrible nonsense. Others have deal with the sheer constitutional ignorance of the suggestion that there has ever been such a thing as an elected PM, and the dubious claim that the Tories are more “centrist” than Labour. So I’ll just pick up on this one:

    [to] declare ourselves happier to coalesce with Labour post-2015… would be incredibly naive … but would also be profoundly undemocratic.

    The only democratic approach pre-election to post-election coalition possibilities is the one Nick Clegg espoused pre-2010, that the party with the most votes and the most seats has the moral right to have first try at forming a government.

    So, you think it’s more democratic to say to voters “Vote for us, but we can’t tell you who’ll end up PM if we hold the balance of power because we’re going to leave that up to everybody who votes for somebody else”, than to say — in advance, to the voters — “If you vote for us, this is who we shall put into No. 10 if we’re holding the balance of power again.” This, despite the fact that you apparently believe that when people cast their votes for an MP what they’re really doing is voting for who’s going to be PM. Not very logical, I’m afraid.

  • Richard Dean 15th Aug '12 - 6:35pm

    My impression is certainly that a lot of people vote for a PM, rather than an MP.

  • paul barker 15th Aug '12 - 6:44pm

    In 2010 we said a coalition was vital because of the economic crisis, we promised the voters we would stick it out if at all possible . All that has changed is that the dangers of division have grown.
    There is no doubt that the tory grassroots are moving right but there is even more evidence that labour is moving left. We must stay in the progressive centre where most of the voters are.

  • @Richard Dean

    “My impression is certainly that a lot of people vote for a PM, rather than an MP”

    But the fact remains in this country we vote for a Mp to represent us and not for a prime minister.

    We are not like America where they vote for a state senator and then separately for a president.

    If that is how Liberal Democrats think we vote or should vote then maybe the party should add these to their reforms.

    When it comes to campaigning in elections, the literature does not say “Vote” for Cameron or “Vote” for Clegg, it asks you to vote for your local candidate.

    The way things are at the moment, No Prime Minister is elected in this country, Any Party can win an election and throughout that term of government the prime minister can be changed many times. it comes down to the party to decide who is going to lead their party.

    I Imagine most Liberal Democrats, what with their being anti-royal and all that, would much prefer we moved to a American style presidential system, however, it will not happen in this life time and will certainly never receive the support of the Tories, especially since most of them have come from the aristocracy.

  • Richard Dean 15th Aug '12 - 8:32pm

    Whatever the literature says, voters make their own minds up in the ways that they choose. My observation is that many people appear to make choices primarily on the basis on which party leader they prefer. This observation comes from simply talking to people. In essence we do seem to have something approaching a de facto American system, and no amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.

    People do accept one change of party leader in a term of office – Brown after Blair for example – but this was always known to be a possibility anyway, and oftentimes voters seem to reject the unelected PM at the next election. Of course there are exceptions, but I imagine there would be quite an outcry if a party tried to change its PM more than once in a parliament. Maybe the LibDems could try it out next time they get elected!

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Aug '12 - 9:32pm

    Richard Dean – ‘My observation is that many people appear to make choices primarily on the basis on which party leader they prefer. This observation comes from simply talking to people. In essence we do seem to have something approaching a de facto American system, and no amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.’

    It is certainly arguable. However in the US system there is a vice-president. If people think about who will be PM when they cast their vote is there not a distinct possibility that (rightly or wrongly) they might have a Deputy Prime Minister in mind in our post-coalition politics?

    The stark reality is that despite every opinion poll for two years before the 2010 election pointing to a Lib Con coalition as likelihood, no one had much of an idea what that would mean when it came. Not least the voters. The fundamental problem time and again has been that there never was a clear idea presented to the public at large as to what a coalition would look and feel like. Not a manifesto I stress, I mean a look and feel.

    Let me be very clear. I make no partizan political comment here. It is incumbent on all parties, not just the third in the polls, to think and talk to the public about how they see coalitions working when the polling points to such an outcome. Being ridiculous for a moment, is a grand coalition even such an outlandish notion in a context where all three parties agree on a single national priority of deficit reduction?

    I appreciate, of course, that this might not do down well with everyone. Being open about what coalition with one or the other party will involve in terms of compromises will probably alientate some people. But is that really any the worse than signing a tuition fees pledge that always looked a hostage to fortune at best?

    I personally feel that much of the criticism aimed at Clegg has been less than fair. But then on the other hand I am not much clearer now as to what he sees as the role of the minority party and the DPM in coalition than I was 2 years ago. Is it to push what might be seen as fringe issues (House of Lords reform for example), is it to act as some sort of, ‘brake,’ is it to pursue the business of one or two defined ministries, is it to pursue a wide but thin version of the manifesto? Or something else. It just is not clear to me why people who want a strong third party would vote Lib Dem now because it is not clear at all to me what the vision for third party government (as distinct form third party politics) is. Indeed, it is a painful irony that the Lib Dems, long-time supporters of Coalitions have found the experience rather uncomfortable yet the conservatives who notionally loathe coalitions seem to have managed rather well.

    I do accept, of course that this might well be a reflection that there may not be a great deal of consensus within the party about what the vision of a third party should be. And, of course from a position of 6 Conservative MPs to every 1 Lib Dem it is arguable that vision is a luxury. But then if a voter were to say, entirely reasonably, that the polls point to a third place finish again and then asks what a Coalition with one or the other parties post 2015 looks like does anyone have an answer beyond deficit reduction?

    As things stand I suspect that, ‘we will work with the biggest party,’ probably won’t survive the scrutiny of a full-blown campaign.

  • David Thorpe said:

    “David Cameron has moved the Tories from their several of their traditional positions to a point where they are closer to the centre than at any point in their history.”

    David Allen said:

    “you (i.e. Thorpe) make complimentary remarks about Cameron being “closer to the centre”.”

    Simon Shaw said:

    “@ David Allen

    You … misquote David Thorpe when you allege he said that ‘Cameron was “closer to the centre” (than Labour)’ ”

    (The words “than Labour” having been added on by Simon Shaw!)

    Simon, is this a bizarre game of out-Bushing George W Bush? That is to say, deliberately saying something you know is the opposite of the truth, just so as to get a kick out of doing so?

  • Between the argument about whether one votes for the party leader to be PM, or votes for the MP to represent one’s constituency, the much more probable possibility is excluded: namely, that many people simply vote for a party, and accept whatever leader it’s chosen. In 2010, for a variety of reasons, mostly but not exclusively economic, people were sick of Labour — but not all of them were so sick that they wanted to see the Tories in. The result was a mixed vote. In such cases it is impossible for Parliament to represent “the will of the people”, since very few people were voting for a coalition. If “the will of the people” can be represented in one phrase, it is “Not Sure”.
    In a way, the present coalition represents that popular uncertainty; not in its policies, of course, but in its two-headed intestine warfare. It is a coalition of contradictions. Unfortunately many Liberal Democrats are uncomfortable with contradictions; they like things neat and tidy. As such, they find themselves with an unfortunate choice to keep things tidy: either abandon the party, as many have, or modify their views such that they conform to coalition — i.e., Conservative — policy. (I find myself more in sympathy with those who detest the coalition, but would rather stay in the party and fight for change from the inside; at least they understand that politics makes fools of us all.)
    There’s no question but that a Lib-Lab coalition would be as much of a bicipital monster as the current coalition. But it would not be some betrayal of the voters of 2010 (much less the voters of 2012). It would be just another way of representing the electorate’s grand “Not Sure” pronouncement. And it would no less democratic of the Lib Dems to be the engine of that change than it is for the coalition to be overwhelmingly dominated, in personnel and policy, by any party that won a minority of seats in 2010 (i.e., all of them) — not particularly democratic, that is, given the system, but wholly within the rules of the very odd game that is played at Westminster.
    Maybe, in a way, it would be the fairest representation of the 2010 electorate’s verdict to spend, say, 3 years in coalition with the Tories and 2 with Labour. It goes back to “the people” and says very clearly, “this is the muddle you voted for”. And in terms of that muddle, exactly who happens to be Labour’s party leader is irrelevant. You wouldn’t suppose that the coalition should automatically collapse if David Cameron (or Nick Clegg) should take a very bad fall down the stairs of 10 Downing Street. Party leadership changes. People accept that (unless they’re trying to make a very awkward argument about political legitimacy).

  • Don’t you think it’s a little arrogant to be talking about who the Lib Dems would endorse after the next election?

    You should be concentrating on arguments that encourage people to vote for you, because local, Welsh & Scottish elections suggest support is plummeting, let alone the polling. You need to explain how the differences in pre 2010 promises and post 2010 behaviours are or are not a predictor for futre behaviour in coalition – because I suspect all but the most loyal of loyalists are going to judge you on that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '12 - 10:24am

    jedibeeftrix

    When thatcher was around health spending represented ~4.0% of GDP largely as a result a healthier demographic profile. Today it is double that figure, and by 2050 it will be approaching double again that 4%

    Yes, and do you argue that it is not part of the Liberal tradition to provide support for the elderly and a guarantee of health care to all? If you do, then you are arguing that Lloyd George and Beveridge are not part of the Liberal tradition. So what actually is left? It seems to me that you. like many others, are attempting to rewrite history in order to steal the label “Liberal” and attach it to the philosophy emanating from Ayn Rand.

    The issue here is that people are living vastly longer and we can do vastly more in terms of medical intervention to keep them alive now than we could even three decades ago, let alone a century ago. So to keep still in terms of the support we provide – I mean a guarantee of some pension income and of all health care treatment which will prolong life and relieve suffering – we do end up spending more of GDP on that.


    When thatcher was around we didn’t have the ludicrous expectation of pumping 50% of school leavers through the University system, so again the burden on the exchequer would be much reduced

    Similarly, a more technically advanced society requires a more educated workforce.

    We live in a more advanced society, as such there is need for a greater proportion of GDP to be spent on infrastructure things. I don’t see this as meaning a general move leftwards in politics. from the time of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership onwards we have seen a steady increase in wealth inequality, and a steady move towards control of the way we live being in the hands of a tiny extremely wealthy elite. I see that as a move rightwards.

  • Peter Watson 16th Aug '12 - 10:41am

    @Simon Banks
    I think you make an excellent point in that it is perfectly valid for a minor party to express a preference for one of the major parties before an election and then justifiably form a coalition with that party even if it was not the largest party. In some ways this might be more principled than saying we will make a deal with whoever is the biggest even if their policies are the furthest from ours (though I think our position before the election was only to talk to the largest party first).
    In 2010, I suspect that there was an implicit assumption by many that we were closer to Labour so could form a coalition even if they were second (and probably the opposite assumption by many who believed that we were closer to the tories).
    However, in 2010 only one coalition was feasible (because of the distribution of seats rather than votes) but it is still interesting to speculate on what might have happened if LD-Con, LD-Lab and Con-Lab coalitions were all feasible, especially since that could be the case in 2015.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '12 - 11:22am

    David

    The result was a mixed vote. In such cases it is impossible for Parliament to represent “the will of the people”, since very few people were voting for a coalition. If “the will of the people” can be represented in one phrase, it is “Not Sure”.

    Parliament consists of representatives of the people. Therefore the decisions it comes to collectively should represent the decisions the whole people would come to collectively if they had the time to sit down and work through the issues thoroughly, which of course they don’t, that is why we have representative democracy. In the Liberal Democrats we support proportional representation in order to ensure Parliament more accurately represents the people than it does when it consists solely of those who represent majority opinion in particular areas.

    Of course the will of the people will be “Not Sure” since people have a variety of opinions. That is why it is necessary for representatives to meet together and work out a line which is both practical and has the widest support. It is never going to be the case that 100% of the people wish for one particular government.

    Unfortunately, politics in this country is not reported this way. It is instead reported as if the parties are the tools of their leaders and elections are about putting forward a choice of leaders each with a rigid five year plans. Parliament is reduced to being merely an electoral college for choosing which leader will lead. I do not believe this is at all the Liberal tradition. It is a view of politics which stems from Marxism-Leninism, but which has unfortunately seeped into the rest of the political spectrum. Simply because it has now become so commonplace that people are astonished if you challenge it, or do not understand the nature of the challenge, does not mean we should stop challenging it.

    David, what you describe as “neat and tidy”, I describe as “Leninism”, and I would very much hope that contrary to what you say, most Liberal Democrats do not support that approach to politics. I don’t like the current coalition, but I accept it is what the current democratic mechanisms gave us. I no more hold that we have “abandoned our principles” because we have allowed this government to exist than I would hold that the only way to keep our principles, should the Tories have gained a full majority, would be to have mounted a military coup to get remove them. In a democracy, when your position loses, you accept it. The election results did not give us a way we could have implemented all we want. The influence we have in the coalition government is about what one would expect from our MPs forming about one sixth of the total government MPs.

    As I am not a Leninist, I do not agree with the idea “You must shut up and obey the party line”. Therefore I do not believe that because our party is part of the coalition that we should act as if all the government’s policies are policies we fully support. We support them as a democrat supports whatever the democratically elected government produces even if that democrat is a supporter of the opposition, rather than in the way we support those policies we have ourselves arrived at internally within our party (and here too, not being a Leninist, I don’t hold with the idea we must all support everything which is the “party line” of one’s own party all the time).

    There is the complication that our electoral system distorts representation. We have one sixth of the MPs of the coalition despite our party gaining two-fifths of its vote. However, the people of this country have made quite clear, by rejecting electoral reform in the 2011 referendum, that they prefer this distortion. The “No” side made its main case quite clear (though it said a lot of misleading things on the side) – our current electoral system is good, they said, because it gives the largest party more MPs than its share of the vote, and third parties less MPs than their share of the vote, and this leads to more “decisive” government due to the change of balance. Well, that is just what we have now, the distortion the successful “No” campaign said were so good gave us this government which is much more Tory than LibDem. By two to one, the people of Britain supported “No”, so effectively by two to one the people of this country supported the current coalition. So, while I may argue against it, I cannot say it is illegitimate. Given that many strongly Labour areas voted “No”, the arrangement which gives us the current coalition has support across the board. I go on about this because for me it really is the case that the AV referendum gave the current coalition a legitimacy which up till then I felt was arguable because the relative power of the two parties in it was so strongly affected by the distortions of our electoral system.

    However, I am still free to argue that the people got it wrong, and I do. Of course in reality the “Yes” campaign in the referendum was managed so badly that few people in this country managed to see the reality of what they were voting for, even though to me it was clear: “No” meant support for the coalition, “Yes” meant opposition to it, because “Yes” meant lack of support for the electoral system that gave it to us.

    I wish we had a party leadership which could and would explain all these things clearly. I do not think they are impossible to explain to ordinary people, and I do believe it is our job as Liberal Democrats to do it because no-one else is doing it and it is in the true spirit of Liberal Democracy. If I left our party it would be because it has been so appallingly badly led. One thing keeping me in it is that I would not want it thought I left because I felt the coalition was “abandoning our principles”. As I said, I don’t like what it is doing at all, but it is what democracy gave us. Saying that joining the coalition was wrong is ridiculous because what other options had we? I do not believe it is wrong to choose the least worst option, even if that option is much less pleasant than several other options which one wished existed but are actually impossible.

  • Peter Watson 16th Aug '12 - 11:52am

    @Matthew Huntbach
    “However, the people of this country have made quite clear, by rejecting electoral reform in the 2011 referendum, that they prefer this distortion.”
    I don’t think it is as clear cut as you make it sound here, partly for the reasons you yourself give about the nature of the campaign, but also because voters were not offered much of an alternative to the distortion of the current system. Our own leader sabotaged the campaign by describing AV as a “miserable little compromise” and we were told that it could lead to less proportionality than the current system.
    Sadly this only leaves me with the hope that electoral reform under PR is still a possibility as I can’t disagree with anything else you have written 🙁

  • It’s ludicrous to suggest that it would be somehow ‘more democratic’ to allign with the party that has the most votes or seats at the next election on that basis alone. In fact, that has the potential to be incredibly undemocratic.

    Let’s just say that the majority of people who vote for the lib dems vote for them because they are a liberal centrist/centre-left party. Then let’s imagine if by some freak incident either the BNP or UKIP win the majority of seats and votes. Would it be ‘democratic’ for the lib dems to completely ignore the reasons their own voters voted for them and support the BNP or UKIP whose voters voted for a completely different agenda and set of policies? The party has no duty to align itself with any other party than one that is most conducive to its interests and most supportive of its agenda. Now that may either be Labour or the Conservatives, but it is not necessarily ‘the party with the most votes’. Democracy is the process that results in a hung parliament- that is what the public voted for.

    We briefly saw this intellectualy deficient nonsense in the right-wing tabloids after the last election when they whined about the lib dems negotiating with Labour despite Labour not winning the majority of votes. It would be profoundly undemocratic (and, I would argue, has been) for a group of people to vote for a party and its MPs for one set of reasons only for that party and its MPs support a government that has an agenda totally contrary to what the party’s voters voted for.

  • David Allen 16th Aug '12 - 1:27pm

    Peter Watson said,

    “it is perfectly valid for a minor party to express a preference for one of the major parties before an election and then justifiably form a coalition with that party even if it was not the largest party.”

    Well, yes it is. That approach is certainly more valid than Clegg’s approach in 2010, which was to express a preference for talking to whichever party might turn out to be the largest party at the next election, even if a coalition could also viably be achieved with the second largest party. As I have argued elsewhere, I think Clegg’s approach was designed to favour the Tories without making it too clear that he was doing so. But even if one doesn’t believe that, Clegg’s approach had the obvious flaw that it doesn’t sound terribly principled to say that you don’t care who it is you make a deal with, provided it’s the guys who came a few seats ahead of the other guys.

    That said, there are lesser problems with the Peter Watson approach. It’s OK to express a preference, if you have one. But if you tie yourself too closely to Party X, you run the risk that they will take you for granted, and offer you very little, being confident that you won’t run off and talk to Party Y.

    The old “equidistance” approach was designed to avoid that flaw by refusing to express any preference. It worked well enough when we could convincingly argue that (for example) Thatcher’s monetarism and Foot’s doctrinaire socialism were equally dreadful. It works less well when, frankly, one side does look less bad than the other. I recall that for that reason, we didn’t claim to be “equidistant” in 1997 between Major and Blair.

    So we need to find an approach which is better tactically than Peter Watson’s, better in terms of principle than either the Clegg approach or the “equidistance approach”. I think we could validly square the circle by declaring that we feel closer to Labour, and would seek to build a centre-left coalition, but would not be bound to do so. It would be critically dependent on Labour playing ball. If they didn’t, we would be free to seek a better deal elsewhere.

    And one final point – in this willingness to horse-trade, we would be emphasising policy goals, not the number of seats in the Ministerial limos (like we did last time!) If we are to maximise what we get out of a deal – as we must – then we should maximise what we achieve for the nation, not for ourselves.

  • Alex Macfie 16th Aug '12 - 1:57pm

    matt says:

    I Imagine most Liberal Democrats, what with their being anti-royal and all that, would much prefer we moved to a American style presidential system

    By no means all Liberal Democrats are republicans. Even among the party membership there are a lot of monarchists. This is probably why the party does not have a policy on the monarchy. And a republic need not mean a US-style executive presidency; it could alternatively mean a ceremonial president, as in Ireland and Germany. I suspect that most republicans in the UK envisage replacing the monarch with a ceremonial president, and keeping the persent Parliamentary system of government.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '12 - 2:08pm

    @Peter Watson
    We can’t blame our leader for sabotaging the campaign with the “miserable little compromise” words, because these words were uttered before the campaign. AV isn’t proportional representation, in fact it is a pretty miserable compromise between what we have now and what we as Liberal Democrats really want, but it is all we were offered. Just because it’s a compromise doesn’t mean it isn’t worth having.

    Now, if the general conclusion following the referendum was that AV was rejected because it wasn’t a sufficient enough reform to the electoral system, I would have drawn a wholly different conclusion. However, I saw no public commentator making this point. The almost universal conclusion was that the rejection of AV meant the rejection of any electoral reform. The material produced by the victorious “No” campaign was completely oriented around defence of the existing system, and in fact quite a bit of it attacked AV as if AV were proportional representation. I am not aware of anyone in the “No” campaign who took the line “Reject AV in order that we may have a proportional system introduced rather than this compromise”. It was understood, and I think quite rightly, that if AV were introduced it may well be a stepping stone to STV being introduced some time later. So rejection of AV was, correctly, seen also as rejection of all forms of proportional representation, even though it was not literally so.

    On the clarity of the British people’s rejection of electoral reform and hence in fact support of the coalition that results from the distortion of representation caused by our current system, obviously I am well aware that most people did not see it that way. In fact many people voted “No” under the belief that by doing so they were somehow rejecting the coalition. The reason I am putting it this way, and have been doing so repeatedly, is to try and drive home just how wrong that thinking was. My logic, I think, is quite sound – the main point the “No” campaign made was that our current electoral system is good because it distorts representation in favour of the biggest party (in 2010, that’s the Tories) and against third parties (in 2010, that’s the LibDems). So we have a coalition that is over-dominated by the Tories and where the LibDems are weaker than they should be as measured by their share of the vote. Well, that seems to me to be EXACTLY what the “No” campaign was saying was a good thing. Note also that it was the distortion in favour of the biggest party and against the third party that ruled out a coalition between the second and third party. So anyone who voted “No” was in fact voting against a Labour-LibDem coalition because they were voting for the distortion that made it impossible.

    If by the use of pure logic, and I don’t think the logic I’m using here is that complex, it seems to me I’m just pointing out a very clear corollary of the “No” campaign’s main line, we can get people to see just what they have done by voting “No” and to see that in many cases what they did was the exact opposite of what they thought they were doing, we shall have achieved several things. Firstly, to get people to THINK and see how often they are duped by poor arguments put forward by those with vested interests. Secondly, once people have realised they were duped, to re-open the case for electoral reform rather than accept the line that the referendum closed it off for the foreseeable future. Thirdly, to get some thinking going on at the top of our party, because the fact that so many who voted “No” were voting for the opposite of what they thought they were voting for is a demonstration of how incredibly inept those who ran the “Yes” campaign were. Fourthly, to demonstrate that Labour’s refusal to give strong support to constitutional reform, as indicated by the prominent support for “No” from many Labour people and the almost complete silence of any Labour person who wasn’t a “No” supporter, means Labour is the true long-term prop for Conservative Party hegemony in this country.

  • david thorpe 16th Aug '12 - 3:13pm

    if we express a preference before an election thats morally fine-voters know what they are getting-but it must be predicated on the basis that we would then not coalesce with an other party.
    I would also say that morally wgile it might be fine-tactically it would be a disater-we win by squeezsing the third party-we cant do that if the voters of the third party view us as the enemy because we are garaunteeing not to coalesce with them.

    An example of this-in 2005 out decpaitation startegy was effectively us saying we existed to destroy tories-so instead of getting the dozens of labour seats which should have been ours due to the decline in Labour post iraqw we only got a handful-becase tories didnt want to be associated with a party which made palin its contempt for them.
    and while the tory manifesto in 2005 was odious-it was no worse than leaborus legacy on iraq.

    The Libera; Democrats are an indepdent party-we do not exist to rpop up another-and must assess on empricial rather than tribal reasons our preferences-butempirically that can only be done after manifestos have bee published-and the preference of the voter must also come into iit

  • Peter Watson 16th Aug '12 - 3:41pm

    @Matthew Huntbach
    The No campaign did attack AV specifically: repeating Clegg’s “miserable little compromise” comment, claiming only three countries use it, claiming it could produce a less representative parliament, etc., so I do still hold out some hope that the electorate has not yet dismissed more proportional representation.

  • @paul barker 15th Aug ’12 – 6:44pm

    “We must stay in the progressive centre where most of the voters are.”

    I believe you’d be better off to staying where your principles are and persuade voters to come to you by honest debate,
    At first glance the above statement sounds a little too mercenary.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Aug '12 - 1:38pm

    David Thorpe

    If we express a preference before an election that’s morally fine – voters know what they are getting – but it must be predicated on the basis that we would then not coalesce with an other party.

    Yes, that’s fine, but what you have written before suggests a definite preference for the Conservatives. If I were someone leaning between Labour and Liberal Democrat, and I saw all your stuff trying to equate “Liberalism” with what in my younger day was called “Thatcherism” (at least when it comes to economics), and your claims that the current Conservative Party – which holds to positions which in my younger days would have been considered beyond-the-fringe loony right – is “closer to the centre than at any point in its history”, it would most definitely lead me to stick to Labour even in the clost Conservative-LibDem marginal.

    Add to this the substantial press comment on the lines of the current coalition being continued into the election, with the possibility of some sort of electoral deal, which has not been nearly as forcefully condemned as nonsense by our leadership as it should be (it is nonsense, but because of this Leninist view of political parties, press commentators really do seem to believe that Clegg can just order his party to form an electoral alliance with the Tories and we will all obey), and add also to it the readiness to describe the coalition as a “marriage” (i.e. something long-term and based on mutual closeness), and I think in the minds of most voters, we are already in the situation you say we should not be: of having established a default coalition position for after the next general election.

    And yet, after this YOU, David Thorpe, are writing very strongly in condemnation of any attempt to break the common misassumptions that we are in a long-term alliance with the Conservatives, because what you have written here suggests you want to oppose even the suggestion that we might talk about a coalition with Labour. Sorry, David, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is people like you who are making a difficult situation worse by trying to push our party ever rightwards and trying to reinvent it as a sort of Conservative without the “King and country” aspects of the old Conservative Party, which are largely moribund anyway.

    The reality is, as was very well illustrated by the 2010 general election, that in the event of there not being a majority for the Conservatives or Labour, it is quite likely NOT going to be the case that it is all down to us to pick and choose which coalition partner to have. As in 2010 it may simply be the case that there is only one viable coaltion partner. It also depends very much on the willingness of the other parties – why is it the LibDem leader who keeps getting asked “who will you form a coalition with?” rather that the other two being asked “In the event of a no majority Parliament, would you be willing to form a coaltion with the Liberal Democrats, and what compromises would you make in order to encourage them to agree to it”?

    We should have been saying this repeatedly and firmly ever since the coalition was formed in 2010. There should have been angry denunciations of anyone, whether in our party or outside, who tried to play the line that the current coaltion is some sort of ideological coming together due to the LibDems moving rightwards (i.e. Orange Book thinking) and the Conservatives moving leftwards (they haven’t, it is pure right-wing propaganda that tries to suggest they have). Our leader should have led on this – he should have made it quite clear that there would be instant dismissal from his circle of influence of anyone who was trying to push this line. I don’t need to name names, do I, but let’s just say also “no return to the cabinet” as well.

    The failure to establish very firmly that the current coalition arises from circumstances and not from choice has hugely damaged our party, because it has allowed this “sold out your principles for power” line to flourish. This line comes about because people have not got it out of their heads all this stuff we have had at every general election for years about how we would be mighty kingmakers who could dictate our conditions so long as we held the balance after an election. In reality, because there was only one viable coalition and we ended the election on a downwards trajectory and quite obviously unable to fight another general election campaign soon, we entered the coalition in a very weak position, never mind the weakness anyway caused by the distortional nature of our electoral system.

    To make things worse, instead of acknowledging this, since the formation of the coalition our party leadership has been pushing the line of over-emphasising our party’s influence in the coalition, even to the extent of enthusiastically pushing some back-of-the-envelope calculation (now withdrawn by its authors) that “75% of our manifesto has been implemented”. The general public tended to read this (easily done if you are not mathematically astute) as a claim that the coaltion is 75% Liberal Democrat in policy. Not surprising that we have seen our opinion poll support collapse with little chance of it being built up again in the near future, as we it has caused us to lose a huge proportion of our former voters and almost anyone who might have been tempted to move to us, as they see what is actually a very right-wing Conservative government (apart from a little froth like gay marriages) in place – so they think “Well, if this is what the Liberal Democrats are really about, I never want to give them any support ever again”.

    So now, I’m in a difficult situation – unlike almost anyone else I know who shares my political position, I do feel the Liberal Democrats have not done a bad job in the coalition, but that’s because I accept the reality is they had no alternative and they are very weak in it, so I can’t expect much more that what we have seen. However, I think we have been so badly led, our leadership seems to have done everything it can to make a bad situation worse in the way it has presented our party’s case, in the way its publicity seems designed actually to encourage those who have left us feeling we have “sold out”, to the point where I cannot actively go out and campaign for our party while it is in place doing so much damage to what I have given so much of my time and money to throughout my adult life.

  • Peter Watson 17th Aug '12 - 2:05pm

    @Matthew Huntbach
    Very well said.

  • David Thorpe:
    Liberal democracy, to me, is largely representative democracy (in liberal sense that is representative democracy at the local level). While others interpret liberal democracy as direct democracy (or tyranny of the majority as I often call it). I think there is as much a debate on the meaning of democracy as there is on the meaning of liberalism.

  • Richard Swales 19th Aug '12 - 12:01pm

    @Matthew Huntbach

    – saying Ayn Rand/Objectivism = Libertarianism and Libertarianism = Ayn Rand/Objectivisim is pretty much equivalent to saying Mohammed/Islam is about having 4 women on the go at once. Have you actually read any of her books or are you just repeating what other people say about them?

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Aug '12 - 10:30pm

    Richard Swales

    – saying Ayn Rand/Objectivism = Libertarianism and Libertarianism = Ayn Rand/Objectivisim is pretty much equivalent to saying Mohammed/Islam is about having 4 women on the go at once.

    I’ve skimmed Rand, and I’ve also seen what the sort of person who seems to be most influenced by her endorses, it seems to me to be pretty far from what the Liberal Party ever endorsed at any stage in its history.

    Now I don’t have time to argue in detail, so I’m really just using Rand’s name as a shorthand for this tendency which has become the dominant ideology in recent years, advocating “small state, low tax” on the grounds that allowing the rich to stay rich and letting the poor go to hell helps everyone else. There are various forms of it but Rand is a big influence in this movement. If you can think of a better name for it, please supply it. At least Rand was honest about her opinions, and avowedly anti-liberal.

    Now, given who this sort of thinking helps, there is obviously a great deal of money around to promote it, and a great many people in positions of power happy to promote it. Because of this, ways of thinking influenced by it are seeping in elsewhere. This sort of thing happens – note how I wrote earlier about how the Leninist model of political party seeped in political thinking generally, coming about because of the former dominance of Marxism-Leninism in political thought generally, and because of large vested interests promoting it.

    So there are two things going on here – people who are consciously something else unconsciously picking it up, and people who are consciously this sort of thing hiding it by disguising it as something else – conservatism or liberalism. However, it’s more a spectrum or mix of all these things, rather than distinct camps.

    Certainly I see in Liberal Democrat Voice, particularly in contributions from younger people who have grown up in an age when this greed-is-good thinking had become dominant (I grew up in the previous age when socialism was the dominant political theory), an over-readiness to accept premises which just a few years ago would have been regarded as dubious and very much associated with the political right. We have also seen a slippage where first it obtained the label “economic liberalism” and now there seems to be a concerted effort from some to get it called just “liberalism”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Aug '12 - 10:40pm

    It was somewhat amusing having written my previous article to find the advert underneath it auto-generated, advertising yet another outlet of this tiresome current dominant ideology reading

    Voice of Liberty
    Conservative Political Ideas & News Commentary

    Well, in the USA since a long time ago they started using “liberalism” to mean “socialism”, they have to use the word “conservatism” to refer to the ideology they advocate. But it’s just as much a con, because it’s hard to think of a more destructive and hence anti-conservative (in the true meaning of the word “conservative”) ideology than the current dominant one. Still, by calling it “Conservatism” and dropping a few conservative crumbs they can pick up quite a lot of support from the gullible. See also how here UKIP can pick up a lot of support from the gullible for it by dropping a few anti-foreigner crumbs. The reality is that the sort of extreme free market policies that are at the core of UKIP are the biggest threat there is to UK independence.

  • Richard Swales 20th Aug '12 - 9:23am

    Matthew Huntbach wrote “I’ve skimmed Rand, and I’ve also seen what the sort of person who seems to be most influenced by her endorses, it seems to me to be pretty far from what the Liberal Party ever endorsed at any stage in its history. ”

    A person would be equally unfair to judge Christianity and Islam by their most vocal followers. Objectivism is a philosophy and Liberalism is a political tradition, so there isn’t much crossover. Ayn Rand’s books are best described as being about individual self-reliance in general. She became famous for a book she wrote in the 30s (the Fountainhead) which is a lot about being an individual and not following fads and fashions in art, architecture, tabloid campaigns and so on. Also about how the individual’s creativity can be crushed by working for soulless American corporations (which is a concept that fits better on the left than the right these days) – the hero resigns from his job as an architect and works in a quarry instead of making buildings how his boss wants but he thinks is wrong, he tries to set up on his own and do things the way he thinks is best. The character who is his opposite just does what everyone else wants all the time, never uses his own mind, and ends up an empty shell. None of this has much to do with politics. Her other well known book, written when communism was taken seriously as a system in the west and a little more dated now, Atlas Shrugged, describes a socialist takeover of the USA. It is then a lot about economic self-reliance (although there is also a lot about friendships, marriages and family relationships too) – but contrary to what other people will tell you, the main pan-handlers in the book are corporations lobbying to get subsidies and special advantages (which given the whole raison d’etre of the current Republican party, it’s pretty funny that some of them like this book). The majority of the “elite” characters (politicians, journalist, businesspeople) are villains, whereas the “ordinary” characters are mostly good. But yes, it says that one person’s need is not a claim on the work of another person – it doesn’t go along with socialist principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need”

    “Now I don’t have time to argue in detail, so I’m really just using Rand’s name as a shorthand for this tendency which has become the dominant ideology in recent years, advocating “small state, low tax” on the grounds that allowing the rich to stay rich and letting the poor go to hell helps everyone else. There are various forms of it but Rand is a big influence in this movement. If you can think of a better name for it, please supply it. At least Rand was honest about her opinions, and avowedly anti-liberal. ”

    Libertarianism is the better description. If you want something negative the Corporatism is good too. Well it depends to what extent the rich are maintained in their position by the state – for example you and I can’t use our computer skills to set up an online bank to undercut the margins of the traditional banks, because the established banks are protected by a government guarantee that would not be extended to us. Real Libertarianism rather than general vanilla pro-business politics cuts both ways. The “helps everyone else” is a justification that Libertarians might use, because they are willing to use any argument at all in defence of freedom, but Rand herself would not accept that free choice needs to be justified on the grounds of expedience – which is why she never described herself as a libertarian – simply she thought compulsion is not acceptable end of story.

    I define liberalism differently to you perhaps. A few times (but usually just before the story disappeared onto the second page and the comments died off) I asked you to describe how your own definition of liberalism differs from socialism, other than in terms of how to run a political party and how to conduct politics. It seems to me that the definition of liberalism used on the left of the party is actually very close to that in American i.e. general vanilla left-wing.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Aug '12 - 12:26am

    Richard Swales

    you and I can’t use our computer skills to set up an online bank to undercut the margins of the traditional banks, because the established banks are protected by a government guarantee that would not be extended to us.

    Well there we go, to you it’s always big bad government that’s at fault. Actually the reason you and I can’t break into banking and much else is that it’s almost impossible to go from nothing towards being able to compete with the economies and influence a big corporation has. It’s the same with retail – the reason I shop at the big supermarkets and not at a corner shop isn’t because government forces me to do so, it’s because it’s cheaper and they have a bigger range of products.

    The reality seems to me to be that Rand had a Potemkin village view of capitalism, and was therefore in a similar line to those who wrote about idealised form of communism having swallowed whole the propaganda. Just as the Trotkyists thought the only thing wrong about Communism was that it wasn’t being tried in an extreme enough manner, so did Rand about capitalism.

    Rand also seems to have swallowed much of the “superman” ways of thinking that were then popular, put more intellectually by Nietzsche. She claims to endorse freedom, but it’s freedom of the strong to oppress the weak, none of this Liberal idea that we may be “enslaved by poverty”. If I have the foundation of “Atlas Shrugged” right, the idea is that there are a few super-creative individuals, and that these supercreative individuals somehow naturally rise to positions of power and influence. I disagree very strongly with both these premises. My own feeling is that those in positions of wealth and power are not markedly better than anyone else, and that a great many people who do have great talents never get the chance to really use those talents. As a Liberal I think I would rather endorse the idea that most of us are capable of a great deal, and society needs to be organised to give us a chance of exercising that capability. Without the counterbalance of a democratic state, wealth and power tend to get concentrated into the hands of a few, who like to think they are there because they have very special talents and that anyone else could be there if they had those talents. That is why I do not hold with “libertarianism”, because it seems to endorse that viewpoint of the few at the top, and discount the extent to which wealth and power get concentrated simply because the wealthy and powerful have a great deal more freedom than anyone else by virtue of their wealth and power.

  • Richard Swales 21st Aug '12 - 1:18pm

    @Matthew Huntbach

    It depends on the definition of oppress. To take the example of my language school (I am sole founder and owner), politicians and politically-minded people may disagree with each other about how the money paid by students should be divided up percentage-wise between a) myself, b) people who work for me c) people who have in the past applied to work for me who I didn’t accept and d) people who have never applied to work for me. If the definition of “oppress” means denying the moral right of group d) to a significant cut of the takings then it could be argued that Rand was pro-oppression.

    You are wrong about Atlas Shrugged. The talented people in book (which includes railway workers, a composer, businessmen and even university teachers) are actually pushed to the margins by the mediocre and begin to drop out of society (again not a typically Republican idea). In the case of the businessmen characters it is mainly due to corporate lobbying by mediocre businessmen (who are thereby more successful financially), so that part of the book is more political, but in the case of the composer, after years of his talent not being recognised he has a Susan Boyle style sudden success, but decides to disappear and drop out after the first night (and compose just for himself and friends) because he just doesn’t want to play that kind of game based on pandering to the groupthink of the fans and critics. The composer is a good example of why it is wrong to use Rand as shorthand for Libertarianism (which would value either of the composer’s choices equally, pretty much seeing them as outside the scope of politics) or money-politics (which if anything would say he should try to make money from his fame and grow the economy for the benefit of the rest of society); objectvism is similar to Libertarianism in that is says you are not entitled to “correct” the choices of others – neither for their own benefit or that of the rest of society, but it has a lot more to say on how you should and shouldn’t make your own choices. The main character of her first (and better) book The Fountainhead also makes similar anti-money choices to remain intellectually self-reliant and there is really very little there that is directly political.
    I haven’t seen the film version of Atlas Shrugged (made recently in response to the political situation in the USA) but I am told that most of the non-businessmen characters are cut out and there is a lot more about whining about income tax, so that’s really not the best place to start – without the other characters (and the other book written decades earlier) it just starts to look like a conclusion (low income tax) in search of a philosophy to back it up.

    The point is that like any philosophy Objectivism is a way of thinking about everyday life. The emphasis on self-reliance in the widest possible sense (i.e. first of all intellectual and spiritual, secondly economic) may lead to certain conclusions about how one should vote every four or five years (for example if I was in the USA it would lead me not to vote for the leach-like corporate lobbyists in the Republican party), similarly to how a belief in Christianity may or may not influence one’s vote (depending on whether one prefers reading the bits of the bible about charity or the bits about sexual morality), but it (like Christianity) is mostly about what you do through the other 1800 days between elections.

    As for political terminology (which is what we started talking about and the only part of the discussion where I have a real hope of changing your mind), Libertarianism is often a good word when you want to talk about people who support a small state for whatever reason (including social-engineering arguments like thereby increasing overall wealth and dozens of other arguments which are not legitimate in Objectivism). However Libertarianism seems often to be used as a more fashionable label (and these days opinions are fashion accessories for a lot of people) by people who care about the tax aspects, but don’t care about corporate lobbying, legalising cannabis or anything else that doesn’t fit well with the wider conservative agenda. For those people the slogan of “low taxes” describes all they are actually about politically. Either way Rand/Objectivism is a life philosophy not a political one.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Aug '12 - 2:04pm

    @ Richard Swales
    You would have more of a point if most of the economy was like language schools: relatively low-tech and not requiring a big distribution and production system. But it isn’t. My objection remains that people like you, whatever you wish to call yourself, pay little attention to the issue of scale (which in many areas has changed remarkably since the classics were written), and though when pushed might mention the evils of big corporations mostly stick to criticism of just one big corporation – the government – which is the only one we do have a vote over. Just like the socialists of old you seem unable to comprehend how the language you continue to use can so easily be picked up and used by those who don’t share your ideals – as we saw with the dictators of supposedly socialist countries.

    It seems to me the popularity of Libertarian/etc ideas in the USA comes down quite a lot to nostalgia, to the point where it can be almost a cargo cult. Repeat again and again the lines that worked when the economy really was based on small scale enterprises and there was a wild west frontier where anyone squeezed out could go and make a living, and somehow all that will re-appear again. Look, the big corporation don’t need you saying “me too” to their denunciation of the active state, so why do you do it and only when pushed say something about the problems of corporate dominance?

    If it really was the case that 19th century Liberalism was all about reducing the state to a minimum, then why do we still sing that old song about Gladstone’s government, with its refrain “Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hands?”? Surely if the biggest enemy is the government and the tyranny of the majority when it is democratic, we would be singing songs about the evils of the ballot in people’s hands.

  • Richard Swales 21st Aug '12 - 3:49pm

    @ Matthew Huntbach, virtually every business you can find in your local yellow pages would be similar to the language school and fit into the category of small scale businesses ordinary people can set up on their own. However in most cases of the stakeholder groups listed above, group a) gets a smaller share (some of the profits) than group d) (some of the profits, a cut of the turnover through VAT, a cut of the wage bill).
    If you are willing to get together with the members of your church, political party or union (all of which have thousands of members with milions in total savings) you could also set up something bigger. Sounds unrealistic but in fact, this is something you do all the time through the medium of your pension fund and saving account. Of course as for companies reliant on government concessions (running electricity grids, drilling for oil, fracking etc.) then I tend to agree that these are to a much greater extent public property . As for retail, I would hope the NFU tries to get direct access to the market soon, because going through other companies isn’t working for theri members. This kind of producers cooperative model is popular on the continent.

    Are libertarian ideas popular in the USA then? Certainly Ron Paul got thrashed in the presidential nomination race by regular conservative candidates.

    I don’t know exactly what I would call myself politically because my ideas are somewhat in flux. The Browne report and debate around it is one thing that really pushed me to the right, because it underlined how the expectation from now on is that the state is about redistribution rather than general provision (as a one-way street of redistribution to the idle without things like support for students who are trying to make a go for themselves then the big state is a lot harder to support for me as the social contract element is lost). Also, when you look at statistics like 78 percent of Chinese (i.e. Chinese ethnicity living in the UK) pupils, including 70 percent of Chinese pupils on free school meals get 5 A-Cs at GCSE compared to abominable results for the rest of the country, then you can try explain it away by genetics, but really such a difference is down to culture, i.e. the rotten values of so many people in the country. For me that leaves the left arguing that I am morally obliged to pay for other people’s cultural choices (i.e. anti-learning) and rotten values. I don’t find that argument remotely persuasive. I know I wouldn’t describe my politics as “Objectivist” though, as that’s not a political label. It would be just as crazy as for someone to describe their politics as “Catholic”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Aug '12 - 10:39am

    Richard Swales

    Also, when you look at statistics like 78 percent of Chinese (i.e. Chinese ethnicity living in the UK) pupils, including 70 percent of Chinese pupils on free school meals get 5 A-Cs at GCSE compared to abominable results for the rest of the country, then you can try explain it away by genetics, but really such a difference is down to culture, i.e. the rotten values of so many people in the country.

    Yup, I agree with you there. But I also believe it is the trashy values of the “free market” that have pushed culture that way. Not that I particularly agree with Chinese family culture either, it is, er, well if one wanted to give an example of the opposite of “liberal”, that might be it.

    I know I wouldn’t describe my politics as “Objectivist” though, as that’s not a political label. It would be just as crazy as for someone to describe their politics as “Catholic”.

    While I don’t think Catholicism prescribes a particular political direction, in my case I do feel my Catholic background has quite a strong influence on my politics. Pace Paul Ryan, it may be why I take such a dislike to Ayn Rand as in many ways Catholic social teaching is the opposite. Consider Caritas in Veritate (these things tend to be written in a rather ponderous language if you do attempt to wade through it). It does not prescribe a particular political direction, yet it would seem to me hard to reconcile this with fan worship of Rand.

  • Richar d Swales 22nd Aug '12 - 6:37pm

    @Matthew
    As for Paul Ryan I agree that the two are irreconcilable – someone seems to have pointed this out to him and he is backpedalling on the Rand stuff now. I also agree that one’s life philosophy does influence one’s politics to some extent, but it doesn’t provide the whole description.

    But I don’t really agree that the market has inherent values. Isn’t it just a place where people exchange what’s important to them?

  • Richard Swales 22nd Aug '12 - 10:27pm

    Not that I necessarily agree that what happened in the 19th century should have a big influence on what happens now, but if the Liberal party in the 19th century was so Liberal in the American sense (general vanilla left-wing) then why did the workers marching behind Gladstone decide to form the Labour party?

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Aug '12 - 2:32pm


    If the Liberal party in the 19th century was so Liberal in the American sense (general vanilla left-wing) then why did the workers marching behind Gladstone decide to form the Labour party?

    It was a gradual process. The Wiki page here gives a reasonable summary.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Aug '12 - 2:42pm


    But I don’t really agree that the market has inherent values. Isn’t it just a place where people exchange what’s important to them?

    The question is when does exchange become compulsion? A man who is starving might sell himself into slavery if that is the alternative to death. Let us suppose we have an island inhabited by two tribes where all the land is owned by one tribe who need only have a small proportion of the other tribe working for them to provide all their needs. A market might be set up where members of the non-landowning tribe seek to exchange work for food, but then the rest of that tribe starve to death as they are not needed.

    It seems to me that starving to death is pretty much a deprivation of one’s liberty, however much you might argue the situation is perfectly fair because there’s free exchange.

  • Richard Swales 24th Aug '12 - 8:01am

    Well if it’s an island then they could catch fish and trade them 🙂 They could also make things and sell them. But assuming we are talking about the early stone age and not much has yet been invented to make, then the tribalistic situation you describe is perhaps one that requires a reset, although its not clear to me why you think tribe A would elect a government willing to do that when they discriminate against the other tribe on the individual level.

    Also, land is in a different class of property in my personal opinion – because a nation or citzenry generally only has land to live on because at some point some kind of government or king has cleared another people off it. Where it has been granted to individuals it was always on the understanding that it was still subject to later taxation – to suddenly reclassify that land as untaxable seems to me to be arbitrarily transferring value from the government to the landholder.

  • Richard Swales 24th Aug '12 - 8:02am

    Also, what you say isn’t equivalent to the free market containing inherent values that cause culture to dumb down.

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