Opinion: Liberal Youth’s ambitious liberalism

Last weekend I attended Liberal Youth’s excellent Conference in Leeds. This is a regular event that allows members to meet, debate and – this time especially – campaign.

The final item on the agenda was a debate on “Ambitious Liberalism: a Radical, Liberal Voice for the Future”, which I proposed.

Although there are plenty of policy items in the motion, this was not primarily a motion about policy. Most of the individual items were already Liberal Youth policy. As we head into the final weeks of the General Election campaign, it is worth taking a few moment to reflect on what unites us as a party, and that is what this motion set out to do.

In putting together this motion, I took inspiration from the excellent mission statement published by Liberal Reform. In particular, Liberal Reform identifies four key strands of liberal thought, which form the basis of the text Liberal Youth adopted this weekend.

The Liberal Democrats have a proud history of promoting personal liberty. From our consistent opposition to ID cards to our resolute blocking of the Snooper’s Charter, the will of Conference is rarely clearer than when standing up for civil liberties.

We are also almost legendary in British politics for our commitment to political reform. Ironically, commentators often overlook the most radical part of this agenda – the community politics approach.

The remaining two strands – those of social and economic liberalism – are sometimes portrayed as conflicting, but in reality they are both inseparable and mutually reinforcing. Economically liberal approaches can often be the best ways to achieve social liberal ends, and vice versa.

From the earliest days of the Liberal Party as an alliance promoting free trade to our modern commitment to the Single Market and EU free movement, the Liberal Democrats have championed the cause of economic liberalism in a way that no other party ever will.

At the same time, we have recognised the importance of fostering opportunity for all. We led the debate on social reform in the early years of the 20th century, we have led it in this Parliament, and we must lead it in the future.

I was delighted to see this motion adopted unanimously by Liberal Youth Conference. It is fantastic to see that Liberal Youth members – the future of our party – are so strongly committed to the values of economic, social, political and personal liberalism. The General Election will test our party, and the months and years beyond may well test us even more, but whatever happens, I am confident that the future of liberalism is bright.

* Stuart Wheatcroft is a member of the Liberal Youth England executive.

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  • I read with interest this article and via the link that Stuart provides the motion agreed by Liberal Youth
    It would be interesting to know more about the conference, how many people attended, who said what, etc etc
    For the party to rebuild after May it will need a vibrant and thoughtful youth membership.

    The motion passed by the conference contains a lot of good stuff.

    The weakest section seems to be section 3 on economic liberty.

    Unless I have missed it there is no mention of Industrial Democracy.
    Elsewhere there is a commitment to community politics — so why not in the community where most people spend mst of their waking hours — work ?

    Democratising the workplace to ensure that people are treated as human beings and not just units of production or “factory fodder”, or mere “call-centre serfs”, should be at the core of any Liberal Democrat economic policy.

    It should certainly be a higher priority that reforms in the planning system or Sunday Trading, whatever merit they have.
    ( I find the existing compromises in The Law on Sunday Trading quite daft. It should be changed. But such legislative fiddling at the margins need not be a cornerstone issue of economic policy.)

    The section I am talking about is as follows —

    Action to promote economic liberty, including:
    The completion and perfection of the European Single Market, including the free movement of people, and the expansion of free trade globally through bilateral and multilateral negotiation;
    Shifting the burden of tax away from productivity and towards accumulations of wealth, including through the introduction of a system of Land Value Taxation;
    Reform to the planning system to give local communities a clear stake in the development of their local areas, both for its own sake and to facilitate the required expansion of housebuilding;
    The repeal of Sunday trading laws, as trialled during the 2012 Olympics.

  • It’s healthy for Liberal Youth to reflect on what kind of liberals they are every year or so. That ideological discussion is a useful educational tool and gets people used to thinking about more than individual policies.

    Obviously at the moment Liberal Youth have decided they’re consistent liberals, which I personally welcome.

  • Stuart Wheatcroft 24th Mar '15 - 1:42pm

    Thanks for the comment, JohnTilley. Industrial democracy is definitely something to look at as well – it was never intended to be exhaustive. Sunday trading was included largely because it’s been voted on by Liberal Youth in the last couple of years and I wanted to refer back to that debate.

  • Alex Sabine 24th Mar '15 - 7:20pm

    The general approach and tenor of these proposals is encouraging and rather bolder than I expect the party’s manifesto to be…

    I don’t agree that the section on economic liberty is weak, though John is probably right that the Sunday trading laws are fairly peripheral. Reform of the planning system, on the other hand, is one of the principal things the government could do to boost productivity – though it should be recognised that there will always be, at least to some extent, a trade-off between maximising productivity and maximising other types of welfare that are not measurable (eg the value of open countryside). But the bias against development and housebuilding in the current planning system, and the way the zoning system works, makes this trade-off unnecessarily crude, inefficient and inequitable between generations.

    The completion of the single European market is a worthy goal that has been talked about for decades now. In the late 1990s it was often argued (not least by Lib Dems) that a single currency was necessary to achieve this. That ‘maximalist’ interpretation of the single market was never convincing and the travails of the eurozone have in fact set back progress on the completion of a pan-European market in services – as well as locking half the continent in a debt-deflation trap while the creditor nations fume at the consequences of keeping the ramshackle vessel afloat.

    I agree with “the expansion of free trade globally” but would be interested to see what proposals Liberal Youth have to further this agenda. There has been widespread opposition to TTIP here on LDV, reflecting not only concerns about ISDS but more general resistance to trade liberalisation. In any case the UK and other EU member states are not able to pursue bilateral trade deals since trade policy is within the exclusive competence of the Union. Therefore in practice trade liberalisation would have to be pursued by the EU as a whole, through its ‘common commercial policy’.

    The objective of shifting the tax burden “away from productivity and towards accumulations of wealth” is superficially appealing, but I would prefer the word “concentration” rather than “accumulations”, since capital accumulation is in fact vital to economic growth.

    The key reason we are richer than two centuries ago is that we have accumulated machines to do things for us, and these machines carry with them the benefit of accumulated know-how. Labour productivity, and thus wages and living standards, have improved because we (the government and more importantly private businesses) have invested, ie devoted some resources not to present consumption but to accumulating productive capital for future use. One of the factors that will determine the amount of investment is the prospective rate of return, so a government seeking to maximise this would not want to tax those returns (including capital gains) too heavily.

    On the other hand you are right to want the tax system to lean against the concentration of wealth in too few hands, and here reform of inheritance tax could play a role (eg by turning IHT into a donee-based accessions tax that would incentivise a wider distribution of bequests), though a vigorous competition/anti-trust policy and broader policies aimed at widening the ownership of capital and property would be more powerful tools.

    The strongest case for Land Value Taxation is not that it taxes wealth per se, but that it taxes the economic rent that derives from exclusive ownership of a natural resource whose supply is to a large extent fixed (ie land). If taxing ‘wealth’ is a shorthand for taxing the return to savings and capital, the net result is likely to be lower productivity growth and ultimately lower wages and living standards. If you actually mean taxing economic rent then this should have little or no deterrent effect on productive investment and if it helped to finance lower taxation of labour and capital returns then you would have a genuine pro-enterprise tax policy.

    Reservations aside, this is a promising statement of aims and priorities, with a clear liberal thread running through it. I wish Stuart and Liberal Youth the best in winning support for this agenda within the wider party.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Mar '15 - 7:29pm

    Stuart Wheatcroft, thanks for writing to us. I’m no longer an economic liberal, or a four cornered one, even though I never bought into the philosophy whole anyway, but I have a point to make that I think all economic liberals need to consider:

    What is the four cornered liberal position on defence? It seems to me that their needs to be a “fifth corner” or a “third axis”. Probably more, but that is the only one I want to mention for now.

  • Philip Thomas 24th Mar '15 - 7:38pm

    Good stuff, I like the completion of the single market. However, immigration and the civil rights of immigrants and their descendants seems to be the dog that isn’t barking in Liberal Youth’s proposals. Support for the 28-day limit on immigration detention could have been easily added into the section on personal liberty, for example- given that is said to be in the 2015 manifesto this would not have been a deviation from the party line. More ambitiously, Liberal Youth could support amnesty, along the lines of the proposals in the party’s 2010 General election manifesto…

  • Conor McGovern 24th Mar '15 - 8:28pm

    If only our party manifesto were more like this.

  • Chris Burden 25th Mar '15 - 5:55pm

    Oh dear. More ‘Orange Bookery’:
    “From the earliest days of the Liberal Party as an alliance promoting free trade to our modern commitment to the Single Market and EU free movement, the Liberal Democrats have championed the cause of economic liberalism in a way that no other party ever will.”
    What about TTIP? Let me guess. It’s all about (alleged) free trade, stimulating economic growth and employment.

  • Simon McGrath 25th Mar '15 - 6:12pm

    @Chris – you are right – TTIP is about free trade growth and employment- and is a classic liberal idea – nothing to do with orange bookery , though I imagine many orange bookers will support it.

    @Eddie – can you tell us what you are if not an economic liberal? – virtually all LDs are economic liberals just as most of the are social liberals – otherwise they would be socialists or Tories .

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Mar '15 - 8:17pm

    Hi Simon, I believe in gut instincts more than sticking rigidly to any ideology, but if I had to choose one I would call myself a centrist/liberal.

    I agree I have more in common with most liberals than socialists or conservatives.

  • I don’t recognise that there are four strands of thought in Liberalism. It is good to recognise that personal freedom is not social liberalism, which sometimes is implied by “economic liberals” or libertarians as I like to call them. However I am not sure that this motion is ambitious or radical.

    I agree with John Tilley and others who have pointed out that the economic section is weak and should include Industrial Democracy. The support for free trade is a problem area. Today with the rise of huge international companies free trade can mean that freedoms for people are reduced because these international companies are not regulated adequately. This is one of the reasons that there are concerns about TTIP. Liberals have not managed to produce a solution to how the international community can control international companies for the benefit of people and not for the maximisation of profits.

    A radical approach to welfare would be the introduction of a Citizens Income. It would be radical to recognise that work can not be provided for everyone, so those in work need to provide enough resources to those not in work so that they can contribute to total demand in the economy. It would be radical to lower the retirement age to 60 for everyone so the work can be done by the youngest and fittest in society.

    @ Simon McGrath
    “virtually all LDs are economic liberals just as most of the are social liberals – otherwise they would be socialists or Tories .”

    I am not an economic liberal, I reject the idea that free markets are always best. I believe in a mixed economy as I imagine so do Democratic Socialists. It does not matter to me who owns the organisation providing the service or item, what matters is that it enhances the freedom of the majority of individuals and especially the poorest individuals.

  • John Tilley – “workplace”

    Work is an activity, not a place; increasingly so. The kinds of jobs that require a collective presence are diminishing.

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