Opinion: Moderates vs Radicals: the battle for the Liberal Democrat soul

Why did you join the third party? The party with no hope of winning the election? The party who now linger at 10% in the polls, under constant attack on all sides?

Many commentators openly wonder why there is a Liberal Democrat party at all. In an unforgiving two-party system these doubts are not so easily dismissed: how is it that as a small, stubborn party polling just a core vote barely in double digits we are able to sustain our existence, and why do we?

In brighter times it wasn’t simply that we were persistent, or that there was a particular appetite for a third set of policies and political vision. Instead the Liberal Democrats polled 23% in the last general election because people were disillusioned with Labour and the Conservatives. When Nick Clegg declared that it was politics, not the country that was broken and promised a radical alternative he touched a nerve.

But since those heady days of Cleggmania we have been absorbed into a position of government, where our fortunes are currently tied to the state of the economy and a coalition operating in austere economic times.

We are suffering the effects of tough decisions we are having to take, but what depressing polling figures don’t show is the strategic gain being in government has delivered: no longer can we be accused of being a wasted vote. Our reward when the economy does pick up will be not only in poll digits, but a wider voter demographic from which we can draw upon.

But in a battle for the party’s soul, there is a risk that the moderates will accept this as being enough. In pursuing such a strategy we ignore at our peril how joining the ‘status quo’ of government has damaged us beyond current polling data: from disappointment among those who hoped for a ‘new politics’ to grassroots activists who can’t ruse themselves to get out and campaign. Most arrogantly it assumes that there is room for expansion of a third party which is already lucky to survive in a first-past-the-post system.

Our purpose as a party can’t alone be to deliver liberal policies and pick up the electoral scraps, or we would be crushed between the two longer established and better-funded party machines. Instead our niche is as the party who recognize that politics doesn’t work and promise to radically reform the status quo.

Now that we have established ourselves in government must rekindle our identity as a radical alternative in order to establish our unique brand, and recapture the public’s trust and imagination.

Our leader on Eastleigh council captured this spirit in saying: “we’re not just here to administer better, we’re here to hand power back” and we must embrace this in government instead of being absorbed into the broken establishment we once promised to reform.

* Sean Davey is the Chair of London Liberal Youth

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57 Comments

  • Paul Pettinger 24th Aug '12 - 11:06am

    We are following the Conservative’s economic policies, why should the Lib Dems get a reward if things pick up? We campaigned *against* cutting so quickly and making such big cuts to spending at the last election. Not so sure about the ‘… strategic gain being in government has delivered’ either – lots of people don’t want us to be in government at all, including a significnat fraction of those people who voted Lib Dem in 2010.

  • I was a member of the SDP and stayed with the party through the merger because I believed that the Liberal Democrats represented the best hope of seeing genuine social democrat principles developed and promulgated. The advent of Nick Clegg as leader, however, has seen a purposeful and near-ruthless campaign to sideline and marginalise any and all social democrat themes, ideas and concepts, and an uncomfortably heavy-handed rebranding of the party as the Liberal Party in all but name while an obsolete, pre WW2 version of liberalism has been disinterred and elevated to be the party’s conceptual banner.

    The Clegg leadership has been a miserable failure and has colluded with the Tory party in the demolition of some of the foundations of our civil society. The public is not utterly stupid or without understanding; they see the damage done and our part in it and that is why our poll ratings are dismal. The Clegg experiment has failed and political decimation is on the cards – yet I retain my party membership for the simple reason that someone has to be around to pick up the pieces.

  • “We are suffering the effects of tough decisions we are having to take, but what depressing polling figures don’t show is the strategic gain being in government has delivered: no longer can we be accused of being a wasted vote. Our reward when the economy does pick up will be not only in poll digits, but a wider voter demographic from which we can draw upon. ”

    1) When was the last government to get more vote share at the election following them being in Government (Thatcher ’83?)

    2) The economy picking up doeesn’t automatically translate to votes. Just look at how good the improving economy was for the Tories in 1997 – when the Tories had a 7 point lead over Labour on best party for managing the economy (Mori, April 1997)

  • Mike Cobley
    There was a time when many looked to the Swedish Social Democrat model as the example to follow but where are Swedish Social Democrats today ( or the Social Democrats in Germany for that matter)?
    One of the strengths of the Liberal Party was its ability to generate new ideas and it will be this upon what the fortunes of the Liberal Democats will depend on.

  • jenny barnes 24th Aug '12 - 1:48pm

    The economy is not going to pick up on current policies. I’m fairly convinced that the Tories are far more about disciplining the working class, – increased unemployment, scrapping welfare, reducing health access, etc. than they care about growing the economy, as long as they can keep sucking up taxpayers money for their rich chums.
    2. quote grassroots activists who can’t ruse themselves to get out and campaign. unquote.
    How very dare you. Of course I’m not going to get out and campaign when the result of the party being in government is the opposite of what I was campaigning for. I have no problem rousing myself to campaign for what I believe in.
    3. Broken promises. What happened to new and honest and ethical politics? what happened to the NHS, tuition fees, etc. etc. The LDs promised to be different, and turned out to be just another bunch of neo-liberal chancers – collectively, that is. I’m sure there are some honest individuals in the party, even in parliament, but that’s not what the overall impression is.

  • mike cobley 24th Aug '12 - 2:06pm

    Manfarang – I never mentioned the Swedish social democrats, so I wonder why you tried to use them against me, And sad to say, all strains of Liberalism are hamstrung by the inability to come up with a coherent critique of market forces/ultracommerce. The underlying doctrine appears to be that the market is a wonderful thing that just needs a few liberal tweaks to serve all our needs. This is in defiance of facts in the real world.

    Dave P – aw, thanks mate. Sheesh, in all my 50+ years I aint never heard that one before….;-)

  • David Allen 24th Aug '12 - 2:20pm

    “the strategic gain being in government has delivered: no longer can we be accused of being a wasted vote.”

    The trouble with this outlook is that it is our outlook, not the public’s outlook. No doubt our leaders, while seemingly in permanent opposition, all used to suffer from a bit of a collective inferiority complex about all that. They didn’t really have a proper job, like normal people do. They were claiming to be big important people, but they made fewer important decisions than parish councillors. People kept arguing that they were a waste of space and a wasted vote. And yes, it’s easier to support a party which isn’t getting into government with occasional Focus deliveries at the weekends, than it is to give your life to the party as a potentially failed career. We foot soldiers do have to show some empathy with our leaders’ worries on this.

    And then we have to stop empathising, and realise that the public just don’t see it that way. They don’t think it was brave to take Ministerial jobs, they think it was self-serving. They might have given us credit if we had done something which clearly moved Government closer to our principles: but all they see is a party which has moved Government away from what we said our principles were.

    Once upon a time, we could have been criticised as a kind of glorified think-tank. We kept coming up with bright ideas, such as the penny tax for education and the wisdom of not invading Iraq. Ideas which we kept offering to the big guys, and which they mostly, sadly, failed to take up. We told ourselves that if we just kept on outsmarting the big guys, some day the voters would take notice. It was not, perhaps, the greatest existence. However, it now looks decidedly more attractive than the place we have reached.

  • Mike Cobly
    “come up with a coherent critique of market forces/ultracommerce’
    That’s the task. As I said there is the need for new ideas.

  • Daniel Henry 24th Aug '12 - 3:46pm

    Agreed with the OP that we need to make radical changes to government.
    The million dollar questions are “what” and “how”?

  • Bill le Breton 24th Aug '12 - 4:22pm

    Sean,

    I am not sure that using terms such as moderates and radicals helps much and may actually hinder.

    But your reference to ‘handing power back’ is the great acid test and one that council groups such as Eastleigh (and a hundred others who have had ‘power and influence’ over the last thirty years) have faced and more often than not acquitted themselves well concerning.

    This capacity to help people take and use their power in their communities was what many of us expected from those of our Party who were given ministerial power in the Coalition.

    Time will tell whether ‘localism’ passes this acid test. But certainly our representatives failed to use the techniques developed in local government of listening to, engaging and helping people take and use power when it came to a host of changes, from tuition fees to NHS reorganisation, from accelerated deficit reduction to welfare changes.

    What consultation and involvement was there in the Browne Report and the policy that developed from it? What power did the public have in the publication of the Health or Welfare White Papers. None.

    The mechanics of policy formation in this Coalition is unchanged from any previous administration. Power has become more centralised in a host of areas. Things have been done TO more people and hardly anything has been done WITH any people.

    I expected more and I think the public expected more. Call us moderates or radicals if you will, but for me there are the paternalists who think people should do as they say because they are well intentioned (the Goves and Cleggs ) and there are those who campaign with people to help them take and use power.

  • For once I agree with Bill le Breton!

    The descriptions ‘moderates and radicals’ is not helpful because it resorts to the cheap and tribal identity politics of the parties we oppose because of their adherence to it – instead we are a party which recognises politics is about behaviour, since we recognise that, when and how being either radical or moderate is appropriate in different situations and circumstances.

    We are a pluralist party which defends the plural nature of democracy and the presumption of equal rights at its heart – because the loss of pluralism in politics equates to the loss of democracy.

    We are not a regional party in the way ‘nationalists’ are; we aren’t a ‘local’ party in the way Nimby’s want; nor are we restricted to rural and southern areas or northern urban zones as the class-oriented are. We do things differently; we are the only party capable of making a national appeal. Without us the country is a bitter and divided place.

    That we take so much flak for limiting the political warfare between the immature tribes should be more than sufficient evidence of our relevance as the peacemakers – as it should tell the weak-hearted that this is how we do it… we draw the poison from the debate by finding a workable intermediate position as the starting place from which to get on with the job at hand.

    Sadly, too much wishful thinking still exists in place of realistic commentary, and this stops us from getting on with it effectively.

    In sum, we are defined by our application of the harm principle – we are in coalition because it is the way in which we can simultaneously reduce the harm caused by the previous government and limit the future harm caused by the prefered policies of our current partners.

  • Tony Dawson 24th Aug '12 - 7:12pm

    “the strategic gain being in government has delivered: no longer can we be accused of being a wasted vote.”

    What disturbs me most is that there are people within the Liberal Democrats who can say such things with a straight face. T he number of people who share such a view must be in the low thousands in the whole country. As long as people take such a viewpoint seriously, the enemy is internal more than external.

  • Sean, I applaud your optimism.

    However, you say “But since those heady days of Cleggmania we have been absorbed into a position of government, where our fortunes are currently tied to the state of the economy and a coalition operating in austere economic times.”

    I don t agree that the economic issues are the ones that have take us away from “Cleggmania”. When Nick said that politics was broken, voters expected that we would behave differently from the other parties.

    What was the first thing we did in power? We betrayed our voters by going back on our pledge on tuition fees in a way that destroyed our credibility.

    Frankly, the economic issues are a side show compared to the anger voters feel about this betrayal of trust, and this sensor betrayal has coloured every other issue since. Add the shocking way the party handled “the Shirley Williams motion” over NHS reform (and, indeed, that reform itself in the face of the coalition agreement) and we have a long way to go before we regain trust. It took a generation post-Thatcher for the Tories.

  • Peter Hayes 24th Aug '12 - 8:54pm

    I started to support the party in the days of Jo Grimmond. Wonder what he would think of the parliamentary party now. I’ve a heap of straws on my back. The thought of Laws coming back in a re-shuffle might be the last one, not because of why he resigned but because of his views. Is it possible to support a constituency party without being a national party member?

  • Little Jackie Paper 24th Aug '12 - 10:01pm

    Bill Le Breton (with respect). I’m inclined to think that the, ‘handing power back,’ thing might actually be starting to become a problem. At least on present implementation.

    The stuff about handing power back and giving people freedom might be an appealing narrative for a party, a Coalition, that believes that the state must get out of the way – but to my mind at the moment we are starting to confuse power with agency. Granny might well be empowered to establish a rural post office, but it does not mean that she or her community has the agency to do so. Young people might be empowered to buy a house, just that people who got hyperinflation of house prices are likely have rather more agency in the property market and with things like planning objections.

    None of this, of course, is to say that people necessarily can not build community for themselves. What it is to say however is that if a central critique of this Coalition (rightly or wrongly) is that it gives power to the powerful then I wonder if lines about handing back power might start to come across as an agenda for those with agency i.e the more powerful in society.

    I agree with you Bill about the dangers of doing things to, rather than with people. What I find less easy to reconcile is the idea that this capacity is spread well enough to be meaningful.

    There will always be clashes between the idea of power to the people and governance. Try closing a poorly performing NHS facility for an illustration of that point. It is not enough to say, ‘we the state have got out of the way, you people now have and should use your power.’ If that power is not buttressed by a genuine agency then what use is it?

    What worries me most is that the gap between the tribes is growing horribly. We have groups with house price inflation, generous pensions and time and we have people with a debt burden, unaffordable housing and comeptition from three-quarters of Europe for a job. The most shocking thing about the comments by the 5 Conservative MPs recently was that they seemed to have no concept of the devaluation of labour and how for most labour no longer provides a living or the agency to really reify power in a local setting. If you want an illustration take a look at the drop-off in young drivers – one thing that gives agency to power is basic mobility and increasingly the young can’t afford it.

    I worry that at best an acid test of handing power back comes across as something not really for the many, something well-meaning but somehow distant. At worst it is seen as cover for cuts (as happened to the big society).

    I think that I agree with your sentiment Bill, but power without agency is nothing but the freedom to exist.

  • Peter Hayes. Can anyone imagine Jo Grimond being stuffed by a third rater like Cameron? Would Grimond have created the Fees mess? Would he have have helped the Tories (and Shirley Williams) privatise/commercialise/’reform’ the NHS? Would Grimond have made such mess of all things government as the current leader? No and No.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Aug '12 - 12:12am

    Sean Davey

    But since those heady days of Cleggmania we have been absorbed into a position of government, where our fortunes are currently tied to the state of the economy and a coalition operating in austere economic times.

    We are suffering the effects of tough decisions we are having to take, but what depressing polling figures don’t show is the strategic gain being in government has delivered: no longer can we be accused of being a wasted vote.

    Sorry, this is nonsense, how long are people like you going to go on repeating it until you relaise it?

    When the coalition was formed we had a lot of very naive people claiming our poll support would rocket as people saw Liberal Democrat ministers in place. It hasn’t happened, has it? Rather, when they see Liberal Democrat ministers in place, but a government that does not seem to be the sort of government the Liberal Democrats were offering, they say “there you are, all they wanted was power, they betrayed all their principles for that”. The more our leaders boasted about us being “in power”, the more it came across as us being a word beginning with sm and rhyming with rug (which Liberal Democrat Voice won’t let me use).

    We are suffering because of the appalling mistake at the start of not being honest about the very limited effect we can have with just one sixth of the coalition’s MPs. Perhaps the most disastrous line used was this “75% of our manifesto implemented”, which people interpreted as meaning 75% of the government’s policies were ours. Instead we should have said at the start this is Tory government, we can influence it only at the fringes, what it does is very different from what we would be doing if we ran a Liberal Democrat government, but we are letting it persist because it was the only government that could be formed thanks to the distorting nature of our electoral system.

    It is surely mad that everyone is moaning about us being weak and giving in to the Tories, when we have an electoral system whose main benefit according to its supporters is that it strengthens the biggest party (i.e. the Tories) and weakens third parties (i.e. us). Shouldn’t anyone who doesn’t like the result of that be calling for a change to that system rather than blaming us for its consequences when we are the party that wants to change it? So why can’t we have a leader who can get this simple point across?

  • Andrew Suffield 25th Aug '12 - 1:39am

    Many commentators openly wonder why there is a Liberal Democrat party at all. In an unforgiving two-party system these doubts are not so easily dismissed: how is it that as a small, stubborn party polling just a core vote barely in double digits we are able to sustain our existence, and why do we?

    Perhaps a better question would be: why is anybody even suggesting that a group which represents 10% of the voting population should not be a major player? Particularly since the other two only represent a core vote of around 20% each.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Aug '12 - 7:23am

    Little Jackie Paper, you have given me much to reflect on. Forgive me if I take time. I am uneasy about the phrase ‘hand back power’ and prefer ‘helping people take and use power (and by implication which that is theirs but has been usurped or unused. )’. There is also the necessity for leadership in terms of picturing, facilitating and inspiring. I wonder whether Simon Titley has anything to say on this – another great agency person ISTR?
    I hope you agree that , any way, the Lib Dem elelment of the Coalition has been disappointing on these issues.

  • David Lowrence 25th Aug '12 - 8:39am

    Having been a member of the party since “Wilson was a Tory” I have found myself increasingly depressed by the way in which Clegg and Cameron are sidelining our contribution, ensuring the aggrandisement of the Tory backwoodsmen. We are losing the PR battle and I believe that 5% share would be a remarkably good result next time round. I have no crystal ball to reveal the way forward, but, with some regret I contend that it isn’t Clegg. He is too closely linked to the boy Cameron, and has to be unlinked soon.

  • Robert Carruthers 25th Aug '12 - 9:08am

    It all goes back to our utter failure (aided and abetted by a monstrously hostile press) to explain what a coalition government really means in terms of what policies you can actually implement – particularly a coalition where one party has nearly six times as many MPs as the other and is in ideological opposition to many of the things you actually hold dear. If Nick Clegg has failed to do one thing it is explaining what is possible and what is not possible under those circumstances.

    As we move towards the next election, we need to give more room and voice to those members of our party voicing their aspirations for the future to give some positive reasons for voters to choose our party in 2014/15 rather than Labour. For a start, what about a personal allowance that takes all minimum wage earners out of tax, for example, which would be more credible given that we are already set to achieve our commitment on £10,000.

    One of the big lessons of the past two years – contrary to how Clegg, Laws et al presented it – has been how distant the soul of the Lib Dems as a party is from that of the current Tory party. We need to build on that sense of difference and then communicate it to the voters. At the moment we are simply not communicating anything about what we are doing or what we are about at a national level.

  • Lib Dem polling is as bad as it is for one reason and one reason only – the coalition cohort cannot be trusted. Tuition fees, tax bombshells, deficit reduction rate – we said one thing when on the election trail and promptly reneged on our promises when getting into bed with the nasty party.

    THE LIB DEMS ARE NOW PERCEIVED AS BEING AS NASTY AS THE CONSERVATIVES.

    Face it, the Lib Dems will take a hammering at the next election. Face it and make a long term plan for getting the trust of the electorate back. This is not going to be either easy or immediate, God alone knows how long it will be but the party has to be proactive in regaining that trust.

    And the first step has to be getting rid of those who are in cabinet.

  • Yellow Bill
    A lot will happen between now and the next election and much of it depends on how the Euro-crisis pans out.

  • I too don’t recognise the distinction between moderates and radicals although it makes a change from social liberals and economic liberals. Like manyLib Dems, I like to think I’m all of these things, as well as being a civil libertarian and protector of my community, a rebel and a reformer, sceptical and hopeful, nostalgic and tolerant, a localist and internationalist, a democrat, and an environmentalist.

    It’s worth remembering where we were at this stage of the last Parliament in 2007. Ming was leader, and we were being squeezed by a modernising “Liberal Conservative” David Cameron and a honeymooning new PM Gordon Brown. Our polling was in single figures and I’m sure our opponents said then there wasn’t any point in the Lib Dems either.

    At least this time: (i) we are getting some press (some of which is positive) and (ii) the Tories – who are either our main opponents or the main group we need to squeeze – are suffering too.

    And although we are still having to fight with one hand behind our back (it’s not easy to attack the Tories nationally when we are in Government with them), we know we will be free to take them full on at the next general election.

  • Simon Titley 25th Aug '12 - 4:12pm

    @Bill Le Breton – You kindly ask whether I have anything to say on the subject of ‘agency’. Here’s one I prepared earlier:
    http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=230304189

    @Everyone else – Download ‘Really Facing the Future’ from the above weblink and read chapter 1 to understand the fundamental importance to Liberalism of ‘agency’. Read the whole thing and you’ll find out where the party’s soul is.

  • @yellow bill
    “THE LIB DEMS ARE NOW PERCEIVED AS BEING AS NASTY AS THE CONSERVATIVES.”

    That’s a ridiculous assertion which must be challenged, because it is certainly not one I’ve noticed to hold any resonance at large with the public whatsoever. Naive in parts, perhaps, certainly not nasty as a whole. But then, which is worse if everyone is tarred with the same brush?

    BTW using capitals does not change the facts.

  • I consider myself to be Liberal, although others might see my comments as somewhat ‘black sheep’, in their content. So be it.
    But I took the trouble to download and read the link from Simon Titley.
    http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=230304189
    It is without doubt an intelligent, grounded and well considered piece that you really should read. Do they have all the answers? Absolutely not. But the authors are IMHO, on the right track for the future of Liberalism in the UK.

  • Simon Titley’s linked article says:

    “the party‟s political analysis should be rooted in an understanding of the distribution of power, its prescription should be based on the redistribution of power – and the enemy should be identified as the unwarranted concentration of power, where powerful people monopolise agency for their own selfish ends or deny it to others.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Very well put. But although it also says:

    “The party‟s sterile and detached language leaves people cold. …the party must express its values in terms that relate to real life.”

    it also says:

    ” ‘agency‟.. means people‟s capacity to make meaningful decisions about their lives ….there is evidence that the growing incidence of psychological distress is the result of an increasing sense of a lack of agency”

    Sorry, that word won’t do. People think agency is where nurses come from, or else it’s those parasites who make money when houses are sold. Scrap the word “agency”, and stick with “the unwarranted concentration of power”, which is an enemy we can all understand!

  • The trouble with “power” as a substitute for “agency” David, as I understand it anyway, is that people would look at that and say “I don’t want power”, but if you asked Do you want to be able to do things that you need to to lead a self sufficient life, the answer would be yes. I see your point about agency meaning something different in everyday language – perhaps there is a good substitute out there?

  • Simon Titley 26th Aug '12 - 12:12pm

    @David Allen – ‘Really Facing the Future’ was written mainly for internal party discussion and was never intended as a campaigning document, so the use of political terminology in general and ‘agency’ in particular is perfectly legitimate in this context. I would never use ‘agency’ in a Focus leaflet and wasn’t advocating that anyone should. The problem with your suggestion of “unwarranted concentration of power” as a synonym for ‘agency’ is that they mean opposite things.

    @Tim13 – I agree that the word ‘power’ is not an adequate substitute for ‘agency’. If you can find a better word than ‘agency’ for “people’s capacity to make meaningful decisions about their lives and to influence the world around them”, good luck to you!

  • David Allen 26th Aug '12 - 7:57pm

    Tim, Simon,

    Hmm. It seems to me that a lot of people are keen to oppose the unwarranted concentration of power. Rather fewer people actively want to do something time-consuming within their own lives to achieve that. Instead, they would seek systems of government, business, etc, which would automatically provide for a dispersion of power.

    It’s actually quite a similar problem to that of Cameron’s “big society”. Lots of people want libraries, but very few want to volunteer as amateur librarians. Instead, they want to pay taxes so that proper professionals can keep on doing the job.

    Similarly, people shouldn’t have to run volunteer grocery stores, or make great campaigning efforts, just to stop giant superstores from ruining their high streets and small shops. Instead, they should expect the politicians to put in place a decent planning system which genuinely consults and then acts on the results.

    People (mostly) don’t want “agency”, they want a decent political system. They are not (in the main) just lazy. They have things to do that they think are better things to do, like bringing up families. We should be helping them. We won’t best attract their votes if what we are offering looks suspiciously like a thousand Focuses to deliver before breakfast!

  • Bill le Breton 27th Aug '12 - 7:20am

    In campaigning terms we do not need *words* for agency or power. We merely campaign alongside people for all those things which increase their ability to take and use power or, to use Simon’s words, to increase “their ability to make meaningful decisions about their lives and to influence the world around them” and we campaign with them against those things and people who rob them of this capacity. Truly action speaks louder than words.

    The shame is that the Party is not helping those that are campaigning in this way for these things, nor are they inspiring people to do this and, in Government, they are more often seen by people in our communities as being on the side of the Sherriff of Nottingham than on Robin Hood’s.

  • Chris Tandy 27th Aug '12 - 3:09pm

    Although I am an outsider to your party, I am in tune with much of the thinking expressed here. As a real-labour supporter , I could express much the same views about ‘my’ leadership; well, nearly, for Labour didn’t get the chance to show their mettle in a coalition with the Lib-dems. I would also hazard a guess that there are many in the tory party who despise their leadership and its selfish two-facedness. This all adds up to the desperate need for a tri-partite coalition of grass-roots people, whose essential agenda is not power for the few, but democracy for the many. But beware single-issue groups like UKIP, who at least have the benefit of a leader who has a little charisma; the term is relative, however, but he certainly comes over well with his opinions, and is at present trying to suck any votes of the dissolutioned left whilst his own party is being made eyes at by camoron, for when he all-but ditches clegg before the next election.

  • Max Wilkinson 27th Aug '12 - 5:14pm

    I agree with this from the Liberator’s ‘Really Facing the Future’ document:

    “It is therefore astonishing that a small but influential body of opinion within the Liberal Democrats sought to reorient the party around neoliberal values – and continues to do so.”

  • Simon Titley 27th Aug '12 - 5:51pm

    @David Allen – You are confusing ‘agency’ with an obligation to run a library or deliver Focus! It is nothing of the sort. Agency is a capacity. If people have a capacity – and can exercise that capacity whenever they choose – but choose not to exercise it, that is their privilege. The problem is that people lack agency and feel that decisions are being made over their heads.

    Bill Le Breton is quite right. With concepts such as agency and power, it’s a matter of “show, don’t tell”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '12 - 2:21am

    Oranjepan

    @yellow bill
    “THE LIB DEMS ARE NOW PERCEIVED AS BEING AS NASTY AS THE CONSERVATIVES.”

    That’s a ridiculous assertion which must be challenged, because it is certainly not one I’ve noticed to hold any resonance at large with the public whatsoever. Naive in parts, perhaps, certainly not nasty as a whole. But then, which is worse if everyone is tarred with the same brush?

    Not noticed? Well, perhaps you move in different circles from mine, but it’s a line that I find is being thrown at us all the time now – that we are no different from the Tories, that the existence of the coalition means we are one and the same thing, that we have given up all we used to stand for and adopted Tory policies for the sake of “power”.

    I don’t agree with this line at all. Indeed, I had a letter published in yesterday’s Guardian in which I attacked it and defended the role of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. So, while I may be very critical of the leadership of the party here in LibDem Voice, I’m still prepared to defended it in public where it matters – with people who used to be sympathetic to it but are no longer.

    Media commentators regularly talk about “the coalition government” or just “the coalition” where before May 2010 they would have used just the words “the government”. This government is pretty nasty, that’s partly because of the economic situation, but partly too because it is extreme right-wing in terms of economics. But when people hear it called “the coalition” and hear our leaders saying what a good thing the coalition is, they naturally assume LibDems are all in favour of all it is doing.Indeed, people tend to think the coalition exists because the LibDems exist, therefore the LibDems are principally responsible for it and thus must hold the main responsibility for what it is doing.The crazy thing is that people seem somehow to think that as the LibDems are the reason we have a coalition, we would not have this government doing what it is doing if it were not for the LibDems. So they seem somehow to have convinced themselves that if there were no LibDems we would not have such an extreme right-wing government now. That is the only way the line “Vote against electoral reform in order to make sure we don’t have a coalition again” can be interpreted when it came – as it often did – from people on the left politically in the referendum last year.

    These people are seriously wrong, because it’s obvious the Tory party has moved way to the right even of where it stood under Thatcher, and if we had a majority Conservative Party government now, it would be letting loose polices which are even more far right than what are being let loose now.

    So, if so many people are getting things wrong, and as a result are saying “I’ll never vote LibDem again”, it ought surely to be obvious that our party should make every effort to correct them. However, instead the leadership of our party seems determined to do all it can to encourage their wrong-thinking, by continuing to promote the idea that the LibDems are equal partners in the coalition, or even that 75% of the coalition’s policies are LibDem policies. To break out of this, the party must establish a clear distincition between “coalition” and “Liberal Democrat”, it must say again and again that the Liberal Democrats have only one sixth of the MPs in the coalition, so can only have a small influence on it, and that the reason the coalition exists is because the votes of the people in 2010 and the distorting election system the people voted to support in 2011 ruled out anything else.

    Instead of boasting about how much “power” they have in the coalition, the leadership of the Liberal Democrats should be saying “Sorry,we can’t do much because you the people voted in a way that doesn’t give us much influence. We are democrats, so we reluctantly support the government which you the people voted for in 2010, and in 2011 when you supported the election system that gave it to us. If you want something that is more in line with what Liberal Democrats stand for – now as much as we ever stood for it before – in future vote for us in order to make us the largest party, so we rather than the Conservatives or Labour can take the lead in what government does”.

    Is this really so difficult?

  • Richard Swales 28th Aug '12 - 7:30am

    @Matthew Huntbach

    The current UK government budget is 45 percent of our near record GDP levels, (despite the tax take being only 38 percent).

    I would be interested to know how high government spending would have to be for you to consider it not to be an extreme right-wing economic policy. Certainly, no past peace-time UK government would qualify, as they all spent less. Perhaps some historical East European governments would qualify as moderate?

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '12 - 11:13am

    Richard Swales

    The current UK government budget is 45 percent of our near record GDP levels, (despite the tax take being only 38 percent)

    Yes, and your point? I think it may be that to you the only measure of left-right is percentage of GDP taken up by the government budget. If government spending were even higher than it is, and the money was made by forcing most of the people into semi-slavery while paying for an aristocracy to lead lives of luxury, I would regard that as even more extreme right-wing than the current government, whereas it seems you would regard it as left-wing. To me, the left-right spectrum is primarily about aristocratic thinking – the more you think society is best controlled by a small group of people who you assume are naturally very able and have a natural right to be running most things and leading a life of luxury in reward for that, the more right-wing you are. It has nothing to do with proportion of GDP spent by government.

    Indeed, it seems to me we should question whether the government/non-government distinction is as important as it is generally taken to be. To me, the real government of the country now is in many ways the “finance industry”. How much of the GDP is spent on rewarding these administrators (for that is all they really are – the admin of capitalism) for what in many cases is fairly routine work? There does seem to be a belief that because their administration involves handling very large amounts of money they are entitled to take their cut, and even a small cut of a very large amount is huge for one person. In other countries where politicians running the budget think this way, we call it “corruption”.

    Now, actually just about everywhere as things become more complex more money is spent on infrastructure. Our ancestors would be astonished on just how much money a family now spends on things other than food and fuel – but that is because of greater complexity. Private companies are the same – how very much more they spend on admin tasks and communication tasks and training and the like now than they did years ago, when most of their spending would have been on wage bills of people working directly with their hands. So it is the same with government, greater complexity of society is going to push up the amount it needs to spend on basic infrastructure and support stuff. In a more advanced society more needs to be spent on education than in the sort of society our ancestors lived in where most workers needed no more than primary school education. More needs to be spent on roads than in a society where a one-track road between the biggest towns is enough capacity. More will be spent on health and support for the aged now than in the days when if you got sick there wasn’t much that could be done about it and people died of “old age” in their 60s.

    Now all of these things I have written about above mean a tendency for proportion of GDP spent by government to go up, but I don’t myself think it means a general move to the political left, and I think it makes the sort of historical comparisons you are trying to make look absurd.

    Returning to the government/non-government distinction, in this country we have the NHS which evens out spending on health and means it goes through government hands, in other countries, notably the USA, it goes through private business. I don’t see the huge difference in this that your argument assumes. If the NHS were privatised, the money spent on it would no longer count as government spending, but it would still be spent on much the same sort of thing. There would still need to be doctors and nurses and administrators, indeed more administrators because of the greater complexity of finance when direct payments from patients to the organisation have to be handled.

    Finally, of course, we in this country do still believe there should be some welfare support for those without work etc. If the number out of work or on low incomes rises, so does the amount spent of welfare. In this way, the high amount of money spent by the government is a mark of the failure of its right-wing policies. We have had these since 1979 – they just have NOT got Britain working in the way promised then. We had more economic growth in the days when taxation on the rich was much higher, and government spending on many things was more generous (e.g. I never had to pay a penny for higher education).

  • Richard Swales 28th Aug '12 - 12:06pm

    @Matthew
    I agree with many parts of your post on government/non-government distinction, elsewhere this week I have been writing about average personal net wealth figures (on which the Czech Republic has now overtaken Germany bizarrely), and that they make an arbitrary distinction between money that one has paid into a state pension system, that is backed up by a government promise to pay, and money that is given to a private company to be invested in gilts (i.e. government promises to pay). I also think that in the case of health, you are pretty much forced to pay in through your life one way or another, then at the end you find out if your own life-saving treatment is covered and it’s an arbitrary distinction whether the decision is taken by a government institution like the NICE (or what the American right refers to as an Obama death-panel) or a health-insurance company.

    However, the rise in government expenditure has not been accompanied by any kind of structural change in terms of what is does for us, rather than what it leaves up to us, so I still think the comparison is valid in this case.

    Of course it depends on the definition of aristocracy – families claiming more than 26000 per year in benefits meet all the usual definitions of aristocrats (above average income, income derived not from work/trade but from state power taking the proceeds of others’ work, whole family supported the same way) however the government’s changes in this area were perceived as right-wing rather than left-wing.

    As for the financial sector, unless you own bank shares then why do you care how much they pay? You don’t need to pool your savings with other people in the city, (you can disintermediarize and use sippdeal.co.uk and zopa instead), but if you do pool your savings you are contributing to a system whereby it is possible for young people to get funding for new ideas rather than restrict possibilities to those who can raise money from family – as is the case in countries where there is no financial sector beyond retail banking (like in Slovakia where I live now).

  • David Allen 28th Aug '12 - 1:06pm

    Simon Titley said:

    “The problem is that people lack agency and feel that decisions are being made over their heads.”

    I certainly agree with the second half of that sentence, but I also think we need to find easy and hence practical ways for people to gain “agency” – for example by electing a councillor who will speak for them. Then it is a question of giving that councillor the power to put things right.

    Bill le Breton said: “We merely campaign alongside people for all those things which increase their ability to take and use power” … “The shame is that the Party is not helping those that are campaigning in this way for these things..”

    OK, community activists are great people, and they have their place. But enthusiastic amateur community activists, local Lib Dem Focus teams, etc cannot do everything to put right the gross imbalances of power in Britain. In fact, increasingly they can’t achieve a great deal at all, because the power structure does not let them. Our keen new elected councillor these days faces capped budgets, council officers telling him/her that there are no real options, etc.

    Simon Titley said:

    “With concepts such as agency and power, it’s a matter of ‘show, don’t tell’.”

    If that means you just get involved in e.g. the campaign to save your local library, and you want that to show everybody how brilliantly this works – then I don’t think this entirely meets the point. Very often, you will end up as heroic losers, and Osbornomics will press on regardless. We may not have much to “show”. It may be more important to “tell” – i.e. to devise effective ways (which of course are not simple) to restore effective people power through democracy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '12 - 5:19pm

    Richard Swales

    As for the financial sector, unless you own bank shares then why do you care how much they pay? You don’t need to pool your savings with other people in the city, (you can disintermediarize and use sippdeal.co.uk and zopa instead), but if you do pool your savings you are contributing to a system whereby it is possible for young people to get funding for new idea

    Is that what the majority of bank lending is used for? I don’t think so. That is rather like the arguments used against capital gains tax, which make out that it is mainly about reward for entrepreneurs rather than passive gain for owning property.

    The real issue here is the extent to which real enterprise is being rewarded and the extent to which people are taking huge amounts of money for what is actually fairly routine work. Obviously I do own bank shares, if not directly then indirectly through pensions and insurance products. More money spent on admin means less reaches me. At the heart of the financial crisis we are in lies the issue that so much of what was put to us as “wealth creation” was instead just transfers of money based on building up personal debt, with very high rewards for those at the centre of it. I “pool my savings with other people in the city” because I do not want to spend my time playing wheeler-dealer, it doesn’t interest me, the most convenient thing to do is to use the big institutions which are on every High Street. If I’m paying a high price for that due to bureaucrats insisting they are worth that much, it matters to me in just the same way it would matter if they were civil servants being paid huge amounts.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '12 - 5:36pm

    David Allen

    OK, community activists are great people, and they have their place. But enthusiastic amateur community activists, local Lib Dem Focus teams, etc cannot do everything to put right the gross imbalances of power in Britain. In fact, increasingly they can’t achieve a great deal at all, because the power structure does not let them.

    Yes, but part of the problem is that the original aim of the community politics movement within the Liberal Party was stifled. The original aim was that the sort of “save our library” and “look, if we get together and vote in a different way than usual, we can end up with a politician from a different party than the one we thought we were stuck with” stuff it has now come to mean was just a start. It was meant to get people thinking about politics and democracy in a way they hadn’t done before by introducing more general ideas in a way that was connected to their immediate surroundings. It was meant to break the “I vote X because I always vote X mentality, and the “I’m not interested in politics, it means nothing to me” mentality. The idea was that once people were got out of their rut, you could then get them to further challenge assumptions, and so not just accept the gross imbalances of power that exist.

    Community politics countered the argument that the political right have very successfully pushed in this country through outlets such as THE Sun newspaper that politics is all dirty stuff and ordinary people should not be involved in it, and that the less politics was used to run things the better. The success of the political right in this way has pushed politics away from the left, which relied on mass membership, and towards reliance on funding from the wealthy. It has allowed the argument “businessman knows best” to go with little challenge, so we have seen a shift of power and wealth away from democracy towards the financial elite.

    We still sing now,as we sang long ago, “Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?”, but the answer now more than ever is “Because you have been taught that the ballot is a bad thing, and encouraged not to think when you do use it”. Community politics challenged all that, challenged the idea that politics is about leaders in Westminster running things, with the ballot just a passive choice between the images those leaders concocted. Perhaps it could be revived if we had a party leader who genuinely understood the original radical aims of the community politics movement, but we never did. Instead we have largely had leaders who actually despised it, and we do so more than ever now.

  • David Allen 28th Aug '12 - 5:57pm

    Matthew,

    Actually, one kind of place where something a bit like “community politics” or “big society” actually works quite well is a mainly middle-class rural village like mine. For example, what you could call a campaign group (though they didn’t call themselves that) very successfully pursued local farmers, the Parish Council and many others to set up thriving new allotments on rented local farmland. This won’t save the planet single-handed, or revolutionise the local power structure, of course. But it is a good step forward for our community, and there is nobody with any reason for adverse feelings about it.

    What would have been the absolute kiss of death for that enterprise would have been if any of the “campaign group” had tried to suggest that they were working for the benefit of any particular political party. That would assuredly have upset and probably driven away all our local gardeners, who just wanted allotments that anyone, whether red, blue, yellow or purple, could use!

  • “Perhaps it could be revived if we had a party leader who genuinely understood the original radical aims of the community politics movement, but we never did. ”

    The party never really embraced Community Politics, only seeing it as a way in which Community leaders (who then went on to be elected) could be created who would sort out all these problems for people (which at its worst is quit e a fascistic approach). Rather than enabling people to take power and use it in their communities.

  • Richard Swales 29th Aug '12 - 12:25pm

    @Matthew Huntbach
    No, the majority of lending is not used for that purpose, nor are the majority of share trades about the company raising money, but “business angels” or “ventrure capitalists” or whatever you want to call them need to have a proper market in shares in mature companies to make it worth their while to invest in start-ups – otherwise, if they can’t exit into the wider stock market, they have no way to get their money back to reinvest in further start ups. Where there is no real market in shares in mature companies there is much less venture capital.

    If you have bought insurance (i.e. a bet that something goes wrong which pays out if it does so you can recover) and investment/savings (i.e. money you put away so you have a nest egg later) in one package then you have chosen to invest based on the ideas of someone you have never met who may or may not think it is a good idea to invest in banks, I guess you must trust him though. I would only ever buy pure insurance myself though – it seems a bit of a coincidence that the best insurance and best savings product would ever be offered together.

    You don’t need time to play wheeler-dealer with sipp pension. That is for people who like online gambling. You can equally buy and hold. My own sipp is mostly in zeros (return 6-8 percent per year) that mature in 2017, so my next log in on their website doesn’t need to be for another 5 years. If you choose to pay fees to some firm, then presumably you think those fees are reasonable for the peace of mind and convenience they provide. Either way, after your something-for-something trade with the firm, the fees are no longer your money and it’s none of your business how the firm divides that money between themselves (i.e. the shareholders, people of your generation) and the workers (people of my generation) even though your solidarity with your peer group is admirable. I don’t know my way round zopa (person-to-person saving and lending) but I don’t think it takes a lot of time either.

  • David Allen 29th Aug '12 - 1:20pm

    It’s a bit too easy to say “we wuz betrayed” on community politics. I’m afaid the idea has also somewhat collapsed under its own internal contradictions.

    I believed our own propaganda when I first started Focus campaigning. We were going to be better local councillors because we would talk and listen to people, not just do what powerful vested interests told us to do. In many ways, it was a fair platform and we did what we said we would do.

    However – what happens, for example, when you ask the people and the people tell you they want anti-immigrant policies? What price “listening” then?

    What about the case – Southampton early 1970s – when a Focus team campaign against urban motorway on environmental and community grounds, and then make a dramatic demonstration of their listening capabilities by holding a Party-led referendum on it, on election day, alongside the ballot? What do yu do when the voters elect you, but tell you they want the motorway, seeing as they need to get to work?

    The Southampton team bit the bullet and did a policy U-turn, showing they had listened. But what does this imply?

    The Greens might have said “Look, we believe in representative democracy. If you want that motorway scrapped, vote for us. If you don’t, don’t.”

    The Tories might have said “Look, we believe in representative democracy. If you want that motorway built, vote for us. If you don’t, don’t.”

    Both might have said: “What makes the Lib Dems into a Volkspartei which has some sort of unique capability to listen to and represent the people, iresepective of policy?” As Hywel says, there is more than a hint of fascism in such a stance.

  • David Allen 29th Aug '12 - 2:05pm

    1980s not 1970s. (Senior moment…)

  • Richard Swales 29th Aug '12 - 2:08pm

    @David,

    And the public may well question whether they want to elect an apparent empty suit with no values or opinions of their own, all the better to act as an echo chamber. I think it is possible to strike the right balance though.

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