Opinion: the Lib Dem identity crisis

Most parties have identity crises after being kicked out of power; we are having one upon gaining it for the first time. This crisis is not an internal one, as most Liberal Democrats seem to be holding firm, but rather a crisis of what the public perceive us to be. Tough decisions of power have meant for our long term electoral success, our basic thinking and ideology needs to be made clearer to the public.

Having voted for the first time this general election, I found many of my first time voter friends simply did not know what the Liberal Democrats’ basic ideology was. Some seemed to view us as the ‘hippie party’, others as a sort of ‘Labour-Lite’. Many who liked Nick Clegg in the debates and agreed with our policies were still loath to part with the two main parties. This was mainly because they did not know what our basic ideology was, and thus how we came to our decisions or how we would make them on the fly. Upon explaining it I found many realised they were in fact far more in tune with us than they previously thought.

British elections and politics are far more partisan and less populist than in many other countries. That is, people often vote less on the actual policy choices of that election, and more on what the ideology and root of the party is. A recent YouGov poll found that 12% of the voting population ‘identified’ with our party, significantly lower than Labour or the Conservatives. Identification is the key to our long term success, as this identification is what allows the Labour and Conservative parties to make staggering mistakes but survive as parties, due to the fact that they can rely on some voters identifying so much with the basic ideology of their party that such mistakes do not inspire mass defection.

So what are we? Our feelings compel us to help the worst off and vulnerable, but not through nannying or patronising. The way to help is through giving people power and freedom over their own lives, something at odds with traditional Socialism where the state knows best and power is hoarded.

Unlike the Conservatives our view of this freedom is ‘positive’, it is having the power to reach one’s full potential, and the government should act to help people to do this. We are also not knee jerk populists, and do not pander to the xenophobic elements of the British press.

Similarly there is no moral code we seek to impose through government. People’s lifestyle choices are their own, and as long as people do not harm others they should be able to live how they wish, with no one choice elevated above others. We also see no value in tradition for its own sake. The status quo is something we wish to challenge when it does not work. So perhaps to sum all this up we are both social and economic liberals. This is in contrast to the Conservatives who are merely economic liberals (and selective ones at that) and Labour who are neither economic nor social liberals, because whilst they may be ‘progressive’ in terms of anti-discrimination etc., they show complete disregard for other personal freedoms such as civil liberties.

What has seemed to have caused the most vocal outcry over our coalition is the patronising assumption of Labour (and the press) that we are somehow their ‘soul mates’. This is very much incorrect. The term ‘progressive’, which is claimed to be what unites us, is so loose it is largely meaningless, especially at a time the Conservatives also seek to be seen as ‘progressive’. This lack of actual ‘soul-matery’ is perhaps demonstrated by a Populus Poll for the Times on the 3rd of July which found that 39% of Liberal Democrats in an AV system would give their second preference to the Conservatives with only 27% giving theirs to Labour.

So in short, in order to resolve our identity crisis with the public, we need to make it clearer to them not just what our policies are, but our basic ideology is. In doing so we can increase our support in the long run as more people will identify with us if it is clearer what our identity is.

Ben Maconick is 18 years old and a member of the Liberal Democrats.

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  • Tony Greaves 12th Jul '10 - 12:24pm

    The first thing we need to do is to admit to being a centre-left party ionstead of trying to hide behind meaningless “forms of words”.

    It’s even more important now that the Labour Party are trying to brand us as a right-wing party.

    Tony Greaves

  • Cheltenham Robin 12th Jul '10 - 12:35pm

    Also – none of our MPs are elected as Liberal Democrats, they are elected as “Champions of Bloggsville”

    Oh and by the way, it’s a 2 horse race and Labour/Tory can’t win round here

  • @Joe Otten – I agree. Centrist seems much more apt a description and does not give either main party the idea we are automatically an extension of their own views. Though not sure Labour has been anything near “Left” for some time. They out-“Right” the Tories on many an issue nowadays!

  • Nathaniel Simpson 12th Jul '10 - 12:41pm

    Nice piece; a summary of this, in the modern world probably bullet points with <140 characters ;), would be a good place to start explaining who the Lib-Dems are to people who don't know enough to realise they agree with the key values.

  • On the first 2 comments, we are that part of the centre left that loves freedom. Freedom for other people as well as for us & people like us. A lot of Labourites really dont get what freedm means.

  • How would people respond to this? Are Liberal Democrats a cross between Tory and Labour? I sometimes think that some of the supporters of our party are as the consider themselves not to fit in really with Tory and Labour. I feel that Tories know they are Tories, it is a fixed decision as with the Labour party and therefore those 2 parties could never form a coalition with eachother, they are too different. However the Lib Dem party has members with potentially very different ideas and there may be some ideas in Labour and Tory manifestos that we agree with at the same time. Therefore we are pitted in a party between the 2.
    Personally i know I am a Liberal Democrat because there is no party I fit in, besides them and I never agreed with any Labour or Tory manifesto pledges. Everyone in our party identifies themselves differently within it. Our party is different to the others in the sense of freedom and fairness, which is at the core of everything we believe in. What makes us different to the other 2 parties is that they are more into having power and authority, whereas we want to give more power to the people. This coalition is truly amazing in the sense of giving people a say in their freedom. I am proud to be a part of this party as it is a party which also promotes the future of politics. Never before has a party been so so keen to get a referendum on electoral reform such as AV. The fact we have got the referendum is brilliant.
    I realise i have been going off topic here a lot. The point I have been trying to make is that we are no closer to Labour then we are to Tory, we are literally like a middle party, so in a coalition, there isn’t a party we’d prefer to go with, but simply we will choose the one that offers us the most.
    If you don’t think you are quite Tory or Labour, but agree with a little of each you are probably Lib Dem.

    Sorry if that has been difficult to follow, i do sometimes lose track of what I’m saying.

  • I don’t think Labour needs to do anything in terms of branding the Lib Dems a right wing party.Clegg is doing very nicely in that department anyhow.The images of Clegg nodding along to Osborne’s budget will be have shifted voters’ pereceptions of the Lib Dems for many years to come.

  • I would call us a centre party, rather than left or right

  • But all true members know, we are the only party that speaks for true freedom and fairness and that is how best to identify with our party

  • The first thing we need to do is to admit to being a centre-left party ionstead of trying to hide behind meaningless “forms of words”.

    I find “social liberal” and “economic liberal” a more meaningful description than any of this left/right-wingery. On a global scope pretty much all the British political parties could be described as centre-left couldn’t they? Much of the problem with perception of Lib Dem identity is from those who tried to pin us as “left of Labour” based on a couple of manifesto points (maybe Vince being tough on the bankers and the voting reform stuff) and then found that many of our other policies lay “right” of Labour.

    Trying to stick our flag in “centre-left” territory just feeds the sense that there has been a betrayal when we don’t support “progressive” changes to tax and benefits (which economic liberals might see as welfare traps and disincentives to work).

  • …in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

    That ought to include conformity to some arbitrary position on a one-dimensional political spectrum.

    The Lib Dems stand for freedom and equality, that is the fundamental position. We should therefore support any policy that we reasonably believe, through evidence, will increase freedom and equality and oppose any policy that we reasonably believe will reduce it.

    If that means reducing the state in some areas, so be it. If that means increasing the state in other areas, so be it. There should be no fundamentalist position on the role of the state as there is in the Labour party and the Conservative party. And therefore I would argue that the Lib Dems, as a party, transcend the left-right spectrum.

    I don’t know how you turn that into a sound bite and sell it to a label obsessed media, though.

  • david thorpe 12th Jul '10 - 1:23pm

    this identity crisi has been around for a while, but I do believe that there is a danger of it been put out of proprtion by the fact that we are in coaltion.

    as julian astle said yesterday, there are no wings in the lib dems as wide as tony benn to tony blair in labour, or tebbitt to cameron in the tories.

    I think a way of addressing it might be to campign on a slogan of @thats why Im a [email protected] outlining what we stand for.

  • Andrea Gill 12th Jul '10 - 1:32pm

    @david thorpe “as julian astle said yesterday, there are no wings in the lib dems as wide as tony benn to tony blair in labour, or tebbitt to cameron in the tories.”

    Good point & I like the “that’s why I am a Liberal” idea too

  • I too like david thorpe’s “that’s why I’m a liberal” idea.

    Personally, I’ve never felt comfortable within the left-right spectrum. I remember taking one of those online “are you left or right” tests – it started with questions on economic policy and then informed me that based on my answers to that section, I was probably against gay rights and a supporter of the Iraq war!

    I think most LDs are pretty united in being very liberal (usually more than Labour) on social issues. The differences arise over the extent to which we’re economic liberals vs social democrats. I would say that generally Labour thinks the state should help people, the Conservatives think people should help themselves, and we think the state should help people to help themselves.

  • Gerrard Winstanley knew the score- “if thou consent to freedom for the rich in the city and givest freedom to the freeholders in the country and to priests and lawyers and lords of manors, and yet allowest the poor no freedom, thou art a declared hypocrite.”

    Reducing the scope of things you define as infringements of civil liberties but not disagreeing on fundamental prinicples means nothing, especially compared to the union bashing and poor baiting.

  • is “liberal centrists” too vague?

  • david thorpe 12th Jul '10 - 2:21pm

    I think we are united and unique by being small government, which differentiates us from the other parties, labour are staunchly big gobvernment, the tories are big governmnet on non economic matters, where we are divided ins in regard to what replaces central government.
    In the context of social vs economic liberal Im sure I would be seen as the latter, yet I dont want private sector control of health or eductaion, the divisions are not as great as some are starying to imagine

  • If we call our self ‘centre left’ we instantly lose all those of our voters who do not see themselves on the left.
    Free speech, free trade, the right to be left alone by the state to go about your business, looking after those who are needy and helping them if possible to earn there own living would be a good start in defining ourselves.

  • Andrew Wimble 12th Jul '10 - 2:28pm

    For years the Lib Dems have been portrayed in the media as “labour lite”. The current coilition with the Tories goes against that and is probably going to cost us the votes of a lot of labour supporters who vote lib-dem as an anti-tory vote where labour have no change of winning or as a protest against specific labour policies, or leaders.

    We have to take this opportinity to establish our true identity. If we fail in this we are going to suffer in the next election, when we may end up being viewed as “labour-lite” by tory supporters and “tory-lite” by labour supported, getting votes from neither. If we get it right then we may finally get people to realise that the Lib-Dems do offer a real alternative that is worth supporting for its own sake, not just a home for anti-tory/labour protest votes

  • Andrea Gill 12th Jul '10 - 2:29pm

    @mark “is “liberal centrists” too vague?”

    I like that

  • david thorpe 12th Jul '10 - 2:35pm

    radical centrists is my suggestion

  • Andrea Gill 12th Jul '10 - 2:42pm

    @Andrew Wimble: “If we get it right then we may finally get people to realise that the Lib-Dems do offer a real alternative that is worth supporting for its own sake, not just a home for anti-tory/labour protest votes”

    VERY good points, I know we get stick at the moment but we will be able to point to actual achievements in government

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Jul '10 - 2:56pm

    Lib Dems are nominally centrist-ish, but that’s more an absence of any strong left-wing or right-wing views than a core ideology. The essential thing to realise is that there is more to the world than the left/right concept. Significantly, liberalism hasn’t got anything to do with either of them.

    The left/right concept precisely describes the two sides in the French revolution. That’s what it was invented for. It’s just not appropriate here. Casting the debate in left/right terms is a favourite trick of Labour and the Tories, because it effectively excludes all other groups from the debate. It is important to push past that and start talking about other things.

    Ironically enough, the Tories aren’t really very right-wing (except on a few policies), and Labour were never very left wing (again, except on a few policies). Tories are broadly nationalist and favour the rich, but otherwise have no clear right-wing identity, with the party being internally divided on every major issue. Labour used to be broadly socialist, but have since scrapped that and no longer have any clear ideology – they’re now just a tribe, with their “beliefs” being whatever their current leader says. This leaves us in the odd position of the Lib Dems being the only major party that has a clear ideological definition, while the other two parties shift a great deal depending on their internal power struggles.

    They’re even flipped on some issues: Tories currently want less central government (a strongly left-wing position) while Labour want more (a strongly right-wing position).

    The Labour party’s nominal beliefs are stated in clause 4 of their constitution:

    1. The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It
    believes that by the strength of our common
    endeavour we achieve more than we achieve
    alone, so as to create for each of us the means to
    realise our true potential and for all of us a
    community in which power, wealth and
    opportunity are in the hands of the many not the
    few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties
    we owe and where we live together freely, in a
    spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
    2. To these ends we work for:
    A. A DYNAMIC ECONOMY, serving the public
    interest, in which the enterprise of the market
    and the rigour of competition are joined with
    the forces of partnership and co-operation to
    produce the wealth the nation needs and the
    opportunity for all to work and prosper with a
    thriving private sector and high-quality public
    services where those undertakings essential
    to the common good are either owned by the
    public or accountable to them
    B. A JUST SOCIETY, which judges its strength by
    the condition of the weak as much as the
    strong, provides security against fear, and
    justice at work; which nurtures families,
    promotes equality of opportunity, and delivers
    people from the tyranny of poverty, prejudice
    and the abuse of power
    C. AN OPEN DEMOCRACY, in which government
    is held to account by the people, decisions are
    taken as far as practicable by the communities
    they affect and where fundamental human
    rights are guaranteed
    D. A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT, which we protect,
    enhance and hold in trust for future

    (I pruned the last bits for length, as they aren’t very interesting here – cooperation of the trade unions, trust of the people, embrace the UN, peace and freedom for all, etc)

    That’s not very left-wing, and most of it is stuff that any Tory or Lib Dem would agree with – it’s so bland that you’re left wondering what the point is. It also doesn’t sound very much like the Labour government we just had.

    I’d like to post the equivalent statement of beliefs from the Tories, but so far as I can tell they don’t have one. I’ll have to settle for the Lib Dem one, which is the preamble to the federal constitution:

    The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

    And that’s what I put in the “that’s why I’m a liberal” box.

  • @Andrew Suffield: You obviously don’t know New Labour if you think it’s an unideological tribe. Read some Giddens on the Third Way.

    Here’s hoping Labour will move past the Third Way, but it’s still miles above anything from the Lib-Tories.

  • “Free speech, free trade, the right to be left alone by the state to go about your business, looking after those who are needy and helping them if possible to earn there own living would be a good start in defining ourselves.”

    Err ,isn’t that the definition of a Tory?

  • Paul McKeown 12th Jul '10 - 3:44pm

    The Lib Dem identity crisis is not to be found amongst Liberal Democrats but amongst the commentariat.

  • Paul McKeown 12th Jul '10 - 4:00pm

    And to be frank there seems to be an identity crisis in both the Conservative and Labour parties as well. This government’s strong liberal direction is changing the political discourse in a long lasting way.

    Many social conservatives from the Blue party are very unhappy; if the current government’s course were to survive into the 2015 parliament, then social conservatives might well break off, perhaps in the direction of UKIP or in some alliance with unionist parties.

    There is also a quite clear divide in Labour as to whether to use the liberal course of this government, such as penal reform, control of CCTV, et cetera, as a stick to beat the government with, or as a development to be welcomed. The localist/push down to the people agenda is causing pain in Labour’s ranks, with some welcoming it, whilst the statists are outraged. Also many in Labour see constitutional reforms aimed at better democratic control of parliament, which will ultimately include answers to the West Lothian question, are prompting some in Labour’s ranks to consider a more realistic England friendly agenda, again controversial within Labour.

    Existential crisis all round.

  • Yet again another article referencing the Labour Party in connection with criticism of Lib Dem policy and practice.

    It is simply astonishing that you can write this stuff without irony.

    Political parties criticise one another, all the time, that’s what they do. Labour politicians are critical of the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition because that’s what it is, a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition.

    And in politics often the most effective form of attack is to accuse a political opponent of “selling out” – so guess what is happening at the moment!

    Once again, if Lib Dem Ministers and MPs weren’t doing gymnastic policy u turns on an almost daily basis there wouldn’t be an issue here…..

  • One of the big advantages that Labour and the Tories have over us, is that the breadth of their parties allows them to lay claim on wider range of policies and even philsophies. I know it is fashionable to bash Labour, but it is still a party that can accommodate left leaning social liberals as well as social democrats, statists and so on. The Tories have the same ideological dexterity. With that, we have to understand that the Tories can easily take a larger amount of credit for the ‘Lib Dem’ influence because they will always be able to claim that such and such a policy comes from some section of the Conservative party’s broad church. How we tackle this, will define the future, or lack of one, for the LIb Dems.

  • Mark Wilson 12th Jul '10 - 7:25pm

    I am not sure it helps the Lib Dems to define where they sit on the political spectrum so definitively. Whilst in broad brush terms I think it is important to identify the direction of travel, surely one of the important things the Lib Dems are about is redefining the old political strictures of Left and Right which prevent good people with good ideas from succeeding. Also has the political procees it self not already moved on as witnessed by Digby Jones being part of the Labour Govt, and Frank Field, and Will Hutton lending a hand to the Coalition Govt.
    Perhaps the more important thing for Lib Dems is the importance of being true to themselves. Lib Dems ARE about the policies that underpin the principles that define the party. Coaltion Govt does lend itself to compromise. But Lib Dem Party Members must be about what is the bottom line. Those policies which no matter what the Coalition wants they will not compromise on even if that risks the whole future of the Coalition. It is also about being a “critical friend” to the Coalition. It is about recognising that the Lib Dems in the Govt do not have the right answers to every issue and on the critical issues they must be willing to change their minds and persuade their Tory Partners to the same mind set.
    This last point is crucial. The Lib Dems in Govt must draw a distinction between Policies that are needed to meet the challenges facing the country today, and those policies when put under the microscope are clearly about advancing Tory ideology through the backdoor. Without the full consent of the Lib Dems these must be resisted at all cost. Last but not least the next Coalition budget must be more Lib Dem orienatated. There is plenty of time to have the bloody battles on this issue behind the scene, but ultimately if the Coalition is to be true Coalition then the Tories cannot be allowed to win all the battles on this issue next time.

  • we think the state should help people to help themselves.spot on!

  • Barry George 12th Jul '10 - 7:57pm

    @ Mark Wilson

    This last point is crucial. The Lib Dems in Govt must draw a distinction between Policies that are needed to meet the challenges facing the country today, and those policies when put under the microscope are clearly about advancing Tory ideology through the backdoor

    I think you will find that most people here are busy pointlessly demonising the opposition…

    The Tories could park a Trident missile in number 10 with Maggie strapped to the warhead and then target it at the poor, sick and defenceless in our society and someone would surely pop their head up and shout ‘ Its the Labour party’s fault for not ensuring they locked the gate at Downing street before they left office.

    Believe me the Tories have the Liberals in a dribbling megalomaniac stupor. They don’t even have to lose poll ratings by playing the blame game at Labour… Were busy justifying it all for them..

  • Anthony Aloysius St 12th Jul '10 - 8:15pm

    “The Tories could park a Trident missile in number 10 with Maggie strapped to the warhead and then target it at the poor, sick and defenceless in our society …”

    Actually I think it would more probably be defended on the basis that it would give people an incentive to come off benefits.

  • Excellent analysis, and good food for thought.
    I always thought of myself as a leftish-liberal, but looking at debates here, I am never quite sure how far left I actually am. So I guess I am stuck with being liberal, and I guess that’s fair enough… 😉

    Anyway – the central problem for voters, as amply illustrated in the blog post, seems to be, yet again, the issue of how LibDems campaign on the ground.

    Since I have expressed my views on this in some detail just a few days ago, I won’t repeat myself.

    But people will have to be told much more clearly what the LibDems are and what they stand for – rather than ranting on about stuff that some councillors of the other parties got wrong locally in recent years….. and the fact that essentially the LibDems often present themselves as ‘vote for us to keep someone else out’. People need to know what they are voting *for*, not just what they are voting *against* – even if tactical voting has to be an issue (or, let’s hope, second preferences in future campaigns).

    Anyway – I am a lot more comnfortable with centrist liberalism than with leftish liberalism (especially if that comes with a certain otherworldly realism which doesn’t translate well into workable policies). What attracted me to the LibDems in recent years is an increased pragmatism which (I suspect) reflects a move from the left towards the centre.

  • floatingvoter 12th Jul '10 - 10:20pm

    The problem is you have confused people in your election campaign. People feel duped and defruaded by the way you got labour voters to vote for you. Your election campaign was based on tempting labour voters to vote for you to keep the Tories out. The only interpretation of this is that you favour more Labour than Conservative and a vote for you will keep out a Conservative government. Many people are digusted that having ‘lent’ you their vote, based on your advertising you did exactly the opposite. I think you have shot your golden goose and nobody will trust you again – ever!

  • @floatingvoter – clearly the “voters” you describe haven’t listened to or read a word of what we actually said, or are capable of grasping those facts. The general public as a whole cannot possibly be as stupid and idiotic as you describe.

  • @AJ – which bits do you disagree with?

  • Barry George 12th Jul '10 - 11:23pm

    That’s it Andrea , blame the voter ! Great way to alienate the electorate. It’s time people realised that a lot of people in the real world feel betrayed.

    I was kind of hoping that the solution was to convince them of our sincerety and liberal values and that their trust was not missplaced…

    Of course narcisism is another possible strategy but that doesn’t seem to be working…

  • @Barry – if you could actually be bothered to read what I wrote, you’d notice I was referring to the fictitious and thoroughly stupid “voters” that “floatingvoter” was on about.

  • Barry George 12th Jul '10 - 11:47pm

    @ Andrea

    Oh trust me, I can read 🙂

    Of course you can justify the ” fictitious ” comment, I am sure. I mean you wouldn’t just pull a remark like that out of thin air, would you ?

    As for the thoroughly stupid voters , well , what can I say….

    Oh yeah, I already said it… Narcissism… or elitism if you so prefer…

    Feel no need to reply, we may vote for the same party but that is probably where the similarity ends…

  • Radical centre. Not left, not right, not forward.

    Left and right mean nothing to us, we have floated above such conventional inanities, buoyed up and puffed up by our own hyperbole.

    This is the authentic language of Owenism, which split our party twenty years ago, only to vanish up its own fundamental inanity.

    The principle of Owenism is as follows. As a young man, you start out with some vaguely defined leftish ideals. Gradually you age mentally, lose faith in the ideals, and become a Tory. But you don’t want to admit to yourself that you have done that. So you call yourself meaningless things like “radical”, and you end up with self-belief and little else.

    When you finally split your party and strike out on your own, you find that you have nothing to offer the electorate that is individual. Eventually, Owen had to admit he was just another Thatcherite. I fear that present leadership will have to simply join the Tories. Having set back the Lib Dem cause a decade, just as Owen did.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 1:06am

    To call David Owen a Tory is hardly fair. He’s a cross-bencher. As late as 2007, there was talk of him rejoining the Labour party [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1563255/David-Owen-in-talks-with-Gordon-Brown.html]. Before that (1992, 1997) he advised voters to support the Liberal Democrats and in 2005 refused to endorse Tony Blair, as he wished a Labour government with the Liberal Democrats having greatly eroded the Labour majority. Thatcher and Major both wanted him to join the Conservatives; he never did.

    I think he is essentially a political loner (some would say egoist), incapable of the necessary compromises, and ended up, despite enormous talents, in the political wasteland. An enigma.

    Perhaps a lesson for other Liberal Democrats tempted by “ourselves alone” sentiments?

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 1:16am

    And for David Owen’s own views, just before the recent election, see the following interview in the New Statesman, http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2010/05/interview-coalition-labour .

    Rather interesting.

    Essentially, based on his bad experiences of the 1974 hung parliament, he wanted to see a fixed term coalition government, either Lib/Lab with PM Alistair Darling or Lib/Con, which he thought more likely. He believed Clegg would have been able to work with either.

    From the interview it is quite clear that his sympathies lie with the Liberal Democrats. He supports STV via referendum and an elected Lords.

    He wished he was younger, the unspoken desire obviously, that this is the breakthrough that he has waited for all of his life.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 1:32am

    And a further – very revealing – interview with Owens: http://iaindale.blogspot.com/2010/03/in-conversation-with-david-owen.html

  • Nicholas May 13th Jul '10 - 9:24am

    If Lib Dems allow NHS reform to go through, they will be a right wing party, unquestionably.

    (And I will take my paltry financial contributions elsewhere).

  • I see we still havent managed to slough off this antiquated way of describing parties as ‘left’ or ‘right’ ones. I prefer to add at least 1 axis to this description, the way Political Compass does. What I like to think of the Lib Dems as is Centre-Libertarian; that is, economically centrist, neither left nor right, but socially quite liberal (small state, as little intrusion as possible). On the same scale, I would place the current Labour party as mildly Right-heavily Authoritarian, and the Conservatives as Right-mildly Authoritarian.

  • I have generally regarded myself as being on the left of politics, but never a socialist. However, I also recognise that I am also somewhat of an economic liberal. The reality is that I do not know where to place myself on a left-right spectrum, such that even the term ‘centrist’ does not make particularly good sense to me. However, I know that I am a liberal … and I do like the phrase about the state helping people to help themselves.

  • david thorpe 13th Jul '10 - 12:40pm

    I dont think I would be comfortable in a party which is centre left on economic matters to be homnest.

    I think the fact that the other two parties have moved to the centre in recent years is causing a collective identity criss

  • Paul McKeown: Yes, Owen is essentially a brilliant loner, who has somewhat drifted back towards the Lib Dems in more recent years. After splitting the Alliance in 1987 and abandoning his rump SDP party a year or two later, my recollection is that he then came round to offering extravagant praise for the achievements of Thatcherism prior to the 1992 election.

    I see from the interviews you cite that he still thinks there is/was a massive space in political life, in between the Lib Dems and the Tories, where an Owenite SDP could have fitted. I don’t think many other people could see such a space, back in 1987, other than as a vehicle for a massive ego (allied, admittedly, to some genuine abilities – Owen was a genius when it came to the well-chosen comment in a crisis, or the occasional blinding flash of brilliant insight). I’m pretty sure nobody will be able to see such a space now!

    Let me make my point more general. Owen is just one of a long line of mostly male politicians who mentally age badly, lose their youthful ideals, become embittered or stale, and drift off to the Right. Think for example of Desmond Donnelly, Woodrow Wyatt, Reg Prentice, Peter Hain, Jack Straw, and Tony Blair of course….. And Nick Clegg.

    Owen caused immense harm. Blair likewise. What are we going to let Clegg do to us?

  • Paul McKeown wrote:

    “I think he is essentially a political loner (some would say egoist), incapable of the necessary compromises, and ended up, despite enormous talents, in the political wasteland. An enigma”

    Dr David Owen (aka “Dr Death”) is quite simply bad news. When he stood for the leadership of the SDP against Roy Jenkins he claimed that he was on the left of the SDP, and wanted to party to have a “radical cutting edge”. Then, when Jenkins won, he moved to the right, went fetishistic on defence, called for conscription and started praising Maggie Thatcher. His opposition to merger with the Liberal Party was based on pure personal spite. If he couldn’t be leader himself, he damned well wasn’t going to allow anything to be left behind that anyone could lead.

    Owen is a bully pure and simple. As Foreign Secretary (Callaghan shouldn’t be forgiven), he was notorious for humiliating junior staff. A friend of my mother, who was working at the British Embassy in Washington at the time, wrote: “I told that arrogant young man, David Owen, exactly what I thought of him, and everyone agreed.” And he uses people mercilessly. From poor John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes, to the ambitious career women he charmed, like Polly Toynbee.

    Oh, and before I forget it, Owen is joined by the hip to the US elite, hence his visceral lust for nuclear weapons and his support for the Iraq war.

    Three priceless quotes about Owen.

    From Roy Jenkins: “He (Owen) talks about weapons systems the way other men talk about good wine.”

    To Julian Barnes at a “New Stateman” lunch, on being asked about his most embarrassing thought: “I always wonder if I can p**s hard enough to get the s**t off the back of the loo.”

    An SDP activist (now Lib Dem councillor) on Owen entering the bar at the 1988 Sheffield Special Conference: “There’s a smell of death in here.”

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 1:54pm

    @Joe Otten

    Re: NHS

    Agreed. Glad to see the end of the quangos. If it really does free up 45% of management costs, then, the greatest health service innovation since its inception. Doubt that it will, though, buearocrats reproduce asexually. As you say, meh, SLF lite!

  • David Allen 13th Jul '10 - 1:58pm


    Well – Since the new NHS policy has been sprung upon us out of the blue (as you might say), I don’t yet have a clear opinion as to whether it’s good, ok, or terrible. But – Why has it been sprung upon us out of the blue? Why, when we signed a coalition agreement which promised no large top-down reorganisations? When did anyone from our side find out what was to be proposed I wonder, and what chance were they given to discuss or influence it?

    Apart from anything else, the extreme haste is a huge error. Gove rushed through his schools programme so quickly that his department had no time to get the story straight or to make good choices for the cuts. Now Lansley has a brand new policy which has all been perfected in a few weeks. Cue confusion, error, and waste.

  • Joe Otten,

    Do you trust GPs to monitor themselves? Do you think GPs will make good managers?

    I don’t recognise your description of PCTs. The ones familiar to me (and I do live in a different part of the country) are run by people who are prepared to risk upsetting the professionals in order improve patient care.

    It sounds as if Tory thinking is well embedded in certain parts of our party.

  • We did, however, know in advance about the Tory plans to scrap Healthcare for London. This was pure, unadulterated populism. Lansley knows perfectly well that polyclinics improve patient care, but people are afraid of change, and Lansley was happy to exploit that fear to get a few votes.

    Question: How long would Dr Harold Shipman (or any other rogue GP) have lasted in a polyclinic?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 13th Jul '10 - 2:19pm

    I must say it’s not immediately apparent why it’s a good idea to hand over the running of the NHS to GPs, let alone to do it without testing the idea out thoroughly first.

    But in a wider sense, surely this is an ideal illustration of the dangers of the coalition for the Lib Dems. Clearly a very significant change has been made to the coalition agreement. What the government said it was going to do only two months ago has suddenly been supplanted by a policy that wasn’t in either party’s manifesto. How has this decision been arrived at? Was Nick Clegg consulted on it, or was he presented with a fait accompli? Was anyone else in the party consulted on it? Does the party now support this, or are we just going to have Lib Dem ministers defending a policy that they don’t really agree with? Do we even have any way of finding out the answers to these questions?

  • Barry George 13th Jul '10 - 2:35pm

    In regard to the handing over the running of NHS to GP’s I find this opinion by a doctor on the BBC

    Dr Kambiz Boomla is a GP who practises in the East End of London.

    “Firstly it’s a very large budget to deal with and we know that there are probably spending cuts coming.

    GPs are busy people. We don’t have time to do this in between seeing patients, so we’re going to have to buy in commissioning support from private companies.

    My fear is that the government has a hidden agenda – to allow private companies to buy out GP practices.

    But we are responsible to our patients in a way that private companies are not.

    Unlike us, they are responsible to their shareholders, wherever they might be in the world.

    There’s also the danger of conflict of interest.

    We could end up with a situation where a private company is placing contracts with sister companies which own hospitals, putting commissioner and provider in business together.

    And there will be disputes over costs, which will take time and public money to sort out in the courts.

    All markets in healthcare result in inequity.

    People who live in better off areas would be able to purchase better healthcare than those in poorer areas.

    In my view, there is no place for them at all in healthcare.”


  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 2:41pm

    I watched Newsnight last night: professional opinion, although not united in favour, was certainly not united against. Some (including GPs) saw it as an opportunity, some as a threat, some were simply unsure, some thought it didn’t go far enough.

    I agree with Barry G, that it was a sudden change, which may be a bad omen. As I understood from listening to Andrew Lansley, it will be trialled, starting from April next year in Cumbria and other places, before a proposed national rollout during 2013-14. One would hope that if it the trials were unsuccessful that the further rollout would be halted or delayed until remedies or improvements were found.

    I saw no evidence for privatisation, although that is, of course, not necessarily not the reason!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 13th Jul '10 - 2:58pm

    “As I understood from listening to Andrew Lansley, it will be trialled, starting from April next year in Cumbria and other places, before a proposed national rollout during 2013-14.”

    I don’t think that’s correct. I think Lansley has been pointing to existing GP consortia in Cumbria as justification for the move, but the White Paper just talks about consultation over the next two and a half months, followed by legislation in the Autumn.

  • Paul McKeown 13th Jul '10 - 3:15pm

    Maybe you’re right, I got the idea that it was to be staged. It was merely my assumption that each stage would evaluated before progressing further, although that would be normal practise.

  • The NHS policy seems typical of the coalition approach, as we’ve already seen with the proposed cuts programme, school reforms etc – a major and complex exercise being rushed through in great haste. The coalition obviously wishes to be seen as tough and decisive, wasting no time in taking action, but the danger is that it will all get botched by being done too quickly. And does the NHS really need yet another major reorganisation, however well-intentioned it may be?

  • As a Labour supporter who, living in a LibDem / Con marginal, has almost always voted Lib Dem (including at the last election) can I respond to Andrea Gill:

    – clearly the “voters” you describe haven’t listened to or read a word of what we actually said, or are capable of grasping those facts. The general public as a whole cannot possibly be as stupid and idiotic as you describe.

    I am obviously as stupid and idiotic as described. I listened very carefully to Nick Clegg’s 2008 conference speech – I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what he said – and I believed him.

    I read and heard that your party believed in localisation – so when I hear your MPs supporting the greatest centralisation of education since the 1988 Education Act (and probably since 1908) through the huge expansion of the academies programme and the planned elimination of Local Authority involvment with schools, I feel cheated. (Being more centralising than Ed Balls is quite an achievement).

    I saw Clegg posing in front of a Tory tax bomb poster and believed your party supported progressive taxes – so when I see them supporting a highly regressive VAT increase rather than focusing on other, more progressive taxes, I feel cheated.

    I believed Vince when he repeatedly argued that £6 billion cuts in the current year would damage the recovery and cost jobs, so when I hear your MPs arguing that the whole world changed (in about a week after the election), I feel cheated.

    I believed your party disagreed with government favouring particular lifestyle choices, so when I hear that you have come to a shoddy deal to abstain from the vote on the married persons tax allowance (knowing full well that abstaining has exactly the same effect as voting for it), I feel cheated.

    I could go on, but perhaps it is better to go away and be stupid somewhere else.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Jul '10 - 11:00am

    George Kendall

    Left wing voters are passionately opposed to cuts in public services – hence the fury of some of the visitors to this site.

    Rightwingers are the opposite. Passionately opposed to taxes, and to interference in their freedom to improve their own lot in life, and that of their families.

    No, and no. This is politics as viewed by the rich and comfortable. That is why it is politics as portrayed in the media, but who owns and runs the media?

    If you are rich and comfortable, you may think that taxes are an imposition on your freedom. If you are poor, the main imposition on your freedom is not having enough money. Provision of public services is not the end point of the left. That’s silly Mail/Telegraph “the left are all evil socialists who delight in bossing us around” propaganda. Public services are required as a provider of freedom to those who don’t have money e.g. if you can’t afford education, no or poor state schools means you can’t improve your family through using education.

    Modern society has developed a larger scale infrastructure at the cost of concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a few. For much of our daily living now, we rely on huge national or multi-national companies whereas in the past we may have used small local businesses. The power of efficiency from these big organisations means they can offer more, but at the cost of those involved in running them being able to take out huge amounts of money and live fantastic lives of luxury. Then these same people think “freedom” is all about them keeping as much of it as they can to have as much luxury as they can. What rot – consider how little difference £10,000 makes to the freedom of a a millionaire and how much difference it makes to the freedom of someone on the minimum wage. Then these rich people use their control of the media to preach their ideology to the rest of us, and sadly too many suckers fall for it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Jul '10 - 11:06pm

    George Kendall, yes I realise you were being quick and superficial, but that is why it was so revealing. Lines like this are commonplace now, so much so that we cannot see the bias in them. I’m not saying you intended that bias or to make a value judgment, rather I’m noting that you probably didn’t realise just how much right-wing propaganda there is in what you wrote because these right-wing views about politics are so dominant now they are absorbed and thought to be neutral. So, you were cheering on the right as lovers of freedom and booing the left as nasty people who love being in control over others, and you just didn’t realise this was stuffed full of dubious value judgement.

  • @Barry George, that the Dr Boombla who stood as a socilist alliance candidate in the general election. I wonder if it is possible he may have pre conceived views about the NHS reorganization?

    @Matthew h well obviously taxes are a restriction of peoples freedom, rich and poor. The question is what level of restriction is appropriate to achieve other goals of public policy.

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