Opinion: We won’t get a fair society unless progressive politicians challenge Thatcherism

For nearly four decades progressive politicians have been losing the war of words – and of votes – over the economy. Those on the right have successfully persuaded voters time and again that a less equal, less fair society is better for nearly everyone, and those who lose out probably deserve to.

The evidence suggests that the right wing politicians are wrong – that the economics followed by governments of all colours since the 1980s locks a large proportion of society into poverty. Most of those poorer people are, in the jargon beloved of party leaders everywhere, “hard working”.

Last month I wrote about one of the mistakes the left has made: demonising the rich. While the 1% campaign has been busy alienating mainstream voters and reducing the chances of real change, more moderate progressives have often bought wholesale into the post-1980 orthodoxy. Where they haven’t, voters have punished them, persuaded by a narrative from the right that equates belief in Thatcherism with economic competence and belief in any alternative with foolishness.

We have been convinced that the super rich somehow made it entirely under their own steam. Forget the education system, the NHS, the road and rail networks, the power distribution networks, the internet, an enforceable legal and contracts system, a working police force, a reasonably uncorrupt public sector. Forget, even, that the limited company is an invention of the State, allowing businesspeople to limit their losses while taking huge risks.

We have been persuaded that the person who earns £10 million a year simply wouldn’t be motivated to do what they do for a measly £200,000, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We have been conned into believing – again against all evidence – that untold riches are a realistic prospect for anyone who simply puts their nose to the grindstone and works hard.

But most of all we’ve been told that there is no other way – no fairer way to run a capitalist society that would work. That an underclass of the working poor is a price we just have to pay so the rest of us can live comfortably.

Progressive politicians have not covered themselves in glory in their attempts to challenge this right-wing narrative. All the current Labour leadership hopefuls bar one, for example, are falling over themselves to agree with it.

There is an alternative, and there’s a great deal of evidence to support it. A free trade capitalist society with an interventionist state following policies to reduce inequality and ensure that someone with a full time job on minimum wage can lead a decent life without additional support. An alternative that values everyone, not just those at the top, and gives everyone fair chances and even the ability to make the odd mistake without their whole life being thrown away.

This isn’t the place to go into detail about the alternatives – books and articles, written by people far more able to put the case than me, abound.

I want to ask how we get there. How we persuade the swing voters, the people who switched to the Tories in May, that a fair, progressive economic system is not only achievable and sensible but something they shouldn’t be scared of. Because that’s what we need to do if we’re ever to make it happen. Without those nervous voters the call for fairness can only ever be a plaintive cry from opposition.

We need more than a few voices in the wilderness. We need an ongoing campaign providing a strong narrative and the evidence to back it up, and it has to be broad enough and strong enough to take on the might of the vested interests desperate to maintain the status quo. That’s a big challenge, and I hope that our new leader – whoever it might be – will be able to play a part in it.

* Iain Roberts is the former leader of Stockport Liberal Democrats and Lib Dem Campaign Manager in Greater Manchester Mayoral election and for Cheadle constituency in the General Election

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.
Advert

47 Comments

  • Simon Gilbert 9th Jun '15 - 11:16am

    My challenge to this piece is that it is not free markets that have created the growing wealth gap of the asset owners and bankers. Just as Thatcher did not subsidise coal mines so one has to ask if she would have subsidised the insolvent banks in the same way recent governments have.
    Bail outs and QE are welfare for the rich and have created the greatest misallocation of capital for a generation.

  • There is a lot here I agree with, for example the state providing the framework which makes it possible for businesses and individuals to create wealth. Too bad it’s acccompanied by a bunch of hysterical straw man arguments which look like they were lifted straight from the Guardian. I don’t think I need to point them out.

  • It depends what the author describes as “fair”.

    I scrape by with a wage of less than £18,000 and I consider I’m well off, but then I live very simply and am content with my life.

    Why is it that people, such as the author above, only ever focus in on business and banks, why does he not focus in on our town halls with their numerous and expensive Directors, CEOs, and other NGO bigwigs. These people evoke absolute rage from the people I work with; their salaries and pensions create within us a feeling that life is indeed not “fair”.

    It is hugely why all those ‘non-progressive’ people voted for the Tories – we hope, in vain most probably, that there would be a, long waited for, bonfire of the quangos.

  • Feel free to point them out, Adrian – I don’t believe there are any straw man arguments in the article, hysterical or otherwise. The evidence couldn’t be clearer: the economic growth of the last three decades, especially in the US and UK, has largely bypassed those at the bottom of the pile and those on the right have been very content with that situation.

  • wg – partly because senior people in the private sector earn massively more (orders of magnitude more) than senior people in the public sector running organisations of similar size and complexity, and partly because there are far fewer public sector managers than there used to be and their pay in general hasn’t been increasing in recent years.

  • “…. Those on the right have successfully persuaded voters time and again that a less equal, less fair society is better for nearly everyone, …”

    Really”
    Have voters really been persuaded of this ?

    If this were true, can anyone explain why 63% of voters did NOT vote Conservative last month?

    Are voters in Scotland so very different ? How many of them voted Conservative?
    And are Northern Ireland and Wales voters also excluded from this?

    The rest of this article is based on the false premise that the voters of the UK have swallowed a myth. They have not.
    A large majority of voters voted for Labour, SNP, PC, several varieties of NI parties, or Liberal Democrat and all of those parties refused to accept these arguments of the right.
    Even UKIP (difficult to know what their policies are as they change from hour to hour) could hardly be described as pushing this economics of the right, whatever most of their leading figures and big wallet backers think.

    Please do not confuse a 12 vote Majority in the Commons as persuading a majoroty of the voters.

  • OK, if you insist. John has taken a different angle to me, as might be expected. This is what I came up with:

    “a less equal, less fair society is better for nearly everyone, and those who lose out probably deserve to.”

    “the person who earns £10 million a year simply wouldn’t be motivated to do what they do for a measly £200,000.”

    “untold riches are a realistic prospect for anyone who simply puts their nose to the grindstone and works hard.”

    “an underclass of the working poor is a price we just have to pay so the rest of us can live comfortably.”

    I think you may be seeing what you want to see, I don’t remember seeing any politician saying any of these things. Either I am too rational for my own good or need to read the right newspapers.

  • Joe Otten.
    The reality is that more people didn’t vote for anyone than voted for any single party. Plus trying to keep the union together by voting for the two parties most likely to break it up makes no sense! A sizable proportion of the Scotish electorate have voted for a party that explicitly aims to end Britain and the largest British, really English, party is a major cause the rise in Scottish Nationalism, The end result, IMO, will be the end of Britain.
    On the ending Thatcherism note. Thatcher was just a link in a chain .

  • Oh dear

    “persuaded by a narrative from the right that equates belief in Thatcherism with economic competence and belief in any alternative with foolishness.”

    It would help if people stopped shadow boxing with ghosts. She is dead, get over it. “Thatcherism” is an incredibly imprecise description which seems to be rolled out by the older generation of the left and the younger generation of the frothing left. Used to mean “something I really, really don’t like” it has a particular resonance in Scotland and certain parts of the North of England but even then it conjures up images of shoulder pads, big hair and handbag sized phones.

    On the other point of having surrendered the “competence” status to the ‘right’ that has predominantly because the ‘left’ has spent so much time trying to attribute malicious intent to the ‘right’ they have made a mess of any attempt to critique economic policies beyond “nasty” so the situation is self inflicted.

  • As others have said there are too many strawmen here.

    “We have been persuaded that the person who earns £10 million a year simply wouldn’t be motivated to do what they do for a measly £200,000”

    No the problem is the ‘left’ has spent its time moaning about the issues of income inequality particularly certain industries and not ever engaging in the cause, proposing bad solution to the symptoms and ignoring the causes. Often fixating on certain matters while ignoring others, apparently for no logical reason.

  • I have always thought a good exam question to give to political science students would be,”There was no such thing as Thatcherism. Discuss”
    I remember picking up Mrs T’s book in a bookshop and looking at the chapter where the SE Asian econmonies were mentioned. Nothing other than a conventional view was put forward and this was probably true for most of thebook.
    The idea of nationalisation being a panacea faded long before Mrs T took center stage.

  • Can I suggest that we all read John Kay’s book ‘The Truth About Markets’. Best demolition of the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ market worship. And this from a Financial Times columnist.

    Kay says markets work if they aid trial and error. If we have conditions which encourage variety and permit choice,
    that allows experiments and learning. This gets us better outcomes that rigid central planning.

    ‘Disciplined pluralism’ is what gives ‘markets’ their power.

    But this does mean we need a whole lot of ‘transactional’ activities to keep track of what is happening, to ensure there is discipline. When New Zealand dismantled its heavily regulated economic controls at the end of the 20th century, the proportion of its workforce engaged in transactional activities (regulators and suchlike) went up from one in three of the workforce to one in two. (Kay 2004, p361)

    Just letting ‘markets’ rip can destroy much of value. As Kay says in his conclusion ‘ ..in the decades after the fall off the Berlin Wall the most vigorous advocates of the market proved to be its worse enemies. They understood neither the genius of markets nor their limits. The version of them they presented, inaccurate and repulsive, was intellectually flawed and failed when applied in practice. In this, too it resembled Marxism’.

    Its not a matter of dissing Thatcher. Lots of more recent evidence to deal with…

  • @Psi – agree 100%

    @Edis Bevan “markets work if they aid trial and error. If we have conditions which encourage variety and permit choice, that allows experiments and learning. This gets us better outcomes that rigid central planning. ”

    Again, agree 100% and no Economic Liberal would disagree with this. Its a fundamental part of Economic Liberalism.

  • @ Edis Bevan 9th Jun ’15 – 3:23pm
    I don’t think anybody should be surprised by an FT columnist writing such a book.

  • I think its more a case that Thatcher and the Conservatives have filched the bits of Economic Liberalism that they liked because it favoured their client groups and ignored the bits they didn’t. Hence implementing markets without appropriate regulation and anti-monopoly provision.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jun '15 - 4:39pm

    The approach to change the consensus is to become more like the SNP and less like Labour. The SNP say they will fight for voter’s interests by opposing austerity. A mansion tax and remoulding capitalism at the top just doesn’t resonate as much as saying “no more taxes or cuts on the middle class”.

    I also think Thatcher was removed before her entire vision could be implemented, so I’m quite happy with the consensus, as someone self-employed.

    I am not happy with the amount of benefit cuts though. I can’t see that the public relish the idea of getting rid of the safety net.

    One final thing: Thatcher’s legacy keeps growing the longer her consensus is kept in place. I’m not saying it is a bad thing, if anything as the first female Prime Minister it is probably quite a good thing. However I much prefer the more consensual style of Merkel.

    Regards

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jun '15 - 5:07pm

    By the way, we should also get the top economists more involved in the debate. Politicians are good at the tactical, but I don’t think it is very professional to have a bunch of amateurs decide big strategic economic decisions.

    Of course politicians should have a veto over policy for social purposes, but we wouldn’t let politicians make medical decisions, so perhaps they should make less economic ones. Or at least get professionals more involved in the debate! 🙂

    It could be something for liberals to rally around. An evidence based and top class professional economic policy.

  • Samuel Griffiths 9th Jun '15 - 5:50pm

    This article could have been so great! I was with you until you decided that a free(er) market was somehow a solution to a market that is already free to do all the ills you accurately describe. A market cannot both be free and regulated, they are two sides of a spectrum in which you plant your economic flag. Even an open market like the EU is still not free – they have huge restrictions, after all. Other than that though I think the general gist is correct. Britain very much has fallen hook-line and sinker for trickle down theory. The Conservatives are not the only party, also. Even Labour have been criticized for being too left these days and let’s not forget the centre-right stance of New Labour. The centre ground is now neo-liberalism, with a general acceptance that it is fairly “normal” and not somehow an extreme departure from what econonomics has taught us.

  • Little Jackie Paper 9th Jun '15 - 6:58pm

    Psi – Spot on. Too many people following the election seem to really, really want to fight an enemy that probably was last seen sometime in 1988. Thatcher is gone. This isn’t about left and right as they were in the 1980s any more. If there is to be a challenge now it will come from working out how to bring about more socially just outcomes in an era where the state pretty much can’t spend. Ed M tried but failed.

    The new post-Thatcher time probably won’t be easy for classic left or right. The former will need to accept that the grand state project has a better past than future. Even the NHS will have its day of reckoning. The right will need to reconcile its corporatism with the social downsides, particularly with respect to the devaluation of Labour.

    But yes – Thatcher has been gone for 25 years and its time politics moved on.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Jun '15 - 8:08pm

    Psi

    It would help if people stopped shadow boxing with ghosts. She is dead, get over it. “Thatcherism” is an incredibly imprecise description which seems to be rolled out by the older generation of the left and the younger generation of the frothing left

    Well, “liberalism” is also an incredibly imprecise description for the same thing which seems to be rolled out by the older generation of the right (who at least have enough memory of a time when there were real Liberals who were against that sort of thing to call it “economic liberalism”) and the younger generation of the frothing right (who don’t).

    Whatever. It’s been the dominant political theme since the 1979 general election which brought Thatcher to power, just as socialism was the dominant political theme since the 1945 general election which brought Attlee to power. In both cases even when power swung back to the other party in the two-party system, the other party more or less accepted what had been established and just tried to temper it a bit rather than overturn it or question its general assumptions. We are always told how Blair succeeded because he introduced New Labour which carried on with Thatcher’s legacy instead of the left-wing opposition to that sort of thing that Labour was about in the 1980s.

    34 years after Attlee, Thatcherism challenged the socialism consensus which had become tired and complacent. We are now 36 years after that. Isn’t it time something similar happened? Isn’t that what Iain Roberts is saying?

  • I don’t know or care if it is Thatcherism, but the attitude that I completely disagree with is the prevalent idea in all governments since Thatcher that everything that goes on in the public sector is by definition inefficient and needs to be privatised ASAP, while everything that goes on in the private sector is automatically lean and efficient.

    This is the attitude that has led to the State paying Group-4 to make a mess of running prisons while making money from our taxes, and the same organisation being incapable of policing the Olympics, and having to be bailed out at great cost by the army at the last minute.

    For me there has to be a better way of doing things than subsidising private enterprise out of all our taxes, whether it be bonuses in Lloyd’s bank, private landlords pocketing the social care budget because the State has sold off all the public housing, or huge fees being paid to agencies in the NHS. There are so many aspects of the the current deficit that can be traced directly to subsidy of private enterprise necessitated by idealogically-driven marketisation of the public sector.

  • A book that I found very thought provoking on economics (apart from E.F. Schumacher’s “Good Work”, which was really a seminal read, even if somewhat Utopian) was “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism” by Ha-Joon Chang. The debunking of such things as the trickle down theory was very refreshing!

  • By the way I agree that the NHS will have its reckoning – an organisation where costs keep increasing because the remit is being continually expanded (by thinking up new and ever more expensive ways of curing people) is always going to be in trouble.
    I think this reckoning is a separate issue to the degree of privatisation of the NHS, but all the evidence appears to be that privatised and insurance-led health services in places like the USA end up being much more expensive

  • Simon Gilbert 9th Jun '15 - 10:31pm

    Of course expense is not the only feature of a health service many would pay more for better care. USA of course is an outlier compared to European health systems.
    But I’ve risen to the bait – NHS is its own series of discussions.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    “Well, “liberalism” is also an incredibly imprecise description for the same thing which seems to be rolled out by the older generation of the right […] and the younger generation of the frothing right”

    At least liberalism has a clearer under pinning, a focus on freedom (in its many forms).

    Trying to pin down people’s meaning of “Thatcherism” is very hard with its severe social conservatism; a market ideal, manifesting itself through a very corporatist economic approach; increasing spending on the NHS; eroding public sector pay; and laying the seeds massive house price growth which now impacts the wealfare budget so badly.

    It is hard to pick out the coherance or ideological purity some ascribe to it.

  • Iain Roberts

    “How we persuade the swing voters, the people who switched to the Tories in May, that a fair, progressive economic system is not only achievable and sensible but something they shouldn’t be scared of.”

    Now we can get down to the issue having vented about the hyperbole.

    First I think we need to learn from some of the failures of the past. The focus needs to be on what was to be achieved not the process and needs to be on real key messages. The bad examples of the past were the “penny on income tax” and ‘the pledge.’

    The “POIT” policy focused purely on the process of raising money not what the final outcome. So much so I have seen three different uses listed on LDV in recent years as to what it was for. I think it was education but otherrs think it was for other priorities.

    Next ‘the pledge’ in 2010 was the abandoning of what had the potential to be a reasonable comma strategy. It made one neiche issue look like it was the centre of the Lib Dem message. The Lib Dems have been good at getting them selves known for one thing and one thing only.

  • Richard Sangster 10th Jun '15 - 7:49am

    A work ethic replaced by a greed ethic.

  • JohnTilley – I’m touched that you feel UKIP support a more equal society! The reality – and the point of the article – is about changing people’s lives, which doesn’t mean having angels-on-a-pinhead arguments but about a political party or parties winning a general election on a progressive agenda. The reality is that hasn’t happened for at least 40 years.

    Adrian – have you really failed to spot all those concepts running through politics in this country? You’ve not spotted anyone suggesting that the super-rich absolutely need/deserve their money? You’ve not come across the argument that the very wealthy have earned their money and morally shouldn’t have to hand much of it over to the state? I am surprised – these are strong narratives.

    Samuel – “free” as in free trade – especially across borders, not “free” meaning unregulated (as you rightly point out, I couldn’t mean that without contradicting myself within the space of a sentence).

  • Psi – the evidence seems clear that there was a policy change around 1980 in the UK and US that made a massive difference to inequality and is still with us today. As a shorthand in a short article I refer to that as Thatcherism – I appreciate we can have endless fun debates about the precise meaning of that word.

    You also say “On the other point of having surrendered the “competence” status to the ‘right’ that has predominantly because the ‘left’ has spent so much time trying to attribute malicious intent to the ‘right’ they have made a mess of any attempt to critique economic policies beyond “nasty” so the situation is self inflicted.”.

    On that point I’m glad we agree – it was exactly the point I made in my previous article and built on here.

  • Simon Gilbert 10th Jun '15 - 9:00am

    Do political ideas respond to the times they are in, or do political ideas shape the times they are in?
    I would argue the later. The technological, georaphic and demographic changes in populations are under constant change, yet the political systems governing them are suited to the pre change environment.
    Hence the growth of centralised high capital industry naturally led to adversarial politics between the workers and the owners, and the spread of education, skilled workers and merchants contributed to the development of classical liberalism.
    Industry was changing in the 1970s and 1980s, thus ‘Thatcherism’ evolved as a response to a system unable to cope with change at that time.
    I believe the Lib Dems have an opportunity, not being in government, to look forward to what political ideas will work not only for our current system, but for the future.
    The current financial problems and wealth inequality isn’t just some feature of tweaking the level of bank regulation, more it is the trillions of £s and $s of money printed. The problem – state printing money in a global world – is one with answers already evolving, with the ability of individuals to create their own digital money.
    Companies moving money around the world to reduce tax won’t be managed by a few more government laws, rather we should tax the asset that can’t be moved – land.
    The drug war of the last 40 years causes immeasurable harm – consider decriminalising and legally regulating not only the consumption but the supply in order to put the international criminal cartels out of business.
    The same principles can be applied to state surveillance, freedom of sexuality, freedom of lifestyle etc.
    These are all issues that the 2 biggest parties have no coherent line on, yet resonate with a huge portion of the electorate.
    In conclusion, looking back to Thatcherism is interesting in how politics responds in the face of societal and economic change, but it is a product of its time and not a reference point to fight against.
    What is needed now is an approach for the next 25 years, and Liberalism is currently best placed to respond to change. With courage and imagination we can help 21st century Liberalism thrive.

  • Paul In Wokingham 10th Jun '15 - 9:03am

    @Psi – what is the point of the Liberal Democrats?

  • Iain Roberts,
    This is what I said —
    JohnTilley 9th Jun ’15 – 11:57am
    “…Even UKIP (difficult to know what their policies are as they change from hour to hour) could hardly be described as pushing this economics of the right, whatever most of their leading figures and big wallet backers think.”

    This is how you mis-represented what I said –
    Iain 10th Jun ’15 – 8:15am
    “– I’m touched that you feel UKIP support a more equal society! ”

    I am trying to work out why you chose to do this. Maybe you could enlighten me and others who have read both comments?
    There was in my comment a perfectly reasonable and polite point that the vote in the general election last month can hardly be used as evidence of the main assertion in your original article. There was no suggestion in what I said that I thought UKIP supported a more equal society that is an unhelpful distraction from the point I thought you wanted to discuss.

    If in a general election only 67% vote and 63% of those that voted rejected the Conservatives it hardly suggest that you have read the runes correctly. A split in the anti-Conservative does not indicate that most people believe in an unequal society.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Jun '15 - 10:29am

    Psi

    Trying to pin down people’s meaning of “Thatcherism” is very hard with its severe social conservatism; a market ideal, manifesting itself through a very corporatist economic approach; increasing spending on the NHS; eroding public sector pay; and laying the seeds massive house price growth which now impacts the wealfare budget so badly.

    Iain Roberts used the word “Thatcherism” to describe what is now the dominant political ideology, in many variants. Many of the comments in reply seem to be more about his choice of the word “Thatcherism” to describe this ideology rather than about the core of what he is saying.

    Little Jackie Paper has it absolutely and completely and utterly wrong and has absolutely and completely and utterly missed the point when she writes “Too many people following the election seem to really, really want to fight an enemy that probably was last seen sometime in 1988. Thatcher is gone.” This is not about the personality of Margaret Thatcher, and the words of Iain Roberts’ article make this clear. It’s about a view of politics which is based heavily on simplistic slogans about cash market economy. As I said, some like to call this “economic liberalism”. Those of us who are not so starry-eyed about the supposed linkage between the cash market economy and freedom, and don’t like the way it is being pushed as if the main barrier to freedom is the existence of the state and the taxes paid for its services, might not want to accept the usage of “X liberalism” where X is “classical” or “economic” or some other term to describe it, because we regard such a description as non-neutral, it is a use of words with a bias intended to push a particular message. So, we are searching around for other words to use for it.

    The turn in political thinking which led to this ideology becoming dominant WAS the election of the Thatcher government, and in the USA the election of Reagan as President. Margaret Thatcher played a strong part in pushing it, but to some extent she was used by others, and I remember seeing some interesting comments from her (sorry, can’t remember where) which suggest that she herself did not realise the enormity of the change her government had started and was beginning to get concerned about some of the impact. I quite agree there are huge contradictions if one is looking at it just in terms of Margaret Thatcher as a person. Here we have the person who became known as the “Iron Lady” supposedly standing up to defend our country against foreign influence, while pushing economic policies which enabled foreign interest to buy up our country. She stood fiercely by the front door to stop the Russians coming in, while opening the back door with a sign reading “come in, help yourselves” which they have done, see all those Russian oligarchs who have taken over so much here. She stood for social conservatism, yes, but the market forces her government opened up have been the biggest factor destroying traditional attitudes and lifestyles. Anyone who was a real supporter of social conservatism in 1979 ought to have been a fanatical supporter of James Callaghan, because the way to keep things the same was to re-elect his government.

    In the USA “conservatism” is used to describe the ideology we are talking about, which I think is just as wrong as describing it as “liberalism”, but there they use “liberal” to mean “socialist” so they had to use another word. Actual conservatism as an ideology in the terms of a belief that change is bad and things need to be kept as they are is something hardly anyone ever talks about. Which is odd, because it’s a valid ideology. I don’t like the term “progressive” which Iain Roberts uses either, because it’s an Orwellian word. So often it’s used by people as a means of shutting down discussion, of claiming that their ideology is the only possible way to move forward, and that therefore opposition to it is futile. I appreciate Iain is not using it in those terms, and these days it’s when the similar word “moderniser” is used that one really has to stand in defence against the trick being pulled.

    So, sure, sometimes I use “Thatcherism” when I really mean “simplistic free market fanaticism”, and I do sort of realise it’s not quite right because it ignores the streak of social conservatism which was still strong in the Conservative Party and in Margaret Thatcher herself when she was its leader. But I think that streak has largely been squashed out anyway. If it still exists, it’s more a trick to attract votes than a sincere belief, because although there is almost no-one advocating real conservatism in the political elite class, there’s a widespread desire for such a thing among ordinary people, and it grows when people feel insecure. UKIP, of course, very much plays on it, and I would say most of the votes UKIP got in the general election this year were people who thought they were voting for small-c conservatism. They were very, very badly fooled, because UKIP has no real small-c conservative policies, it’s just Thatcherism with the “come in, help yourselves” sign in flashing neon.

  • Paul in Wokingham

    I don’t think my opinion carry much weight but I suggfest a three worn answer could be: To maximise freedom. If You wanted to use more words I think the bit of the LibDem preamble about not being enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity is ok.

    The high level words can be constructed many ways but there are ways in which the recent discussions and actions have not reflected that. Secret courts was a very bizarre policy for ministers to support; the tendency for supporters to advocate “nannying” policies; an worrying tendency to be comfortable with restrictions of free speech; the pointless obsession with wealth inequality rather than disposable income; and tuition fees debacle (by which I mean the inception of the policy and the pledge as well) seem to indicate that the LibDems really haven’t been doing that.

    I like Simon Gilbert’s suggestions on LVT, legalisation (with strict regulation and control) of drugs. I would leave wealth inequality alone and start to focus on incomes and cost of living (why it took so long for housing supply to rise up the agenda amazes me). When a problem is identified track back to causes rather than copy others suggested symptom treating (often negative) ‘solutions.’

    But as I say my opinion doesn’t count for much so I watching to see how the two leadership contenders spell out their ideas and see how they compare.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    The one thing we do appear to agree on is a dislike of the term ‘progressive.’

    “Many of the comments in reply seem to be more about his choice of the word “Thatcherism” to describe this ideology rather than about the core of what he is saying.”

    I get driven mad by the use of the term is because it is often used term of something to be against. At this election most (disinterested in politics) voters I know could say what the Tories and SNP were ‘for’ and could tell you what the LibDems and Labour were ‘against’ and the result was very telling. The use of “Thatcherism” is often used as a lazy way of being against the big bad “old nasty ideas” and rarely comes with what the position is for.

    Being for something takes longer to explain but it helps to start with the positive vision not looking back at what most voters see as historic cases if people were to say they were opposed to Wilson/Heath ism to mean they didn’t want oil price shocks and stagflation you would consider them an “eccentric” and ignore them. The term has the growing impression of the old union activist sitting in the corner of a pub moaning about the past, it is like starting the answer to “how do you get to…” with “I wouldn’t start from here…”

    There is much to be for, how about focusing on that?

  • The thrust of the article is entirely correct – the “right” has dominated political discourse since the election of Thatcher in 1979 and it has done so by virtue of an economic narrative “that equates belief in Thatcherism with economic competence and belief in any alternative with foolishness.” As Thatcher herself put it, “There Is No Alternative”.

    Some nit-picks. Firstly, Thatcher herself is long gone so it’s better to call this “neo-liberalism”. The “neo” prefix signifies that this is a very mutant sort of liberalism than any that mainstream Liberals believe in. The original form was bad enough (I’m old enough to remember it) but over time, and facing negligible coherent challenge, it’s got more and more carnivorous to the point where things that would have been inconceivable 30 years ago are now very much on the agenda.

    Secondly, I don’t think most voters are persuaded by neo-liberalism. It is actually politicians who are apparently most persuaded. Hence it is often said that Thatcher’s greatest success (from a Tory POV) was not any particular piece of legislation or even the totality of legislation her government enacted but rather that Labour remade itself in the neo-liberal image – as the Lib Dems did under Clegg just a little later. I like Psi’s observation (12 June @ 11:29 am) that at the GE he knew what Tories and SNP were ‘for’ and what labour and Lib Dems were ‘against’. That’s very telling. Another way to put it is that being in possession of a developed narrative (neo-liberal for the Tories or independence for the SNP) puts that party on the front foot, not having one puts a party emphatically on the back foot – constrained to be reactive, to fight on ground chosen by others.

    Ian Welsh has a great post describing the importance of ideology for opposition parties. He says: “The job of a political party is either to get a few specific people into power, or it is to offer a clear option to the voters. If it is the second, then your job is to make sure that option remains available. In many cases, if you do so, you will get into power fairly soon—after two to three terms. In other cases, if you are a minor party, it may take decades.”

    http://www.ianwelsh.net/the-control-of-parties-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-ideologies/

    The corollary is, of course, that if you don’t offer voters a clear option you will fail.

    Then there is the evidence of outcomes. We have had neo-liberalism for long enough under various parties to see what it actually delivers as opposed to the rose-tinted promises. It’s not a pretty sight and simply doesn’t deliver for most people although it does fabulously well for a tiny minority. My conclusion is that neo-liberalism is a zombie-ideology that preserves the appearance of vitality only because it has not yet been seriously challenged. For me therefore working out a coherent alternative has to rate as a strategic priority of the highest order. If the Lib Dems can change the habit of a lifetime and develop an alternative their future is bright. If not we are wasting our time and need a new party and new organisation.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Jun '15 - 3:29pm

    “I want to ask how we get there. How we persuade the swing voters, … .”

    How we get there might include persuading swing voters in marginal seats, but it might also include a further step or two towards more electoral reform and, perhaps, more devolution .

  • Psi (in reply to Matthew Huntbach 9th June @ 11:18 pm)

    “At least liberalism has a clearer under pinning, a focus on freedom (in its many forms).”

    “Freedom”, unless heavily qualified, is a snare and delusion. Its “many forms” collide with each other so you have to pick priorities. For instance down the road one near neighbour recently built a enormous dormer loft conversion that destroys any possibility of privacy in their gardens for their immediate neighbours. So whose ‘freedom’ takes precedence? That of the loft converter to develop their property as they see fit or that of their neighbours to enjoy their property without someone intruding on them?

    That’s a fairly trivial example but at the heart of neoliberalism is a dark decision on priorities – that the freedom of capital should take precedence over freedom of people or communities. That’s a very feudal idea but updated in that in the middle ages ‘capital’ was roughly synonymous with land. Land remains hugely important but new classes of capital – commercial and industrial in particular – are now important alongside it.

    This ‘freedom for capital’ a.k.a. ‘private property’ was of course the view promoted by Thatcher’s favourite economist Friedrich Hayek who quite explicitly recognised that it might co-exist quite comfortably with totalitarianism and saw democracy as a potentially dangerous rival. Political economist Benjamin Selwyn writes that: “His [Hayek’s] ideas justify the erosion of democracy under capitalism in defence of private property.”

    One of the roots of Hayek’s thought is that ‘free markets’ will lead to a spontaneous market order that would deliver huge potential benefits compared with any other method of allocating resources. That is, of course, nonsense. For one thing the economy as a whole is not the same a the sum of all the many markets of which it is composed (it is a fallacy of composition to suppose that it is) since markets can interact in destructive ways. For another markets operate by rules (sometimes overt, sometimes covert) that are typically decided by the most powerful players around so that over time, absent some (usually) government intervention, they typically deliver winner-takes-all outcomes (often cosy oligopoly rather than a single winner). With government deciding on philosophical grounds to partially absent itself from preventing monopoly/oligopoly that is exactly what we have eventually arrived at in many industries. So now those who control those companies (directors are not mainly the owners, they are the agents of the owners) can award themselves huge payoffs, very often unconnected to performance.

    In simple terms a deregulated market system will eventually blow up or fail in some way as we have seen with the banks. The crisis was a direct result of Tory political philosophy, some of it conducted by Blair and Brown.

    This is an outcome that by its nature denies the vast majority the ‘freedom’ that was the original objective so neo-liberalism by it’s nature is always elitist in fact if not always in rhetoric. It also self-defeating even for the ‘winners’ because ultimately the ‘losers’ don’t have the income to sustain the consumption that is the lifeblood of a capitalist economy. The US appears to be over that tipping point already and we probably are which maybe why the Tories are so keen on austerity – politically they simply have to blame the disaster they have created on something/someone else.

  • I forgot to include a link to Benjamin Selwyn in my last post (currently in moderation).

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/benjamin-selwyn/friedrich-hayek-dictatorship

  • Gordon

    “‘Freedom’, unless heavily qualified, is a snare and delusion. Its ‘many forms’ collide with each other so you have to pick priorities.

    I specified the “many forms” for a reason. I don’t accept that freedom “is a snare and delusion” there is no ‘perfect freedom’ and competing types have to be balanced but as an objective you can work to maximise.

    I am not sure if you meant the “pick prioritise” the way I read that but I don’t believe one aspect of freedom should be prioritised you have to balance them as you go, as social and technlogical disruption impact on us the way you balance them will change.

    The rest of your points I will have to come back too when I have more time.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jun '15 - 11:06am

    Gordon

    Some nit-picks. Firstly, Thatcher herself is long gone so it’s better to call this “neo-liberalism”

    No, no, no, no, no, NO!!!

    NEVER will I do this. I refuse to concede in any way to those who try to make out that “liberalism” means primarily support for extreme free market policies. What you are saying is like asking a socialist to concede to a suggestion that fascism should be called “neo-socialism” (which I think would be just as justifiable). Putting “neo” in front does not make it acceptable, since it just suggests that’s the modern form of the old ideology. I don’t accept that. so don’t insult me by asking me to use language which does so.

  • Mathew,
    I by and large call it the Economic Right or sometime Free Market Fundamentalism . I try to avoid Thatcherism because it switches voters off and sounds too much like rerunning an old argument, Also Free Market Fundamentalism makes it sound quasi religious and captures the zealotry and delusion involved better.

  • Matthew,

    I am merely going with what has become accepted usage although I too dislike it. It is important to understand that the “neo” completely inverts the sense of the original.

    In defence of the usage I would point out that it does have some merit in that it’s based on a perverted ordering of the priorities for ‘freedom’ as I discus in my second comment above – in short freedom for capital above freedom for people. That’s typical of how systems of belief go bad. Hence the worst excesses committed in the name of religion were always perpetrated by those who devised some toxic twist that inverts a familiar and trusted framework of morality for their own advantage and that, for a time at least, fools the unwary persuading them to sign up.

    The difficulty is that for Lib Dems collectively have remarkably little grasp of what liberalism is about – hence the party’s inability to generate a clear and compelling narrative. Hence also they support of many for hard neo-liberal initiatives like the TTIP.

  • Gordon

    I tend to avoid attacking historic economists for their views on matters other than theoretical economics as almost always they are speaking from a particular point in history often reacting against particular things that are of concern at the time. For example Joan Robinson made some poor arguments on mattes such as how successful North Korea would be compared to the south, sitting in their position in history things would have looked different (even if you think you would have still reached different conclusions) and attacking them from a point many years later seems rather pointless.

    It is true that Liberalism and Democracy don’t have to go together and the tyranny of the majority is a realistic prospect. Liberals should be arguing against silly populist measures like “repeal the HRA” but in the UK today we are not really facing this particular problem and I don’t think we will be any time soon, so it seems like a distraction to worry about that. If I had lived Hayek’s life perhaps I would have thought differently but I don’t. Worrying about the 50 year old fears of people who died over 20 years ago has the feeling of an “angles on the head of a pin” about it.

    “One of the roots of Hayek’s thought is that ‘free markets’ will lead to a spontaneous market order”

    In the interests of fairness to the dead, though that phrase is technically accurate in terms of the meaning of “spontaneous” as without external driver, it also has the connotation of happening very rapidly almost immediately and most people holding Hayek’s view point would accept that they take time to reach any equilibrium, I would assume Hayek would probably have recognised the time delay so I would express that differently.

    “markets operate by rules […] that are typically decided by the most powerful players around so that over time, absent some (usually) government intervention, they typically deliver winner-takes-all outcomes (often cosy oligopoly rather than a single winner).”

    Markets operate by rules that are decided by many factors, including government (in setting the legal framework e.g. IP), partly social, partly technological and partly due to the participants in the market. Some markets settle in a state of exploitation by dominant players, some settle in a more diversified way. Governments should never simply decide to rule themselves out of intervention to resolve exploitative domination however that also needs to be done sensibly. There are occasions where keeping out changes things, a few years ago if you wanted to identify the dominant players in the social networking market you would have been trying to act against friends reunited (remember them) but the market is still in flux so intervention would not have been a good idea. Also often the domination is caused by some factor the government already control that creates barriers or incentives. Any intervention should go back to the root cause and amend the barrier or incentives rather than trying to layer additional patches on the symptoms.

    I agree the management of large businesses often do award themselves far too much, unrelated to the performance of those busineses. However this is often because the businesses are larger than would be optimal, there is a question of what is driving the creation of over sized businesses and how to change those incentives. Too much time is spent attacking ‘big business’ and posing as some kind of fantasy St George fighting the ‘big business’ dragon but if there is an option to change the incentive to make businesses smaller and agile rather then attacking them that will be a better approach.

    “In simple terms a deregulated market system will eventually blow up or fail in some way as we have seen with the banks. The crisis was a direct result of Tory political philosophy, some of it conducted by Blair and Brown.”

    I would say all markets will probably fail at some point, regulated or not. I would see regulation to be to move the incentives to a place where it reduces the risk but to believe you can eliminate risk is fantasy.

    As for the crisis, I will leave that for another day.

  • Matthew & Glenn

    I also am not a fan of neo-liberal for many reasons, I think if you are talking about a belief in markets free from any intervention then I would use the term Economic Libertarianism, still not ideal but it is the economic side of libertarianism. As opposed to Economic Liberalism which is a belief in free markets with some intervention to compensate for failings.

  • Psi, Thanks for the thoughtful response. A few points arising.

    I take your point about historical economists’ views in relation to a particular context but Hayek is a fair target. His stance on the primacy of capital over people is very much a values-based one. It’s one that has always appealed to elites so it echoes down the ages in one guise or another and it’s certainly very relevant today.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • User AvatarJAMES COLE 18th Nov - 3:49pm
    There may some disparity between national and constituency polls, however think the poorest national polls were more recent and best from weekend polls under constituency...
  • User AvatarDavid Becket 18th Nov - 3:31pm
    The speech looked better than the summary above.
  • User AvatarDavid Becket 18th Nov - 2:51pm
    @ Tony Greaves. Yes @ Innocent Bystander The High Street is not just about shopping. It gets you out into the community, you meet people,...
  • User AvatarPaul Barker 18th Nov - 2:37pm
    Currently we are being squeezed in The National Polls, probably to around 14% "Now" but thats not because Voters like what they see in The...
  • User AvatarJoseph Bourke 18th Nov - 2:36pm
    Peter Martin, when a country goes bankrupt a change of government to sort out the mess usually follows. When a a company goes bankrupt it...
  • User AvatarJoseph Bourke 18th Nov - 2:31pm
    Peter Martin, the fiscal policy is based on a current spending budget of +/- 1% of GDP and a capital spending or borrowing budget of...