Opinion: We’re a diverse party, get over it already

You do have to wonder who writes the Liberator Magazine Editorial sometimes. In February’s issue, the Collective launch into a fabulously splenetic rant (even by this shy retiring organ’s own standards) against the “blues under the bed” who they demand “should accept (their) defeat and clear off”.

That the majority of Liberator’s editorial board dislike the classical-liberal or economic-liberal or (shudder) right-wing of the party has never been in doubt, but you do wonder if there will be a point, after over 30 years of publication, where this Hamas-like Commentariat will proclaim an acceptance of the rights of the other side to exist, even if they do not always agree with them.

I should note that away from the left-wing sermon that is their editorial and Radical Bulletin they do print a variety of articles and even tolerate token eco-lib Jonathan Calder on their committee; but he is funny and occasionally pretends to be a post-centennial peer, so presumably fulfills some exclusive acceptability criteria of being ‘a bit right’ but Bonkers, and thus in need of some kind of compassionate care in their community.

There has always been a ‘left’ and ‘right’ to this liberal party, and even if the centre of gravity has shifted in response to events, what unites them, internationalism, tolerance, a belief in human rights, the importance of caring for each other and the environment etc., has always been greater than what divides… more often than not tax, spending, and other economic policies.

It is surely evident though, even to Liberator’s most bilious wordsmiths, that their perennial hate figures… Nick Clegg, David Laws, Gavin Grant, Mark Littlewood et. al. have more in common with them than Norman Tebbit and George Galloway?

Their clinching ‘evidence’ to demand for a schism though is the bizarre argument that:

The Liberal Democrats belong firmly to the social liberal camp. This is unambiguous in the preamble to the party’s constitution, which includes the aim, “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”… So here’s a challenge to the people in and around Liberal Vision (a notorious group of the politically unclean). Have the honesty and the guts to propose a constitutional amendment to the party conference, which calls for the deletion from the preamble of the words “and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. That’s what this argument is basically about, so let’s just cut to the chase.

It is often a problem of factional politics that there exists in the mind of the protagonists a stereotype of a the opponent they always wanted. A creature so vile and twisted in their views that only a person of similarly distorted priorities could possibly agree with them. Where happily that person does not exist Liberator is often left miserably slandering their simulacrum, stuffing straw into the pockets of their own scarecrow and then setting fire to it.

In fact many of Simon Titley’s entertaining diatribes against ‘the right‘ could accurately be described as a cry of frustration that his dissenters just won’t admit how evil they really are to fit his narrative. Labour have the same problem with ‘Dave’ Cameron. In doing this both Labour and Simon show how little they understand their opposition rather than how right they are.

To be clear why their argument is wrong though, no one fit to call themselves a liberal , social, or vanilla liberals with (evil) PR sprinkles on, believes that being enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity is a good thing. Nor would they find it a matter in need of amendment. Our constitution is in fact is so blandly hard to disagree with on almost any point that most members of all Britain’s major political parties could sign up to it without batting an eyelid.

Whether that’s a good thing, I don’t know. However this party is unlikely ever to have the clause IV moment Liberator appear to be calling for here, simply because… as a moderate liberal party… we don’t make such a fetish of ideological purity and Utopian ideas in our underlying philosophy that they’re ever likely to be proved as wrong as Labour’s public ownership monomania or the Conservatives’ opposition to government.

Liberator’s problem is that the real points of disagreement in the party are far more nuanced than grand ideology. Most of our representatives, members and activists are remarkably hard to put in a box other than the one marked ‘a bit liberal’. In fact many, like the population at large, hold overlapping and sometimes contradictory views that draw from many traditions, ideas and life circumstances. Show me a hoodie-loving free-spirit demanding compassion for criminals in their 20s and I’ll show you a paranoid parent demanding ASBOs and curfews for skateboarding in their 40s. Both may vote Liberal Democrat and may even be the same person.

That complexity might be less true of the Collective, perhaps being a self-convinced, self-reinforcing clique is not the best way of taking on board new or challenging ideas. But we should perhaps note that having spent years decryingthe right‘ for “factionalism” and ‘attempting to provoke a clause IV moment‘, they have now just openly called for one in their own editorial, while demanding the ‘Tories‘ leave the party. So there is clearly some room for flexibility, even there.

The point of Liberator is: now that there is a more modern accessible forum for social liberal self-stimulation in the Social Liberal Forum, is as good a question as what is the point of the continuity-Beveridge group. However the answer for liberals surely is that such diversity of ideas and pluralism is good in itself; and if you accept that, then surely there is room for liberals in the Liberal Democrats who believe there is more to liberalism than Rawls and that freedom and markets matter as much as equality and Post Offices?

It is surely time Liberator stopped firing their rockets into the camps of people with whom they share a common territory and engaged in a constructive dialogue? It is surely time the for these aging youth activist defenders of the pure social liberal flame to start demonstrating a little less anti-social illiberalism with other liberals?

If they ever did succeed in this ongoing effort to drive out the ‘right‘, the only beneficiaries would be the Conservatives, whose project to modernise by capturing the electable parts of the Liberal Democrats that survived New Labour’s similar effort in the 1990s, would be complete. That Liberator and their fellow travellers can’t see that the Laws and Grants of this world are the best defence this party has against the ‘liberal’ Conservatives is their tragedy. Let us hope it does not become our tragedy.

* ‘Colin Lloyd’ is the pseudonym of a Liberal Democrat member. For LDV policy on pseudonymous articles, pleases click here.

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40 Comments

  • David Allen 20th Feb '09 - 1:36pm

    The Tories are also a diverse party. There was a genuine clash of policies and philosophies when Cameron fought Davis for the leadership. Cameron told his party what to expect if they voted for him. To many people’s surprise, they did still vote for him. That is what gave him the authority within his own party to adopt a radically different policy line (oh all right, a radically different line in PR and mood music) from that of Michael Howard.

    When Clegg stood against Huhne, all the commentators told the nation that they were as alike as two peas in a pod, and that the Lib Dems were not a diverse party. When Huhne said a few novel things about Trident, the commentators said he was trying to invent differences that weren’t there. Clegg did nothing at all to disabuse anyone of the view that he simply represented continuity with a younger face. Nothing was discussed about big permanent tax cuts, free market schools, or the “need” to bring top-up payments and social insurance into the NHS.

    As a result of all this, the Tories have a leader who can lead them, and we don’t.

  • ” … the huge leap in our poll rating …”

    Well, there was a large increase (+6 points) in the most recent polls from two of the main pollsters, a moderate increase (+3) in another, no change in the fourth and a moderate decrease (-2) in the other other. So on average there was an increase of 2-3 points.

    The problem is that that’s only in comparison with the party’s dire poll ratings towards the end of last year (which coincided with Labour’s temporary recovery).

    If you compare the average of the most recent ratings from the five main pollsters now with the equivalent figure a year ago, you’ll find it’s just 1.8 points higher. And the average rating now is almost identical with those from February 2006 and February 2007.

  • Daniel Bowen 20th Feb '09 - 2:14pm

    I’m highly amused that an article that’s supposedly against namecalling seeks to equate the Liberator Collective with Hamas.

    (stands back and watches fireworks)

  • Right Daniel –
    it seems to me the right is fulminating against the Liberator group (whose policy stance is what brought me and many others into the party before the econ-libs emerged from their alien pods) in just the way they complain about the Liberatorists ….

  • “To the person without a name, a 2-3% poll rating increase is pretty damned good in the current climate of two party ascendancy.”

    Sorry, but if you look at the polls, you’ll see that this 2-3 point increase in the Lib Dem rating has come at exactly the time when the Labour rating has dropped by about 3 points. Not at a time when the other two parties are strong, but at a time when one of them is extremely weak.

    I’m sure that’s not a coincidence, and it makes me doubt whether the Lib Dem improvement has anything to do with Nick Clegg at all.

    To any objective observer, the party’s poll rating, which places it 18-31 points behind the Conservatives – compared with about 10 points behind them at the last election – is anything but comfortable, considering that most of its seats will have to be defended against Tory challengers at the next election.

  • David Heigham 20th Feb '09 - 4:42pm

    I just about understand the left:right dimension in the British Political Compass (though it seems to have nothing to do with the left versus right in the French National Assembly of 1790 where two hands fighting one another language started). However, I get really puzzled about the idea of right versus left in the LibDems. If anybody can give me a coherent description of two such wings of the party; I am pretty sure I will resent not being counted in both of them.

  • David Allen 20th Feb '09 - 4:42pm

    Costigan Quist,

    We shouidn’t normally even have to think about expelling people from the “far right”, or the “far left”, of our party. What we always used to be able to say to such people was “Look, you know where we stand. You know what Paddy / Charles / Ming stands for. If you want to come along and try to persuade us to change our minds, fine. If the change of mind that you are proposing is a no-hoper with the rest of us, that’s your look-out. Short of running amok in the High Street, there’s not a lot you can do that will make us want to chuck you out.”

    This now becomes a more difficult stance to maintain, because our leader has really not made it clear where he stands on a number of issues. He didn’t define his position properly when he got elected. He may or may not have decided to row back on some of his alarmingly right-wing thoughts, but it is difficult to tell. Just look at the recent LDV thread by Joe Taylor on education, where half the responders excoriated Tory policies on “free” schools, while the other half thought we were going to adopt them ourselves. Meanwhile, our leader says a lot of interesting things about pupil premium etc, but seems to have ducked the most controversial questions. Does he intend to wait until he is grilled by Paxman before he comes up with a viewpoint, I wonder?

  • Well, for my part, I would want to see clarify rather than vagueness.

    We have had vagueness in the past “things can only get better”.

    The Tories have criticised Labour for being all talk, no delivery.

    Now it may be hard to do delivery but surely it is something to aim for as part of intelligent government.

  • David Allen – you say “alarmingly right wing”, I say “Liberal”.

    Liberalism is all about plurality, about not being dogmatic, about there being more than one way to skin a cat. And that also holds to looking at what works, regardless of who invented it and whether it breaks some of the statist Shibboleths you seem so wedded to.

    Nick made it very clear that he was a Liberal – consequently I expect him to talk about Liberal ideas. Which he is doing. Why this makes him a crypto-Tory in your eyes I have no idea.

  • David Allen 20th Feb '09 - 6:22pm

    “Both Blair in ‘94-’97 and Cameron today are doing well by keeping it vague.”

    I would largely acquit Blair of that charge. True, all sorts of details got glossed over, and of course he failed to foresee and promise the invasion of Iraq. But he “was elected as New Labour, and governed as New Labour”. Like it or don’t like it, he painted a broadly fair picture of what he intended to do.

    I would convict George W Bush. It is often forgotten that he stood as a “compassionate conservative” and won the centrist vote, basically by a form of vagueness which became deliberately misleading about his real intentions. (And as to Cameron….?)

    Clegg comes closer to Bush than Blair, I think. He might, or might not, want to push through swingeing cuts in state spending, “free” schools that select, charge, and make profits, and social insurance top-up schemes for the NHS. Is it really sensible to be vague about all this? Is it going to be possible to stay that vague all through the election campaign?

  • “I think you need to ask yourself why you think being vague on *some* policy areas possibly 16 months out from a General Election would possibly suggest doing the same in a campaign itself, with a published manifesto.

    The whole point is to keep your powder dry for the election.”

    Perhaps I’m being dense, but I can’t work out how policies being sprung by the leadership at the last minute before an election is entirely consistent with policies being determined democratically by the party as a whole.

  • Simon Titley 20th Feb '09 - 8:22pm

    I suppose someone from Liberator should respond to this debate.

    But first, can I suggest that anyone participating in this discussion actually reads the leading article in question before wading in? It is here:
    http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=160304089

    And for those unable to grasp the ideological differences within liberalism, read David Howarth’s opening chapter in Reinventing the State:
    http://socialliberal.net/2009/02/12/what-is-social-liberalism/

    Well, Colin Lloyd (presumably a pseudonym) sounds as if he has been at the battery acid. “Fabulously splenetic rant”, “Hamas-like Commentariat”, “bilious wordsmiths”?

    Yes, the party’s right-wing fringe likes to dish it out but they don’t like it up ‘em, do they?

    If ‘Colin’ and his chums calmed down and read the editorial properly, they would discover that:

    (a) There is no criticism of economic liberals, only classical liberals and libertarians (David Howarth’s chapter explains the difference); and

    (b) There is no call to expel anyone. It is rather ironic that the people raising this canard are part of the same crowd that has spent the past ten years banging on about the need for a ‘Clause 4 Moment’.

    Now, if you want to criticise “factional politics”, let’s have a look at what the right-wing fringe has been up to over the past decade: the Peel Group; Liberal Future; Liberal Vision; front organisations such as the Liberal Democrat Business Forum, Liberal Democrats in Public Relations & Public Affairs, and the short-lived Liberal Democrat Communications Agency; assorted smear stories planted in the press; and the secret meetings round at Ian Wright’s office.

    Throughout this period, the only left organisation in the party has been the Beveridge Group (a parliamentary group that mostly confined its activities to lobbying Chris Huhne’s commission on public services a few years ago) and now the Social Liberal Forum (whose website suggests an exemplary openness compared with the concealed scheming on the right.

    Liberator’s editorial does not dispute that the Liberal Democrats are a broad church. The point it raises is whether entryism is acceptable. And since Liberal Vision consists mainly of ex-Tories aiming to take over our party and turn it into something else, entryism seems a fair description.

  • Simon, interesting response, and also David Howarth’s article.

    What strikes me the most about the latter is its reference to social liberals beleiving in a “fair distribution of wealth and power”. The problem is that the expression “fair” is often confused with “equal”.

    Too many on the “left” of the party make this conflation. Liberalism is about fairness, socialism is about equality. They are quite separate things and should be treated as such.

  • Thanks for the comments, in turn:

    James, good link thanks for that, and Daniel I think you missed my point, labelling wasn’t my complaint, I like Liberator’s house-style, it’s readable even if I don’t agree with it. My complaint is that their calls for right-leaning liberals to go is illiberal, wrong and would only help the Tories if it actually happened.

    Felix, the social liberal forum makes the same point about Liberator’s editorial. Iain is right.

    Jonathan, I apologise, I promote you to minister of information for the revolution.

    David, I suspect Nick will never please you, I would though point out that when polls have been done most of the public think he is to the left of his party.

    Simon, thank-you for the link to David Howarth, you seem to have missed that the link to original article was also in the piece. Many points though:

    The problem with David Howarth’s definition of difference and your editorial is that both set great store in the idea that social liberals believe in “a fair distribution of wealth and power”, and classical liberals (whoever they are) do not.

    But this is very much the ‘straw-man opponent you want’ point I made above – everyone liberal, socialists and even most conservatives believe in a fair distribution of wealth and power, they have though a wide range of opinion on what fair means. Take Liberal Vision’s statement of aims for example:

    “Liberal Democrats are right to argue for fairer taxes, but we need lower taxes too.”

    http://www.liberal-vision.org/

    – that surely means they fall outside your definition of classical liberals. So what was the point of your editorial?

    It would be more accurate to highlight that the social liberal / liberal / economic liberal labels when people apply them to themselves tend to suggest emphasis on what those people think is more important. When others apply them, without consent, and then as inaccurately as you do, it makes my point that you don’t seem to understand your opposition.

    Expulsions: I agree, your editorial asks your opponents to leave the party after some kind of clause IV showdown engineered around a part of a constitution no one disagrees with, and that is the criticism of the piece, perhaps you could engage with that rather than another straw man claim.

    Factions: I hope you agree with the piece that pluralism is a good thing. I am though very confused by what you call ‘the right-wing fringe’, given you say you are arguing against ‘classical’ not ‘economic’ liberals. On what basis can you conclude LF, or LV are classical rather than economic, and 4 of the groups you cite (PG, LDCA, LDPR, LDBF) didn’t or don’t take political positions.

    Entryism: I believe one of the people you criticise started their political life in the SDP before briefly joining the Tories, does that make them an entryist or a rebound? And either way, I think you need to do a little better that create some hopelessly narrow definition of classical liberalism, brand people who you feel might support it, without evidence, Tories, and then demand they leave. Are we a political party that welcomes all liberals or a cult that one needs to be born into to be acceptable.

    Tristan, Tabman, Iain S. quite….

  • With apologies to “Wit and Wisdom”,

    I’m not a Nicker Knocker
    I’m a Nicker Knocker’s Son
    And I’ll keep on knocking Nickers
    Till that knocked-up Nicker’s Done!

  • Mark Littlewood 21st Feb '09 - 5:39am

    The last refuge of the scoundrel is to suggest that the people who disagree with you have impure motives.

    When it descends into accusations of “entryism” or “factionalism” or secret plots, one goes beyond being able to engage sensibly in a debate.

    It sometimes sounds like the sort of “my dad is harder than your dad” behaviour in the playground of 8 year old children.

    Surely – please to God – we’re beyond that. Aren’t we?

    I’m disappointed that a liberal magazine like Liberator should use McCarthyite language (“Blues under the bed”) without it being obviously and clearly ironic (which it wasn’t…)

    I’ve emailed Liberator with a request to reply to their editorial in their next edition.

    If they grant this request, I will frame my response in temperate and (I hope) intelligent terms.

    So, I hope they do grant the request and would welcome the thoughts of LDV readers.

  • David Allen – whilst the language might be humourous, it does appear to be personal.

    Will you still be “knocking Nickers” if he delivers what he intends to, ie an increase in our parliamentary representation?

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Feb '09 - 10:21am

    The Liberal Party has historically been a social liberal party. It was when it started the welfare state in its last big government period at the start of the 20th century, and it was when it merged with the SDP at the end of the 20th century. In between those times there was a big split with the more right-wing element of the party going off to merge with the Conservatives.

    For this reason, any claim that the party had some big wing of “economic liberals” is bogus. The sort of “the only freedom that matters is freedom from taxation and from regulation of my business enterprise” liberalism had a home, and that home was the Conservative Party.

    We are now seeing quite a rise of such people in the Liberal Democrats, claiming that their views are true liberalism, and what was historically the view of the Liberal Party is not. Although they prefer not to put it quite that way, and instead to rewrite history to make it seem as if their views were historically what the Liberal Party was about. Thus we are finding younger members who were not around in the 1980s supposing the argument between Liberals and SDP in those days must have been between economic liberals in the Liberal Party and social liberals in the SDP. The reality was that it was the SDP and the right-wing of the Liberal Party in those days who were keener on free market policies, and many of the anti-mergerists amongst the Liberals were anti-mergerists because of that.

    That this is so can be seen by the fact that in party debate these days one can often find people who were on opposite sides of the line in the Liberal-SDP days now on the same side arguing against people in the party who don’t have such a long history of membership of it. Myself and David Allen being an example.

    So what do you call a group of people who join a party with views which are historically outside what that party stood for, and who set up all sorts of organisations, often with rather shadowy funding, trying to push the party in their direction?

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call them “entryists”. I accept the freedom of people to join a party and try to change it, but I think they need to be honest about their intentions. They also need to accept that entryism, if it works, generally has the impact of destroying the party’s activist base, so the entryists gain control of the party but lose what they wanted the party for to control – its votes.

  • “They also need to accept that entryism, if it works, generally has the impact of destroying the party’s activist base, so the entryists gain control of the party but lose what they wanted the party for to control – its votes.”

    But who knows – maybe for some of these people losing the party votes will in itself be a satisfactory outcome.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Feb '09 - 10:35pm

    Jock


    The other thing is that other Liberal’s famous phrase, “when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?” The world has changed enormously in the past thirty years

    Yes, and the world has changed very much since “people like Locke and Smith, Ricardo, Payne, Cobden” wrote. I am not saying they were all wrong, far from it. But my own thinking on liberalism is about how simplistic “the state is the main enemy to freedom” ideas have become less valid rather than more valid in recent years.

    You have come to different conclusions, that is fine for you. But it seems to me your own reading and thinking has led you to a position where you are closer to streams that have fed into the modern Conservative Party than what the Liberal Party has stood for.

    You appear to be unable to credit me with being able to read and think. So you are the great enlightened one who has discovered new ideas, while I am the fool who hasn’t. To me, you are the fool who has picked up the stale old ideas which were fresh when Thatcher and her type endorsed them, but are stale and showing their faults now we live 30 years after that.

    I agree with you that modern technology has weakened the state. But that is why I reject “economic liberalism” which seems to me to be based on the idea that the state is the main enemy of freedom. To me, the economic liberals are fighting old battles, and haven’t seen the new threats to liberty which arise from powers beyond the state.

    You think, of course, that people like me want old-fashioned state socialist solutions to things. No, I don’t. But I do recognise, and I feel “economic liberals” don’t, that poverty is a huge barrier to freedom, and that great disparities of wealth which extreme free market policies seem always to lead to, are a barrier to true liberalism. And I think that historically the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats agreed with that, and that that analysis has proved more correct rather than less correct in recent years.

  • David Heigham 22nd Feb '09 - 9:05pm

    Something seems to be distilling out of all this heat.

    There ia a common position of everyone (or almost every one) that the debate leaves implicit. Liberals are towards the Libertarian side of the Authoritarian-Libertarian spectrum; and solidlty towards the local end of the Centralist – Localist dimension.

    There are divided views on two other political spectrums. One runs Classical Liberal – Social Liberal and the other Egalitarian – Nonegalitarian. These are conceptually distinct. For instance, a Social Liberal may take the view that the quickest route to his aims of increasing poor people’s chance of a fuller life is through a dynamic market in which people are free to make as much wealth as they can (wealth some of which which can then be used to advance those still crippled by poverty or circumstances). Or Social Liberals may go for a more egalitarian approach to expanding the chances of the poorest. Similarly, Classical Liberals may see their aims served by increased equality of outcomes, or diversity of forms and levels of wealth and power.

    “Left” and “right” – discussants tend to use the terms in quotation marks – don’t have any clear meaning amongst us, and obscure and confuse what we are trying to say.

  • David Heigham, take a bow – an excellent post.

  • I’d agree with David that there are multiple axes on which it’s easy to hang “social vs. economic liberalism” and other semantic vacuities. These, like “left vs. right” distort more than they illuminate the philosophical and policy differences that are being discussed.

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