Opinon: The Liberal Reconfiguration. Thoughts inspired by the One Nation Labour conference

Last week, my job took me to the One Nation Labour conference at Queen Mary, University of London. There I saw a series of lectures followed by Q&A’s on what the future direction of the Labour party should and should not be. It was a fascinating day – the Lib Dem baiting they have gotten used to falling back on has (mostly) stopped and there seems to be an honest appraisal under way within Labour’s ranks about how they want to move forward. Of most interest to Lib Dems, and indeed liberals of all self-applied stripes, were ideas around liberalism and its relationship with the Labour party put forward by Phillip Blond and Maurice Glasman.

Phillip Blond wrote a book a few years back entitled “Red Tory”, the central idea of which was that while the 20th century in British politics played out mostly as a battle between conservatives and socialists, Blond argues that the real enemy of both conservatism and socialism is liberalism. Further, that socialism is actually quite conservative when all is said and done and that conservatives should not fear the size of the state and should indeed abandon neo-liberal economic policies as they will never bring about the kind of society built around flag, faith and family they so desire. Maurice Glasman, meanwhile, is the architect of Blue Labour, whose concept was that Labour had been too eager through the years to simply accept social liberalism as being an intrinsic part of what the party was all about, and that it should now embrace certain aspects of social conservatism that he deems to be necessary for collectivism to work. “Labour is not the liberal party,” Glasman responded with when some on the left felt some his ideas went too far. Some of those people were in attendance at Queen Mary last week and looked distinctly uncomfortable during both Blond and Glasman’s lectures; at the same time, lots of people were nodding in agreement throughout, clearly enraptured by this approach.

Blond thinks that politics should be refreshed along the lines of a sort of liberal party v an anti-liberal/non-liberal/post-liberal party, whichever you prefer (Blond chooses the very latter nomenclature). Glasman proposes nothing quite so bold, but mostly I think due to his tribal Labour leanings (he does however feel that Labour embracing social conservatism would bring back a large chunk of Tory votes to his party). I’m interested to hear what Lib Dems think of this idea. Not because I think it’s going to happen any time in the near future (tribal Tory and Labour politics are certainly not ready for such a thing) but because, in my opinion, to think about such an idea and whether or not we as liberals think it would be a good thing gets right to the heart of what the party is all about and why it exists.

I for one think such a reconfiguration of the political landscape would be a good thing. I agree with Phillip Blond on the idea that it would re-invigorate politics due to the fact that many people tend to vote along the lines of whether they are a liberal or a conservative (small c in both instances) and yet the party system as it is structured doesn’t allow for such a distinction to be made. I accept that the biggest dilemma this new liberal construct would face would be its approach to social democracy (as would it be for the “post-liberal” party). But I think such a conversation would be a great opportunity as well and one that social democrats have little to fear from – I think there is a consensus around the idea that public services matter to people in this country and that some sort of supply side revolution is not going to be politically palatable to a majority of voters any time soon.

However, I would love to hear the thoughts of my fellow Lib Dems (and my fellow liberals) on the subject.

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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34 Comments

  • I’m both a LD and a liberal and I oppose any kind of tie up with any elements of either Labour or the Tories. Neither party wants to seriously countenance any real cooperation with us and both would see us destroyed if they could. The more likely realignment in English politics (others are different) will be if UKIP manages to break through and right wing Tories move over, potentially giving us a ‘Christian Democrat’ party of the European type. We could work with that arrangement but not with a ‘soft-Labour’ party.

    It is to (some of) the Tories’ credit that they agreed to the coalition. I can’t imagine Labour doing that in good faith any time soon.

    The idea of a ‘post-liberal’ world is abhorrent to me and, I hope, to most other LDs as we are the only party which genuinely values freedom and fairness.

  • Perhaps one could also reflect on the rise of the “Blue Liberals,” people who apparently feel that it’s fair to give up a freedom here and a freedom there ultimately in the name of… I don’t know what, really, expediency perhaps or “civil society.”

  • Mike Cobley 24th Apr '13 - 1:03pm

    Nicky, at no point in yr short piece do you mention Social Democracy – can I take it that you view social democracy as merely a variant on social liberalism?

  • The origin of the Labour Party is in the Trades Unions. The origin of the Trades Unions was the preservation of wage hierarchies for skilled workers. Hence, at its core, the Labour Party is a conservative organisation dedicated to the preservation of stratification in society.

    Both Labour and the Conservatives benefitted from an injection of Liberal vitalism in the mid C20th, depending upon whether those individuals were more economically or socially liberal. Politics from the 1970s onwards has been about the gradual re-coalescing of those Liberal forces, with Thatcher, Blair and Cameron seeking (and being successful in the short term) to stem the tide.

    The big challenge for us in the next two decades is to persuade the middle classes that their interests are best served by Liberalism – economic Liberalism with a social conscience, and social Liberalism with economic

  • with economic realism

  • Nick Tyrone 24th Apr '13 - 1:40pm

    Just to answer the first few comments:

    Andy: what I’m specifically referring to in my article is not some sort of permanent pact with any existing parties. It is essentially about the idea of a rejig of British politics with a re-establishment of the current party system, if you like. This could take numerous forms but not party fusion, in my opinion.

    David: would be interested to know what the basis of “Blue Liberalism” might entail. Surely social liberalism is the very least a liberal party needs to offer to its potential electorate?

    Mike: I’m confused – I do mention social democracy, by name, directly, in the final full paragraph of the article. As I said above, where social democracy sits would be key to any liberal party, as it was to the Liberal party and as it is to the Lib Dems. I think that social democracy as a concept would be safe as I feel a certain level of deviation away from it would be fiercely resisted by the British people. In fact, I think this may have been one of the big factors preventing a Tory majority in 2010.

    Colin: while I agree with you that the Labour party have acted incredibly illiberally in government during past parliaments where they have had working majorities, and I can easily fall into critiques of the Labour party as a comfort zone, the fact remains that Labour have done plenty of liberal things while in office. We could go through a list, but that would be tiresome. What’s important to ponder is the future – and here’s where I begin to agree with you. Blue Labour to some extent shows the Labour party’s willingness, at least in some quarters, to abandon liberalism in all its forms. However, I would counter-argue here, playing devil’s advocate, that there are still plenty of liberals who vote Labour, at least for the time being, who will never be comfortable with continuing to vote Labour if they go too far down the Blue Labour path. I think this was a key reason the nomenclature around it, if nothing else, was dropped by Miliband’s office.

  • Richard Macmillan 24th Apr '13 - 2:00pm

    It’s difficult to see this happening. All 3 parties have very distinct heritages and cultures and are borne out of different historical traditions. Whilst all 3 attempt to occupy the centre ground with their policies and you can see Liberalism running through both the Conservatives and Labour, those differing cultural heritages would make it very difficult. That said, I think if Scotland became independent with the loss of many Labour and Liberal Democrat seats you may see an attempt for re-alignment of the left around a centre left Liberal agenda versus a more Conservative anti-liberal agenda, which may make this possible. Who knows…. UKIP may completely upset the apple cart, but due to our system it is hard to see them making a significant parliamentary presence, but you never know!

  • Mike Cobley 24th Apr '13 - 2:42pm

    NIcky – you’re absolutely correct (slaps forehead) – it must be age or something. Your comments are gratifying, too – as a longtime party member (and former member of the SDP) I find myself forced by Clegg ‘s omni-liberalism to redefine myself once more as a social democrat; it seems to me that all liberals have an abiding, near-visceral distrust for the state and state power, while social democrats treat the powers of the state and the powers of the market with equal caution. It seems clear that after more than a century of progressivism (made up of liberal, socialist, and social democrat politics), we really need to move to the next level in our democratic development, and come up with a workable model of the modern democratic state. Current attitudes, and the deceitful cuts regime currently being inflicted on us, are utterly inadequate to the needs of people as individuals, as communities, and in terms of regional and national identities, and the kind of social justice that should be ours today and in the future.

    The New Labour/post-Blairite model (insofar as one can discern one) lacks backbone and democratic coherence; the Tory/Coalition model is swamped by the main party’s ingrained contempt for the poor and adoration of power and wealth, and thus provides no basis for a democratic model worth the candle. The Clegg liberals say many lofty, high-minded things about themselves but they have colluded with the Tories in creating an ongoing theatre of cruelty for benefit claimants and a cavalcade of senseless cuts for the rest of us, most of which outweight any positive effects of the raising of the tax threshold (which did not bestow largesse on those too poor to pay tax in the first place). The Liberal Democrats are seen as collaborators in the Tory campaign to uproot every last vestige of postwar social democracy (anything made by Labour is apparently fair game), and the resentment for this will be bitter and lasting.

  • Richard MacMillan – I see scope for four parties: socialist, social democratic, liberal and conservative. We have overlapping circles like a big venn diagram at present.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 24th Apr '13 - 3:38pm

    @Nick Tyrone
    ” the fact remains that Labour have done plenty of liberal things while in office.”

    Yes, the Freedom of Information Act and Homosexual Equality legislation for starters. I could go on and on. But the Liberal Democrats are a parasitic political party that will realign with any of the major parties as long as it promises them power through coalition. Personally, I would tear up my Labour Party membership card rather than see us go into coalition with the party that reneged on tuition fees, assisted the Tories to privatise the NHS ; supported the bedroom tax; was responsible for the growth of food banks because of its draconian welfare policies and disastrous economic policies; gave an obscenely massive tax handout to millionaires and wouldn’t even vote to support Labour when it came out in support of the Mansion Tax. No thanks!

  • Mack – there are some Liberals in the Labour Party; the scales have yet to fall from their eyes but we live in hope.

    You don’t really get consensus politics, do you?

  • Nick Tyrone 24th Apr '13 - 4:45pm

    I direct these comments to Mack (Not a Lib Dem):

    First off, I need to respond to the use of my quote in your comment – yes, the Labour party did some liberal things in office. They also did some obscenely illiberal things. Again, listing these in a sort of tit for tat way would be extremely turgid, but if I could point out just one example it would be the extension of the ability for the police to hold suspects without charge for various lengths during the New Labour era – the lowest point being the attempt to extend such a limit to ninety days, which in my opinion is quite possibly the most illiberal thing ever attempted by a western democracy since the close of the Second World War.

    But again, I’m not interested particularly in droning on about the past. I’m interested in the present. And Mack, whatever happens to the Lib Dems at the next general election the Labour party will still be faced with the same problems around liberalism. On this topic, and for those Lib Dems who were displeased with Nick Clegg’s speech on immigration, I invite you to read the riposte to the speech given Chris Bryant, the Shadow Minister for Borders and Immigration. In fact, here’s a link so you don’t need to bother googling it:

    http://www.labour.org.uk/gap-between-cleggs-rhetoric-and-policy-on-immigration,2013-03-25

    This statement turned my stomach, as it should have every liberal from whichever party they belong to. Bryant’s statement would sit easily on UKIP’s website. It is frightening how Labour can ditch liberalism when they deem it populist enough to go the other way.

    Just something to consider for any Lib Dems thinking about defecting to Labour – I would seriously have a look at their website first!

  • paul barker 24th Apr '13 - 4:49pm

    There has already been some realignement of our system with both Major Parties splitting, the Labour fragment becoming us & the Tory breakaway finally sttling on UKIP.
    Theres no doubt that UKIP will get more votes in 2015 but plenty of doubt about how many more.
    Contrary to the consensus I expect The LibDems to increase our vote share in 2015 with a good chance of pushing Labour into 3rd place. Currently Labour are flattered by both the usual Midterm lead for The Main Opposition & by the rise of UKIP, taking votes from The Conservatives. They have had a very easy time from the media but that wont last into 2015.
    If we hold our nerve & treat each other with respect we can make a major breakthrough.

  • “. Personally, I would tear up my Labour Party membership card rather than see us go into coalition with the party that reneged on tuition fees, ”

    So, I guess it is OK to be a member of a party which reneged on tuition fees, just not in coalition with one?

    I think the party really does not to define itself again, especially in our core areas of civil liberties and social liberalism.

  • @tabman
    The unions protecting the hierarchy of skilled workers is redolent of the Model Unions – indeed conservative in nature. However the Labour Party was born of the ‘new unions’ in the wake of the Gaslighter and Dockers Strikes of the 1880s which were far more radical and anything but conservative. On the contrary it was the neuturing of these New Unions through the Taff Vale decision that prompted the drive to form a party of labour.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 24th Apr '13 - 11:59pm

    @Nick Tyrone

    I followed your link to Chris Bryant’s piece but it was just the usual cross party attempt to reassure Daily Mail readers and potential UKIP voters, from which your own party, I note, does not resile. It’s far too liberal to be seen on UKIP’s website and hardly emetic given Clegg’s position. I think you’ll find that a more representative Labour view of Nick Clegg’s bond idea is given by Keth Vaz who describes it as unworkable. But thanks for reminding me that Clegg was the man who led the Liberal Democrats into the last general election advocating an amnesty for all illegal immigrants and proposing to give them the right to UK citizenship. I thought that was an admirable policy but as soon as Clegg got into bed with the Tories he dumped it in favour of a cap which Liberal Democrats had abhored during the election campaign. Now Clegg wants to introduce a bond for those coming here (but not from the E.U. of course) an idea which Labour under Blair concluded was unworkable and discriminatory. So, a cap and a bond for those coming to Britain from outside the E.U. is now advocated by Clegg instead of an amnesty for illegals. I regard that as an abandonment of Liberal Democrat principles but I suppose you’d describe it as “re-alignment”. That’s why we in the Labour Party are not sympathetic towards lectures from the Liberal Democrats when it comes to matters of immigration policy. By the way, I assume your “realignment” extends also to abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board. Or am I confusing that with “consensus politics” ? Which I interpret as the Tories and the Lib Dems smuggling it through without a debate or a vote.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 25th Apr '13 - 12:01am
  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 25th Apr '13 - 9:46am

    @ Nick Tyrone

    One more thing: your government is going to allow employers buy employees’ employment rights for cash. Buying people’s rights for gold! What kind of liberal principle is that? Or is it some kind of objective correlative for the state of the Liberal Democrat party now?

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 25th Apr '13 - 9:48am

    should read “allow employers to buy”

  • The only configuration there will be, in my opinion, is a reconfiguration of the likes of Clegg, Alexander and Laws, off to the Tory party.
    Liberal Democrats in office, have turned out to be not what many people thought, before they leapfrogged into power, despite getting the smallest vote.
    Clegg, on radio, has apparently said that his children had the MMR vaccine, because of advice from people who knew best,[my words.]
    Yet last night, in the House of Lords,63 Liberal Democrat peers, voted with the Tories, to defeat the Labour attempt to get Section 75 NHS regulations scrapped, thereby laying the way for all NHS services to face compulsary tendering.Lamb’s rewritten rules, apparently only allowed services, which could only be provided by the NHS, to remain outside , so the lawyers will be rubbing their hands in glee.We face cherrypicking by private firms and fragmentation and massively increased bureaucracy and a postcode lottery.
    Regulations which Labour brought in ,re private tendering, which were advisory, are now compulsary.
    Clegg was not happy to listen to the advice of professionals, the majority of whom, were and still are against full privatisation.
    I will never again vote LIBDem, with tactical voting .RIP NHS.RIP LibDems.
    You have many decent members and I came on here, to try to understand better your position re working with the coalition, but I have seen many of your smug MPs, like Alexander and Clegg, almost euphoric about being in Government and with not a jot of difference with the Tories.In fact, I think that Clegg hates the Labour party more than the Tories and I can see no room for him or Alexander, in a future coalition with Labour.
    Your party will be judged on the policies that it has supported and therefore, jointly owns.
    The only ones I have any trust in are Cable, who has at least looked uncomfortable with his bedmates and also Charlie Kennedy,

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Apr '13 - 11:01am

    Mike Cobley

    as a longtime party member (and former member of the SDP) I find myself forced by Clegg ‘s omni-liberalism to redefine myself once more as a social democrat; it seems to me that all liberals have an abiding, near-visceral distrust for the state and state power

    Only if you accept the redefinition of the word “liberal” that a small but very well funded and influential group of people have been trying to push. While the rest of us were out delivering our Focuses and canvassing and doing our casework, it seems these people were putting all their effort into pushing themselves into positions of influence.

    As a former member of the SDP, you must surely recall the Liberal Party of those days. Was it really the case that the main feature of its members was “an abiding, near-visceral distrust for the state and state power”? Well I was one of those members, and back in those days a regular attender of the party Assembly, and I certainly don’t recall it being like that at all. Back in those days, the SDP criticism of the Liberals tended to be that we were unrealistic “beards and sandals” types, sometimes a bit too “socialist” in our enthusiasm for using the power of the state for things that concerned us, such as the environment, and lacking the business mentality and willingness to use conventional commercially driven approaches that a sensible social democrat would use.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Apr '13 - 11:18am

    On the substantive, there is not necessarily a contradiction between liberalism and conservatism. If there are trends in society which are moving it in an illiberal direction, then of course conservatism fits with liberalism. When social elites are using their dominance to push changes on everyone else, using the argument that they cannot be resisted because they are inevitable “modernisation”, but actually those changes are mostly to the benefit of those elites, then it is illiberal. That sort of argument has been a feature of both the two big parties in recent decades, dominant in the Conservatives once Thatcher had got rid of the “wets”, and central to Blair was doing with the Labour Party. Rapid forced change can also be illiberal in the way it takes away from ordinary people their built-up knowledge about how the society around them works and what they can do to influence it. I feel this is what is happening in the UK now. Many people are feeling the old certainties they had which enabled them to manage their lives themselves have gone. Society has become less liberal because it has become more and more run by a small commercial elite, those whop run the big corporations, who use rapid change as a technique to confuse people and thus retain domination.

  • People who are not liberals come up with a range of definitions of “liberal” that might not find wide agreement amongst people who call themselves liberals. Some of Blond’s ideas about community strike me as liberal.

    As for Blue Labour, there has always been a tension in the Labour Party between a socially conservative traditional working class leadership and middle class people strongly devoted to liberty and diversity. The decline of traditional working class leadership structures has cut some socially conservative but anti-Conservative voters adrift. New Labour, and especially Peter Mandelson, started peddling an anti-libertarian, crowd mentality line long ago as a way of defeating Liberal Democrats who were raising concerns of civil liberty about, for example, the treatment of asylum-seekers, the “war on drugs” or the misuse of ASBOs. It will happen again (unless we stop being liberal). It strikes me, though, as a line Ed Milliband would not be comfortable with.

  • Matthew, and to a lesser extent Mike Cobley,

    We’ll never make progress if we insist on always arguing the toss between the old SDP and the old Liberal party!

    You both believe (as I do) that the state has a role to play, and that the Thatchers, Camerons and Cleggs are quite wrong to promote a kneejerk “public bad, private good” as the answer to all our prayers. The old Liberal party believed that. The old SDP believed that (except possibly in its final decline when it turned into a vehicle for Owen’s growing hubris). There were some differences, but nowadays there are other different variations of opinion, and it is those which matter. We have to move on.

    Huge amounts of effort are put into developing an ideology and a practical basis for privatisation. The motivation is economic – the privatisers want a slice of the action and a good payback – but some of the work is useful. It does help set up privatised institutions (e.g. academies) and make them work, better than they would have done without the effort.

    Far less effort is put into developing a practical basis for make state-run institutions work better. In consequence, often they don’t. The Right is happy to let them fail, slag them off and close them down. We need to think about how to make the state work better. That doesn’t mean we have a bias toward statist solutions. It means we don’t share the usual bias against them.

  • Nick Tyrone, I’m confused. You seem to be saying that, because some Labourites are preaching the virtues of social conservatism, therefore their party might just as well amalgamate with the Tories. In the immortal words of John McEnroe, you can not be serious!

  • Back to the article, in response to the challenge posed by Blue Labour and Red Tories.

    It depends whether you see politics as a means for consensus-forming, or exerting dominance.

    Polarisation attacks social cohesion by promoting ‘strong leadership’ which excludes minorities, and this undermines democracy creating social conflict.

    Pluralisation enhances social cohesion by seeking greater representative balance to promote more ‘imaginative leadership’, which supports democracy by building a more innovatice economy.

    Blond and Glasman both represent advocacy for greater polarity in politics, whereas I think LibDems represent advocacy for greater pluralism. In this I think LibDems should stand united against everything Blond and Glasman promote.

    I’m personally very excited about the bubbling emergence of the two thinkers, as they inadvertently expose the truth behind traditional tribal politics, that it doesn’t benefit the clan or company, it only benefits the bosses.

  • Simon Hebditch 25th Apr '13 - 3:53pm

    At least a debate about re-configuration/realignment is to be welcomed. Of course, there are visceral tribalists in the Labour party – as there are in the Lib Dems. The question is – are the democratic pluralists within the Labour Party to be encouraged to demand a wholesale reform of Labour? There are many in Labour who would be willing to engage in practical discussions with Lib Dems as to whether there is an opportunity, over the next 12 months, to identify a potential joint programme for an alternative alliance to the current ConDem coalition.

    I believe that Lib Dems should be engaging with such groups to see whether a realignment is possible. Of course, it would be literally “incredible” for the current Lib Dem leadership to be able to switch from its current government programme to such an alternative.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 26th Apr '13 - 11:03am

    @Geoffrey Payne.

    Not holier than though Geoffrey, simply pointing out the contradictions of the Liberal Democrats’ position. As for the war in Iraq, which the Lib Dems honourably opposed, it didn’t stop them getting into bed with the Tory party who almost unanimously supported it. Another case of “re-alignment” I suppose.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Apr '13 - 12:01pm

    David Allen

    We’ll never make progress if we insist on always arguing the toss between the old SDP and the old Liberal party!

    But the issue here is that all that has been so forgotten that it has allowed the word “liberal” to be stolen and applied to a political ideology which was NOT what the old Liberal Party was about. Part of the reason for arguing the toss between the old SDP and the old Liberal Party is to make QUITE CLEAR that it was NOT about believers in using state mechanisms on one side against people who held to extreme Hayek/Rand ideas on the other. This is being raised falsely now by a bunch of infiltrators into our party who are trying to make themselves look more reasonable by falsely claiming they are just following what the party was about in the past. They are not, they are playing an Orwellian game of rewriting history.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Apr '13 - 6:57pm

    Maria Pretzler, what you are saying suggests that Liberal Democrats should consider themselves at the opposite end of a spectrum from “Red Tory” and “Blue Labour”. Yet it doesn’t seem to me that is the case. There is much in what both of them are saying, along the lines of an orientation towards community, co-operative groups, a rejection of both large-scale state and large-scale business organsiations that chimes with what Liberal Democrats have been saying for longer, indeed was to quite a large extent what the Liberal Party was about when it was trying to discover a role and rebuild itself from the 1920s onwards.

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