Radix and the Liberal ecosystem

One of the huge successes of Blairism was creating an ecosystem of thinkers around new Labour who set the tone for political debate throughout the 90s and beyond. Left of centre think tanks had a symbiotic relationship with the party and the centre left media, who could be relied upon to be sympathetic. When Blair eventually took power the party recruited many policy advisers and senior staff from this ecosystem: Campbell and Mandelson, Patricia Hewitt from the IPPR and Geoff Mulgan from Demos, who became the Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit.

The political centre ground – including the Liberal Democrats – has, in contrast, lacked such an ecosystem. In 1995, the former Liberal MP, Richard Wainwright set up the Centre for Reform, but CentreForum (as it later became) was only a moderate success, always reliant of only a handful of benefactors, who would in turn run out of money or patience.

Stepping into this space, in 2016, came Radix, self-described Think Tank of the Radical Centre. Founded by a number of entrepreneurs – some Liberal Democrats but others not – Radix sought to keep alive the values of a centre ground that appeared to be dying.

Its founders were anxious to avoid the mistake of CentreForum of aligning themselves exclusively with the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, they judged the party to be deeply conservative (with a small c) and centrist only in the sense of being neither one thing nor the other.

Liberal to their core, they felt that, in an age of rising extremism, only a fierce, radical centre ground could claim a place in the debate. There was no future, they felt, in a wishy-washy, timidity based on past paradigms, with an excessive focus on important but relatively marginal issues, calling for calm reason in an age of anger, and only splitting the difference between emboldened extremes.

Instead, they sought to promote radical ideas seeking to address the root causes of our broken society: its politics, its economics and communities. People in the ever-growing Radix network have challenged traditional orthodoxies based on class and status, as well as both Keynesian and neoliberal economic thinking.

As such, the intent has been to create a movement of free thinkers; to break the public discourse out of the deadening shackles of conventional thinking; to create the energy that would allow social, political and economic innovation to emerge from right across the centre ground of British politics – wherever policy makers and politicians have been willing to think non-ideologically about system change.

Radix has attracted some interesting Trustees including Stephen Kinnock MP, whose Common Market 2.0 proposals originated at Radix, and former Conservative Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley. Prior to his departure to new pastures, Nick Clegg was also a Trustee.

The past four months have seen sweeping political developments. The Liberal Democrats are gathering momentum. The party once again has huge potential as a policy maker and influencer whether in its own right or in partnership with others.

Radix has no intention of aligning itself directly with the party. Nevertheless, its strong liberal and non-conformist roots, makes it a source of creative and original thinking at a time when the Liberal Democrats desperately need to build a much broader narrative around the values which have led it to oppose Brexit in the first place, and produce policies to address its underlying causes.

To stimulate new thinking, Radix produces daily blogs, pamphlets, events, policy papers and even the occasional novel to continuously challenge conventional political thinking. Whether it’s the independence of central banks, the conduct of competition policy or the structures of political parties, Radix seeks to provoke new thinking across the political spectrum.

The interaction of political parties with their ecosystems of those from outside who nevertheless share their core values has been crucial to the success of the most revolutionary political movement of the past thirty years in Blairism. Now it is the Lib Dems turn: can the disruptive thinkers of Radix provide a catalyst for success?

Radix is the think tank of the Radical Centre. To find our more, sign up for our daily blog, conferences and communications at www.radixuk.org.

* Ben Rich is Senior Adviser to the Lib Dems Business & Entrepreneur Network and was Tim Farron MP’s interim Chief of Staff for five months when he became leader in 2015 

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29 Comments

  • Nom de Plume 30th Sep '19 - 2:11pm

    I do not consider Blairism to have been a success. I don’t think much of the mentioned thinkers either. It was faux-liberalism. I suspected as much from the start.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Sep '19 - 2:12pm

    Stephen Kinnock, Andrew Lansley, Nick Clegg… Says a lot really.

  • @ Tony Greaves You said in 10 words everything worth saying about this piece. Respect.

  • Paul Holmes 30th Sep '19 - 3:10pm

    Agree very much with Tony Greavess.

    To add to that, one of the problems I saw first hand whilst in Parliament was the way in which a Party Leader -disdaining the Party policies/activists/elected members – could bypass them by calling in self appointed ‘thinkers’ (as referred to by Ben above). These ‘thinkers’ had lots of bright ideas but usually no roots in all that tedious business of standing for election and talking to real voters in the real world. Outside of Government these self styled ‘Think Tanks’, inevitably almost always funded by business, push their viewpoint. In Government, as extremely well paid SPADS they can wreak havoc with their flights of fantasy. Think Dominic Cummings currently but we had our share during the Coalition.

    I occasionally look at Radix postings and usually find them full of comment about the need to ‘do things in a better way’, ‘bring society together’ etc etc but usually rather short on actual policy proposals. Perhaps Ben could start posting some of Radix’s firm policy proposals on LDV so that we can analyse and discuss them openly and outside of the closed internal loop of a Leader’s Team or Kitchen Cabinet? Both sides might benefit from the discussion.

  • Paul Holmes 30th Sep '19 - 3:36pm

    Frankie -yes and there is another one from a few months ago where David Boyle explains why the Lib Dems should join the Tiggers.

    How did that go?

  • I explored the Radix website with particular focus on economic policy.
    Their theories are what you would get if you put Roget’s Thesaurus through a liquidiser and put the result in a binder labelled “A Bold New Radical Far Reaching Never Before Thought Of, Miracle Alternative of Economic Thinking”.
    But it’s just the stereotypical, lightweight Keynesian tripe which is just spend with your fingers crossed.

  • Paul Barker 30th Sep '19 - 4:01pm

    I have sometimes looked at the Radix Site & I havent been very impressed, mostly it seemed a mix of vague Management-Speak & Libertarian fantasy.

  • This isn’t going well is it Ben, perhaps we should give the debate a little balance and investigate the achievements of one of your sponsors. Well we all know Clegg nearly killed the party so perhaps it would be unfair to use him, I can find no achievements for Mr Kinnock so I’m left with Andrew Lansley.

    His major achievement was the

    The Health and Social Care Act 2012 (c 7) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It provides for the most extensive reorganisation of the structure of the National Health Service in England to date.[1] It removed responsibility for the health of citizens from the Secretary of State for Health, which the post had carried since the inception of the NHS in 1948. It abolished NHS primary care trusts (PCTs) and Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) and transferred between £60 billion and £80 billion of “commissioning”, or health care funds, from the abolished PCTs to several hundred “clinical commissioning groups”, partly run by the general practitioners (GPs) in England but a major point of access for private service providers. A new executive agency of the Department of Health, Public Health England, was established under the Act on 1 April 2013

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_and_Social_Care_Act_2012

    This was such a success Ben that six years later we need new legislation

    Patient, staff and NHS groups have joined with NHS England to ask government to put forward an “NHS integrated care bill”, which would scrap big chunks of the last major piece of health legislation.

    A joint board meeting of NHS England and Improvement on Thursday is expected to approve final proposals to government and Parliament.

    Meanwhile, 18 senior health and care leaders – representing most national representative groups, including the Local Government Association and NHS Providers – have written a letter calling on the health secretary to bring forward the bill.

    The proposals are described as “targeted” and oppose a wholesale structural reorganisation – yet they include removing competition rules and regulation central to Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act 2012, and giving NHSI’s remaining powers to NHSE to effectively merge the two.

    https://www.hsj.co.uk/policy-and-regulation/health-and-care-world-backs-far-reaching-nhs-legislation/7026011.article

    Perhaps Mr Lansley isn’t the person to use as a shining example of a patron Ben, his track record isn’t good.

  • Paul,

    It may be as you say “vague Management-Speak & Libertarian fantasy” but some one is impressed enough to pay for the think tank to exist, quite a lot of Libertarian think tanks knocking about, so they must have some very rich friends. I must admit Libertarian certainly seems to fit them much better than the word Liberal but as Inigo Montoya would say of them “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

  • Laurence Cox 30th Sep '19 - 7:22pm

    When David Boyle can spout “that a much higher proportion of Anglican church-goers (once described as the SDP at prayer)”,

    https://radixuk.org/opinion/leave-versus-remain-two-classes-of-men/

    one has to have serious doubts about his memory. While the so-called Third SDP is indeed eurosceptic (with some ex-UKIPpers in positions of power), so is the continuing Liberal Party and neither has any elected representatives. The SDP that merged with the Liberals was fully committed to the EEC (as it was called then).

    As Boyle says about himself “My problem is that I am, at heart a Platonist, while most Remainers are clearly veering towards Aristotelians”, he is clearly a “true believer” in Brexit (whether that is a right-wing Brexit, or a Lexit remains to be decided) but one can appreciate that he is not a believer in evidence-based policy on any subject.

  • Richard Easter 1st Oct '19 - 5:06am

    My worry is that the Liberal Democrats are simply turning into corporate Tory wets. It is not clear how corporate management speak and technocracy is going to win back traditional liberal seats in the West Country or for that matter appeal to the Midlands and North (areas that the party at one time were making inroads into – in solidly working class towns). I can see how it is a valid election strategy to go for the corporate minded strong Remain London / South East voter who works in the City who dislikes socialism and nationalism, but such an approach will not play well in areas where voters think a bit of state ownership of public assets, or British patriotism are not such bad things.

    In 2017 the Lib Dems came closest to winning St Ives, where Andrew George lost by about 300 votes. George is a radical liberal with sensible ideas to reform the economy, who certainly appears to care about ordinary people (rather than the City and corporations) and who did not toe the coalition line. Perhaps we should have more of the likes of George (and Huppert) and less of the technocracy. This Third Way business style managerial politics after all has given us Corbyn, the SNP, UKIP and now Johnson – because voters hate it, no matter what side they are on – because quite simply it reaks of nonsense platitudes by patrionising unpopular PR / HR managers at their workplaces, rather than plain speaking “everymen”. Could we imagine Paddy or Charles talking in bland corporate speak – they were able to connect because they could talk to real people – the same way Corbyn, Farage or Trump do.

  • Alex Macfie 1st Oct '19 - 6:34am

    To be fair, it’s hard to imagine Jo Swinson talking in bland corporate speak either!
    We are not following the Radix approach to politics. If we were, then I don’t think we would be doing something as bold as advocating cancelling Article 50 without a referendum, let alone employ the language that Jo has been using about Boris Johnson. Radix looks like a plea to return to the Clegg era, but that’s not what we are about anymore.

  • I suppose the silver lining of this article is it shows the bubble think tanks wish to talk to us again. Now why would that be, because we have started to matter again. My advice to the Lib Dem leadership would be on the whole ignore the advice they offer, remember it was that advice that served Clegg so badly. In the words of Skipper “Just smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave” when they offer advice, I’d add to Skippers words ” and then run, run like the wind”.

  • Sue Sutherland 1st Oct '19 - 1:39pm

    I don’t think I’d describe Blairism as revolutionary. It seemed more like a slightly milder form of Thatcherism to me. Blair also carried on ignoring the problem of providing enough social housing which has worsened the problem we have today and which the Lib Dems are pledged to sort out.

  • Simon McGrath 1st Oct '19 - 3:09pm

    I can see why people like Lord Greaves would be against a group which tries to come up with no ways of thinking about politics.
    Blair was a hugely successful PM – vast amounts of sensible change – then it all started to go wrong.

  • The way I see it, if people come up with good Liberal ideas – great. But put them to conference and let the party own them (or reject them).

  • PS Frankie raises an interesting point. Do we know how Radix is funded? Just curious.

  • Notwithstanding the involvement of the likes of Clegg and Lansley in Radix, Ben Rich makes a good point about the importance to a party of an ecosystem of thinkers.

    The lack of such an ecosystem has indeed been a huge source of weakness for the Liberal Democrats; it’s distinctly odd that a party that sees itself as radical and reformist lacks one. So why is that? I can think of three (NOT mutually exclusive) possible reasons.

    Firstly, back in the day when its predecessor, the Liberal Party, was recovering from its post-war nadir with the development of community politics, the tiny band of activists in any locality was fully occupied with the business of leafletting, canvassing and so on. Arguably, that left no time or energy for anything else and, arguably again, that habit of head-down activism became entrenched even as the party grew.

    Secondly, it seems likely that local activism appeals to a largely different (though overlapping) subset of people. In my experience (from many years ago now) only London was able to sustain a critical mass of ‘thinkers’ but even that has been a mixed blessing; the inevitable metropolitan bias may be a contributory factor behind the loss of the Celtic fringe.

    Thirdly, the Party’s way of doing policy was devised at the merger, largely in response to the chaos of the ‘Two Davids’ period of the SDP-Liberal Alliance. I remember a strong consensus in favour of a deliberative and structured approach – which was indeed devised. Unfortunately, subsequent history has shown it doesn’t work in practice.

    That’s because (unintentionally I’m sure) it promotes conventional thinking and powerfully militates against originality of thought by subcontracting the work to a series of committees – the FB, FPC, FCC and sundry policy working groups. It also divides policy work into silos so there is no capability of the system coming up with a unifying narrative to link diverse policies. As the old saying goes. ‘A camel is what you get when you ask a committee to design a horse’.

    A better plan would be to take a leaf from Darwin and find a way to let different ideas of what liberalism should look like in the 2020s evolve and fight it out – survival of the fittest. We need to find a way to make that happen.

  • Richard Underhill. 1st Oct '19 - 6:51pm

    “paradigms” lost?
    I still miss the Liberal Summer School, although I never met its founder.

  • The comments on this thread about what the LibDems should not be, and who the party should not listen to, are well made. Unfortunately, when I look at PPCs being selected for London seats and the number of those selected who have spent years, sometimes their entire careers, working in corporate lobbying and think tanks, I fear that the mistake of the early 2000s, when technocrats were parachuted into the handful of existing LibDem seats who then damage the party by their actions (Nick Clegg in Sheffield, David Laws in Yeovil, Chris Huhne in Eastleigh, is being repeated.

  • @ Richard Underhill. Given it’s over seventy eight years since Ramsey Muir departed this mortal coil that’s not entirely surprising.

  • @ Gordon. I’m afraid your third paragraph is entirely wrong. The sixties saw a plethora of intellectual policy making and discussion in the party….. some led by Grimond linking up with university research, some by the New Orbits group, some by Harry Cowie the head of research, some by the Rowntree foundation and, yes, some by U.L.S. And N.L.Y.L.

    Much of this thinking was radical and progressive unlike the activities of the Thorpe and Clegg years. As for the SDP they tended to be more defined by what they were against rather than what they were for.

  • Mick Taylor 1st Oct '19 - 9:26pm

    Spot on David Raw. The sixties were awash with pamphlets, discussion documents and regular meetings to discuss politics, because there was no internet, no twitter, no facebook and the only way to make policy was through writing and talking about it in groups.
    ULS and NLYL had a huge network of groups and federations who existed to debate and discuss the way forward for Liberalism. I know, because I ran one magazine devoted to discussion and debate, called Clockwork Orange, later taken over by Patrick Coleman.
    The advent of the internet killed all of that off, but haranguing each other – in increasingly intolerant tones – is no substitute. Lib Dem pint and/or pizza and politics is but a shadow of what we used to have and it’s long overdue that we revive the art of internal political debate and meet with each other more often than a few times a year.

  • Nom de Plume 2nd Oct '19 - 7:20am

    A Liberal party’s ecosystem of thinkers is largely its membership, since there are a number of tensions which need to resolved by discussion and voting. Self-appointed gurus are to be avoided. Innovative suggestions to be welcomed. Similarly, one of Blairism’s failures was that it was about Blair.

  • Nom de Plume 2nd Oct '19 - 8:14am

    There is a corrollary to my previous statement: A Liberal party needs to include people with as wide a range of backgrounds as possible, otherwise there is the risk that it will become a clique. Although the existence of other political parties to an extent mitigates against this danger.

  • David Raw, Mick Taylor,

    Thanks for correcting my mistaken hypothesis about the sixties which was long before my time. As a child I vaguely remember my parents and their friends commenting favourably on Grimond, but I only joined when the Alliance was in its later stages and Spitting Image was so cruelly lampooning relations between the two Davids.

    So, what did happen to all that enthusiasm and debate? I don’t see how it can be blamed on the Internet which has made communication easier.

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