More on Richard Grayson, Liberal Democrats and ideology

A footnote to my piece earlier this week about Richard Grayson’s pamphlet. In it I commented:

What I think Richard under-plays is the way the party’s attitude towards the state has changed not in response to different internal ideological views gaining ascendancy but rather in response to changing external circumstances. Given the huge expansion in public spending in the middle years of the Labour government, and the big expansion of central control in the early, middle and late years of Labour government, it is hardly a surprise that many who previously instinctively reached for more public spending and new regulations as the solution to problems now see both as having gone too far and a different emphasis needed instead.

Two other Liberal Democrat bloggers have also written about the publication. First there’s Jonathan Calder:

I was struck by the conclusion to the Compass pamphlet:

Meanwhile, the public are unlikely to be enthusiastic when faced with an overall record of running down the state to the levels that made voters so willing to embrace New Labour in 1997 after nearly two decades of slash and burn.Was the state run down in the Thatcher and Major years? A briefing produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for the 2005 gives the true figures:

During Margaret Thatcher’s premiership public spending grew in real terms by an average of 1.1% a year, while during John Major’s premiership it grew by an average of 2.4% a year.The fact that such increases feel like a policy of slash and burn to social liberals suggests that there is a problem with their views. As I have argued before, they need to think harder, not about their differences for the Conservatives, but about what differentiates social liberalism from socialism.

And from a different perspective, David Boyle:

Why didn’t I quite buy the narrative he presented: a slightly sinister drift to the right going back to the Orange Book and accelerating with the Clegg leadership? That isn’t what happened.

I am not saying that there is no threat to Liberal values in the coalition with the Conservatives. Of course there is, but we knew that when we agreed to it. But Richard seems to me to misread the symbolic issues, especially when he claims that “the Orange Book tendency has whittled away at broadly centre-left policies on, for example, public spending, income-tax rates and the role of local government in education”.

I don’t regard myself as being on the right of the party, but – on all three of these – it seems to me that the left of the party is not being radical enough.

Public spending: yes, but a decade of centralised control, and a fierce regime of targets, auditing, standards and sclerotic ‘best practice’ has made public services much more expensive, and less effective than they need to be.

Income tax rates: yes, but we need to face the fact that income tax is also part of the problem. It is increasingly a voluntary tax for those wealthy enough to avoid it, and if we rely on it to tackle inequality, it is hardly surprising we are disappointed.

The role of local government in education: yes, but if this is a coded critique of free schools, I don’t share it. Of course new schools should be part of the local authority umbrella, but don’t let’s pretend there isn’t a problem which free schools are designed to tackle. Especially in London, there are far too few schools, and the rhetoric of choice obscures the fact that it is the schools that do the choosing – and this is increasingly stressful and worrying for parents.

But Richard is right that there are signs of serious contradictions within the coalition about localism, and these need to be hammered out. I’m not pretending the problems don’t exist – but the sooner the social liberals in the party move away from the old exhausted and symbolic shibboleths and towards Richard’s new issues, the better it will be for all of us.

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18 Comments

  • The real problem with Mrs T was that the pound rose because of n sea oil and her govts interest rate policy thus making exports uncompetitive. This particularly affected the low value added, labour intensive manufacturers who were concentrated in the midlands and north, which is shy the recession hit their so hard

  • Mark, yes, of course the “sclerotic” expansion of central targets – the need to “prove” all the time that money was well spent (which in itself costs vast amounts), was an issue. But, we have to be very careful, in that it was our party, rightly, that drew attention to public under-investment, in 1997 – 2001, and told Labour not to be so damn cautious! So to take these attitudes of cutting big investment programmes half way or so through has got to indicate something wrong. Yes, we have a bigger deficit now, but that is not the only change. Change in ideology is also likely.

    David – instead of giving the usual warning about income tax avoidance, should be putting his great creative powers to the task of implementing a sufficient Tobin tax or similar, to ensure avoidance of tax by moving money around the world is no longer a possibility. We all know that the one sided globalisation which currently exists is unsustainable.

  • Andrew Suffield 14th Jul '10 - 8:01pm

    Social Liberals do, however, see an active role for the state in direct intervention to provide for social justice in ways that enable people to create solutions for themselves in contrast to market based solutions of regulation or the creation of artificial markets.

    I guess I’m roughly ordoliberal on economics – the state’s role should be pragmatically defined, with different markets requiring different levels of regulation, but that the objective in all cases should be to achieve equivalent performance to a free market in commodities.

    Otherwise I tend to think that the objective should be to obtain the maximum amount of individual liberty with the minimum amount of state (observing that the biggest threat to individual liberty tends to be the state, so those objectives are mostly pulling in the same direction).

  • mike cobley 14th Jul '10 - 8:23pm

    Those talking about maximising individual liberty as the main function of government are looking at it from the wrong direction. A far more valuable maxim would be this – minimise avoidable suffering, which directs attention to the solving of problems, to removing the specific social evils under which people are burdened. After this we can move to this – maximise the freedom of individuals to live as they wish, which naturally requires considerable public investment in education, health, housing, the arts and the broad roange of social life, with the aim of enhancing our freedoms and abilities to comprehend the world around us.

  • Andrew, what do you do or say to people like me, who believes that currently (in the UK) the biggest threat to freedoms and livelihoods come from large (and often international) companies. Often where they are finance, oil, or media based. I see mutuals and the public sector (broadly defined – I wouldn’t want to define local government as “the state”) as having a key role, as expressed by Mike Cobley above.

  • mike cobley 14th Jul '10 - 9:01pm

    Tim – our government (notice the possessive element in that) is practically our only means of protecting ourselves against the naked rapacity of the transnationals. Yet with the NHS and education reforms now being proposed, we as a party are in effect supporting the de-democratisation of public services. In a democracy the people have the right to expect their government to look after their wellbeing, which extends to ensuring that market-based entities do not get above themselves.

  • @mike – how on earth do you go from the rapacity of transnationals to the changes in the NHS and education.

    What is democratic about unelected PCTs running the NHS?

  • Norman Fraser 14th Jul '10 - 10:23pm

    @ Andrew Suffield You seem to specialise in producing the minimum amount of clarity with the maximum amount of polysyllabic cliché. Your post above is virtually meaningless. However, in Britain “the biggest threat to individual liberty” is poverty.

  • Norman Fraser 14th Jul '10 - 10:30pm

    @ SMcG The answer to your question to Mike is that both the schools and health initiatives would seem, in practice, to offer huge opportunities to multinationals specialising in management services in these areas. Yet again the Tories will seek to line private pockets with public money only this time they will have a little Liberal dog running alongside them looking for scraps.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Jul '10 - 10:59am

    Andrew, what do you do or say to people like me, who believes that currently (in the UK) the biggest threat to freedoms and livelihoods come from large (and often international) companies.

    They usually become a threat because of their ability to manipulate the state. Heck, the whole mess started when they engineered the concept of “corporate personhood” – the idea that a company should be entitled to the same rights as a person.

    If they weren’t able to purchase their monopolies and competition-excluding regulations from the state, then they would likely be much less of a problem. For example, since somebody mentioned the NHS, the abuses of the pharma companies are based on two things: government grants and patents, and if you took those two things away from them then they wouldn’t be a threat at all. Hence I usually think of corporate abuses as being an indirect consequence of state corruption, rather than something which stands on its own.

    (Obviously I think it’s important to restrain companies from messing with individual liberty; this is an ideological perspective rather than a practical one)

  • @Smcg – you’d be wrong to think that I approve of the primary care trusts. We need a bureaucracy to run large public services like the NHS, but the PCTs seem to be fiefdoms all to themselves. Well, they came out of the 2005 restructuring and yes, apart from minsterial oversight, there is little community or democratic influence on the way they are run. Yet the Blair regime tried to make it look as if there was influence by introducing the notion of patient choice. I think that the concept of choice in public services is a complete red herring – most people would rather be confident that high quality healthcare and education is available as a matter of course instead of having to figure out which to choose according to which tables and criteria.

    And the connection between rapacious megacorps and the Tories’ NHS and education reforms is the hiving off of frontline activities to for-profit companies. Dont know about you but I deeply resent the idea of public money going to pay executive salaries and bonuses and shareholder dividends. This is whats known as a transfer of wealth from the poor (the prime users of public services) to the rich.

  • Terry Gilbert 16th Jul '10 - 12:15am

    Grayson’s Compass pamphlet is superb, and should read by everyone who considers themselves a centre-left Lib Dem.

    We need a strong state (and international government), appropriately constrained, to protect our liberty from the rich and powerful elites who would abuse us (more) if they got they chance.

  • Yes, good you did the work there, Cowley Jon. That is what I thought, having been a candidate in 2005. I think it demonstrates the accuracy of Richard Grayson’s analysis of how far the party leadership has moved ideologically since 2005.

    Andrew S – your comments seem to imply that you believe that “the state” is normally bigger / more powerful than large corporations. That is of course not always the case, and the reach of a big corporate is often much greater. Surely your urge to restrict the reach of “the state” to impose limits on freedom (rules, laws etc) should certainly extend to multinationals, which evade many rules and laws and can impose their own conditions on people because of the malign effects of a one-sided globalisation. There is another issue, quite well-known, of the importation by multinationals of other countries’ laws (usually those of the US) on people in other countries. A well known example being commercial law, esp that related to IT issues.

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