The Problem of Moderation

A question that has plagued the party since inception and has, in recent years, come to the forefront is the question of identity. How do the Liberal Democrats define themselves? It seems to me that when members and supporters speak about the topic the same two words repeat themselves – “moderate” and “centrist”. As a result, these words have become synonymous with the term “liberal”. This article, the first of two, will cover the problems I have identified with this synonymity, the first target being the term “moderate”.

The main problem lies in how the term is actually used. For example, when one takes a diet of moderation all things are accounted for and everything is presented on the plate in equal measure. This approach, however, is not one that quite works within internal party political discourse. When we mention, say, Ken Clarke we can quantify him as being a “moderate Tory”, a believer in conservatism with a leash. Owen Smith is a “Labour moderate”, a social democrat rather than a democratic socialist – a Labourite with a leash. They still belong to the Right and to the Left but they do not take their ideologies too far.

Yet when it comes to a Liberal Democrat the same cannot be said. Who can, or could, be described as a “moderate Lib Dem”? This term would be akin to tying a tight leash around a short leash in a mobius strip of stasis.

So, then, one can only be “moderate” relative to the rest of the party or ideological camp that one finds oneself in. Now this is established we can get to the root of the problem, one of the party’s actual ideology, or ideological spectrum. The other parties can have moderates as they have ideological principals that underpin their ideas. Moderates, just like everyone else around them, agree with the means, goals, and ends of the parties they represent.

But the Liberal Democrats have made a fatal error in labelling the entire party as “moderate”. Indeed, what is this moderation relative to? As no ideology is inherently moderate, this leads to a misrepresentation of the nature of liberalism. It is telling that many outside the party cannot tell the difference between a radical, a moderate, classical, or social liberal, and just as troubling. One ought to be able, at a glance, to recognise a liberal of any stripe without mentioning that they are moderate.

When Vince Cable announced that the party ought to become a “Movement of Moderates” I cannot say that I was not disappointed. It cements the idea that the Liberal Democrats are the tinkerers in the great political engine, little more than the audio version of a Haynes manual. Currently, the party exists only in relation to the other two, deciding things depending upon their shifts and turns rather than making our own direction.

We must, then, work toward a new form of liberalism, such as the ideological shifts we made during the fin de siècle and create a space in which radicals and, therefore, moderates may be able to exist.

* Edwin Black is a keen Lib Dem activist in Sheffield whose interests include reading, writing, amateur cartooning and research into the history of British politics.

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  • paul barker 4th Dec '18 - 2:44pm

    A lot of the confusion arises from the way the mainstream of Political discussion is still dominated by a Left-Right spectrum on which we are Moderates. If, instead, we look at Human Rights or Global Warming then Liberal Democrats are extreme & could even be seen as extremists.

  • It depends on the issue.

    The Lib Dems have historically had the best balance between the interests of the users of public services, workers and the taxpayers whereas the other parties tend to be overly focused on one of those groups. So you could be seen as “moderate” or “balanced” on the issues where balance is important and “radical” on the issues where it is not important (e.g. with STV making votes count doesn’t need to be balanced against making votes not count).

    I think the party has lost its way a bit on certain issues (particularly being radical rather than balanced in relation to Europe) but the above is why its still the best party and the other parties have no potential to overtake it.

  • nigel hunter 4th Dec '18 - 3:40pm

    We must remain ‘moderate’ and build the party up.Our policies are both left and right orientated. Lab. Cons. are at both ends of the spectrum. I believe that majority govnt in the future may not happen may not be the norm. We can then vote for whichever policy we believe best for the people. We then become the balance between the 2

  • David Warren 4th Dec '18 - 3:49pm

    I used to describe myself as a socialist but now describe myself as a liberal.

    That has been the case for the past few years.

    Do I see myself as a moderate? Absolutely not.

    Liberalism is a radical philosophy and sets us apart from the authoritarians on the left/right political spectrum.

    We saw that only yesterday when our parliamentarians stood up for civil liberties once again as they have done numerous times in the party’s history.

    Of course it is convenient for the media to put us in a centre box but we know different.

    I often think to myself that Britain has two conservative parties and one liberal!

  • A moderate LibDem would not be backing this silly Contempt motion. The contradictions between acceptingthe Commons vote and divulging sensitive information have been well explained this afternoon by those two Conservative moderates, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve — and even Jacob Rees-Mogg talked some sense! By contrast, Tom Brake came across as an immature partisan wanting to score points and (unsuccessfully) trying to make the Attorney General look like a fool. We could do with a bit more statesmanship in our party.

  • Graham Jeffs 4th Dec '18 - 4:07pm

    Both Labour and the Conservatives can afford to have “moderates” because their core ideologies and attitudes to society can often be considered somewhat extreme.

    I don’t think of the LDs as “moderate” or “radical” – simply different. And so, in not coming up with a solution, I’m saying that we need a pithy description for being “different”. But please let’s not exhaust ourselves talking about being moderate as it’s largely irrelevant – and depends where you are standing when you make that assessment!

  • You could argue that libertarians are “extreme” liberals, and Lib Dems are moderate relative to them.

    But I hate self describing ourselves as “moderate” or “centrist”, and defining ourselves on a left/right spectrum relative to the other 2 main parties means fighting on a battlefield they have chosen, which can’t be good for us.

  • Edwin Black 4th Dec '18 - 5:27pm

    @David Warren
    @Graham Jeffs

    A large part of the problem is that the way we see ourselves is not the same as the wider electorate or Zeitgeist. They do not know what a liberal actually is. We can say that we stand against X but what Y do we stand for? Indeed, what is Z solution? There is a clear lack of vision.

    We are terrified, it seems, of asking the big question – What does a Liberal Democrat post-Brexit Britain look like?

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Dec '18 - 5:34pm

    Edwin, you may care to look at the article posted here on September 20, and the 38 comments which followed.

  • Richard Easter 4th Dec '18 - 9:29pm

    Edwin Black: What does a Liberal Democrat post-Brexit Britain look like?

    For me, I would hope like Nordic Social Democracy. If the answer is socially liberal Thatcherism, then god help us!

  • David Warren 4th Dec '18 - 9:57pm

    @Edwin Black

    I think as far as the electorate are concerned a lot of them see us as having been in coalition with the Tories until quite recently.

    Amongst those (and there are quite a number) who saw us as a progressive non socialist alternative to the Conservatives our brand is now toxic.

    The party urgently needs to urgently map out a detailed radical programme and admit some of the mistakes in coalition.

    We are also going to need a new leader, I have a lot of time for Vince but he increasingly has the look of a caretaker figure.

    On Brexit, simply being anti wasn’t enough in 2017 and it isn’t now.

  • Don Manley 4th Dec ’18 – 3:50pm…………….A moderate LibDem would not be backing this silly Contempt motion. . The contradictions between accepting the Commons vote and divulging sensitive information have been well explained this afternoon by those two Conservative moderates, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve ………

    The vote for FULL disclosure was passed because government ministers chose not to oppose it as they feared a damaging Commons defeat.
    The Government is solely responsible to the House of Commons; anything else is just waffle.
    The government tried to thwart the will of the commons and, as such, was in contempt. Those who held the government to account, by voting for the motion, should be applauded. If ANY government can ignore a commons majority then our governmental system, of a parliamentary democracy, becomes meaningless.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Dec '18 - 10:45pm

    By Edwin Black | Tue 4th December 2018 – 2:10 pm

    Try reading Ken Clarke’s auto biography a kind of blue
    Apart from his love of jazz, shown at every chapter heading, his tory politics include working in the Heath government as a PPS, working in the Thatcher government in a variety of jobs and in the coalition, having stood for the tory leadership three times. He clearly is a pre-European, much better informed than many sceptics and a survivor.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Dec '18 - 10:46pm

    Typo: PRO-European of course.

  • David Evershed 5th Dec '18 - 1:39am

    Surely the best way of describing the Party’s attitude is ‘Liberal’ which to me means free – freedom of the individual, free markets, free trade, free schooling, free health care.

  • Indeed, Edwin we should not be seen as a moderate party.

    I would like a Liberal Democrat Britain to be one where no one lives in relative poverty, where everyone who wants job has one and everyone who want a home of their own has one. Once these three things have been achieved we can then turn to what other freedoms everyone should have. Should everyone be able to travel from where they live to London or Edinburgh or Cardiff? Should everyone be able to travel into their local town or city on a bus every day without having to wait more than 5 minutes? Should everyone be able to afford to go out to dinner once a week? And / or to go to the cinema once a week, and / or a theatre once a week? Should people have the freedom not to work but still have a home of their own, not live in poverty, be able to travel to their capital city, to travel into their local town or city every day by bus and all the other suggestions above? How much choice and freedom to do things should be the minimum everyone has?

  • Phil Wainewright 5th Dec '18 - 11:06am

    Every mainstream British political party has its moderate wing and its extremist wing. The LibDems are no different, except that our extremist wing is less visible to the public and the media because it does not conform to the established capital vs labour political divide of the 20th century.

    Our extremists call ourselves radicals and we would gladly see an immediate transformation of society that at a stroke would eliminate vast swathes of poverty and privilege while devolving power at every level of public and private ownership (a crucial element being multi-member STV elections at every level of government). I could add to the list but for brevity will simply note that, like every party’s extremists, the radicals are the source of the values that define the party’s core vote and its public identity.

    Our moderates are the ones who say, ‘Hold on, not so fast, how do we engage public opinion in this agenda?’ Just like in every party – compare Tony Blair in Labour or David Cameron for the Tories. And so there is a constant struggle between these two wings, between the idealists and the pragmatists, and a healthy party is one where each side respects the other and collaborates to achieve success that both sides can celebrate.

    Why then does the party allow ourselves to be defined as moderates or centrists? Well to some extent it’s out of our control, as the media and other influencers of public opinion define us without recognising our radical core. But LibDems are also our own worst enemy in this respect, because one quality of extremist Liberalism is to respect all viewpoints, and therefore we may be perceived as people who are prepared to compromise with anyone. More on this here:

    The main problem though is that our leadership invests so much energy into building common cause with moderates and centrists that it is inclined to see our radicals as an embarrassment. We can only be successful when the public will see the party wearing its radical heart on its sleeve and the party as a whole must publicly embrace and celebrate its radical core.

  • David Warren 5th Dec '18 - 4:31pm

    Excellent comment by @DavidEvershed

    Sums up our philosophy really well.

    We are not left, right or centre we are Liberal!

  • Laurence Cox 5th Dec '18 - 5:27pm

    This blog post and the Google slides in it show why “moderate” and “centrist” are not good ways to describe Liberal Democrats:

    Thanks to Francis Irving for the blog post.

    Also Mark Pack has been sending out a series of emails on Liberal Philosophy. As he says in the Introduction:

    “Welcome to the weekly series about the political philosophy behind the Liberal Democrats. Rather than being a survey of current policies, it’s more a look at some of the underpinning thoughts and concepts.

    “The content draws very heavily on an excellent pamphlet edited by Duncan Brack for the Liberal Democrat History Group and by contributors to the group’s (now sadly out of print) Dictionary of Liberal Thought. If you aren’t familiar with the group’s work, particularly the website and quarterly Journal of Liberal History, I’d highly recommend taking a look.”

  • Peter Hirst 6th Dec '18 - 2:31pm

    I suggest we abandon the term moderate and go for a raft of values such as human rights, civil liberties, environmentalism, equality of opportunity, animal rights, outward looking and the rule of law.

  • Peter Hirst, just above. I agree with you about abandoning the ‘moderate’, but feel we do need a Label or single word. And in these turbulent times, squashed as we are in the public mind between the dubiously democratic Left and the hideously amoral Right, we should do all we can to re-establish the validity of LIBERAL, and get that title associated with notions of the radical — not in our title, perhaps, but in a growing reputation for thinking and acting creatively to promote a fairer and more energetic society: becoming self-sufficient instead of importing labour and expertise might make a start! It is, perhaps, a moral tragedy, that so much of our economy now consists in manipulating or handling “filthy lucre”, otherwise known as ‘Services’.

    A useful start could be made by declaring that our economic thinking is emphatically not ‘neoliberal’. That word has become current in the last decade, to mask the smell of Thatcherism’s Greed is Good, and to suggest that liberalism endorses it.

    So, as other writers above have said and implied, we must stop seeming to ‘tinker’, and instead promote new policies for a changing world — climate change, and the voting system for a start, perhaps.

    (Perhaps we could begin by exposing the falsehood implicit in the boast that we are the Fifth Largest ‘Economy’, and ask why we now enjoy the 22nd-highest average personal income (AKA “standard of Living”): when I were a lad of eight, the twelve year old pundits used to argue whether it was us or Sweden, that came second after the USA.)

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