Where I stand on the new Lib Dem groupings

Time to out myself.

In the last year, three new Lib Dem groups have been launched to an unsuspecting world and to an often-suspicious Lib Dem blogosphere. In chronological order, they are: Social Liberal Forum (SLF), Liberal Left, and Liberal Reform.

They will add to the already thriving discussion base within the party which exists online (here on LibDemVoice and at Liberal Vision), in print (at Liberator), and in any of the party’s internal organisations.

To take the new kids on the block in turn…

Social Liberal Forum

I have a lot of time for the SLF for three reasons. First, the calibre of the people involved — these are folk who take policy seriously and thoughtfully.

Secondly, because of their explicit commitment to reducing inequalities. I have a presumption in favour of market-based solutions to societal issues, but I recognise markets do not always afford a level playing field for all. The SLF is a useful corrective to folk like me that outcomes (and not just opportunities) do matter.

And thirdly, because of the positive approach the SLF has adopted to the unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable, position of the Lib Dems becoming the junior partner in coalition with the Tories. Indeed, the first sentence of SLF’s mission statement is explicit: “the creation of the coalition and its policy programme as set out in the Coalition Agreement was the best available option for promoting Liberal Democrat policies and values during this Parliament”. This is also generous given the pain some Coalition policies (the Welfare Reform Bill, the NHS reforms) will have caused some SLF members.

Liberal Left

In spite of my admiration for many of those involved — there’s little point being a liberal unless you relish feisty spikiness from folk such as Linda Jack — I have an instinctive reaction against groups driven by visceral opposition to something. The opening statement of Liberal Left’s values defines LL as a group for those “who oppose the party’s membership of the Coalition” (which according to our latest LibDemVoice.org survey account for 13% of the party membership).

Significantly, LL is committed to working with Labour, Greens and others on the liberal-left. I have no objections to the Lib Dems building bridges with other parties, but it seems a curious decision to explicitly ally with the Labour party at a time when most Lib Dems would say it’s ever more important that the party establish its political independence. I also think LL will have a lot of work to do in persuading Lib Dems (certainly me) that overtures from Labour are anything other than a tactical device to appeal to liberal voters, given the party’s lukewarm-to-hostile approach to Lib Dem-sponsored reforms such as tax-cuts for the low-paid and Lords reform.

I’m sure LL will generate positive if critical thinking — heck, with former party policy director Richard Grayson in their team how could they not? — but given its likely ‘social liberal’ policy overlap with the SLF its defining USP is likely to end up becoming more and more oppositional. Ultimately I think that will create unhelpful and long-lasting fractures that will, at best, take time to heal.

Liberal Reform

This group is self-consciously ‘Orange Book‘ — its banner of “four-cornered freedom” mirrors David Laws’ (brilliant) introductory chapter to a book around which has grown a something of a mythology of economic liberalism, given the eclectic nature of its contributors (who included Steve Webb, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable, all usually seen to one degree or another as primarily on the ‘centre-left’ of the party).

Ideologically this is the group to which I am naturally closest, though its mission statement is somewhat jargon-heavy and skewed towards only one of its “four corners”, economic liberalism. As yet there is little indication of how the other three corners — personal, social and political liberalism — will be advanced within the party. Plenty of time for that to develop, of course.

What makes me cautious about the LR group (and again I stress my liking for the individuals involved) is that it seems a little too ready for a fight with other Lib Dems, not least Liberal Left. I’m all for robust debate, as long as it doesn’t turn personal. Our party has a tendency towards binary fission — think of the Lloyd George / Asquith split; or the Samuelites v the Simonites; and of course the SDP & Liberals — and it’s not normally to our electoral advantage!

In summary:

1) Some cause for concern that this flowering will factionalise a party which will need all its energies in the next few years to win elections in a difficult climate;

2) But more cause for celebration that Lib Dems are once again engaging vigorously in ideas and policy.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Tony Dawson 19th Feb '12 - 2:26pm


  • David Parkes 19th Feb '12 - 2:50pm

    Again I agree with you analysis Stephen. I think you are broadly right, I too was naturally drawn to the Liberal Reform group with their talk of 4-cornered liberalism, but the deeper I got into it the more concern I had, I signed up to the Facebook Group and there seems to be a thrust of hostility towards those on the left which I didn’t share.

    There was also a naivety about the need to build on social and political liberty in order to lay the ground work for economic freedoms and an unwavering belief that market forces can always be employed to deliver successful outcomes. The four corners of Liberal Reform’s liberalism are not a square or diamond, but a bizarre trapezoidal polygon biased to the right.

  • Fiona White 19th Feb '12 - 3:16pm

    As I am naturally a left-Liberal, obviously the Liberal Reform Group is not for me nor would they want me. It’s all very well to talk of economic freedoms but not everyone has equal access to them and that perpetuates an unequal society which, to me, is the antithesis of Liberal Democracy.

  • Fiona White 19th Feb '12 - 3:51pm

    If anyone from Liberal Reform reads this, please can you tell me what your views are on the welfare reforms legislation, especially DLA, and on the NHS bill.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Feb '12 - 4:09pm

    Fiona – we have not yet (as far as I know ) formulates our views on those topics. Speaking for myself I have no problem with a more ‘mixed economy’ within the NHS as they evidence is that with competition (particularly on quality) on can get better outcomes.

    Not sure I follow your point about not everyone having economic freedom. Society will always be unequal – surely what matters is that all have equality of opportunity and that those who are successful pay taxes to help out others?

  • Daniel Henry 19th Feb '12 - 5:28pm

    I think the reason why LR will focus mainly on economic liberalism rather than the other 3 points is that (as David Laws pointed out in his chapter) the party is already pretty much united on the other 3 points so economic liberalism is where the internal debate lies.

    I think the 4 point theory should also be a lesson to those on both fringes who accuse those on the other fringe of being a socialist/neo-liberal and should therefore join the Labour/Tory Party. Since ALL liberals (from LL to LR) are united on personal, political and social liberalism (which Labour and the Tories aren’t) then despite differences over economic liberalism we still largely have more in common with each other than we do with the other parties.

    So long as disagreement is largely constructive, I think these groupings will be constructive.
    Just so long as there’s none of this “x isn’t a real liberal” name-calling.

  • Foregone Conclusion 19th Feb '12 - 7:32pm

    Another way of looking at it is that in the government, and in the ranks of our ministers, the stress is on the ‘economic’ side rather than the social (or even the political or personal these days).

  • David Allen 19th Feb '12 - 7:55pm

    “Our party has a tendency towards binary fission — think of … the SDP & Liberals — and it’s not normally to our electoral advantage!”

    An illuminating comparison. Back in 1983, we were two parties. David Owen took over the leadership of my party, the SDP, and immediately took action to move our two parties further apart. This appalled me, but as a young and excessively humble local activist, I didn’t see that there was much I could do about it. So I carried on just tramping the streets with leaflets, while attempting to persuade my local colleagues that the two Alliance parties should merge. It was, of course, quite beyond the pale for anyone in SDP to suggest that Dr Owen might not be entirely straightforward in his dealings, or acting in the true interests of social democracy and/or liberalism. To say anything against Owen was aggressive, petulant, factionalist, destructive, oppositional, etcetera, etcetera. So, the small band of supporters of Alliance unity within SDP spent four years in the political wilderness. Then along came the 1987 election, when Owen finally revealed his true colours to all as a right-wing splitter. Our heresy suddenly became the new orthodoxy. But not before a general failure to face up to reality had done our movement immense harm.

    Fast forward to 2008, when we were one party. Nick Clegg took over the leadership, and soon took action to lead our party very far away from its fundamental principles, thereby creating an incipient division into two parties. This appalled me, and as an old and no longer humble local activist, I decided that I should try to do something about it. So I gave up on tramping the streets with leaflets. The Internet had arrived, and so, rather than just talk to my local colleagues about preserving the unity of our centre-left party, I was able to use this blog to campaign on the issue.

    It was, of course, quite beyond the pale for anyone in the Lib Dems to suggest that Mr Clegg might not be entirely straightforward in his dealings, or acting in the true interests of liberal democracy. To say anything against Clegg is, of course, aggressive, petulant, factionalist, destructive, oppositional, etcetera, etcetera.

    So, supporters of centre-left unity within the Lib Dems will no doubt now spend five years in the political wilderness. Then along will come the 2015 coupon election, which will finally reveal Clegg’s true colours to all as a right-wing splitter. Our heresy will suddenly become the new orthodoxy. But not before the general failure to face up to reality has done our movement – and the nation as well, this time – immense harm.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Feb '12 - 8:32pm

    @David Allen
    “Fast forward to 2008, when we were one party. Nick Clegg took over the leadership”
    or to put it another way “was elected leader after the most democratic process of any major party ….”

  • I share David Allen’s concerns to a limited extent. My fear is that, in attempting to be “all grown up” and part of government, our leadership have focused more on fitting in with their Tory chums than on what is best for the country and what furthers the interests of liberal democracy.

    There is no doubt that the current orthodoxy will be overturned when the Coalition eventually ends. What will matter is how much of the grassroots of the party is left – how many activists will have retired and how many Councillors will be lost. Without a base, those at the apex have a long way to fall.

  • paul barker 19th Feb '12 - 9:34pm

    David Allens argument seem very strange to me. A lot of people at the time saw the flaws in Owens character – that he was vain, agressive & inclined to be a bully. My analysis of Owens opposition to The Merger was that it had very little to do with Politics & was far more due to his need to be an absolute Monarch in his own Party.
    Perhaps David Allen sees some of the same flaws in Nick Clegg ? I dont.

  • David Allen 19th Feb '12 - 9:52pm

    Simon McGrath said:

    “Nick Clegg … was elected leader after the most democratic process of any major party ….”

    I’ll start by going back to David Owen again. Owen had campaigned against Jenkins by claiming to be more “radical” and “socialist”. Once he became Leader, he made it clear that “radical” meant approval for Thatcher’s form of “radicalism”, while “socialist” meant a form of genuflection to abandoned ideals.

    Clegg didn’t even pretend to define a distinctive personal philosophy. He went through most of his leadership campaign with a silly mock-embarassed grin on his face, and a kind of pseudo-naive rapid-fire patter that didn’t quite work. The overall impression created was a sort of Paddington Bear, a lovable overgrown child who looked too young and raw to be anything but honest, and who could be rather bright and promising when he grew into the job. He won by a minimal margin by looking more likable than his opponent. Policy commitments were there none. In vain did Huhne try to pin him down on policies such as free schools and privatisation in the NHS. Clegg had been very careful not to allow his real intentions to get into print. It was Huhne who was pilloried for making “wild” unverifiable claims about his opponent’s intentions. In truth, we can now see that Huhne under-stated Clegg’s deceptions.

    Tony Blair, by contrast, won his leadership election fair and square. He told his party that he would lead a massive shift to the Right. Labour members voted him in, knowing full well what they were going to get. The king of the dodgy dossier, no less, had shown himself to be a far more honest politician that Owen or Clegg!

  • David Allen – so, basically, you’re saying that our members were too stupid too see through Clegg’s mask? Good point. Let’s not bother with consulting the membership in future, we’ll just refer all decisions to you.

  • @Tabman,

    Clegg fooled me, too. I did vote for Huhne, but only because he seemed a bit sharper, not because Clegg did anything much during his election campaign to differentiate his views from (say) Charles Kennedy’s stance, which of course was to oppose “the two conservative parties”.

    @Paul Barker,

    You’re right in what you say. The parallel between Owen and Clegg is certainly not 100%. In personality terms they were quite different, Owen as you say an egotistical lone wolf, Clegg more reliant on a clique of like-minded back-stage plotters. What they shared was a contempt for our traditional principles and a career aim to become part of the rich and powerful political elite. Ironically, Owen has mellowed in his later years and rediscovered some of his early principles. Meanwhile, Clegg is forced to maintain his chosen course of ultra-loyalism to Cameron, despite being double-crossed over AV, because there is no other route to survival for him. Not a pretty sight!

  • Alex Marsh – David Allen wants to have his cake and eat it. By his own argument Huhne presented a clear left of centre argument to what he believes is a left of centre electorate; yet Clegg won. As this doesn’t fit his theory, he has to rationalise it by saying that somehow Clegg duped everyone who voted for him. The alternative, that those who voted for Clegg knew exactly what they were getting , doesn’t fit his prejudice. The impartial observer may conclude “sore loser” and, given recent legal events, “lucky escape”.

  • “Fast forward to 2008, when we were one party. Nick Clegg took over the leadership, and soon took action to lead our party very far away from its fundamental principles, thereby creating an incipient division into two parties.”

    What was this action that he took?

  • When I read this, my first reaction was that Mr Tall had been reading my mind.

    As for David Allen’s argument, I understand why he might feel as he does, but he really should not equate David Owen and Nick Clegg. They are very different. David, there are some parallels with the past, but the two situations and the people involved are not the same. Don’t let yourself get trapped into thinking that they are.

  • @Tabman :

    “… so, basically, you’re saying that our members were too stupid too see through Clegg’s mask? ”

    I thought the perceived wisdom was that the Lib Dems (or some of us) were too stupid to get ballot papers into the post on time? Then we could have had the second Party leader arraigned on criminal charges in 40 years! 🙁

  • Interesting, as are the other recent posts on the emergence of these groupings.

    All parties have political fault – lines, the Tories issues with the EU having been especially good viewing for the past thirty years 🙂

    The LDs don’t have a European fault line, but we do have a Left / Right fault line. I don’t know of anyone who is genuinely “equi – distant” with regard to Labour or the Tories. When it comes to the crunch, we all have a preference.

    Fault lines don’t *really* matter in opposition – we can agree to differ (unless you’re a zealot). Fault lines don’t even have to matter in government – it depends upon the circumstances.

    Unfortunately I think that Left / Right is becoming important again, in a way it hasn’t been since the mid – nineties. I was listening to a phone in on Radio 5 last week on unemployment and it was like a flashback to the 80s.

    As a left – wing Lib Dem supporter, I feel that since the start of the coalition, the basic message from the LD leadership to people like me has been “Thanks for the vote and the donations, but you’re not really welcome here any more”.

    It’s no surprise to me therefore that something like Liberal Left has emerged to try and show that left – wingers are still part of the LDs. Whether they succeed, or whether the party drifts still further to the right, only time will tell.

  • David Allen 20th Feb '12 - 1:23pm

    Hywel asks me to explain my comment that “Nick Clegg took over the leadership, and soon took action to lead our party very far away from its fundamental principles, thereby creating an incipient division into two parties.”

    The first action he took, at his first Conference as Leader, was to come out with a brand new keynote policy in favour of “Big Permanent Tax Cuts”. This was launched, at the height of the deficit crisis, to a party which had only a few years earlier supported tax rises for improved public services. It was not well recognised at the time that this was code for radically shrinking the State, but that’s what it was. Similarly, it gradually became clear that Clegg’s much vaunted Pupil Premium was merely a Trojan horse for our conversion to a policy of wholesale marketisation in education. People would like to believe that Coalition has forced Clegg to make compromises with right-wing conservatism. Sadly, the evidence from before May 2010 shows all too clearly that this is not the case.

    Economic liberals have always had a valid place in our party. Under any leadership, they would have won some of the arguments in recent years. However, we’re not talking about a balance amongst the different strands of opinion under Clegg. We’re talking about a complete takeover by one wing, a violent shift to the Right, and the willing support and encouragement for a “radical reform” programme which Thatcher would probably have been far too “frit” to consider. Half of our members, and half of our voters, have left in disgust.

    Yes Prue Bray, one can over-state the parallels between Owen and Clegg. Owen split the party actively, and took a minority with him into oblivion. Clegg drove half the membership out of the party, with consequences which have still to play out. I’d call both of them right-wing splitters.

  • The Social Liberal Forum is the de facto voice for those on the left who do not define themselves as libertarian. It appears that Liberal Reform will be the de facto group for those on the right of the party who do not call themselves libertarian. I am sure that a public debate between representatives of these two groups would be very interesting.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Feb '12 - 4:18pm

    David Allen

    Owen split the party actively, and took a minority with him into oblivion.

    The view of the national media, who tend to view political parties only in terns of their national leaders, was that this was some huge and damaging split. It was assumed that Owen was a major part of the Liberal/SDP alliance, and that his loss would be a catastrophe. In fact the SDP was always the smaller part of the Alliance in terms of active membership, and when the merger happened most practical and active members of the SDP could see the merger was the sensible way forward. Similar with the Liberal Party, although the opposition to the merger within the Liberal Party went almost without notice in the national media because there was no big name with media connections associated with it.

    What actually happened with the merger was that it went remarkably smoothly, with plenty of people like myself who weren’t happy with it nevertheless accepting it was what both parties had voted for and so it would be silly to hold out against it. The media just did not report it that way, and it took the Owenite candidate coming behind the Monster Raving Loony Party in the Bootle by-election for them to see that – not that even after that any of them had the honesty to say “we were wrong”.

    The Liberal Party was under-reported and its influence in the Alliance underestimated by the national media because its strongest areas tended to be places fairly remote from Westminster (psychologically when not geographically) , and its leading figures people who had made their way upwards through party activity rather than people who had made their name in Parliament. The SDP was over-reported for the opposite reason, not that it turned out to have anywhere geographically which was “strong”.

    The point is that the party is more about its members and less about those of its leaders the national media know than the national media could ever suppose. The party now is not Clegg just as then it was not Owen.

  • Tom Papworth – more that “others” should be replaced with “those”; I’m not sure either red or green count as Liberal.

  • David Allen 21st Feb '12 - 4:36pm

    No doubt blue count as Liberal though, if you are Tabman!

  • David Allen – I didn’t realise Liberal Left were advocating a closer relationship with the Conservatives!

    Red, Green, Blue … we could call them the Television parties. All very prescriptive.

  • Paul Pettinger 23rd Feb '12 - 11:16pm

    Wish I could like and share comments on LDV sometimes. David A, could you put some of this into a LDV blog post of your own? Please.

  • There is some advantage of having been in politics a long time! Liberal Left is advocating a deal with a ‘reformed’ Labour party. Sadly few of them are old enough to remember the deal we did make with Labour in 1977, upon which Labnour spectacularly failed to deliver. For the young here’s a precis.

    We agreed in 1977 to support the then minority Labour government of Jim Callaghan in votes of confidenceand supply for a specific period in return for a number of cherished policies, including PR for European Elections. We got very little for our support and Labour specifically made sure PR for Europe was defeated. We eventually voted the government out in 1979 and got slaughtered at the polls (and indeed local government polls between 77 and 79), whereas had we voted the government out in 1977 we would probably have done much better.

    What was the result of this LibLab pact? We were vilified in the Tory press, spat on in the streets and had doors slammed in our faces by people who had previously supported us. And we were not even in coalition. Sound familiar?

    And Labour shat on us from a great height.

    I can tell you that the experience of the deal with Labour was every bit as bad as our current arrangement and probably a whole lot worse.

    So please, Liberal Left, stop pretending that a deal with Labour would have been sunshine and roses. We would have seen our support slump at the polls, we would have lost lots of council seats and we would have been dumped as quickly as possible. If there’s one thing I know about the Labour Party it’s that they’re never happier when attacking the Liberal Democrats – I know, my wife and I have been on the receiving end of it for years. – and we’re on the left of the Lib Dems.

    Labour just cannot believe that we had the chutzpah not to do what they wanted. They didn’t negotiate seriously because they expected us to capitulate. That’s why there’s all this sound and fury, because we dared make a deal to get our policies implemented in government.

    Sure, a deal with the Tories is not ideal, but it was that or a minority government for 6-9 months and then we’d have been slaughtered in a general election because we chickened out of going into government and proved what everyone has always said about us.

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