The battle for ideas in the Liberal Democrats

The launch of two new policy focused groups within the Lib Dems in the last couple of weeks has drawn a bit of comment in the party.  But the striking thing to me is what all this says about how the party has evolved since it was formed by a merger between the Liberal Party and the SDP.

The first new group, and the one that has drawn most comment, is the Liberal Left.  This group’s raison d’etre is opposition to the coalition with the Tories, now or ever.  It is social democratic in policy instinct, and sceptical of economic austerity policies; it rails against that convenient abstract noun “neoliberalism”.  The second group is Liberal Reform.  I am rather less clear what this one is really about; it says it is about promoting “four cornered freedom – personal, political, social and economic liberalism”.  I think it for people who think in an economically liberal way, and are inclined to support the coalition and the general thrust of government economic policy, but also have strong social liberal instincts – people like me, in fact.

These are distinct from two other groups: the very successful Social Liberal Forum, set up to counterbalance some of the economically liberal conventional wisdom amongst Lib Dem ministers and their entourages – it has struck a chord with the grumbles of many activists.  Then there is Liberal Vision, much more of a minority interest, economically liberal and seemingly a fellow traveller with Germany’s Free Democrats, distinctly to the right of that country’s political spectrum.  All these group build, perhaps, on the trail blazed by the Green Liberal Democrats, from whom one hears rather little these days…but which in its day was prominent in the promotion of environmentalism.

One Lib Dem on Twitter is dismayed.  He left the Labour party because of its factionalism, and now look what happening to the Lib Dems!  Political factionalism is very much a personal rivalry game.  The different factions are relatively tight networks of individuals with patronage powers, who partly define themselves by loathing of rival groups.  I don’t quite detect that with these groups, which tend to overlap with each other.  This, at least to this outsider, looks more like a battle of ideas, and is not unhealthy.  I worry that the Liberal Left (and the SLF) are more against things than they are for them, but that’s probably unfair.  And there have been a few insults traded across the social media, e.g. suggesting that the Liberal Left are just unreconstructed oppositionalists.  Plus the all those references to “neoliberalism” from the other side. That is just a dimension of debate, though – there’s a lot more reasonable discussion going on too.

But taking a step back, there are some rather striking things about the phenomenon.  First is the emergence of the word “Liberal” to describe the party and what it stands for.  The “Democrat” bit, a token gesture to the old SDP as it merged with the Liberal Party in 1987, is slowly dying out.  But old Liberals can’t take any comfort from this, since the defining features of the 1980s Liberals, community politics and environmentalism, get very little mention.  Instead we have various visions of social democracy (a strong state standing for fairness) and economic liberalism (a greater faith in appropriately regulated market solutions), both more characteristic of the old SDP.

Community politics is increasingly forgotten.  What was it?  It was politicians getting things done by taking a leadership role in their local communities – talking, listening, cajoling, organising to make things better, while still standing firm on core liberal values.  To the modern politico this is so yesterday.  Much more fun to discuss grand policies, new laws, political strategies, market positioning and so forth.  Perhaps this is an inevitable result in the decline of local communities, especially in poorer areas – part of the alienation of the modern quest for efficiency.  Pockets of community politics persist (the highly successful Sutton Lib Dems for example) and hopefully will keep the flame burning.  But while most activists will pay token homage to the idea, it isn’t what keeps them awake at night.

Since the merger (disclosure – I was a founder member of the SDP), genuine liberalism (an emphasis on personal freedom and internationalism) has come to define the party much more clearly than it ever did in the old SDP.  But other than that I have to say that the new party is growing more like the old SDP than the old Liberals.  I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.  The old Liberal ways had grown on me.

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10 thoughts on “The battle for ideas in the Liberal Democrats”

  1. A very intersting article Matthew.

    To reassure you – the Green Liberal Democrats is still around and prominent in the creation of environmental policy. We are currently working hard on a number of policy initiatives within the party e.g. setting-up an organism that, for want of a better description, is acting as a conveyor belt for green policy at ALL levels of governance – from Europe down to local government, and all levels in-between. We are also working on a project entitled ‘The Green Book’ : an environmental equivalent of the fabled Orange Book, which will outline radical policy ideas on issues across the sustainability agenda. These intiiatives have been well flagged-up within the party over the last few months e.g. articles in Lib Dem News and Liberator.

    Happily (to-date), environmentalism is the one sector of the party that remains united.

    Steve Bradley
    Chair, Green Liberal Democrats

  2. Community Politics is not dead. It is being practiced by 3,000 Lib Dem councillors on a daily basis and has been boosted by localism actions of the Government. Watch out for a new publication coming out on PDF this week and a hard copy to be launched by Tim Farron and I at Spring Conference

  3. I think Liberal Reform’s position is fairly clear – they’re for the more economically liberal minded rather than the more socially liberal minded. They understandably don’t thrust that difference into your face because they want to take a more consensual line than, say, Liberal Left but if you look at who has founded it, they’re much more of the David Laws style Liberal Democrat than the Simon Hughes style. (I should add, the difference between those two is in my view much less than between either of them and other parties.)

    Richard is right about community politics though. A darn fine publication is coming out, though I may not be totally unbiased about it 🙂

  4. Liberal left, however, are not the same as the other groups in the party, as they want the people they regard as more to the right of the party out, ie mainly the ‘Orange Bookers’. Now whilst I disagree with a lot of what is in the Orange book, I do not think it necessary to oust our Leader and Ministers. The SLF accept the coalition and our leadership and have no chip on their shoulder about it. They are more about defining policy, which is a good thing and health for debate within the party. The Liberal Left are about tearing the party apart and bonding with Labour forever. That’s not healthy.

    In May 2010 the only option was to form a coalition with the Conservative Party in order to form a majority government. Ron suggests a Confidence and Supply agreement would have sufficed. We all know that would not have lasted and we would have had another general election within 6 months, probably with a Tory majority, then where would we be? And that would be us back on the opposition benches with none of our policies going through.

    Now correct me if I am wrong, but the whole point of running for election is to get elected to government rather than opposition. Liberal Democrats were fully prepared for a a situation of coalition negotiations. Gordon Brown was under the illusion he would just walk back into number 10. Conservatives would obviously have preferred a majority. But at coalition negotiations, Miliband, Balls and Harman decided they would prefer opposition, whilst Gordon Brown tried to cling on to power.

    Had Labour (specifically Ed M, Ed B and H Harman) not insisted on wanting to go into opposition whilst in coalition talks, and we somehow formed a minority coalition with them in 2010, then this would have been to the detriment of the country. A majority government was what was needed in order to stabilise the economy and save our AAA credit rating. Now, taking this into account it seems that Liberal Left would put their left leanings with their mate Ed above the welfare of the country. Now that is either naive or pure selfishness.

    What many people don’t realise is that Labour would not negotiate with us in 2010. The only concession was Ed M’s offer to go out on a tea and cakes run (the original tea boy). They wanted opposition. Our people did try so hard with these negotiations, but Ed M and Ed B has their sites clearly on the Labour Leadership and nothing else. An agreement could not be reached. Plus the numbers did not amount to a majority.

    Now, of course, there may be a chance of a hung parliament with Labour in 2015.And if a coalition was formed then, wouldn’t that make Liberal Left defunct. Plus it would not achieve one of their goals of ousting Nick and our current ministers. I have no idea how they plan to try that one.

    There are constructive groups within the Lib Dems like SLF and Green Liberals etc, but Liberal Left have but one selfish rebellious agenda, rather than a constructive debate and contribution to party policy.

  5. And as for Community Politics. This was discussed at the last Liberal Democrat Conference and is on the agenda for Spring Conference in a few weeks. Community politics has not died out and remains a key cog in the party’s campaigning and in serving the community.

  6. Thanks all for comments.

    Steve. I hope you are right that the reason we hear less about environmental issues is because that battle has been won in the party – and it’s just not a hot topic with the public. I think there is more room for debate and fresh thinking, especially over issue of climate change though.

    Richard, Mark, Tracy. Glad you think that community politics is alive and well. Some of the most inspiring stuff that this party has achieved has been through this approach. But I worry that people think it’s just about local politics, and more about the use of campaign techniques (Focus, surveys, etc) than true community engagement. It seems to have almost no impact on the way people in the party discuss national issues – with neither the social liberals nor the economic liberals taking its implications on board.

    Tracy. No, I’m not impressed by the Liberal Left either. I disagree with them about the coalition, and find the self-justification on their website a bit turgid, and its references to “neoliberals” a sign that they aren’t really interested in thinking about why economic liberal ideas seem to have such a hold on so many people. Despite all their talk of being “radical” I suspect them of being deeply conservative – of tending to oppose changes to the status quo. But for all that I think there are real questions as to whether the party should sustain a partnership with the Tories for the longer term – and whether this will prevent us from tackling some of society’s problems which need fixing (anything around redistribution of wealth). I’m not sure that they deserve all the opprobrium being heaped on them.

  7. I am not a member of LL despite the name of blog. However I think if you want to criticise them you should quote them to back up what you are saying. It is clear they are opposed to the Coalition and favour working with Labour on policy.
    They have not said they want anyone expelled from the party.
    They do not claim the SDP is the ideological inspiration behind what they stand. I happen to know that some of their members come from the Liberal party and were opposed to merger with the SDP at the time. When the parties merged the Liberal part was to the left of the SDP.
    Whether they are “conservative” or not, why not wait and see what they come up with?
    Personally I think they got their tactics wrong especially in relation to Labour. However there is a good liberal critique of neo-liberalism which you can read from the likes of Joseph Stiglitz, George Soros and Paul Krugman. Given the failure of light touch regulation of the banks and overwhelming opposition to the NHS reforms I cannot understand why so many politicians seem so determined to keep neo-liberalism alive.
    In recent times one of our finest hours was when Vince Cable demanded the nationalisation of Northern Rock at a time when both Labour and the Tories were so embroiled in neo-liberal ideology that they could not countenance doing such a thing – albeit Labour did make the change when they run out of other policy options.

    1. Geoffrey. I don’t know about the LL wanting anybody expelled from the party. If they do then they conform to my idea of a faction (i.e. personal) than part of the battle of ideas, which is what my post was claiming. And I’m sure they would not recognise an inspiration from the SDP – it’s just that the old Liberal critique (based on community politics and environmentalism) is notable by its absence from its rhetoric (or to be more precise their statement on the website) – and you can’t quote something that isn’t there. It’s what people aren’t saying that is interesting to me and leads to my admittedly provocative conclusion.

      And please stop using the term “neo-liberal” to describe anybody within the Lib Dems. If this term means anything it is the US small government ideology that is a mile away from anything that anybody I’ve met in the Lib Dems thinks. You are failing to understand what they are saying – and perhaps this explains your puzzlement over the persistence of economic liberal ideas in the party. I would also urge you to read Stiglitz more closely – he’s a mile away from what the LL and other naive Keynesians are saying – we can’t backtrack to where we were before the crisis. What he wants is more investment in new infrastructure – a position that is close to what Cable and Clegg are apparently arguing for in government, even if Alexander has gone native to the Treasury.

  8. Despite the offended reactions, I think community politics has receded a long way in the Party’s consciousness. I scarcely find it at all in the debates on Liberal Democrat Voice. The factions you describe, Matthew, seem to define themselves in terms of the economic liberal versus social liberal measure and in terms of big versus small state or taxation.

    Of course many of us are still practising it – even if it’s properly defined not as here, but as empowering communities; but it should be at the very heart of our Liberalism and be seen to be.

    I would only think we were getting to be more like the Social Democrats than the Liberals if we were firmly resolved to be centrist and moderate at all times, instead of being happy to be quite extreme on some issues, and if we were dominated by a rejection of the Labour left above all else.

    As an SLF member I’m actually for quite alot of things – a more equal society and world, for example, an assault on poverty, the concept of resolving things in communities through democratic politics…

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