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.