The search for a new Liberal narrative

There is a basic human need to understand the world in terms of simple stories. This is as true of politics as it is for other parts of life. Something that explains how we have got to where we are – and guides us towards what to do next.  These are referred to as “narratives” in the jargon of political marketing. A narrative is a critical part of the political “brand”, another useful piece of political marketing jargon, which refers to what the public understands to be the core elements of a political party or movement. And liberals the world over, but especially here in Britain, are adrift. Here it is brought on by the spectacular collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats since they entered coalition government in 2010, and the way the other parties are veering away from liberal policies. In the European elections only about 2.5% of the British electorate voted for the only avowedly liberal party on offer.

I particularly like this article, The not so strange death of Liberal England, by Simon Radford in Left Foot Forward. I think he articulates very clearly what many liberals are currently thinking, especially those on in the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties. I will draw shamelessly from it as I develop my own narrative of how liberals and Liberals have reached the current dark patch.

Mr Radford suggests that Liberalism (as I will call the political movement which started with the Liberal Party) started in the 19th Century when the key political battle was between landowners and tenants. The state was tilted heavily in favour of the landowners, both terms of trade (particularly the lack of free trade of food) and taxation (little or no income tax). Liberalism was the movement that took the side of the tenants, and free trade was its central organising principle. To this were added the ideas of social insurance, and the birth of the welfare state. It was a long struggle, but the Liberals won, led by Asquith, Lloyd-George and Churchill, before war struck in 1914.

But the game had already moved on. The central drama was now the battle between the capitalists and workers. Liberal policies of free trade did not address this conflict. Instead the Labour movement arose, based on organising workers and forcing capitalists to give up a more equal share of the wealth – through better wages, workers’ rights, taxation and an expanded welfare state. The Liberals faded into irrelevance between the two wars.

Then came what many mistakenly regard as a golden age, after the Second World War. The forces of technology and demographics combined to give steady growth in which the wealth of all advanced. Social democracy was the prevailing wisdom, with a large role given to labour unions. Labour had a strong enough hand to ensure that they a decent share of the gains went to the workers. Liberalism had little to add, although liberal instincts accorded well the optimistic and more tolerant ethos of the times. Many in the Conservative and Labour parties described themselves as liberals.

Then came the 1980s, when capitalists advanced and labour retreated. Some on the left see this as the result of a sinister coup, masterminded by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, to corrupt a system that was already working well. But the social democratic system was by then collapsing under its own weight, and it did not need much of a push to send it crashing to the ground. The old liberal ideas of free markets and trade came to the fore, and brought forward economic growth, but the process was not led by liberals; state services were neglected and taxes cut. By the 1990s new technology and globalisation were adding to the mix. The hope was that the benefits of growth would spread to all.

But the public weren’t happy with the political leadership. Labour were not trusted because they were associated with the collapse of the social democratic system, in  welter of industrial disputes and stymied productivity, in the 1970s. And yet they disliked Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives, and their rejection of social solidarity and neglect of public services. Liberalism started to revive. It offered a kinder version of the capitalist system. Tony Blair’s Labour Party managed to capture much of this liberal enthusiasm (calling his ideas a “Third Way”), which, allied with traditional Labour supporters gave him a ruling coalition which lasted from 1997 to 2010 (though he himself had been turned out by then). Although Mr Blair’s “New Labour” was the main beneficiary, the Liberal Democrats prospered too, establishing themselves as a credible third force, in a way that would have seemed unimaginable in the 1950s, 60s or 70s. And it seemed to work; the country enjoyed steady economic growth, the benefits of which were distributed widely – inequality of income may not have been reduced, but it didn’t increased either.

But then came the bust of 20008-2009. It turned out that the growth enjoyed in the Labour years was built on air. They had expanded government ahead of what the economy could sustain, and much of its new infrastructure had to be dismantled. Living standards fell, hurting especially for those on low or middle incomes, while those on very high incomes still seemed to prosper. Worse, the quality of work seemed to fall for the majority, especially for most young people entering the job market. Steady, if mindless, factory jobs were swapped for rootless service ones, often badly paid. Meanwhile the low interest rates required by the sagging economy hit the country’s growing army of pensioners, as bank deposits yielded less and annuities became more expensive. A sour political mood has resulted.

Populist, conservative narratives are taking hold. Globalisation is seen as the problem, and especially two obvious elements: immigration and the country’s membership of the European Union, which is blamed for loss of control over immigration, bad laws and regulations, and excessive subsidies to foreigners. This narrative is incoherent, but it is not my purpose to pick it apart. The problem is that liberals have lost confidence in their own narrative.

Capitalism is not working for all. A minority is raking off profits and amassing wealth, while most of the rest are having to put up with increasing insecurity. But how to replace capitalism, since the usual alternative, state ownership and direction, has proved such a spectacular failure under Communism? The left say that increased state power is the answer. The Labour party has come up with various ideas for forcing capitalist enterprises to behave better. But these are hardly liberal. Liberals dislike the idea of putting peoples’ fates in the hands of wise bureaucrats. And also Labour’s ideas are pessimistic. It’s all about stopping people from inflicting harm, and little about allowing people to better themselves (as this week’s Economist Bagehot column points out).

Liberals are optimistic about human nature. They want to help people to help themselves, and allow them to make their own choices. I think there is an optimistic narrative to be found. It is about taking on both big government and big corporations. Working internationally to curb multinational businesses. Developing more sustainable lifestyles which are more locally based. It means ditching an obsession with economic growth for a broader understanding of well-being.

I aim to develop these ideas further. But it is clear that such a narrative implies some hard choices. It may mean that liberals are unable to accept the compromises entailed in coalition government. But if there are no hard choices there is no credibility.