Politics, As She Is Played

Yesterday, the New Statesman ran a story saying “Andrew Lansley To Announce Removal of Cap On NHS Private Income”.

I knew, instantly, on reading the story, that it was completely false. It had to be, because Lansley doesn’t, under the NHS Act, have the power to raise private income for NHS trusts.

A couple of hours later it reversed the story to now say “Oops, Andrew Lansley NOT TO Announce Removal Of Cap On NHS Private Income”. That did not stop, in the meantime, dozens of people on Twitter hurling insults at myself and my wife for daring to be Lib Dems. Only one person — Jim Werdsmiff — had the decency to apologise for retweeting the original article (which two minutes’ thought would show was obviously incorrect *somewhere), and he hadn’t been one of the ones being abusive. Thank you, Jim.

Today, “Liberal” Conspiracy has a story up claiming that an NHS walk-in centre in Sheffield is charging a small fee for whiplash treatment. That centre is run by a private company. Therefore, once again, I have had to deal with abuse from strangers on the internet, accusing me of having blood on my hands, because I’ve personally privatised the NHS apparently.

Except that two minutes on Google shows that the walk-in centre in question was privatised in 2009 under Labour legislation, and that it’s charging according to the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999 (and its subsequent amendments up to 2007).

Now, I don’t know whether what it’s doing is legal or illegal under that act (they say they’ve had advice from the BMA that it is, my reading of the act would suggest otherwise, but I’d defer to the BMA in this case), but a company that was brought in under Labour, using a Labour NHS Charges Act to justify NHS charges, cannot *possibly* in any sane world be blamed on either the Lib Dems or (much as I like to blame them for things) the Tories.

Yet of course rather than apologise for the abuse, when confronted with the facts the trolls (mostly one person in this case) just doubled up on the abuse. Because of course just because once again the exact opposite of what they said had happened was actually happening, that doesn’t mean that I was in any way right or them in any way wrong, obviously.

I am getting less and less tolerant of ignorant buffoons hurling abuse at me, my wife, and many of my closest friends for our membership of a political party they disagree with. By all means debate things and discuss them. Even get angry — getting angry at something bad happening in the world is a *good* thing.

But setting out assuming bad faith of anyone who disagrees with you (something I used to do too often a few years back but don’t think I do any more) is not a good way to start. And more importantly, if you get angry about something you’ve seen reported in the news (and I really *must* do the blog post about how the Guardian seems to use many of the same tactics as the Mail in its reporting), and it later turns out to be false, apologise to anyone you’ve been angry at. If you saw someone who looked like they were breaking into your house, of course you’d get angry and might well attack him. If it turned out that it was actually the postman delivering a letter and your eyesight had been faulty, it might be *tempting* to say “Yeah, well, he’d probably done something”, but the right thing to do is to apologise as quickly and profusely as possible.

And if you don’t apologise, don’t be surprised if I block you without warning. There is only so much unfounded personal abuse one person can take, and I’ve more than had my share.

And of course none of this will matter when I read a story tomorrow about how the eeevul ConDems have made someone pay hundreds of thousands for a heart operation, and a correction comes out later that day that the operation was on someone in America…

The most important single part of the NHS Bill

“The services provided as part of the health service in England must be free of charge except in so far as the making and recovery of charges is expressly provided for by or under any enactment, whenever passed”

What this means is that if the bill is passed, only those charges that already exist can be made by the NHS unless and until further legislation is explicitly passed allowing it. This is the crucial piece of wording (it’s an amendment to the 2006 Act’s wording, which didn’t have ‘as part of the health service in England’). It means that *any* new charges to patients have to be explicitly included.

Despite the stuff being put about by Ben Goldacre et al, this is the crucial point. This bill *does not* provide for any further NHS charges. It guarantees a continued free health service. Disagree with the bill if you want (I do), but do it based on the actual bill, not on scaremongering.

And I just wish everyone would stop using scaremongering rhetoric, so I don’t have to post stuff ‘defending’ stuff I disagree with. Argue about the merits of the bill all you want, but please stop saying it’s the end of the NHS, or it privatises the NHS, or it will introduce charges, because it just *doesn’t*. Crying wolf will only mean that if or when a serious effort to do those things ever happens (and I suspect it more likely to happen under a Labour government than this one, because people trust Labour with the NHS, though God know why) no-one will believe you until it’s too late.

Quick thought on the NHS bill

I think the NHS bill is a bad bill, but it’s not as bad as its detractors say, now. It’s entirely possible that Lib Dem conference will vote to kill the bill tonight, but even if they don’t, I don’t think it will do the things its detractors say, now that it’s been amended significantly in response to previous Lib Dem objections. I think it’s a waste of time and effort and yet more bureaucratic meddling and change for change’s sake, but it won’t hurt anything.

That said, the people arguing against it do have one thing absolutely right – the NHS is one of the most important things in this country, and it is vital to defend it. I don’t care especially how it’s structured or how much is contracted out to different organisations – whatever works, works. What I care about is that we have free healthcare, provided to anyone whatever their means.

So I, at least, will make the following absolute commitment:

If, at any time between now and the next election, I or anyone I know in England makes a GP or hospital visit and gets charged (for anything other than services which are already charged for such as elective vaccinations when travelling abroad) I will quit the Lib Dems and campaign for any party which would in my view restore free-at-the-point-of-delivery healthcare. A lot of us have talked about what red lines we have in coalition government, and this one is one of mine.

That said, I’ve made a commitment, is there any supporter of a non-government party who will make either of these:

If the Lib Dems successfully kill the bill altogether, they will never again, for the lifetime of this parliament, say that the Lib Dems have been ineffectual or have made no difference in government.

If the Lib Dems decide *not* to kill the bill, and if by the next election none of the conditions I mention above apply (so no-one’s getting charged to go to hospital or visit their GP, and from the point of view of the typical patient nothing’s much different), they will admit, publicly, that their party’s leadership have been outright lying and can’t be trusted to tell the public the truth about the NHS, and will campaign instead for the Lib Dems as the party which actually did something useful and fixed the bill so it wouldn’t harm patients.

I suspect not. I am absolutely certain that one of the two options above will happen, and within three years everyone will have pretty much forgotten there was a bill at all. I am equally certain that this won’t stop supporters of other parties (not just Labour – the Greens and SNP are as bad) making up horror stories about the next piece of legislation that comes up, so “the ConDems” will be privatising schools, bringing back hanging, declaring nuclear war on Sweden, or whatever.

I hope to be proved wrong.

Sixteen Good Things The Lib Dems Have Achieved

With the Welfare Reform Bill being debated in Parliament at the moment, a lot of good Liberals are once again worrying about to what extent they can carry on supporting the party. Some of the provisions in the bill are excellent (the universal credit, for example, is a policy the Lib Dems and before them the Liberal Party had for decades, but we dropped it for being too left-wing and radical), others are debatable (a cap on total benefits equal to the median income of the country – there are genuine arguments on both sides here) and a few are frankly horrible (cutting contributions-based ESA for some claimants after a year).

Now, to a large extent, even the bad things this government are doing are defensible. All three major parties agreed, before the election, that cuts had to be made, and this graphic by Duncan Stott illustrates how far the Lib Dems have actually won in minimising the cuts:

graphic showing that in 2010 the Tories wanted to cut £96bn, Labour 82bn and the Lib Dems 80bn, with the current government cuts being 81bn

And that graphic is taken from a post written before the government announced it was slowing down the rate of cuts.

In other words, a Labour government or Labour/Lib Dem coalition would have done substantially the same things, and a Tory government would have cut much more. This is actually as moderate a government as it was possible for us to get in 2010.

But so often this is the only argument made for the Lib Dems – that we’re making things less worse (that is to assume for the sake of argument that all cuts are bad. I’d argue in fact that a lot of government spending – on illegal wars and nuclear weapons, for example, could be cut without any bad effects). We say things like “Well, we’ve got an exemption for nearly ten percent of orphans in the Widows And Orphans (Massacring) Act 2011, and we’ve got a sunset clause included in the Slaughtering Of The Firstborn Bill so it’ll have to be re-debated by Parliament in four years.”

Those sorts of things are, of course, real achievements, but they don’t really feel like it, do they? Thanks to us, some bad things some other people were going to do are now less bad, but still bad – that’s not a rallying cry to stir the blood.

But in fact, we have also done a lot of genuinely good stuff, things that make the world a genuinely better place, that wouldn’t have been done by any other government. I’m going to make a short list here, but it’s not an exhaustive one – it’s just a list of things that I or my friends have noticed. My main areas of concern are human rights and constitutional reform, while most of the people I’m close to in the party are particularly active in LGBT+ Lib Dems, so those are the areas I’ll highlight. But I’m sure if you talk to people interested in, say, transport or energy policy you’d get a similar list.

No longer deporting LGB people to countries where they’re at risk. Under the last government, the policy was “they can stay in the closet”.

£400 million extra for mental health services, targeted especially at talking therapies Having worked in mental health under the previous government, one that supposedly cared more about the NHS than this one does (their supporters say) I can say from my own experience that the Labour party deserve never, ever to be allowed near government again simply because of their appaling, criminal, *EVIL* treatment of people with mental health problems. Mental health services are already improving under this government (I’m having to access services myself at the moment, for work-related stress problems, and the difference is extraordinary). This is something that was a personal campaign by Nick Clegg.

Lords reform The first elections for the House of Lords are planned for 2015. We might soon actually be a proper democracy.

An end to child detention of immigrants Private Eye argue with the letter of this, but the fact remains, under Labour literally thousands of children were held for weeks or months in what amounted to concentration camps (primarily at Yarl’s Wood) prior to deportation (or not – half were later found to be legal immigrants). Last year, numbers in the low double figures were held for single-figure hours immediately prior to deportation. I don’t care if Private Eye thinks that counts as ‘child detention’ in a literal sense – in a qualitative sense there is a huge, enormous difference.

An enquiry into the UK’s part in torture in the ‘war on terror’. I’ve seen photos of people literally boiled to death by torturers in the Middle East, supposedly acting with the collusion of the British government. These people need to be brought to justice.

The highest ever rise in pensions and unemployment benefits. Pensions are now on a ‘triple lock’, which means they will rise with whatever is greatest – inflation, wages or cost of living. Unemployment benefit rose by the same amount this year.

Lowering taxes for the poor and raising taxes for the rich – Capital Gains Tax has increased by 10%, there’s been a levy on the banks, we’ve kept the 50% top rate of tax, there’s talk of introducing a mansion tax – and this is being used to raise the personal allowance for income tax so the poorest workers won’t have to pay anything.

Actual gay marriage is going to be brought in, not just the compromise that is ‘civil partnerships’. (EDIT should read ‘same-gender marriage’. *slaps wrist* BAD bisexual ally! BAD!)

Detention without charge has been dropped from 28 days to 14. Still too long of course, but we’re some way back towards being a civilised country again.

DNA data of innocent people is being destroyed

Gay men convicted of ‘crimes’ involving consensual adults that would no longer be illegal are having their criminal records expunged

We have fixed-term parliaments – no longer will elections be at Prime Ministerial whim – this has been a demand of reformers since the Chartists.

The ID Cards scheme and database have been ended

The government will guarantee most of the mortgage for first-time buyers – allowing those of us who’ve spent our entire adult lives paying rents to profiteering landlords because of the artificially-inflated property ‘boom’ to finally have the possibility of owning our own home, ending a particularly nasty piece of generational injustice.

The government are also building more social housing than has been built in decades for those who still wouldn’t be able to buy their own home, so they don’t have to rent from slum landlords.

No replacement for Trident will be bought this parliament – because if you’re going to cut spending, take the money away from nuclear weapons first.

So this is why, despite the fact that I don’t support the government, I *do* support the Lib Dems in the government, and why I give up several hours of my weekends to go knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. Because we haven’t made the world perfect in only eighteen months with only nine percent of the MPs in parliament – but we’ve made it better. And that’s more than I can say about the actions of any other government party of my lifetime.

A few lessons from last month’s disaster

I’ve been thinking about the lessons the Lib Dems can learn as a party from last month’s debacle at the council elections and the AV referendum, and have come to a few conclusions that seem a little different from the consensus on the ‘blogosphere’.

We need to concentrate more on constitutional reform
Everyone seems to be saying “Well, we lost the AV referendum, that shows that the public don’t care about constitutional issues, so we should concentrate on bread-and-butter managerial stuff that people care about, and give up on Lords reform.”
Well, no.
Firstly, what people want and what is the right thing to do are two different things. This is undoubtedly the only time in my lifetime we’ll be able to get Lords reform – it’s not like we’re going to get a second term, is it? – and the way the system is set up directly affects all those things that people *do* care about.
Secondly, Lords reform is a far less controversial area than reform of the Commons electoral system. I’ve lost count (literally) of the number of times I’ve had this conversation with my dad, a typical Labour voter:

“I’ll never vote for that AV thing, it’s a load of rubbish, a miserable little compromise [thanks Nick…] and it’s just to keep the Lib Dems in power for ever. Now what you really should do if you care about democracy is get the Lords elected.”
“Well, we are doing that…”
“You only went into this to get AV and you’re not even going to get that, you should get the Lords elected instead.”
“We’re doing it as well…”
“Get the Lords elected instead.”

But also, a point to remember – more than twice as many people voted ‘yes’ in the referendum than voted for us!

For every Lib Dem voter there’s at least one more person out there who *doesn’t* yet vote for us but *does* like our position on constitutional matters. And those people are *passionate*. They voted Yes despite one of the most inept political campaigns I’ve ever seen or heard of (as Millennium put it, it appeared to be run by people who’d masterminded a lot of third place triumphs in General Elections for the Lib Dems, so they considered second place an improvement). The 60% who voted no didn’t, as far as I can tell, really care that much either way – they had a slight preference, and they expressed it, but many of them were voting to ‘get Clegg’ or ‘to break up the coalition’ or (in a few insane cases) because they wanted more radical reform.

When you’re on 17% of the vote, going after the 40% who passionately agree with you is probably better strategically – as well as being the right thing – than going after the 60% who mildly disagree.


We need to link our principles explicitly to our actions
Community politics works. It not only wins us elections, but it’s undoubtedly the morally right thing. Work with communities, find out what those people want, and help them to bring it about themselves, rather than imposing something on them. It’s both the liberal thing to do and an election-winning thing to do.
There was, however, a rather good cartoon posted on Lib Dem Voice recently, an old one from the 80s:

(Interesting that it’s an SDP politician. From what I can gather (being a small child at the time) they were rather less keen on the community politics stuff than the Liberals were in the Alliance days.)

There’s an element of truth in that, but it slightly misses the point.

People vote for us because they like that we get the potholes in their roads fixed. The problem is, they don’t know *why* we get the potholes in the roads fixed. WE know that community politics is a valuable Liberal tradition and springs from everything we believe in. THEY don’t know that. Which means then that people get upset when we act in unpredictable ways like going into coalition with the Tories rather than just being the slightly fuzzier, squishier version of Labour. Or WE get upset when people who tell us they’re lifelong Lib Dem voters also tell us they’re going to vote against AV, because they’re not interested in reform.

We need, as Jonathan Calder has said, more ideology and less policy. I like this post on the subject,, but especially Simon Titley’s comment:

If I were to establish a rationale for Liberal Democrat ideology, I would start like this:

Each of us is on this planet for a relatively short period of time. In that short time, each of us seeks to lead a good life. But, each of us has a unique personality and so each person will have a distinct idea of what will fulfil them. Therefore, the only person who can decide what constitutes a good life is ourselves; it is not something others can decide for us. To be able to make those decisions, we need freedom – not merely an absence of restraint but the practical ability to exercise freedom; not merely a ‘chance’ at the start of our lives but an ability that lasts throughout our lives. Hence we should see freedom in terms of ‘agency’, which means the capacity of individuals to make meaningful choices about their lives and to influence the world around them.

Our political mission is therefore to ensure each person’s freedom.

Our starting point is our humanity. We value people above things; we do not make a fetish of the state or of markets.

We should rework our policies to better fit values like this (Jennie has a great suggestion re: employment law for starters) – right now everything should be up for consideration. We should look at all the old Liberal ideas like a citizen’s income (especially since we’re pretty much getting that with the benefit reforms), Land Value Tax (especially since Vince seems quite keen on the idea in principle), zero-growth economy (could easily appeal to the Green vote) and so on, and see if any of them are worth bringing back – possibly in a modified form, but worth consideration. Drug law reform. We’re down to our core vote, so we have little to lose – let’s try to have a genuinely radical set of policies to go with the people in the party.

(Note I’m not suggesting we actually go with any of those particular things as policies – I have very, *very* little knowledge or understanding of economics, and for all I know I’ve just said “why don’t we consider dooming the whole planet to dying of starvation?” – but they’re all ideas that have long had a currency in the Lib Dems and our predecessor parties, and so they’re the kind of ideas we should be looking at.)

But we also need to link those policies, and our actions in local government, to our principles in a very obvious way. We need to start talking about political philosophy.

I don’t mean we need to be handing out copies of John Stuart Mill [and Harriet Taylor], like the Gideons, or turn into a SWP-like debating society (“Well, I think you’ll find that Keynes said…”, “If you’d only *read* Michael Meadowcroft’s position paper from 1981, The SDP Are All A Bunch Of Bastards, you would *know* why you were ideologically wrong!”, “We must expunge every trace of reformist Grimondism from the party and get back to the true Liberalism of Lloyd George! An end to female suffrage!”). What I mean is that our campaigning should, along with saying *what* we’re doing, say *why* we’re doing it.

Come up with some simple bullet-point summary of Liberalism – four or five points, something like the preamble to the constitution – and make sure one of them’s on every page of every Focus. If you have “Lib Dems fight to save local schools” page, put something on there about the principles of valuing education and of valuing independence from centralised decision making. Nothing huge, just a box with a bullet point at the bottom – “Helping people to help themselves is one of the Lib Dems’ key principles. Find out more at http://libdems.org.uk/what-we-think “.

That kind of thing will, hopefully, help convince our voters to think more liberally and convince liberals to think of voting for us.

And finally, for now (I have some thoughts on co-operation with other parties, which might not be what you’d expect from me, but I’m saving them for later as this is long enough as it is):

Things are going to get better for the party
I know a lot of tribal Labour people who spent much of the last year attacking the Lib Dems quite viciously. After the council election (and the recent hatchet-jobs on certain Lib Dem MPs by the right-wing press) they seem to have stopped. The public mood appears now to have swung against attacks on the Lib Dems and more to feeling sorry for us. “They’re not that bad really.” “I don’t like that Clegg but it’s a shame that Councillor X lost hir seat”. Richard Herring (a comedian I like but who has been one of the more vitriolic critics of the coalition) said of the council election results “It’s like breaking into the Top Gear studio with a gun with one bullet and then using it to shoot Richard Hammond when Jeremy Clarkson’s right there”. Plenty of other people have said things like “I think the Lib Dems were just naive, they’ve been tricked by the Tories. It was their own fault, but the Tories are to blame.”

That may not sound comforting, but these are people who were spouting utter *hatred* about the party fairly recently. Some of them no doubt will again. But I think the attacks on us have started to lose public sympathy, and over the next few months we’re going to turn more and more into the underdog in the public’s eye. Which is not a good place to be, but it’s better than being the whipping boy.

[NB I have used the word tribal in this post. I dislike this word and consider it to have racist connotations. However, I don’t know of a better word for it.]

But What Have The Liberals Ever Done For Us?

I’ve had a migraine for the last couple of days, so NaBoWriFoNi might actually become NaBoWriFifteenOrSixteenDays, unless I can get a couple of ten thousand word days in (entirely possible – I have next week off work, though tomorrow is busy between the Yes stall and the new Doctor Who episode…). However, I can do angry political rants even when I’ve got a migraine (funny that).

I was planning to write this yesterday, and then I read this by Jennie, which says a lot of what I want to say.

What I do want to say is this:


The story that seems to have taken hold is ‘evil Judas Nick Clegg betrayed his promise to the British people to support Labour (the Only Rightful Government) no matter what, and instead sold his party’s soul for the promise of a referendum, AND NO OTHER CONCESSIONS AT ALL, which he’s going to lose because I hate him hate him hate him!’

This is, simply, a lie.

You may dislike the current government – I do (though I am less unhappy with it than I have been with any government in my lifetime, except the first few months of the Blair government when I was giving them a chance). You may think that the party’s leadership has handled things ridiculously badly for the last few months. I do – and so do some of our MPs – though I’d point out that they handled things ludicrously *well* when it really mattered, in May. You may be angry about some of the concessions we’ve had to make – I am. I twice came close to tearing up my membership card (over the ridiculous fudges over control orders and child detention), and it’s still entirely possible that we’ll cross some red line over the next four years that causes me to do so. All of these are defensible positions.

But to say that the Lib Dems have got nothing in return… well… that’s true.

Apart from the AV referendum, the first chance of significant constitutional change in my lifetime.

Apart from fixed term parliaments, a demand of reformers since the Chartists

Apart from legalising civil partnerships in churches

Apart from stopping hundreds of thousands of the lowest-paid workers (3 million by the end of this Parliament) from having to pay income tax, paid for by tax rises on the rich

Apart from preventing gay people being extradited to countries where they face persecution or even death

Apart from reducing the amount of time someone can be held without trial from 28 days to 14

Apart from equal marriage for same sex couples (coming soon, that one)

Apart from removing the criminal records from men who had consensual sex with other men when that was illegal, allowing them to no longer be treated as sex offenders

Apart from the Universal Credit – which used to be party policy but was dropped for being a ridiculously utopian left-wing idea we could never actually get through, and is now being implemented by one of the most right-wing politicians in the country

Apart from restoring the earnings link for pensions which Thatcher got rid of

Apart from stopping the Tories from cutting Housing Benefit by 10% after a year

Apart from removing innocent people’s records from the database of criminals’ DNA

Apart from getting rid of the ludicrous ID Card scheme

Apart from ensuring we won’t replace Trident this Parliament

Apart from a proportionally-elected upper chamber (coming soon, but definitely coming)

Apart from bringing in a fairer student fees system than the one we did have *or* the one Labour were advocating *or* the NUS were calling for (yes, yes, it’s not as good as our policy. If you’d voted for us maybe we could have brought in our policy. As it is, we did the best we could and will *still* pay for it for decades to come).

Apart from stopping people from having to have a CRB check before they do any kind of work with children

Well, yeah, there’s nothing the Lib Dems have done in government…

Apart from raising Capital Gains tax so the rich are paying closer to the amount the poor pay in tax (still not as much, but a lot more than they were).

Apart from shared parental leave

Apart from protecting the NHS from Andrew Lansley

Apart from spending an extra £400 million on mental health services, reversing the trend which had seen Labour destroy two hospital beds a day, every day, during its entire thirteen years in government, for this most vulnerable group.

Apart from a right to recall MPs guilty of misconduct

Apart from a ban on fingerprinting schoolchildren without their parents’ permission

Apart from a referendum to increase the powers of the Welsh Assembly

Well, yeah, I guess there’s nothing else they’ve done, is there?

Apart from the pupil premium – extra money for the poorest schoolchildren

Apart from scrapping ContactPoint

Apart from stopping the Tories from selling off our forests

Apart from increasing funding for talking therapies so that where only 60% of the country can access them currently (still an improvement on last year) 100% will be able to by 2014

Apart from opening the Government Art Collection to the public

Apart from giving a week’s respite to people who have to care for sick relatives

Apart from a judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture

Apart from having drug recovery wings in prisons, and better mental health treatment for prisoners

Well, yeah, apart from all that stuff, the Lib Dems have *DEFINITELY* betrayed their voters by going into government with the rich right-wing plutocrats rather than the slightly-less-rich right-wing war criminals, and by agreeing to cuts to end the deficit rather than going with their own policy of ending the deficit through cuts, or the Labour policy of cutting things until the deficit has gone. I can see how that makes us evil.

Don’t get me wrong – I disagree with about half of what the current government is doing, maybe more. But given that Lib Dems only make up *one sixth* of government MPs, i don’t think they’re doing too badly, all things considered…

What I Mean When I Call Myself A Liberal

I was meant to write a couple of posts on comics and a short story today, but I appear to have developed logorrhoea on totally unrelated matters, don’t I? Oh well…

One of the big things I hear a lot from people is that they don’t actually know what the Liberal Democrats stand for, or what liberalism actually is. This is especially true at the moment, with the Parliamentary Party being in a coalition with the Conservatives. It’s also not helped by American English having a fundamentally different meaning for the word ‘liberal’ than Commonwealth English, and by British sites like Liberal Conspiracy (a Labour mouthpiece) using that meaning.

I wouldn’t presume to speak for the rest of the party, but I thought if I wrote something on here at least my readers would get some understanding of my own political position.

This will be incoherent. Large chunks of it will go against party policy. Some of it is utterly wrongheaded, I’m sure. I have a very good understanding of issues to do with civil liberties, electoral reform, LGBT rights, and so on – I’ve spent a fair amount of time investigating these issues. I have almost no understanding of economics, so when I talk about that I’m probably going to contradict myself and talk shit.

So this is what *I* mean when I refer to *myself* as a Liberal. I joined the Liberal Democrats and decided to call myself a Liberal because, of all the political parties that matter electorally in England, the Lib Dems’ policies come closest to the idiosyncratic list below. They’re not the same as that list though. In some cases that’s because of a compromise between principle and pragmatism – you can’t get elected on the platform I’m going to describe. In many others, though, it’s because people who are cleverer than I, who have more knowledge of the issues, have thought long and hard and come to a different conclusion. As few of those conclusions seem obviously immoral or absurd, I go along with them until I understand the issue better.

I’m going to break this up into three sections, Freedom, Hatred of privilege and Democracy, for the three things that motivate me most.

The Lib Dems’ most important text is On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor). In particular, the ‘harm principle’ seems to me the single most important point of principle, from which all else should follow:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Not only is this morally right, it is also the pragmatically correct attitude. Anyone who has studied cybernetics knows that to control a system you must have as many options open to you as there are degrees of freedom in the system (this actually follows from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the single most basic law of physics). It is, quite simply, impossible as well as undesirable for a government to try to control its citizenry in every detail of their lives, as the last government did. Assuming each person in a country of sixty million has five options open to them that the government cares about, to get them all to choose the option you want them to would require the government to have 5^60,000,000 (that’s roughly 8 with forty-nine zeroes after it) different options open to it. The only way for a government to control people’s behaviour successsfully is to choose a very, very small number of things it’s interested in, and for those things to be things that most people wouldn’t do anyway. Laws against murder and theft can be somewhat effective (though never 100% effective) because the vast majority of us don’t want to kill or steal anyway, so the government can concentrate on that small number who do.

It’s also possible for laws to work when they’re setting an arbitrary convention – we all agree that we need to drive on one side of the road and not the other, and that it’s better if we all follow the same rule. Nobody has a huge emotional attachment to driving on the left or right, so the government can set a standard and everyone will follow it.

From this follow various other things – laws against free speech, against drug use, against private sexual practices, none of these can ever really work, and where they exist they should be abolished.

Hatred of privilege
Despite the above, Liberals are strong advocates of the rule of law. Those laws which we do support should be applied equally to everyone. Either murder is illegal, in which case all murderers should be prosecuted (though there should be no aspect of vengeance in this – people’s liberty should be limited only in so far as it’s necessary to prevent further harm to others), or it isn’t, in which case none should. And the same rules – rules of evidence, burden of proof and so on – should be applied across the board. These rules should also be biased *against* conviction – if we are going to restrict someone’s liberty, that’s a big, important thing to do, and should only happen if we’re *ABSOLUTELY* certain it’s the correct thing to do.

Having different rules for different people is the original and most important definition of privilege – it comes from the Latin privi legium, private law. And privilege in every sense is something I, at least, want to defeat.

In many cases, this means clearing away bad laws that privilege one group over another. Getting rid of the stupid rules regarding marriage, for example, or allowing immigrants to vote, getting rid of the House of Lords with its appointed and hereditary rulers (and especially getting rid of the bishops from within it, who privilege one religion over all others by being there).

There is also such a thing as economic privilege, however. You can’t be totally free if you can’t eat, or you don’t have healthcare, or you never learned to read or write. There’s a reason both Keynes and Beveridge were Liberals.

Now, while I’m no economist so this is probably the weakest part of this, my view is simple. Every human being should, to the extent it’s possible, have a roof over their head, food, clothing, enough education and access to information to take part in society, and enough medical access that they don’t suffer needlessly. Any society in which that’s not the case is not one which I would call civilised.

My personal favoured method for this is a citizens’ income, which used to be Lib Dem policy but was scrapped as too radical, but the current ‘universal credit’ welfare reforms come very, very close to it. In this, rather than the government giving people housing benefit, money off prescriptions, money for childcare, whatever – a bunch of vouchers and tokens you can only use for one thing each, and which require a great deal of administration – the government just gives everyone enough money to pay for those things and says “here you go”, trusting them to do what’s best for themselves. (Yes, I know there are problems with this. There are problems with every system. This is my ‘ideal world’ system.)

But how is this to be paid for? If someone works hard and earns money, we don’t want to take that off them. If you go down a mine and dig up a load of coal for a couple of hundred quid a week, should you be paying half that to someone else who can’t be bothered to work?

Well no, obviously not. However, not everyone does work. There’s a huge class of people who get their money not from work but from rent-seeking – either from actual rent (landlords) or from the exploitation of other monopolies (bankers, people who live off ‘investments’).

There are only two ways I can think of of getting money, either by creating wealth by making or thinking of something (‘workers by hand and brain’ as the old Labour Party Clause Four had it), or by exploiting government-created monopolies (for example ‘intellectual property’ laws or mining rights to an area).

It’s the latter which should be taxed far more than income from actual work, as a way of redressing economic privilege. Monopolies are effectively gifts from the government (which is to say from the population at large) to individuals, and those individuals should repay the bulk of the wealth they get from these gifts back to the population. Someone who builds or designs a house is creating wealth – there is something there that wasn’t there before, that’s of value. Someone who rents the house out, however, is not creating wealth, just taking advantage of a pre-existing inequality (they have a house and their tenants don’t).

Hark! The sound is spreading from the east and from the west!
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest!
The land was meant for the people.

The hatred of privilege ties very strongly into the need for freedom. Unless a transsexual, polyamorous, black person with cerebral palsy born on a council estate has the same tools to make the life she wants for herself as Prince Harry does, then she is less free than he is. (Of course, it may also be that Prince Harry would quite like to stop being third in line for the throne and become a juggler in a left-wing arts collective, but is being stopped from doing so by his position in society. Privileges can hurt the privileged as well as the unprivileged, though usually not as much).

If we are to assume that a government should exist at all, then we want that government to have a few properties. We want it to not do anything that the majority of the people in society think is intolerable. We want it to protect the rights of minorities, no matter what the majority think. And we want it to be effective – we want its actions to have the intended consequences.

The second of these is best solved by some kind of constitution or bill of rights – in the UK the European Convention on Human Rights and its incorporation into British law with the Human Rights Act fulfil this role. Things like this, while a departure from pure democracy, are necessary to prevent democracy turning into tyrranny. (I could easily imagine a situation where the majority of the population decided it was OK to murder fat nerdy blokes called Andrew if they really got on your nerves by writing overlong blog posts. I don’t particularly want such a law to be passed, even if it was the democratic will of the country).

Handily, our third requirement is best solved by feedback – the more information you can get into the system the better. This is handy because it also fulfils the first criterion, that government should not do anything that the majority find intolerable. If we have some kind of democratic system, then these criteria are fulfilled handily.

Some might argue for direct democracy – people voting on every issue. There are problems with this, however. Partly, the problem is that people’s opinions aren’t consistent – I could very easily see a majority voting “yes” to “Should we spend more money on the NHS, education and fighting crime?” *and* to “Should we cut your taxes by a thousand pounds a year?”. The other problem is that most people have neither the time nor the inclination to investigate the issues. I think of myself as a fairly well-informed person, for example, but I have absolutely no idea whether the seven billion pound loan to Ireland that Britain just made was a good decision or a bad one.

So the best compromise is representative democracy – everyone votes for the person or persons who they agree with most on the subjects they know about, and make it that person’s job to find out everything they can about every subject necessary for government. This actually works quite well, because votes in aggregate will produce someone who’s a good compromise on all competencies – people who know about civil liberties will vote for candidates who are strong on civil liberties, people who know about economics will vote for candidates who are strong on economics, so a candidate who is strong on both will get both sets of votes.

However, our current First Past The Post system isn’t a very effective way of getting this information into the system, because a single cross every five years, in a seat where for the most part a maximum of two candidates have a chance (which is nearly all of them), is a rate of one bit every five years. To put that into perspective, for an individual voter to get across the information in this post up to the end of that last sentence would take 520,320 years (assuming elections every five years. If they were every four years, it would only take 416,256 years).

On the other hand, a ranked preferential system like the Alternative Vote (which we will be voting on next year) or Single Transferable Vote (which the Lib Dems like) gets *FAR* more information into the government. In my constituency last time, only Labour or the Lib Dems could have won, so I had a binary choice between those two candidates if I was voting for an MP – one bit of information. On the other hand, there were eight candidates on the ballot. If I’d been able to rank my preferences, that would have given me 8! different ways of expressing myself. That’s 40,320 different options, or on the order of sixteen bits of information. Government is going to reflect public opinion much better – and be more effective – if voters have 40,320 choices than if they have two.

So, anyway, that’s roughly what *I* mean by being a liberal. It may not be what other liberals mean, but I think it’s close to what a lot of them think. If you’re a liberal and vociferously disagree, please do so in the comments – I’ll be very interested to see to what extent people agree or disagree with this…