Brief conference notes (I’m not actually well enough to do a proper blog post yet):
The Digital Bill Of Rights proposals from Tim Farron and Julian Huppert are the most sensible thing any party has ever said on the subject. Given that it was only about eighteen months ago that the parliamentary party was almost going to let the horrible surveillance bill go through essentially on the nod, the turnaround has been fantastic. I’m proud that I played a very small part in that turnaround, and that I’m friends with some of the people who did more of the work, and now we have an actual Liberal policy. Now to put it into action.
The Power To The People motion. It could have been better if the amendment about devolution had passed, and I think the bit about job-share MPs is a hostage to fortune (they’d be fine *with STV*, but it’s the kind of thing that could very, very easily be provided on its own as a sop in coalition negotiations, and job-share MPs with FPTP would be catastrophic, so I supported Nottingham Sarah Brown’s attempt to delete those lines) but it’s a fine motion overall.
The attitude towards equality and diversity. The party is still far too white, too male, and too upper-middle-class, but when you hear people like Bernard Greaves talking in serious, knowledgeable, terms about the intersectional problems facing trans people from Africa, or employment discrimination against autistic people, it’s clear that there is a *serious* effort to rectify this.
Meeting many people I knew from the internet but hadn’t met in real life before, as well as spending (all too little) time with friends.
The fatuous idiot from EMLD (not the chair, but someone else from it) who tried to deny that there *any* were problems within minority communities and claimed that the *only* problem they faced was oppression from white people, and then made the absurd claim that white women choosing to have labioplasty is equivalent to involuntary female genital mutilation. I was unsurprised to learn he was both a policeman and ex-Labour — the communitarianism was strong in that one, at the expense of sense. (Not all Labour people are communitarians, but almost all communitarians are Labour — it’s a failure mode of Labour’s culture in a way that Little-Englanderism is of the Tories or an obsession with systems over people is with us).
The new immigration policy. It’s largely rather good, but there are enough bad things about it that I couldn’t vote for it. I was finally swayed by Caron Lindsay’s intervention, when she pointed out a line I hadn’t seen — if our new policy had been law eight years ago, I would not have been able to get married. I could not in all conscience vote for something like that.
The dull speech from a minister which went on about improving equality in the boardroom. Frankly I think there are about ten quadrillion things more important than ensuring that a quota of women be reached on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, since that can by its very nature only improve things for a few, already extremely-well-off, women.
Clegg talking once again about keeping British politics firmly in the centre. He was pretty decent otherwise in his speech and Q&A, but he doesn’t seem to realise that his party are *not*, for the most part, centrists, but radical Liberals.
The way some aspects of the policy proposals seemed pre-negotiated-away for coalition agreements. The thinking seemed to be to go for policies we might be able to persuade one of the other parties to agree with as they are, rather than to go for the best policy we can and then negotiate it down if any coalition negotiations happen.
I thought when I was heading off to conference that the reason I was feeling ill was an ongoing niggly throat infection I’d had for weeks and that didn’t seem at all contagious. Instead, within a day or so of getting there it had turned into some sort of monstrous chest thing that made it almost impossible for me to breathe. I may, therefore, have infected people, and I apologise. I’d have stayed at home had I known this was a new thing rather than a continuation of the old one.
Oh look, that’s turned into a blog post after all. I’ll post it on my blog as well as FB…
One of the larger running themes in political journalism — and especially blogging — over the last few weeks has been that there are rumours of rapprochement between Labour and the Lib Dems — Clegg and Balls jokingly exchanging tweets, Balls describing Clegg as a man of principle and so on. The implication has been that the two parties are preparing for the possibility of coalition, and there has been a lot of talk about Labour adopting various Lib Dem policies, and about the Lib Dems stressing their more left-wing positions and points of difference with the Tories.
The line in most political blogs has basically been “Labour are no longer confident of winning a majority, and want to leave the possibility of coalition open”.
Now, I don’t discount this as a possibility, and I think it a consummation devoutly to be wished — short of a Lib Dem majority government or a Lib Dem/Green coalition, a Lib/Lab coalition would be my preferred government. I would be ecstatic if these rumours were true, and even more so if the election made them a reality.
But I don’t believe that’s what’s happening for a second — or rather, I think that we would be seeing exactly these stories appearing now whether or not there was any behind-the-scenes planning for a Lib/Lab coalition. And I’m quite amazed that none of the political blogs I read have mentioned this.
The reason is simple. From the Lib Dems’ point of view, it’s a good idea to talk this up as much as possible — we’ve lost a lot of left-wing support because of the coalition with the Tories, and the single most convincing argument against voting Lib Dem now is “they’ll let the Tories in”. We need to win as many of those left-leaning voters back as possible, and aligning ourselves more with Labour is a way of doing that.
But it’s also, paradoxical as it may seem, in Labour’s interest to make the Lib Dems look good.
The first reason is simple — they want to keep many of the ex-Lib Dem voters who are now supporting them, and the best way to do that is to align their policies, somewhat, with the Lib Dems’. As the election gets closer, some of those voters will drift back, as always happens. If Labour can say “well, we have the policies you like from the Lib Dems, and we’ll probably go into coalition with them anyway”, then those voters are more likely to feel comfortable sticking with Labour rather than drifting back.
But the second reason is that Labour need to encourage *some* people to stop voting Labour and to vote Lib Dem instead. Honestly.
The next election is going to be a close one — it’s likely to lead to a slim Labour majority, but Labour’s lead in the polls is a fairly low one for an opposition party at this point in a parliament, and it might lead to a hung parliament, especially if the economic recovery continues.
So Labour needs not only to maximise its own number of seats, but to minimise the number of Tory wins, either to get an actual majority or, failing that, to make sure it’s the largest party in a hung parliament.
Now have a look at this. My apologies for linking to the Egregious Tory Tosser, but in this piece he’s largely correct. I’ve been saying all along that the Lib Dems will win about thirty-five seats in the next election, and he’s agreeing with me.
But look at the breakdown — of the twenty-two seats he thinks the Lib Dems will lose (and I largely agree with his assessment), eight will go to Labour, while fourteen would go to the Tories. And this will be entirely because of people moving from the Lib Dems to Labour.
Of course, if Labour and the Tories hadn’t both conspired to keep the godawful voting system we’ve got now, that wouldn’t be happening, but they both made their bed and now they’ve got to lie in it — people switching from Lib Dems to Labour will actually reduce Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in seats.
This means that the best strategy for Labour is the old anti-Tory “progressive front” nonsense — if they can come as close as possible to saying “Labour and the Lib Dems are on the same side against those evil Tories” without actually saying that, they’ll keep as many ex-Lib Dems as possible in Labour/Tory marginals and the odd three-way marginal, but give Labour supporters ‘permission’ to vote Lib Dem in Lib Dem/Tory seats (Labour have no fear of losing in the tiny number of Labour/Lib Dem marginals, though I’ll do everything in my power to see that John Leech, at least, keeps his seat).
So in the next sixteen months, leading up to the general election, it’s in the best interests of both Labour and the Lib Dems to portray the two parties as more alike than different. Expect more and more talk of Lib/Lab coalitions, how Vince Cable used to be a Labour member, how Andrew Adonis used to be a Lib Dem, how Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband ganged up to vote down the Tories on some minor but symbolic piece of legislation, and all that sort of thing.
For precisely the same reason, it’ll be in the Tories’ best interests to portray the Lib Dems as being like the Tories, so expect a constant run of stories, all coming from the Tory side, about right-wing Lib Dems like Jeremy Browne or David Laws “considering defection”. Again, whether those stories are true or not will have *absolutely no bearing* on whether they get reported — and when they do, the stories will be coming from the Tories, and the denials will come from the Lib Dems.
Honestly, this was obviously going to be the strategy from the *second* the AV referendum was lost, and it gives us no information whatsoever about what will happen *after* the election. It’s just each party doing the game-theoretically optimal thing in a situation with as stupid a voting system as we’ve got, and I’m amazed so many people seem to have taken the stories at face value.
It’s just yet another reason we need a sane voting system…
(Continues from the introduction)
Before I start explaining what Liberalism is, it’s probably a good idea to explain what it isn’t — why the Liberal Democrats are perceived very differently from the reality, and why some of what you think about them is probably wrong.
Since at least the French Revolution, there has been a traditional splitting of parties into left-wing and right-wing. In Britain, the principal left-wing party is nominally the Labour party, although that party has moved very far to the right in the last twenty years compared to its historical positions. The principal right-wing party has always been the Conservative party.
Both of these parties, like all major political parties, are broad coalitions of different interest groups, but very roughly their split is on economic grounds.
The Labour party have traditionally been democratic socialists and social democrats. This isn’t so true any more, as they have moved much further to the right than even most of their supporters would like, but the basic idea animating the Labour movement is, roughly (and I apologise if I caricature this, and would welcome corrections from anyone who thinks I’m missing nuance):
The best way to organise the economy is to have large parts of it controlled by a central government that can redistribute resources to those who most need them, and for the party running the government to retain ties to the working classes by being allied with a mass Trade Union movement.
I don’t know to what extent the modern Labour party leadership agree with that statement, but it’s one that much of the membership agrees with, and can be seen in some of the actions taken by the Labour government between 1997 and 2010.
By contrast, the Conservative party, post-Thatcher, broadly believes:
The best way to organise the economy is through the profit motive. Those who have money at the moment generally have it because they’re better at making money than other people are, and since the only reasonable way to make money is to provide a service that people will pay for, people who are good at making money for themselves are also benefiting society. The best thing government can do is to step aside and leave them to it (and sometimes provide them with a little help if they think it’s really necessary).
I may be over-simplifying, there, but I think that those positions are very roughly correct.
Liberalism, on the other hand, is not an economic position at all.
That’s not to say that there is no such thing as Liberal economics — far from it. Both the most influential economists of the twentieth century, Keynes and Hayek, described themselves as Liberal (although the Liberal Democrat party has always been far keener on Keynes than on Hayek). There is a whole long history of Liberal economics, from John Stuart Mill’s laissez-faire through the Distributists of the early part of the twentieth century to the zero-growth economics advocated by some in the 1980s, and I will be dealing with it more in future essays. Essentially, though, the point of Liberal economics has always been:
An economic system which enables each individual to achieve fulfillment through his [sic] work, which distributes the proceeds of industry to all, and which, denying excessive power to the bureaucracy and to those who own capital, guarantees to each worker the right to share in the direction and rewards of his [sic] labour
Apologies for the sexist language there — feminism and identity politics had not yet become part of the Liberal mainstream when that was written.
The Liberal economic tradition can best be described as a sort of market socialism — ensuring that workers control the means of production, but directly, through mutuals, co-operatives and so forth, rather than indirectly through the state. (Half my Liberal friends will have shuddered at that description because I used the word “market”, the other half because I used the word “socialism”. I’m trying to over-simplify our own ideas here too…)
But crucially, Liberalism has never been primarily about economics. Even from the beginning of Liberalism as an identified philosophy, with John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor), On Liberty did not make the same arguments as Principles Of Political Economy. Mill’s laissez-faire economics were certainly compatible with the politics of On Liberty, but he never claimed that they arose from the same principles — he argued for them on pragmatic grounds .
Rather than being about how one organises the economy, then, Liberalism has always been about how one organises society — the organisation of political institutions, and the distribution of political, rather than of economic, power. The two are interlinked, of course, and so political and economic Liberalism go well together — the Liberal Democrats’ unofficial anthem, The Land, is a call for a land value tax to prevent rent-seeking — but it is perfectly possible to be a Liberal Socialist or a Liberal Capitalist.
Liberalism exists on an axis orthogonal to the conventional left-right axis, which is a terrible oversimplification. A good comparison would be with environmentalism, which is orthogonal to both axes — one could be a right-authoritarian environmentalist, like for example John Aspinall or the Goldsmith family, a left-liberal environmentalist, like many members of the Liberal Democrats, or a left-authoritarian one like many in the Green party.
But this leads to a problem. The easiest way to explain this for harried journalists, or for those politicians who are more keen on pragmatism than on political theory, is just to say “Liberalism is neither left nor right, but in the centre”. It’s only in the centre if the top of a pyramid is in the centre of its base.
Liberalism is a unique philosophy of its own, and to think of it as a compromise between the beliefs of the Labour and Conservative parties, in the “moderate centre”, is a bit like thinking of Christianity as a moderate compromise between Judaism and Islam.
In the next essay, I plan to talk about why centrism itself is a bad thing.
1 — Young Liberal Statement, 1970, quoted in Meadowcroft, M. Liberal Values For A New Decade, 2nd edition, North West Community Newspapers, 1980.
2 — I am indebted here to The Thinking Person’s Guide To Liberalism by Conrad Russell for this argument.
As regular readers of my blog may know, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats.
At the moment, saying that in public is scary — I’ve actually had death threats from people just because they disapprove of my membership of the party. The Liberal Democrats are not very popular, and I can understand this given some of the actions the current government, of which they are a part, have taken over the last few years.
So why am I a member of the Liberal Democrats?
That’s what I’m planning to explain over the next eighteen months.
Currently, we’re a little under two years away from an election in which the Liberal Democrats are almost certain to lose a large number of seats. It won’t be the wipe-out that many pundits are predicting — the chances are that there will still be roughly thirty-five Lib Dem MPs in May 2015 — but it will be bad.
Over that time, then, I want to look at what the party can do after that — what the future is for the Liberal Democrats post-coalition, what policies we should be looking at, and what we can do to build the party back up to the levels of support it had in May 2010, and further.
But more importantly, I’m going to try to do two other things.
You see, I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats because I am a liberal. And I believe that while the Liberal Democrats are a flawed vessel for liberalism, they are still the best hope this country has of getting liberal policies implemented and giving voice to liberal ideas.
But most people don’t actually know what liberalism is. Even though it’s possibly the most intellectually rigorous, defensible, political position of all the major strands of political thought in UK politics, the vast majority of people couldn’t explain what liberals stand for, in a way they could explain what a socialist or a conservative stood for [FOOTNOTE To make matters worse, of course, because liberalism is orthogonal to the left-right socialist-conservative axis that is used to discuss contemporary politics, one could be a liberal socialist or a liberal conservative. We will discuss this more in a future essay.].
Once one actually understands what liberalism is, the actions of the Liberal Democrats make a lot more sense than they do to many of the people who have been feeling confused and let down by the party over the last few years.
But the other thing I shall be doing is I shall be attempting to show that when the party has gone wrong — and it has made mistakes, at all levels, as all political parties do — it’s not been because it’s been “too right-wing” or “cosying up to the Tories”, but because it’s not been sufficiently liberal. I’ll try to show that the more liberal the party is, the more chance it has of success. I’ll look at liberalism and identity politics, liberalism and democratic reform, liberalism and drug laws, liberalism and the internet, liberalism and the environment, and try to show a coherent way of thinking about these issues.
But most importantly, I’ll be discussing liberalism as an ideology, and the benefits of having an ideology at all.
Currently, Britain notionally has three major parties — the Conservative party, supposedly conservatives who support capitalism, the Labour party, who are allegedly social democrats or democratic socialists, and the Liberal Democrats, who are liberals.
But for a variety of reasons, which I will look at, both the Conservatives and Labour have implemented essentially identical, managerialist, policies, which very few people support and which have proven ineffective, for more than thirty years. I’m going to argue that the best way to distinguish the Liberal Democrats from those other parties is to put forward a distinctly liberal agenda, and that we should not be afraid of appearing extreme.
Because, even aside from liberalism being (in my view) the correct set of ideas to make the world a better place, there’s also the fact that people respond better to conviction politicians than to managers.
Certainly in my own case, while I’m a liberal, I would far rather be governed by an actual socialist or an actual conservative, governing from socialist or conservative principles, than by a centrist managerialist like Tony Blair or David Cameron. Even if they do the wrong thing, a politician working from principles is likely to be more persuadable than one doing the convenient thing.
Incidentally, in this series of posts, I am going to be pretty much entirely positive about the Liberal Democrats. I do not expect the same from my commenters, but I do ask for respect. And in particular, I’d like not to have to engage in what-aboutery. I don’t want anyone to ask “Yes, but how can you support a party in a government that did X, Y and Z?”
You can safely assume that I am as aware of some of the problems with the current government as you are, and that I’m working within the party to fix them. But that awareness is because the two biggest political parties in the country, the unions, every national newspaper, many of the TV channels, and every major leader of industry has spent the last three years repeating, over and over, a list of talking points against the party. I think that putting my own little blog up against the whole of the media in the UK and saying “no, here I’m going to talk about the positive side, and not do my enemies’ work for them” is fair enough. I hope you’ll agree, and I hope you’ll find the posts, which will be coming up every so often for the next eighteen months, worthwhile.
“If two monkeys want the same banana, in the end one will have it, and the other will cry morality. Who gets to form the committee to decide the rules that will be used to determine what is ‘fair’? Whoever it is, got the banana.”
Most people don’t care about democracy.
Oh, people pay lip service to the idea, certainly — they know that ‘democracy’ is on a list of Good Ideas that they should support — but they don’t actually care about democracy itself, just about saying the right words.
If I hadn’t already known this, I would have had it driven home to me by the response to the AV campaign. Not the vote against it — that was down to the Yes campaign being utterly incompetent — but people’s individual responses.
Because the thing I got asked the most during the campaign wasn’t “how does it work?” or “is it fairer?” or anything along those lines, but “Will X be more likely to get in?”
People, for the most part, care about results, but not about processes, and this is why we’re seeing the current ‘argument’ about Lords reform being phrased as “why are you bothering with something like this instead of [thing person saying this cares about]?”
But what a lot of people seem to be failing to see is that in the current system, they will never get [thing they care about], because the government — whichever party is in — doesn’t care about what the people want. The system we have is set up in such a way that two near-identical parties take it in turns to form governments, and those two parties care about the opinions of a very small number of people. You may have very strong opinions about welfare reform, about healthcare, about education, about the economy, about whether the government should start wars of aggression against foreign countries — in the current system, your opinions literally don’t matter. What matters are the opinions of a handful of swing voters, in a handful of marginal constituencies — and that only to the extent that they can be persuaded that one of two major parties agrees with them.
I am convinced — utterly convinced — that representative democracy — *truly* representative democracy — is the best form of government. The more weight that is given to the opinions of the people, the better the resulting government will be. Given the choice between a representative government doing something I dislike — even something I think is absolutely evil — or a ‘benevolent’ dictatorship — even were I to be the dictator — I would always choose the representative government. Because elections are a means of feedback, of correcting course when things go wrong, of fixing mistakes. Without them, governments go careering off into insanity. And the subtler and more responsive the electoral system, the less drastic the changes that have to be made.
But democracy isn’t especially good for politicians. They tend not to like it. The current system, where if you get a safe seat you have a job for life, and if you don’t you can always go to the Lords, and where two parties take Muggins’ turn at being in charge, each letting the other clear up their worst mistakes, is very, very satisfactory for them.
That’s why, despite their supposed differences, Labour and the Tories ganged up to kill electoral reform. And that’s why they’re now ganging up to kill Lords reform. The systen that’s being proposed for the Lords (an open-list PR system with a 20% top-up of appointed, rather than elected, members) isn’t perfect — it’s very far from it — but it’s one that allows feedback into the system. It allows things to be fixed. It allows *itself* to be fixed. Elect enough Lords who want a different system, and a different system will then be brought in.
The Lib Dems, despite their many faults (and I am as aware of them as anyone) believe in democracy. They *want* your vote to count. They *want* you to have more of a say. And right now, they’re the only party in Parliament that do (the Scottish and Welsh nationalists might, as well, to be fair — I’ve not examined their records on these issues because they don’t affect me).
We haven’t had a good government in at least my lifetime, and from what I’ve read the governments of the 70s weren’t exactly great either. And we will not have a good government as long as our legislature consists of one house elected through an archaic system that doesn’t reflect people’s preferences and a second house elected by nobody at all. We lost the battle to change the first (though that is a battle we can and will fight again), but we need to win the second.
I am a Liberal Democrat because I believe that there is *just* enough give in the current system that its rules can be used to build a better one by working within the system, even though the nature of that system requires compromise with evil at times. But were I not a Liberal Democrat I would not, under any circumstances, be supporting either of the two major parties who want to deny my voice any chance to get heard. I would either emigrate, or take to advocating revolutionary anarchism, because the structures we have in place at the moment are simply not capable of producing a good government.