This is number one of what may or may not be an occasional series of posts, about what people outside the party get completely wrong about the Lib Dems.
In this case, I want to talk about the pat summary one gets from the Guardian‘s less-well-informed columnists, and from people who like to act like they know a lot by taking talking points from those columns and restating them as their own opinion:
The Lib Dems’ problem is that they have two factions — their left wing, which is the old SDP, and the right-wing Orange Bookers from the old Liberal Party. The two factions never really belonged in the same party
Sometimes, in place of the “right-wing Orange Bookers” you’ll just hear that the SDP were left-wing and the Liberals were “centrist”. Either way, *everything* about the description in quotes there is wrong.
If you want the short version of why, Richard Gadsden did six tweets to someone spouting this earlier today, which sum it up simply. Here’s the slightly expanded version.
The Liberals were a radical party. Liberals have always argued that the left-right distinction makes no real sense, but as people currently use the terms, they were a party of the radical left. You can read the preamble of the old Liberal Party constitution as it stood in 1980, just before the Alliance, here. Some key points:
Opening sentence: ” The Liberal Party exists to build a Liberal Society in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property, and security, and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
“It looks forward to a world in which all people live together in peace under an effective and democratically constituted World Authority; in which all people enjoy access to the earth’s abundance; in which the various cultures of mankind can develop freely without being warped by nationalist, racial or religious antagonism”
“working steadfastly for the eventual abolition of national armies and armaments”
“At home its goal is a country in which the powers of the State will be used to establish social justice”
“autonomous institutions ensuring genuine self-government; an effective voice in deciding conditions in which they live and work; ”
“an assurance that the community shall enjoy the full benefits of publicly created land values;”
You can say a lot about this, but what you can’t say is that it’s either “right-wing” or “centrist”.
However, while the party was radical, many of its MPs were centrists. Not all, by any means — there were plenty of radical Liberals in the Parliamentary party, but there were also people who were mainly in the party because they wanted to be in politics but didn’t approve either of state socialism or of the Tories’ viciousness, or they’d fallen out with their local Labour party, or that kind of thing. All parties have this mix of different factions, and the Liberal leader would often be a centrist, because they wouldn’t go on TV and scare the horses.
The party’s policies, however, were truly radical — land value tax, electoral reform, disestablishment of the Church, replacement of the Lords, basic income or negative income tax, employee ownership of businesses… they came out for full equality for gay men in 1975, decades before any other party.
The SDP, on the other hand, were very different. Essentially, they were the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, before Blair (who only became an MP in 1983). They ranged from Roy Jenkins, who was essentially a Liberal who had joined the wrong party anyway, through to David Owen, who was basically politically indistinguishable from a moderate Tory. Unlike the Liberal Party, they saw centrism as a good in itself — and unlike the Liberal Party they were driven by their MPs, rather than their activists.
The alliance (or Alliance) between the two parties was useful for the leadership of both. The SDP brought with them a large number of MPs, but very few activists — they knew they couldn’t win seats without the Liberals’ experience at door-knocking and basic infrastructure. Conversely, the SDP brought the Liberals a bunch of MPs, many of them famous faces with government experience.
As the Liberals were at the time led by someone from the centrist faction (David Steel), it was easy enough to come up with a compromise manifesto that would be economically centrist but constitutionally radical — giving the Liberals the devolution and “community proportional representation” (a much better name than STV) they wanted, but backing down slightly from their economic radicalism to promote a continuation of the Keynesian post-war consensus. As the SDP had the greater media presence, the Alliance was presented as “centrist”, with the nuances ignored.
(Of course this neglects one other factor too — the Alliance started very, very shortly after the SDP formed, and anyone joining either party after that would be likely to choose based on the party that was standing a candidate in their area, rather than any policy difference, which meant a lot of Liberals ended up joining the SDP, and a smaller number of SDP types joined the Liberals).
After the merger in 1988, the party that was left was one with a radical activist base as the dominant faction in its membership, but a strong centrist group as well, and with the ratio more or less reversed in Parliament. The post-merger party was led by Paddy Ashdown, a former Liberal Party member who actually wanted to work towards merger with Labour, to heal what he saw as a divide on the left, but who had centrist instincts that made him acceptable to both sides.
(The post-merger party’s constitution, incidentally, starts “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”)
As the party began to shift back left though, after the right-wing influence of Owen was gone, it was still attracting centrists like Nick Clegg, who joined in the early 90s. And there were a new grouping starting to join — people like Mark Oaten and David Laws, who would naturally have been Tories economically, but who were put off by the homophobia and anti-European attitude of the 1990s Conservative party. These people were basically Libertarians, and referred to themselves as “economic Liberals”.
These people started to get elected after the party’s big breakthrough in 1997 (made by essentially both Lib Dems and Labour doing nod-and-wink messaging that they would work together rather than with Tories), and especially after 2001. By this point, the party were led by Charles Kennedy, the only SDP person to actually win a seat at a General Election without first having been an incumbent MP for another party. Kennedy didn’t really belong to any of the traditions of either party — he was a social democrat, and a liberal, but didn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes you could put him in (as can be seen by the fact that he moved the party both to the left and away from Labour).
Under Kennedy’s leadership, the Orange Book was published. This has a reputation as being some sort of Thatcherite Mein Kampf, but if you actually read it, most of it is fairly standard Liberalism, with one or two barking right-wing ideas thrown in to make it “controversial”. The Orange Book combined economic liberal and centrist ideas, and after the Menzies Campbell (an ex-Liberal) interregnum, Nick Clegg, a centrist and not a member of either predecessor party, took over as leader, and under him the party moved towards the centre in its messaging.
Once the coalition formed, the centrists and libertarians were the dominant voices, because they were the ones who were most able to work with the Conservatives. Now, however, after the end of the coalition and the party’s collapse in the polls, the party’s most left-wing remaining MP, Tim Farron, a former member of the Liberals and of the party’s radical activist tradition, is the leader.
So as you can see, there are at least three “groups” in the Lib Dems, and they don’t correlate neatly at all with the predecessor parties (and the majority of members were never in either predecessor party anyway, but joined in the nearly thirty years since the merger). To the extent they *do* correlate with the predecessor parties, though, the “Orange Bookers” would be the SDP and the “left” would be the Liberals.
But most wrong of all is the “they don’t belong in the same party” part. They do. WE do. There are disagreements among the different groups in the party, but we are actually united by far more than what divides us. In particular, the radical liberals and the libertarians agree on more than they disagree on, because liberal economics is about handing power to individuals rather than centring it in the state.
I’m on the radical left of the party, but we need the libertarians there to critique the left’s ideas and vice versa — both make the others stronger. And the centrists are necessary to focus the party on pragmatic politics rather than just being a talking shop.
I’ve been talking about factions, but the Lib Dems are the least factionalised of the UK parties. And this, more than anything else, is the problem with the pub-bore narrative about centrist Liberals and right-wing SDP. We’re *all* liberals. A friend half-jokingly introduced me to someone else a couple of weeks ago by saying “Andrew’s an anarcho-syndicalist, but they haven’t got a party so he’s in the Lib Dems”. But in truth, most of the people on the supposed *right* of the current Lib Dems could be described that way just as accurately (probably more). The libertarians (still the smallest of the groupings) have more in common with Chomsky than Ayn Rand, in my experience.
I’ve talked about the party and its predecessors being on the left, then swinging to the centre, then to the left again, then to the centre again, and now back to the left. I’ve been with the party throughout the last few changes because the values of the party aren’t so much to do with left vs right, as with freedom vs fascism. Everyone in the party, whatever other party they may have been members of in the past, and whatever internal faction (if any — and for most it’s “none”) they align themselves with, joined because they agree with the values in the preamble of the party constitution:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.
That’s what we’re about. We’re liberals.
This blog post is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?