Clegg and Huhne need to pare it down to basics

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The Lib Dem leadership campaign is starting to get spiky. Good, it’s past time for a bit of frankness. And while Nicholas Blincoe’s attack on Chris Huhne over on Comment is Free is ad hominem enough to make even me blush (making up a pretend speech impediment and then taking the piss out of it is in the gutter even by my standards), his criticisms of Chris Huhne’s stance on the environment aren’t a million miles from my own yesterday.

But he is wrong to complain of Huhne being schismatic. Or rather, he is wrong to express exaggerated concerns about Huhne causing a split in the party. The party’s attempts at looking every which way and being all things to all people have got us nowhere. The fact that one of Clegg’s key advisers is openly calling for as much soft soap in this contest as possible (while reserving the right to put the boot in himself) confirms my worst fears about the mushy, safe “liberal future” he appears to be promising. So much for moving out of our comfort zone.

Huhne’s manifesto contains two core elements that he should push home as much as possible over the next few weeks. The first is the People’s Veto – a brilliant populist move which happens to also be a democratic one. The second is his defence of equality. The latter guarantees that the likes of Andy Mayer and Tristan Mills won’t vote for him, but it marks him out as a centre left politician and contrasts with Clegg’s emphasis on meritocracy. It is an issue of principle that he can stand or fall on. For me – and others – it makes Clegg’s exhortation of liberalism sound hollow.

Both of these topics evoke visceral responses which is what we need in a contest like this. We have serious issues that need to be resolved. Saying we must never try resolving internal philosophical differences for fear of scaring the horses is lamentable. We will be stronger for having had a robust debate, not weaker.

Everything else in that manifesto should be junked, at least in terms of core messages. The rest of it either restates existing party policy or goes to a level of nuance that we really don’t need to be getting into. If he can’t pare it down then Blincoe will have a point: having lots of arguments on lots of topics will generate far more heat than light.

And Nick Clegg? He gets an easier task. To win my respect, all he has to come up with is one big, bold idea that it is possible to disagree with. At its heart, the fact that I haven’t heard him articulate one is what is most frustrating me about his campaign. People keep telling me he has one; that he has lots. David Boyle – someone I certainly do respect – has just joined the blogosphere and assures us that Nick has one. Everyone who knows him seems convinced that Nick has one. Yet no-one seems to want to say what it is.

12 thoughts on “Clegg and Huhne need to pare it down to basics

  1. Attacking meritocracy doesn’t make you centre-left it makes you just left. There’s nothing centrist about it. The whole origin of that line of thinking came from socialists on the left of Labour in the 1950s.

    I have though re-read the section of Chris’s manifesto document and it’s a lot woolier than it appears to be. It’s saying more that if we must suffer merit in our society, let’s be nice about it.

    If for example Manchester United are playing second division opposition and win, they should apologise. None of that nasty cheering that diminishes their opponents entitlement to equal respect. It’s an interesting point of view…

  2. I’d say it marks him out as a social democrat influenced and vaguely authoritarian.

    Democracy is not sufficient to control public services and produce decent outcomes, the only way is to use the most democratic system known – markets – and use political power to ensure that people aren’t left out of the market.

    The key difference between liberalism and socialism is that liberalism seeks to empower the individual to exercise their own choices, socialism seeks to impose uniformity (or equality).
    The liberal will let you spend your own money, the socialist will tell you you must spend it how they say (of course the privileged and rich have more money left over after the tax man takes his share so they can access the market for better opportunity – furthering inequality)

  3. The original assault on merit came from socialists on the left of the Labour party in the 1950s in the book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. The attack in Chris Huhne’s manifesto is slightly weaker than that. More ‘if we must suffer the socially divisive indignity of lucky talented smart people, then let’s encourage them to be nice about it…’

    If applied to the football league we might imagine Manchester United would still be allowed to win games against Championship opposition, but their fans would be banned from cheering. In fact Alex Ferguson would apologise after every goal and give the goalie a hug. It might be patronising and destroy football, but everyone would be equally miserable about it, so that’s a good thing.

    Not so much the politics of class-war as smug-bore.

    The fairness passage in the manifesto also contains the usual dishonest chip-on-shoulder left attack on the successful by defining them as “complacently successful”. Is that how Chris sees his own rise to where he is today? Did he just get lucky? I doubt it.

    Equality and fairness matter to liberals in respect of a belief in unlocking human potential and ensuring access to good opportunities to do so. In that context we all agree on providing a safety net and encouraging community, mutuality and respect on non-material issues as well.

    We don’t though go around attacking people for doing well, working hard and contributing to society in their own way based on crude assessments of outcome. That’s what socialists do.

    If social liberalism as defined by documents like this simply becomes shorthand for soggy socialism it ceases to mean anything. It becomes another attempt in a long-running series to rebrand nasty unappealing socialism with fluffy language.

    The root flaw though remains that state-managed equality, centralised or decentralised, is an assault on liberty, human dignity and ultimately results in a smaller share of misery for everyone rather than unlocking human potential. If that is what Huhne is championing in this race he deserves to lose. If not he should sack his policy consultant.

  4. It is telling that you set yourself on the side of the Fabians, Andy, and against the founder of such liberal institutions as the national consumer council and open university. Says it all.

  5. Rhetorical twaddle James. The Fabians are a socialist society who are very clear in their support for equality at the expense of liberty in many of their publications and see equality of outcome as a desirable end-goal. If that’s what you also advocate, have the balls to call yourself a socialist man.

    If not perhaps you could clearly articulate as to what you see the relevant differences between what you’re calling a distinct social liberal philosophy that you define as centre-left and traditional socialist views of fairness that are generally held by people who have no problem calling themselves plain old left-wing.

    Personally I’m a liberal, socially, economically, politically and personally. In respect of individual issues that philosophy spans both the centre-left and centre-right. It’s a broad radical-centrist church and I’ll vote for the leadership candidate that recognises the value of the whole of that tradition not just some narrow-minded sect within it.

    I hope in that respect you are doing Chris a great disservice by attributing these views to him. He’s smart and able enough to know you can’t win the leadership by representing only one wing and that the party can’t win in the country by doing that either. Further he has more typically has steered a very centrist line, which is why I find some, but not all elements of his manifesto so disappointing. It appears to have been hijacked by the church of leftology.

  6. Andy. My position is broadly the same as the one outlined by Duncan Brack in Reinventing the State, and I happen to know that Duncan has been highly influential on Huhne’s own thinking. I haven’t made any claim about what Huhne has said: all I’ve done thus far is quote directly from it his stance on meritocracy and endorsed that chapter as a whole.

    As Duncan emphasises, the party’s preamble is all about balancing “liberty, equality and community”. That middle word is not “equality of opportunity,” not “meritocracy” but “equality”. If you don’t believe in that, you’ve been a member of (just) this party for around 7 (? I can never remember when you “merged”) years now: why have you never sought to change it?

    Duncan makes a strong case in his chapter and as I don’t have the time to go into this in detail right now, I will simply refer you to that. His argument is not that equality should be the only aim of the party – which would of course be socialism – but that it should be balanced with the other two core values in our preamble. In practice what that means is putting an emphasis on tackling ignorance, redistributing wealth and ending entrenched privilege. Clegg has expressed an interest in the former but thus far has been completely uninterested in the latter two.

    You meritocrats will never take those issues seriously because you can never get your head around the idea that someone might have got where they are through their own entrenched advantages. You will always satisfy yourselves that they got where they are on ‘merit’.

    You were on the wrong side of the debate in 1909, and you’re on the wrong side of the debate now.

  7. James my belief in equality I articulated in ‘so what do we mean by fair’ during the meeting the challenge consultation and again in part above…

    broadly…
    – equity / equal respect &
    – equality of access to good opportunity

    In respect of tackling ignorance we clearly agree, we are pro-education and freedom of information party

    In respect of redistribution, it is entirely wrong to attack either me or people like Clegg for not thinking this matters. Of course it does, how can you have access to good opportunity without redistribution.

    Where I part company with socialists is that I do not seek to redistribute as a goal in itself. In fact I would see that as defining difference between liberalism and socialism.

    We seek to redistribute to address a specific injustice that is acting as a barrier to someone achieving their potential. Equal outcomes is not the end goal; addressing injustice and ‘unfairness’ is.

    Duncan Brack’s many magnus opi on this have attempting to obfuscate that clarity by claiming inequality in itself is such a barrier, particularly in respect of non-material matters such as happiness or life-expectancy…. or ‘I can’t ever be happy because you’re better looking than me’.

    But it’s a circular argument. Inequality matters because it matters, therefore we must redistribute for the sake of redistribution.

    It is also a self-destructive argument that undermines what it sets out to achieve. It sends a message that you are not responsible for your own happiness… you’ve been failed by the state, community, friends etc. and the unfair success of others, whatever unfair is supposed to mean in that context. That creates a poverty-trap of the mind that is every bit as damaging to aspiration and potential as real poverty traps. Socialism creates poverty and then entrenches it.

    On ending entrenched privileges again your attack is unfair, it is simply wrong to suggest a liberal will always see advantage as justified on merit.

    We both, for example, share a passion for ending the injustice of monopoly ownership of land. That is an entrenched privilege we can do something about and should do. I hope we also agree on the need for strong competition laws and provisions against monopoly in business.

    But there are entrenched privileges that are ‘unequal’ but not ‘unfair’. Looks, brains, talent, aptitude etc. It might be true to say the best way to get on is choose good parents, but that was always the flaw in Rawls, we are not vacant clones born behind a veil of ignorance, we are all different, and some of those differences mean we have different potentials in different areas. That is society, not a social problem to be attacked.

    The social problems come in how those unequal beginnings interact to stop people achieving their potential, across the spectrum, not as Rawls suggests by only focusing on the bottom of the pile. Slavery of the talented is every bit as wrong and destructive as exploitation of the weak. In the long run worse, as it destroys the economic and social fabric necessary to increase opportunity for all, end exploitation, and tackle injustice.

    Liberalism is a helping hand across the ability spectrum. Conservatism thinks helping the bottom doesn’t matter nearly enough, and socialism thinks you help the bottom by disabling the top…. because they think inequality matters more than potential… and so we return to root of this debate…

    As to 1909, I wasn’t alive… 2009 though I hope we see a government elected with liberals in it. That’s the side of the debate I’m on.

  8. I will accept that much of this boils down to semantics – I want equality potaytoes, you want meritocratic potartoes – but where candidates refuse to be drawn on specifics then that is all we can debate.

    Are you clear that Clegg sees ‘fairness’ (to use the woolliest, catch all term) in the same way you’ve just outlined? He hasn’t said so thus far. Is it so wrong to demand clarity from the candidate himself?

    In terms of your criticisms of Brack’s essay, I fear you are on shaky ground. What he’s outlined is a wealth of evidence and statistics that suggests that more equal societies have lower rates of crime, longer lifespans, better health, etc. You don’t seem to be challenging his evidence base, merely that it is heretical for him to do so. That is hardly a strong argument that moves the debate forward.

    Final point: Simon Hughes is now backing Clegg. Surely you don’t disagree that that doesn’t exactly help his image as being wishy-washy?

  9. What I don’t understand is why, when this party is already seen as being to the left of Labour and pretty radical and redistributive people think the solution to the party’s current problems is to swing even further to the left?

    It doesn’t make any kind of sense. I’m sorry but this is the same mish-mash of Liberalism and Socialism that the voters have said, “no thanks” to every single general election we’ve fought, we want to turn up the Socialism part now? We might call it “social liberalism” but how is that different to Blair’s rebranding of One Nation Conservatism as “The Third Way”? No-one understood the third way because it doesn’t make sense, and neither does this platform. If I need to read a book to understand it then what hope does the average member of the public who’s only view of politics is what they see on television or read in the papers have?

    We all agree that moving out of the comfort zone is essential but moving off to the left would be an absolute electoral disaster. We’d be seen as even more sympathetic to Labour when the mood of the country is quite clearly starting to turn against them, and we’d be automatically subject to the same criticisms and patronising dismissal that the Left in the Labour Party have had to suffer for a decade and a half.

    I’m kind of with Andy and Tristan on this I’m afraid James. I’ve already agreed with you about the obvious criticisms of ‘meritocracy’ – the main one being that there’s no such thing and that it institutionalises privilege and advantage, but equality of outcomes does not fix those problems and brings serious problems of it’s own.

    Equality of intrinsic human worth for individuals is something I support. Equal value on people’s skills, abilities, talents and effort is a huge disincentive against anyone doing anything more than looking for the easiest, less stressful, least boring job they can do – meaning the vast majority of us will be pretty miserable or have serious incentive to leave the country – look at the difference to the Irish economy as a result of ending insanely high tax rates – they’ve stopped suffering from a brain drain to the UK. Their net inward migration figures are actually in the positive now.

    Redistribution should never be a goal. It is a tool of last resort when all other alternatives have failed and we should ensure that it is the democratic will of the people that we take the necessary action.

  10. “Is it so wrong to demand clarity from the candidate himself?” – not at all, going back to your original challenge in the article one thing Nick has said so far, that I disagree with with is his rejection of any consideration of the proposals on English votes for English laws in Parliament.

    Kennedy fudged the issue in the Guardian by suggesting support for the Union but demanding a convention, which presumably would at least consider the West Lothian problem. Nick has simply come out against any change and attacked Chris for dallying with Scots Nats and Tories for saying he’d think about it.

    I sincerely doubt then, whoever I decide to vote for, I’m going to agree with 100% of what they’ve said, but being clear that we are party interested in spanning the liberal centre-ground is a pretty major issue for me.

    On Brack’s evidence, a complaint I have about most Lib Dem policy papers is they don’t reference source material. I would like to examine some parts of his evidence base, only I need to see it.

    One of the issues I have with some inequality work on happiness that I have seen is that it be may be observationally correct, crime was very low in the Soviet Union for example, but it doesn’t ask why… or whether the alternatives would be any better… at which point jumping to the conclusion redistribution is the answer is clearly not helpful.

    Simon backing Nick – I’m not sure it says much other than Simon is picking his leader on the basis of more than policy. Otherwise it just plays into the broad-church narrative versus the narrow-inward-looking script team-Clegg appear to be writing for Huhne and team-Huhne have been jumping into with both feet so far.

  11. Final point: while I agree with you about policy papers (although the Better Governance one certainly had footnotes), Brack’s chapter in Reinventing the State has 29 footnotes.

    Re EVoEM, I disagree with Huhne’s support for it but certainly agree with his statement that PR should be a precondition of it. In that regard, Clegg’s response was ridiculous because he was totally ignoring what Huhne had specifically said.

    Ultimately, my point on Huhne concentrating on two issues was making a different point to what this debate has focussed on. My point was that he stands or falls on his arguments and that he should focus on what exactly the argument is he should be making rather than getting sidetracked.

    I like his vision of equality and am suspicious of putting the emphasis on meritocracy. But I’m not saying that is the only issue that is going to decide my vote by a long way.

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