Tag Archives: liberalism

Lembit Opik: real men hate women

I wasn’t going to blog about Lembit’s new column (fnarr! fnarr! snork!) – I figure I’ve fulfilled my quota of Lembit bashing for the year. But then he went and said something stupid:

“This is part of my own stated objective to reach beyond the normal political limits to people who may not be particularly interested in Parliament, but will find it interesting if the info is presented in a non-pompous or technical way.

“That’s my goal, and I hope anyone who values the benefit of a politically informed society will agree with this approach.

“It’s politics for real people, and, thanks to the Sport, I’m glad to have the opportunity.”

How does one define “real”? If by “real” you mean people who aren’t obsessed by politics, fair enough, but that doesn’t make Daily Sport readers “real” by definition. The Sport has 80,000 readers. That’s less than half the readers of the worst selling UK “quality” (I would demur from this description) daily, The Independent. If he was claiming to be reaching out to people that mainstream politics usually ignores, that is true as far as it goes. But suggesting they are ordinary and typical of the man in the street is not merely factually wrong, it is demeaning to the typical man in the street.

Whichever way you dress it up though, the Daily Sport is misogyny. We can argue about whether porn can be empowering or not until the cows come home, but there is no fuzzy grey area where the Sport, Nuts and Zoo are concerned. The days when it used to get away with presenting itself as a UK version of the National Enquirer (double decker found on the moon!) are long gone. I wouldn’t ban it, or even insist it is on the top shelf, but letting it crawl into a corner and die would be a thoroughly good thing for society. Is Lembit going to challenge that misogyny or just go along with it? We shall see.

One of the things I find remarkable about all this is how even criticising the Sport and other soft porn titles as sexist has somehow become socially unacceptable. The debate on Lib Dem Voice skirted around the issue (I have to admit to failing to get my outrage on there), merely focusing on whether Lembit’s decision to do this would do the party more harm than good. The argument – from Julian H, Iain Coleman and others – went that, so long as it didn’t actually harm the party electorally, and potentially reached out to new voters, it was unimpeachable.

I can’t help but suspect this phenomena is all too closely related to Emily Benn’s avowed post-feminism. Lembit, lest we forget, is Liberal Vision’s “most liberal MP” – liberalism, we are to believe, is now to be graded according to which Early Day Motions you have signed. If British liberalism really has become so timid and self-conscious that it feels it cannot even criticise (as distinct from ban) the illiberal, then it is lost.

The Geoff Hoon memorial poll

In honour of Geoff Hoon’s extraordinary outburst on Thursday evening, I thought I’d run this little poll by you:

[poll id=”5″]

Now, from what he said on Question Time, I’m pretty sure he, like most of the rest of his party, is a life-then-liberty-then-property kind of guy. But who is to be more greatly admired – someone who sacrifices their life in the name of saving liberty or someone who sacrifices their liberty in the name of saving lifes? And what about property? Don’t many people applaud Tony Martin for defending his property?

I’m not entirely convinced that people really do see “life” as the ultimate right – it would be a very grim world if we did. So let’s have your vote and hear how you justify it.

The week Labour finally abandoned liberalism?

Last week I attended Labour’s autumn conference as an exhibitor. These are my thoughts on how it went.

By Labour’s own standards, they have had a good conference – but it is a sign of how far they have fallen that those standards were so low.

Simply put: the widely predicted civil war didn’t happen, or at least fizzled out as soon as they had to look each other in the eye last Saturday. That the coup attempt failed quite so spectacularly suggests they didn’t really know what they were doing in the first place, which in turn poses serious questions about the competence of Miliband et al.

The people who unquestioningly had a good conference were the left and more specifically Compass. Speaking to some Compassites immediately after Brown’s speech resembled a game of Compass bingo, with them ticking off the stock phrases and themes that he had pinched (freely given, to be sure) from what they had been arguing for eighteen months ago.

Now, I disagree with a lot of what Compass say – in particular their proposals for a windfall tax which violates a pretty important principle of good public policy for me, namely that there has to be a much stronger justification behind it than petty avarice and base popularity. Indeed, while Compass have published the occasional discussion paper which suggests they may have something more intellectually robust to say about tax, broadly speaking it doesn’t get more sophisticated than “squeeze them ’til the pips squeak.” But they have played a canny game within the party itself and now find themselves in the rather odd position of being the party loyallists at a time when the Blairites and Brownites are fighting like rats in a sack.

I don’t think Compass are the answer to making Labour electable again (although they do) but they are what Labour needs to weather the storm in opposition. They provide the party faithful with a comfort blanket. By contrast, the right of the party offers nothing apart from a few ten-year-old platitudes, fear of the Tories and a lot of bitterness. There are no new ideas coming out of “new” Labour. It is no wonder Compass seem so appealing.

The general mood of conference delegates that I detected this week was stoicism. They weren’t in denial and they weren’t panicking, they were simply preparing themselves for the oncoming storm. That is more or less where I felt Gordon Brown pitched his speech as well. If he can keep it up, I think he’ll close the gap – not completely, but by enough to prevent the opinion polls from looking like a complete Labour rout. He might even be able to deny Cameron a majority. But that in part depends on whether the right resume hostilities again.

On the last day of conference, a woman working on one of the other exhibition stands pointed out to me that not only was attendence down this year (which it surely was) but that there were so few black faces. She had a good point – in terms of ethnicity the Labour conference was down to almost Lib Dem levels of hideous whiteness. Partly this could be explained by the relative lack of BME-related exhibitors. The stall for the National Assembly Against Racism – one of Lee Jasper’s fronts which badly needs friends at the moment – was largely abandoned. But I don’t think that entirely accounts for it.

I can’t help but wonder if this has something to do with the other detectable trend within Labour this year – the authoritarians have won. For all Compass’s warm words about civil liberties, when it came down to it in the counter-terrorism bill, both Cruddas and Tricket voted for extending pre-charge detention without trial. They both then symbolically resigned their places in Compass but it is clear from their website this is nowhere near a priority for the organisation. At the Observer fringe, a big majority of attendees revealed they supported ID cards. The only people arguing for liberalism within the Labour Party are in the Blairite wing, and they are now hopelessly compromised.

For a party that likes to claim that fairness is in its DNA these days, it is clear that they are all too comfortable with the idea of arbitrary authoritarian state control. That battle has now been decisively won within Labour. It isn’t surprising that black people are more alienated from them than ever, as they will inevitably be on the sharp end of this brave new world.

Do liberals hate Poles?

Yes, according to Daniel Kawczynski, who blames the “liberal elites” – and in particular the BBC – for increased attacks on Poles in the UK.

If there is a widespread vendetta by the BBC against Poles, presumably the Poles themselves are up in arms about it? Well, not on Polish Forums they’re not. The Federation of Poles in Great Britain are rather more exercised about the distinctly un-liberal Daily Mail (a paper which has lost no time in jumping on Kawczynski’s bandwagon), yet strangely Kawczynski doesn’t mention this fact.

Kawczynski’s speech doesn’t actually cite a single example of what his complaint is, merely assuring his Honorable Friends that “I have undertaken a study of BBC coverage of immigration” (where is it then? Can’t find it on his website) and that MPs “would be amazed at the amount of BBC coverage that focuses on white, Christian Poles because it is politically correct to do so.” When someone alleges something as grave as this using Parliamentary privilege as a shield yet can’t even come up with a single anecdote, it is only reasonable to view such allegations with contempt.

Over at Open House, Andy McSmith raises some other points which illustrate how bizarre, even sinister, Kawczynski’s comments are in other ways. The thing that struck me is that in his claim that “9 out of 10 immigrants are not Polish” he appears to be confusing the concept of “immigrant” with that of “member of an ethnic minority”. No-one denies that there are a lot of people with brown skin in this country. They have made a big impact on our society (in my view an overwhelmingly positive one). But the rise of Eastern European shops and workers is a recent phenomenon and that’s why it has been getting a lot of airtime of late. Surely the role of news is, well, news – not history?

The biggest joke is how Kawczynski blames all this on “political correctness”. How is calling for a bank holiday to celebrate a specific ethnic minority and alleging victim status not political correctness? There’s an interesting debate on PC over at Lib Dem Voice; I suggest he goes and reads it.

What interests me most about this incident (tangent alert!) is Kawcynski’s allegations about the “liberal elite”. I’ve been meaning to comment on the Well Known Fact that the BBC has a “liberal” bias for quite some time now. This claim has been accepted by a number of people including Andrew Marr. Marr’s comments are particularly interesting because in my view he gets close to the truth, but doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head:

The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.

I would not disagree that the Beeb has a cultural, urban middle class bias. What I quibble with is the inclusion of the word “liberal.” As an habitual Today Programme listener, what strikes me every morning is quite how similar the editorialising of John Humphries and James Naughtie is to the Daily Mail’s.

The Today Programme’s particular obsessions are with bird-watching, poetry, why young people today are so rude, house prices, shares, most sports except football and anything Saint Lynne of Truss happens to be banging on about at any given moment. None of these are particularly liberal, some of them teeter on the illiberal side of things, but all of them are unremittingly urban, middle class and middle aged obsessions. I simply can’t fathom how a channel that has as its main political interviewers Humphries, Andrew Neill and the Brothers Dimblebum can be described as “liberal” but it is undeniable that it has a certain middle class bias.

These same biases are prevalent within the Daily Mail as well. The fact that the Beeb has a tendency to veer between the worst excesses of the Mail and the Guardian suggests that politically it has probably got the balance right but culturally is failing woefully.

What does all this have to do with Daniel Kawczynski? Not a great deal, except to suggest how empty his attacks on the “liberal elite” really are. Meanwhile, I suggest everyone goes and reads what James Oates has to say about Poles and Ukranians.

Banning things

Madsen Pirie wrote the following on the Adam Smith Blog last week:

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has a real problem. Last week one of his MPs tabled a bill in Parliament to force pubs and bars to sell wine in small measures only, while one of his party’s MEPs called for a ban on patio heaters.

The result is that poor Nick Clegg has seen his party made to look stupid yet again. He needs to take a lesson from Peter Mandelson, who introduced tight controls over what initiatives individual Labour politicians might launch or pontificate about. It made him unpopular, but it made his party able to control its image. Nick Clegg will have to do something similar or risk seeing idiots and charlatans make his party a laughing stock week after week.

This being the ASI, I’m sure they don’t see the irony in calling for Clegg to ban something in the interest of not wanting to look as if he’s in favour of banning things, but actually they have a point. I’m not clear that the world will be much improved by either Hall’s or Mulholland’s proposals. The growth in patio heater demand was particularly predictable given we saw precisely this happen as soon as Ireland introduced their own smoking bans a few years ago. The law of unintended consequences is not quite the same thing as a law of unpredictable consequences. It’s horses for courses.

I happen to agree that Lib Dem MPs ought to be very, very cautious about banning things or imposing greater regulation, and to always look towards a non-statutory solution first. But with that said, I’m not convinced we’re any worse at it as a party than any other.

Take the Tories for instance. Jonathan Calder has already taken David Davis to task for his call to lock up every underage drinker he can get his mitts on. Meanwhile, at the end of this month Tory MP Julian Brazier will be seeking to get the British Board of Film Classification (Accountability to Parliament and Appeals) Bill through its second reading. BBFC, for all its faults, is an example of relatively successful self-regulation, until the Thatcher government made it a semi-QUANGO during the video nasty scare. Brazier however wants to go even further:

A Bill to make provision for parliamentary scrutiny of senior appointments to the British Board of Film Classification and of guildlines produced by it; to establish a body with powers to hear appeals against the release of videos and DVDs and the classification of works in prescribed circumstances; to make provision about penalties for the distribution of illegal works; and for connect purposes

In other words, Brazier is seeking Parliamentary powers to exert political pressure on the BBFC and effectively make it its puppet. A vice-like grip of state control over popular culture in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. Roy Jenkins must be spinning in his grave.

I’m not sure that anything any Lib Dem politician has proposed comes close to this, yet I don’t hear the ASI lecturing Cameron.

The other recent call to ban something has come from some teenagers in Corby, who have enlisted the Childrens Commissioner and Liberty in their mission to get the Mosquito banned. This is a much more difficult issue, since these devices are explicitly discriminatory against young people, yet at the same time totally indiscriminate in that they don’t distinguish between thugs and the vast majority of innocent teenagers. I’ve got enormous sympathy for the kids.

And yet… despite the fact that for any public body to use such a device would be a clear breach of the HRA in my view, I’m not sure anything much would be gained by banning it altogether. I’m not convinced we should treat this as a zero-sum game between youths and shopkeepers. I can understand why shopkeepers in some places may be at their wits’ end and resort to such measures. I can’t help but feel this is endemic of a wider social problem. Just as the Mosquitoes don’t solve anti-social behaviour as much as move it on, banning them wouldn’t tackle the underlying issue either.

It seems to me we need to take a more constructive approach, and that the solution is best left to people locally to sort out for themselves. Broadly then, much as it pains me to say it, I think the government line is the right one.

Just in case you thought I was being too nice to the government though, let’s focus on its plans to block prostitute’s telephone lines. How wrong is this? Let me count the ways:

1. Assuming it could be made to work, it would force prostitutes out onto the street and in a more dangerous environment.
2. It costs £10 £1.99 to buy a new phone number these days in the form of a sim card. Assuming these are not summary police powers the government is proposing, they would go through costly legal procedures to ban a number, only to find the same prostitute working with a new number within a matter of hours.
3. Even if the government did give the police summary powers here and all the civil liberty implications that would entail, the prostitutes could simply switch over to email accounts.

This sounds less like a crackdown on prostitution and more like an elaborate and expensive game of cat-and-mouse.

The impulse to ban things is rooted in our desire for symbolism but even in the case of unambiguously bad things it is rarely a simple, cut and dried matter. We should always be wary of doing so – and that applies to all parties.

UPDATE: Some great background on the BBFC on Edis Bevan’s blog.

The Orange Book Delusion

The enduring irritation about the Orange Book is not its content, which was broadly uncontentious, but the mythical book which everyone who never read it imagines exists.

So once again my heart sinks when I read Nick Assinder claim:

In his first major speech since winning the job, Mr Clegg has pretty much adopted the agenda set out in the controversial Orange Book, authored by party frontbencher David Laws and others (including Mr Clegg himself) in 2004.

On one level, that is correct; as correct as it is banal. Most of the chapters in the Orange Book do little other than recite existing party policy, with a perhaps a slight difference in emphasis. Very few Lib Dems disagree with the notion that social and economic liberalism both have important roles to play, neither the economic liberals behind the Orange Book nor the social liberals behind Reinventing the State. In that respect, the Orange Book failed to move us forward. You might just as well argue that both Kennedy and Campbell “adopted” the Orange Book agenda.

The real issue is to what extent Clegg has moved in a David Laws direction. The answer to that is, he most certainly has. But adopted the agenda set out in David Laws’ chapter on health? Nope. Adopted Laws’ pugnacious stance in his chapter on liberalism? Quite the opposite. Given that the speech was about public services and philosophy and Laws’ chapters were the main ones on both, these facts matter quite a lot.

This isn’t a debate about a book, it is a debate about a general direction. And if that debate is to be at all meaningful, it should focus more on practicalities than principles: this isn’t an Oxford Union debate. As it stands, I broadly welcome the stance laid out by Nick Clegg on Saturday; I remain deeply sceptical about health insurance. So does that make me an Orange Booker or not?

Perhaps one day someone will publish the definitive book on social liberalism. The Orange Book was not it. I do wish people would stop waving it in my face and actually read it.

Is truly liberal multiculturalism possible?

In my weakened state over having to do back to work on Monday I managed to get myself into a ridiculous argument about the Bishop of Rochester’s comments about Muslim “no-go areas” over at Lib Dem Voice. Apologies to all concerned who are already banging their heads in weariness of the debate. I just thought I’d make a few points in (slightly) less inflammatory terms.

I’ve lived and campaigned in a variety of multi-cultural parts of England for much of the past 15 years. Originally as a student (and penniless graduate) in Rusholme, Manchester; in Beeston, Leeds (just around the corner from home of the famous suicide bomber no less); in Leamington Spa (don’t laugh – it has a sizeable Sikh population in the old part of town where I lived) and now in Jewish North London. All those areas have their issues, but overall my conclusion is that we do multiculturalism quite well in this country.

Based on my ideal of a liberal society which upholds personal dignity and ultimately maximises not merely tolerance but mutual respect, I’m open to the argument that so-called silo-isation has gone too far and that the practice of having separate Muslim, Sikh or Jewish cultural centres, etc. ultimately does more harm than good. I do in fact accept the argument that language is an important factor for integration and generally support the drive for greater emphasis on teaching English while spending less on language translation services. I have little time for self-appointed martyrs like Shabina Begum who take a school dress code which is already sensitive to her faith and attempts to push the envelope several stages too far (if she was a white Christian she would simply have been dismissed as an emo brat who needs to get over herself). And I believe that as a society which places an emphasis on equal rights and individual liberties, while the state can’t expect individuals to like people with different values and beliefs it, it can insist upon tolerance and insist that people living in this country obey our laws.

The latter point is most significant. Many of the loudest critics of “multiculturalism” insist that immigrants and ethnic minorities conform to “our way of life” while insisting that we should never, ever write down those values we hold dear in any meaningful sense. It is for this reason that I am less cynical than some about Gordon Brown’s push for a British “statement of values” – it’s fraught with problems but might, just might, lead us down the road towards an entrenched Bill of Rights and codified constitution. The often lazy form of multiculturalism that has taken hold in the UK (particularly northern cities) is very much a product of our hollow so-called “flexible” constitution however much the ranting Little Englanders might like to think otherwise.

What annoys me the most about people like Angus Huck is that they take a perfectly reasonable position such as zero-tolerance of female genital mutilation, honour killings, and so on, and then leap to the conclusion that opposing such things must by necessity mean insisting that anyone living in this country must conform to a British way of life (whatever that is). How you can make the leap from objecting to the stoning of women to the banning of prayers being broadcast from the top of minarets is beyond me.

In the Sky News interview with Nick Clegg which has caused all the controversy, Clegg likens Muslim prayers to church bells. Both assault the senses; in what way is one benign while the other is menacing (and Angus, the argument that church bells have been rung for hundreds of years simply won’t do – we have neither the demographics nor the level of church attendance that we had hundreds of years ago, nor do we tolerate the religious intolerance of hundreds of years ago – at what point do you want society to have been ossified. It’s for Disney to come up with twee portrayals of the past, not policy makers)? Similarly, how can we single out Muslim men for being “aggressive and macho” and “intimidating” any more than we can any other group of young men? In any case, one person’s “intimidating” is another person’s “laughable posturing”.

We could be having the same debate about Jews in the 1930s, or Quakers 200 years before. These things go in cycles. If the price we pay for expecting Muslim immigrant communities to respect human rights and obey our laws is the odd mosque making a racket on a Friday morning, then it is a price well worth paying. I can’t understand how any liberal would draw the line any other way (although lets by all means listen to the debate).

Clegg’s words were exactly right here; Nazir-Ali’s claims were indeed “extraordinarily inflammatory”. The debate we’re having now only proves his point. They were all-but calculated to generate heat rather than light. If he had a specific area in mind, then why not name it? 70 years on from the Rothermere Press I think we are entitled to expose innuendo where we see it. The biggest throat laugh his article generated from me was when he tutted about Shariah-compliant finance being legislated for in the UK. Outrageous! The very idea that people might not want to practice usury – how very un-Christian! And surely just the thin end of the wedge towards legalised stonings for rape victims!

Sadly, Nazir-Ali seems to be essaying his colleague the Archbishop of York when it comes to making outlandish statements about other groups – remember the guff about “illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists” banning Christmas? This sort of lazy denunciation from the pulpit has become all too common from our so-called national church. Yet criticise them and you can usually rely on someone to attack you for not daring to criticise Muslims in the same way and of course of the old staple “political correctness gone mad”. Here’s a deal: I won’t call that trying to shut down debate if you don’t call my disagreement with you the same thing, mmm’kay?

Comment is Free: Share the wealth!

My latest article on Comment is Free is now up:

Instead of doggedly trying to outpace property prices, imagine if the exchequer went the other way. And imagine if it used the extra revenue that resulted to cut income taxes. Wouldn’t it be fairer to allow people to keep more of the money that they earn in exchange for having less inheritance to look forward to? Wouldn’t that be better for the economy: lowering the costs of labour while doing more to capture unearned wealth? Shouldn’t at least one of the main political parties be championing such a position?

On Equality

Last week I got some flak for stating that I support “equality” as a guiding principle. Indeed, in Andy Mayer’s case it turned into a full scale onslaught. Church of Leftology? Where did all that come from? Never has so much been read into the use of one little word. I’ve been meaning to return to the subject all week and have struggled to fit it in with, among other things, blogging about the Huhne interview, but it looks as if I finally have a chance.

What I aim to spell out in this article is that support for the narrow ideals of “meritocracy” and “equality of outcome” at the exclusion of equality in the round is inconsistent with the Liberal Democrats’ stated goals, with liberalism more widely and is ultimately riddled with contradiction.

The first point is easy. I need only quote the Liberal Democrat Preamble:

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.

That’s a pretty bald statement and it’s written on every single membership card. In the almost 20 years of the party no-one, as far as I’m aware, has ever lobbied to have this statement changed. In short, if you don’t support equality, you don’t support the principles of the Liberal Democrats. The End.

But while that may well be true, it is insufficient. It could be that all this proves is that the Liberal Democrats are not a true liberal party, but rather a rough halfway house between a liberal party and a social democratic one (which in one sense of course happens to be true). Is “true” liberalism therefore incompatible with Liberal Democrat values?

In a sense I suspect it depends on whether you consider yourself to be a social liberal or a classical liberal. In Reinventing the State, David Howarth however makes the point that even David Laws is a social liberal, albeit a “minor” one. Let’s look at a number of policy areas and explore whether the Liberal Democrat line leans more towards equality or equality of opportunity/meritocracy.

First of all, a simple one: democracy itself. Not only does the party believe in universal suffrage, it believes in a fair voting system. These ideals are rooted in equality, not equality of opportunity. We don’t argue that everyone should have an opportunity to have a vote. We have a real concern (don’t we?) about the fact that under first-past-the-post the value of your vote varies enormously depending on where you happen to live. We don’t limit ourselves to being concerned about everyone having the opportunity to live in a marginal constituency. We want all constituencies, ideally, to be marginal.

What about another absolute: human rights. Do we argue for a meritocratic rights system, where only the “deserving” have rights? This isn’t totally absurd question: a number of people in the Labour Party, including Home Office Minister Tony McNulty, do. The Conservatives want to tear up the Human Rights Act but they are happy to remain signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights – under such a system everyone would have the opportunity to exercise their rights. Do we agree with them? I don’t think so.

Do we think the police should only answer calls of distress from people with a clean criminal record? Do we think the health service should only be available to people who don’t smoke and stick to their ideal body weight (again not a completely hypothetical question as this issue does crop up time and again)?

Education is a thornier issue. Some Conservatives support Grammar Schools; David Cameron blathers on about “Grammar streaming”. Obviously the whole point of doing exams is that you have achieved some standard of merit. But is the Pupil Premium about equality of opportunity or a system of positive discrimination? If we were a party purely concerned with opportunity and meritocracy, how would such an idea not merely be policy but manage to get through our party conference with barely a squeak of opposition?

It strikes me that not only could you not maintain a liberal position while holding to a strict philosophy of equality of opportunity, you would get stuck into a mire of contradictions. As a philosophy it doesn’t tell you where to draw the line. At what point do you give up on people? At what point do you insist on leveling the playing field? At the genetic and embryological stage? At the toddler? The teenager? It’s rooted in the idea that there is a point in everyone’s life that you can point to, make sure the inequalities are addressed there, and then leave people to go off on their merry way without having to worry about what happens next.

The problem with such an approach is that there is no internal critique. As such it is all too easy to slip into complacency. Andy Mayer for example is extremely quick to write people off:

But there are entrenched privileges that are ‘unequal’ but not ‘unfair’. Looks, brains, talent, aptitude etc.

Sure there are fundamental differences in our genetic code, but there is a huge danger in exaggerating them. We know for example that identical twins, with different upbringings can end up having extremely different “looks, brains, talent, aptitude, etc.” (notice how imprecise all these differentials are). We understand – don’t we? – the danger of drawing wild conclusions about genetic difference, following the publication of spurious books such as the Bell Curve. From my reading of the nature versus nurture debate, at best the jury it out on which is the main steer; if anything nurture and the external environment appears to be winning through. You can’t ultimately answer a scientific issue through political philosophy; if the latter is to be meaningful it must be informed by the former.

Most meritocrats within the Lib Dems have leapt onto the issue of education as his point at which everything will fall into place. They are certainly correct that this is one of the most important areas that maximise equality of opportunity, but if you think that a good secondary education alone will set people up for life, you are sadly mistaken.

For example, I work in the public policy sector. I’m very conscious of the fact that small organisations like my own use internships to help bolster what we can do. The only reason why people do internships is because it gives them valuable experience and helps get them paid work. Yet people without access to free accommodation and board within London can’t afford to do internships. Result? The public policy sector is disproportionately filled with people from stable middle class backgrounds based in London and the South East. The best state supplied education in the world won’t change that fact, and the same rule applies to a whole range of white collar professions.

Andy Mayer and others have been very keen to attack my apparent support for “equality of outcome”. In fact this is the first time I’ve written that dread phrase on this blog. Equality of outcome is just as narrow and problematic a philosophy as equality of opportunity; if you solely concern yourself with outcomes you will only ever level down. But that does not mean you shouldn’t be concerned about equality of outcome. And it is here that Andy Mayer goes a bit bonkers. In attacking Duncan Brack’s writings on equality, he says the following:

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.

This is a complete travesty of what Duncan has written. Duncan’s argument in Reinventing the State and elsewhere has been to look at the international evidence, observe that for example more equal societies tend to have lower incidences of crime and higher life expectancy and ask why. At no point does Mayer suggest that this leads to wrong conclusions, merely that it shouldn’t be looked at at all. Then, by way of misdirection, he starts raising the spectre of the Soviet Union, pointing out that the crime level there was low.

But the Soviet Union, as any casual viewer would attest, was not an equal society. While it espoused equality, the reality was quite different. While large sections of society were equally poor, they didn’t have equal rights or equal status. Duncan Brack doesn’t refer to the Soviet Union at all; so how is it relevant?

Mayer’s leap is to assume that a concern about equality of outcome is the same thing as pursuing equality of outcome at the expense of everything else. Yet no-one in the party as far as I’m aware has ever argued either for a narrow interpretation of equality or even that equality should be allowed to trump liberty.

And it isn’t just me who espouses a concern about outcomes. Nick Clegg this week made it extremely clear that he takes outcomes seriously. On the issue of diversity within our parliamentary party, he declared:

I believe this is our last chance to do it the purely liberal way, without any positive discrimination written into the rules. So I will take out an “insurance policy”, so we make sure we get it right. If, in 2 elections’ time, we have not sorted this out once and for all, then we will have no choice but to consider positive discrimination.

While I welcome this statement, it goes further than I’ve ever gone. According to Mayer’s logic, this makes Nick Clegg a fully paid up member of the “Church of Leftology

Finally, I’ve been castigated for supporting the redistribution of wealth as an end in itself. Once again, I would quote you the Lib Dem preamble:

We recognise that the independence of individuals is safeguarded by their personal ownership of property, but that the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly. We support the widest possible distribution of wealth and promote the rights of all citizens to social provision and cultural activity.

Why has the party taken such an unequivocal line on this? For the simple fact that if wealth is left to accumulate is will always block opportunities for others. Wealth, all things being equal, creates more wealth. A millionaire can outbid a typical graduate on a house without breaking a sweat and use the rental income from it to help buy more houses. The market is not self-correcting in this respect. Redistribution then is a fundamental corrective. Support for it only as a “last resort” is to call on us to waste time trying to avoid a fundamental principle of economics that has been well understood since Adam Smith.

Redistribution of wealth is not the same thing as redistribution of income. Speaking personally, long before the Lib Dems supported cutting income taxes I was calling for us to shift the burden of income and onto wealth. Policies such as the 50p rate on incomes above £100,000 fail to differentiate between hard work, good investment and sitting on inherited wealth. We should always encourage innovation and initiative; we should always discourage people from resting on their laurels.

Ultimately, a commitment to true equality means moving outside the narrow confines of concepts like “meritocracy”, “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” and instead appreciating the bigger picture. Ideally, equality of opportunity ought to produce equality of outcome. In the real world we are never going to achieve that ideal but the creative tension between the two can lead to progress. By contrast, an opportunity-centric approach in the way that Andy Mayer espouses is like a factory owner having a machine in which he believes he can get the best products by putting the finest raw materials in one end, but who refuses point blank to look at what comes out at the other end.

Similarly, confining equality to economic terms is to deny the wide range of areas in which it can and should inform policy; ways which the headbangers for meritocracy appear to be blind to. Human rights, fair votes and universal suffrage – all classical liberal ideas – are rooted in the Enlightenment and thus a fundamental belief in equality.

Liberals take it for granted that liberty is a complex and rich concept; so why this mad rush for reductionism when it comes to equality? Ultimately the two must inform each other. I’m not convinced you can have true equality without liberty: look at how inequality in Venezuala is becoming more stark since Chavez took the reins of power. Conversely, as L.T. Hobhouse put it: “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result.”

Conspiring with lefties

This evening I attended the launch party of the Liberal Conspiracy, the latest brainchild of Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics fame. Sadly, they didn’t supply us with sparklers or have any of those rubbishy indoor fireworks you used to be inflicted with at children’s parties, but a fun time seemed to be had by all.

As far as I can tell, I was the only Lib Dem there; to what degree I was the only Lib Dem who attended or the only Lib Dem who was invited was not clear, although I understand that a lot of people were at the Hackney Empire.

Sunny’s ambition is to produce nothing less than the hub of the liberal-left. First impression? It includes a lot of people I like and respect, but seems to lean more towards the left than the liberal, and that this is reflected by their ideals as well.

For example, the FAQ states:

You can join in as long as you somewhat share our broad goals and aims (social justice, equality, eradicating poverty etc.)

Where’s the emphasis on liberty? And:

The Labour party may represent the best vehicle for our political goals as they are in power, but our allegiance is towards liberal-left policies and ideas than specific parties.

Sure it may, but it may not. The inference I read in that statement is that the Labour party does represent the best vehicle for the liberal-left. From what I’ve seen so far, the left tail is very much wagging the liberal dog; indeed, their definition of liberalism doesn’t appear to get much more sophisticated that the Nick Cohen-esque critique of it meaning little more than moderate and middle class. Not so much a political philosophy as a belief in the importance of being nice.

The thing is, that’s almost the same definition of liberalism that I’m pretty certain David Cameron is thinking of when he calls himself a liberal conservative.

As for me, I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently and am reconciled to the fact that I am leftwing. I’ve been resistant to this, partly because it gets ingrained into you during your Liberal Democrat indoctrination that the party defies such lazy characterisation. At my first LDYS conference, Simon Hughes went on about how the party was “not left, not right, but forward!” I think I’ve heard him make the same speech at least once a year ever since.

Ultimately, equality is a leftwing concept and I believe in equality. As we’ve seen on this blog, it isn’t a concept that is without controversy within the Lib Dems. I plan to be returning to it soon following Andy Mayor’s laying down of the gauntlet this weekend (I have to say that I find it ironic being accused of being a paid up member of the “Church” of Leftology from someone who is demonstrably a member of the long dead cult of Manichaeism*, but that’s par for the course I suppose).

But even someone who is as unforgiveably leftwing in Andy’s eyes as myself believes that in the final analysis equality must always be subordinate to liberty. I wonder if the Liberal Conspirators feel the same way? Is it, in short, really liberalism – left or otherwise – that they really want?

I’m hopeful that they do. Sunny has showed himself to be on the side of liberalism time and again in recent years. If they plan to make progress, the robustness of liberalism will beat the mushiness of moderatism hands down, and we shouldn’t read too much into an FAQ on day one of a project. Lib Dems (of a liberal-left persuasion of course) could do worse than to help them hone themselves, and we know a thing or two about campaigning as well.

* I’m in despair at Lib Dems at the moment who seem determined to dumb down. The response on Lib Dem Voice to Chris Huhne’s interview on GMtv was to crow about his use of the word Gadarene. Many of his sternest detractors were Oxbridge graduate public schoolboys for fuck’s sake.

If you watched that interview unsuspectingly on the telly, I doubt you would even be aware of Huhne making a Biblical reference. I may have my criticisms of Huhne’s campaign and ability to communicate, and I know that to an extent this is Clegg-heads playing games but is it really so outrageous for party leaders to occasionally let it slip that they are rather more widely read than Janet and John?

Plus, nobody laughed at my bacon joke which was frankly fantastic. Philistines**.

** Presumably in Clegg-head Wonderland, that is too elitist a reference as well.