Tag Archives: social liberalism

Why the Lib Dems need to be saved from “true liberalism”

I’m in the odd situation of having a vote in the Labour leadership elections via my union, but having much more interest in the Lib Dem contest (and no vote). A lot of this is because I know the players individually, but at least part of it is because the debate isn’t being framed in the depressing and soul-destroying way the Labour one is. Are they really going to spend the next three months arguing about Tony Blair, how much they hate poor people and how much they love rich people? Save me.

The Lib Dem discussion is much more positive. Up to a point. Thus far, I’ve seen them obsessing too much over policy, which isn’t going to be decided in this election, and largely ignoring strategy, which is the main issue that will be decided. I’ve heard much more about strategy from Farron than Lamb, and that’s to his credit. But he hasn’t fully addressed my concerns from four years ago about his take on organisation (he has to some extent with his talk of learning lessons from groups from 38 Degrees); and significantly, his grand vision of reviving community politics didn’t actually come to much, and I’d like to hear him account for that as well.

But at least he’s talking about it. I’ve heard significantly less about organisation from Norman Lamb, and that’s troubling because the party he hopes to take over is going to have some crucial organisational tasks ahead of it.

There’s been a subtle but persistent campaign from Lamb supporters to attack Tim Farron on policy grounds. They like to post articles on their social media pages about how you can’t trust him because he abstained in certain votes in the House of Commons on same sex marriage, and his wobbliness on assisted dying. All of this is wrapped in a crucifix-shaped bow. Because, ahem, you know, he’s a Christian (nudge nudge, wink wink). Speaking as a pretty anti-clerical atheist, I find that somewhat distasteful.

This goes hand in hand with an emphasis on what a great, or indeed true liberal Norman Lamb is:
Tom Brake endorsing Norman Lamb

The term “true liberal” brings me out in hives. There is of course the implication that Tim Farron fails some kind of purity test; attacking a Christian for failing to have the right values is almost too ironic for words. But there is also the sense that this is a continuation of the ruinous direction the Lib Dems have gone over the past 8 years.

People have rightly been praising Charles Kennedy’s legacy over the past week. It’s refreshing to hear, because under Nick Clegg’s leadership, we had a steady trickle of articles and comments implying that Kennedy had achieved nothing but corrupt the Lib Dems from its true purpose. Indeed, Richard Reeves famously called on social democrats and social liberals to leave the party and join Labour; far from distancing himself from this proposal, Clegg would go on to make him his Director of Strategy for the first two years as Deputy Prime Minister.

For years the senior party line informed us the history of Lib Dem philosophical thought was this: a century of unbroken tradition in the vein of Mill and Gladstone; something something welfare state (shrug); 20 years of social democrat muddle and confusion following the party merger in 1987; a return to our liberal roots with Nick Clegg’s election in 2007.

In fact, the intellectual schism happened almost a century earlier; whatever your views on Gladstone, he would never have had any truck with the 1908 People’s Budget. As the Liberals struggled with how to respond to the rise of Labour, they went on to spend decades locked in ideological debates between the “new” (social) liberals and classical liberals (who, to make things more confusing, are often regarded these days as “neoliberals” or describe themselves as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”; so much for terminology). This sort of, kind of ended when the National Liberals split in 1931 and slowly merged into the Conservative Party. Obviously, you can’t sum up the entirety of Liberal history in a sentence, but the attempt to paint “social democracy”, which all too often was used as code for our proud social liberal heritage, as an alien and recent intrusion was one of the more disturbing aspects of the Clegg era.

When I see talk of “true liberalism,” I see a continuation of this trend. Liberalism is a broad and messy philosophy, in which often there is no absolute right answer. A “true liberal” appears to work on the premise that this isn’t the case. I’ve learned to deeply distrust “true liberals”. In saying this, I’m aware that I’m open to charges of hypocrisy, given that I’ve argued in the past that the Lib Dems have cast the ideological net too wide in embracing classical liberals alongside social liberals; but it is because I accept that it is a broad philosophy that I reject the notion that there can be such a thing as “true liberalism”. By all means argue that the party should have a narrower ideological base, but doing it from the position of there being only “one true way” is just going to get you into inward-facing ideological rows.

This isn’t just a philosophical debate; it goes to the heart of the direction the party is likely to take. Farron apparently fails the purity test when it comes to same sex marriage. I have to admit that I too probably fail this test. I’d have almost certainly voted for it – just look at who was against it – but I’m ambivalent about state-institutionalised marriage in general (which doesn’t seem very liberal to me) and I’m very alert to a disquiet amongst some of my queer friends about the presumption that the only way their relationships can be viewed as equal is if they adopt a hetero-normative standard. But the biggest reason why I feel a little ambivalent about this policy, which Lib Dems are keen to trumpet as one of their achievements in government, is that prior to the draft bill being published, a senior Lib Dem told me that the party’s support for Tory benefit cuts was part of a deal, with them getting same sex marriage in exchange.

It isn’t that I’m some naive fool who was unaware that the coalition partners did policy deals while in power; it’s the nature of this particular deal. Was that really an exchange in which liberalism was the victor? Gay rights are important, but more so than the poorest and most vulnerable in society? More to the point, some of the most vulnerable people living on the poverty line are young queer people. Was it right to limit access to benefits for poor, vulnerable queer people in exchange for expanding the rights of (all things being equal), more affluent, middle class queer people?

The honest answer to that is, “I don’t know”. It’s complicated; not least of all because the symbolism of the same sex marriage legislation was so significant. My reason for mentioning this anecdote is less about the decision itself, which was almost certainly more complicated than just “cuts versus same sex marriage” in reality, but the cut and dried answer I got from the aforementioned senior Lib Dem. For him, it was simple. For many Lib Dems, it is equally black and white. It’s pretty clear to me that that isn’t the case with Tim Farron; is it with Norman Lamb?

Clegg had a simple answer to every problem. He couldn’t have adopted the phrase “there is no alternative” as his personal mantra more if he had had it tattooed on his forehead. If he was ever burdened with self-doubt, he was excellent at getting over it lightning fast. He surrounded himself with people who shared his world view and he confidently strode forward, completely assured that he was wholly and completely right. And yet it turned out he was wrong. Repeatedly.

Norman Lamb seems keen to present himself in the same mould and to be fair it is likely to be popular, especially in the Lib Dems who, if you’ve ever been to a party conference, you can attest love their heroes. But I wonder if that combination of narrow ideological purity and “steady as she goes” self-confidence is really what the party needs right now.

None of this is to suggest that Norman Lamb as leader would turn out that way; he doesn’t strike me as Nick Clegg Mark Two at all personally. That’s part of the reason why I find his campaign so alienating. As the party’s champion of mental health issues, he surely understands better than most how self-doubt shouldn’t be treated as weakness; to live with depression and anxiety is to live with one big ideological grey area – “true liberals” need not apply. I’m confident that there’s a less self-righteous candidate lurking under his campaign’s veneer; I just wish he showed it a little more.

Why Charlotte Henry’s purity test of “real” liberalism is misguided

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Charlotte Henry has a curious article on the Total Politics blog, suggesting that Clegg’s speech on a more participatory form of industrial democracy will help us to seperate the “real liberals” from the “SDP-statist-sandal wearers”.

There are several problems with this diagnosis. For one thing, the famed “sandal wearers” and the SDP members are very different people. Indeed, when I joined the party in the mid-90s, the two were at daggers drawn. The “sandal wearers” – a term generally used to describe the aging young liberals “red guard” of the 60s and 70s would cling to their copies of Liberator, openly mocking the “sogs” who had produced their own Reformer (which eventually became the house organ of the Centre for Reform) in response. The two groups could not have been more different; indeed, if anything it was the SDPers – with their support for “the Project” – who were perceived as more rightwing than the basket weaving liberals, the latter with whom I personally identified more closely with at the time. Indeed, the forerunner to Liberal Vision and the Orange Book, Liberal Future, was an odd hodge-podge of SDPers and former pro-Euro Conservatives.

A decade and a half later, the people on both sides of that rather silly schism have moved on. A great many SDPers now identify closely with the what is lazily known as Orange Book tendency as well as the Social Liberal Forum. The people from the liberal wing of the party find themselves on both sides of the debate as well.

But is there a disagreement with them on employee-ownership schemes? I don’t see it. The first Social Liberal Forum Chair Richard Grayson, who is quite proud of his SDP heritage, was especially keen that we take on the task of reviving industrial democracy as a central plank of the Lib Dem platform, and argued to this effect when the party was drawing up its last manifesto (indeed, one of the SLF’s first meetings was on this topic).

Much as I might like to pretend that the more classical liberally inclined members of the party would have a problem with Clegg’s speech, I doubt it very much. I would humbly suggest that this is probably for two reasons: 1) the people Charlotte feels free to take potshots at may be rather more liberal than she assumes and 2) there is probably rather more to unite the party than some of our more factional members like to think.

As David Howarth points out in Reinventing the State, the party is essentially social liberal – the only real dispute between groups like the SLF and the Orange Book tendency is a rather pragmatic one about what method of public service delivery works best (admittedly, this is a debate which can get pretty heated at times; rightly so, given the stakes). There certainly is a fairly deep schism between those who identify with a narrowly defined view of classical liberalism and the rest of the party, but you can count the number of these people on the fingers of one hand.

Calling people out on some kind of “real” liberal purity test is self-destructive at best and claiming employee-ownership is likely to be a sticking point is to fundamentally misunderstand the real debate within the party. Let’s not try to make up disagreements which aren’t there.

Social Liberal Forum: a question of definition

Jonathan Calder demands that the Social Liberal Forum answers the following question: “What is the difference between a social liberal and a social democrat?” Personally, I don’t think we should do any such thing.

It is certainly up to us to say what we mean by social liberalism, which is why we launched the SLF with David Howarth’s chapter from Reinventing the State on that very topic. But Jonathan’s question is a trap, akin to “when did you last beat your wife?” There is a presupposition in the question which we are under no requirement to accept.

Defining ourselves in relation to something else is entirely self-defeating. It is for social democrats to tell us what social democracy is; in what way is it incumbent on social liberals to put words in their mouths?

It was before my time, but the problem at the heart of the SDP always appeared to be that it didn’t actually have a satisfactory answer to what it was, other than that it wasn’t the Labour Party. It was preoccupied with filling in precisely the sort of negative space that Jonathan is now insisting the SLF should fill, rather than carving out its own identity. For the SDP, that course lead a lot of its members along a very rocky road indeed – not least of all David “vote Conservative… by which I mean Ed Miliband” Owen himself. It has always struck me that the Social Democrats who stuck around in the Liberal Democrats tended to be of a liberal bent in any case. Surely Roy Jenkins ranks as the most liberal Home Secretary of the 20th century?

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer: the implication of Jonathan’s post is of course that social liberals are merely atavistic social democrats. This is a suggestion that you can only make if you ignore the past 23 years. It is to ignore the fact that the SLF has just defied the most senior former SDP member in government, Andrew Lansley. It is to ignore the fact that a number of SDP members are now self-defined “Orange Bookers”. It is to ignore the fact that “liberal” was a word that the Liberal Paddy Ashdown was embarrassed to use – and event wanted expunged from our name, while the Social Democrat Charles Kennedy took back ownership of the word and nailed his liberal colours to the mast with the It’s About Freedom positioning paper. It merely revives a particularly dull tribal bunfight that most of us moved on from well over a decade ago.

Are there still some Lib Dem members – even SLF members – who call themselves Social Democrats? Of course, but if they are happy with the label, then why should we be concerned?

Do journalists habitually like to define the Social Liberal Forum as “socially democratic” (Jonathan cites the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday)? Of course they do. It fits into a frame which they decided years ago, before the SLF was formed. It isn’t an image problem of the SLF, which Jonathan suggests, but an image problem the entire party has. The Guardian in particular has been framing the debate within the party for years as a fight between “Gladstonians” and “SDPers”. Given that virtually none of us fit comfortably into either category, it would suggest that we all have a problem here. It has dogged us perpetually. But what can you do? We’re called the Social Liberal Forum and yet they still habitually replace the “L” word with the “D” word. How much more do you have to spell things out?

For what it’s worth, I’ve become terminally perplexed about labels. Most labels are inadequate. Progressive, is downright useless of course, but I realised long ago that even liberal, unqualified, was essentially vacuous. People who define themselves as “just” liberal tend to skim over the fact that most politicians are comparatively liberal these days – and tend to think that labelling something as “fundamentally illiberal” in thunderous tones tends to make a good substitute for actual argument. It often strikes me as more of a pose than a considered point of view.

I actually don’t really like the term “social liberal” much. If we were to be historically accurate, we should use the term “new liberal” – but that of course now carries with it certain Blairite connotations. Unless you choose to define “socialist” absurdly narrowly (in a way that Labourites never do), you could argue that the term “socialist liberal” is more technically accurate – but of course people do define socialist absurdly narrowly. Just by writing that I’m all but guaranteed to set certain people off screeching about “Beatrice Webb”, “Fabianism” and so on (I must get round to producing Lib Dem trope bingo cards at some point). All things considered, social liberal is the least bad term I can come up with for where I stand politically – and even then, as we can see, it can set people off.

The other problem with labels is that people tend to confuse argument for taxinomy. Particularly in the blogosphere, you will find people arguing that “if you are X you can’t possibly believe in Y” without ever contemplating the possibility that there is room within any political philosophy for debate and differing nuance. It is even, whisper it, possible for people advocating different political philosophies to agree on a lot for the simple reason that there will always be overlap and outriders. Yet all too often the debate – again predominantly online – tends to work on the assumption that all political ideologies are in hermetically sealed silos.

So let’s have a debate, and by all means criticise the SLF’s proposals, but let’s not get into an ossified discussion about labels. I would suggest that instead of attempting to answer Jonathan’s question, it should be focusing on policy. We’ve already got a working definition, and if that isn’t good enough? Well, tough.

The dreaded spectre of the straw Fabian

Liberator has marked the launch of the Social Liberal Forum with two articles which they have kindly allowed us to republish – one by SLF Director Matthew Sowemimo and the other by Federal Policy Committee member and writer David Boyle.

David is a different kind of critic from someone like Charlotte Gore. Very much “one of us,” he wrote a chapter in Reinventing the State and I’ve worked with him on a number of projects over the years, including a motion on participatory democracy that was debated at Autum Conference last year. So the fact that he is a sceptic is a real disappointment. Having said that, I do think he could have picked a better argument.

His problem with the SLF stems not from anything on our website, or anything Matthew or Richard Grayson have written (I seem to have been written out of the equation, being a mere flunky), but from a presentation made by a staffer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies at the Reinventing the State breakout session at the party’s LSE conference on social mobility in January before the SLF had launched. I didn’t attend that session as I was at a parallel one at the time, but David’s concern stems from the IFS chap’s definition of equality. This then moves into an all out assault on Fabianism.

He is right to warn against defining equality too narrowly or adopting technocratic solutions, but I’m not clear how either are really concerns about the SLF as opposed to the debate within the left more broadly. It is a bit of a leap, from the personal views of a guest speaker at an event before the organisation is launched to Beatrice Webb to concluding that the SLF is in danger of endorsing state socialism. By not reflecting on anything the SLF has actually done or put out thus far it does feel as if a number of straw men are being laid at our door.

The biggest straw man is the one that vaguely resembles Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabian-bashing is a time honoured liberal pastime and one which I indulge in myself from time to time. And why wouldn’t you, when people like Beatrice Webb offer us such a wealth of infamous quotes to cite? Even Labour apparatchik Philip Collins tried this line of attack in Prospect last year. But if you think that new Labour state socialism stems from the modern Fabian Society, you are dead wrong. Indeed, the modern Fabian Society’s favourite Lib Dem-bashing tactic at the moment is to denounce us for not supporting asset-based welfare (the specific criticism that we plan reallocate resources away from Labour’s tokenistic Child Trust Fund is rather fatuous but more generally, I think they have a point more generally). I am pretty certain that Sunder Katwala being the Fabian Society’s General Secretary is a fact that has both the Webbs spinning in their graves.

And finally, while I would agree that income-inequality – and even consumption-inequality – should never be the only measure, David risks understating its importance. He is right to say that we won’t ever solve the underlying problems of inequality with charts and targets. David wrote a fantastic book in 2001 called The Tyranny of Numbers which forecast the failure of the New Labour project before most people were getting their heads around it, but the conclusion I took from it wasn’t that we must never count things – merely that we understand the limitations of statistics. Indeed, David’s own think tank, the New Economics Foundation (of which I am also a supporter), is continually coming up with new ways to measure social progress. It is an odd charge to suggest the SLF is enamoured by “the fantasies of Fabianism” while not applying the same standard to NEF.

While I think SLF has already avoided two of David’s potential pitfalls – centralisation and education – I will readily admit that the other two – snobbery and passivity – are tougher nuts to crack. But they are for everyone. How do you ensure universal entitlement without creating an inflexible, impersonal system? How do you ensure a flexible, personalised service without giving the articulate middle-classes an advantage over less well off? Unlike state socialists or libertarians, the social liberal doesn’t have the luxury of picking a side in this debate. But please don’t assume that acknowledging the need for one doesn’t automatically assume a dismissal of the other.