If there is anyone out there who assiduously reads both this blog and my occasional Liberator articles, you are in for a sense of déja vu. For those who remain, here goes.
It seems we are going to have a contested leadership election and there is lots of talk about having a ‘real debate’ about the future of the party. Here are my thoughts on this debate.
It is already being posited in the media and among many in the party as right-wingers/economic liberals versus left-wingers/social liberals. Some of those who are regarded as being in the former camp, notably Nick Clegg, repudiate the right-wing label which, when used by fellow Lib Dems, is usually a term of abuse.
For my own part I regard myself as both a social and economic liberal, but certainly not as ‘right-wing’, either in the context of the wider political spectrum or within the Liberal Democrats. I would like to be part of a distinctively liberal party, which is to the left of centre, but on a spectrum that is not measured purely by how high public spending should be.
Looking back through history, left vs right has not always equated with public vs private. In the nineteenth century, radicals saw their main role as to oppose ‘privilege’, which manifested itself in various forms. There were the legally-entrenched privileges afforded to Anglicans in the professions and the public service. Radicals wanted religious equality. The old corn laws protected landowners by keeping corn prices high and making food dearer for the poor. That is why radicals supported free trade.
In the twentieth century left–right politics became defined by socialism versus capitalism. To be on the left meant believing in state ownership and control in order to create a more equal society. Support for private enterprise came from the right. Although democratic socialists opted to make compromises with capitalism, it was indeed a compromise – ultimately they saw the public sector as good and private enterprise as at best a necessary evil. Liberals, who found themselves marginalised in this debate, either decided that they were not socialists and drifted to the right, or that they were left of centre, and so must be pro-state and anti-private sector.
The events of the late twentieth-century should have made much of this redundant. The success of right-of-centre governments in much of the western world during the 1980s, combined with the collapse of the Soviet block, discredited socialism as even a long-term objective. We are all now in the business of managing welfare capitalism. This isn’t something completely strange – for example for the past 80 years politics in the Republic of Ireland has been dominated by two parties who don’t fit a traditional left–right division.
The role for Liberals, I would suggest, is not just to argue for higher tax and more public spending, but to champion liberal ideas such as decentralisation and greater power for individual citizens. In all things we should keep uppermost in our minds the needs of the poor, excluded and under-privileged - that is surely what being left of centre means. I don’t believe, however, that preservation of inefficient direct labour forces that provide a poor service is in any sense 'left' – just an illustration of the silliness of socialism. Sometimes challenge and change can help to drive improvement of public services.
I am a liberal. I am left of centre. I am not and never have been a socialist. I believe that as liberals we should have the confidence to articulate a clear and progressive agenda without feeling the need always to doff our hats to redundant socialist nostrums that state provision of public services is always better.