Monday, January 09, 2006

Let's have a heated debate

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.

To conclude:

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.


Iain said...

Like Iain I too would regard myself as of the left. I have spent 30 odd years building up not for profit agencies to provide alternative services to local and governments. The diversity and quality we and others offer has significantly improved what is on offer to the benefit of the poorest and most overlooked in society. I have no confidence that the state provion would reform itself without the spur of competition. My cruel experience is that it is more likely to co opt the language of reform but not to really change.

Liberal Neil said...

Hi Iain, how are you, I agree 100%.

Being on the liberal centre-left (roughly where I would place myself) doe snot and should not mean believeing that the state machine is by definition better than other ways of doing things.

It is quite possible to give people a real say over the services they recieve within the state sector, it is also to achieve democratic accountability and improved service from the private sector.

My personal experience suggests that a pragmatic approach, service by service makes sense.

Where I feel uncomfortable with some of those on the so-called 'moderniser' wing is the impression that they beleive in an almost endless revolution of reform, and the bandying about of the word 'choice' even when the reforms they suggest don't really provide any meaningful 'choice' at all.

Two examples of the kind of choice i think should be provied, but which couls easily be provided by a state run service are:

1 The choice for a mother to be to have her child either in a large hospital, or a local maternity unit, or at home. The current regime in the NHS - whilst claiming to be about providing choice via a market mecahnism - is actually reducing the likelihood of this choice being available.

2 The choice for every child to access good teaching and facilities for art, music, science, english, performing arts and languages. The current regime in secondary education - whilst claiming to offer more choice - is actually reducing the lkelihood of this choice in every school.

I don't think the Lib Dems should now be aiming to raise more tax overall. I do think they should be looking to spend more in some areas but making savings elsewhere. I do think people on lower incomes should be taxed less.

I don't believe it is impossible to reconcile the so-called 'social liberal' and 'economic liberal' wings in the party. I hope, and suspect it is inevtiable, that there will have to be some give on both sides but that we will end up with a dierection and set of policies most of us can sign up to.

I expect that whoever wins the leadership will ed up roughly where Charles was politically, but probably with a bit more clarity, as to do otherwise is likely to lose them the election - look at how Mark Oaten is already trimming his sails in that respect.

Iain said...

Neil and Iain

Thanks for responding

Yes I agree. I suspect the majority of Liberal Democrats would agree if they actually considered the issues. However, the debate too often seems to be conducted within the party at a level that involves name-calling and false antitheses.

Likewise, it is dishonest and misleading of other parties to talk of parental choice in secondary transfer when it stands to reason that not everyone can have their first choice.

'Choice' ought to be a liberal word that we need to reclaim and define in liberal terms rather than disown simply because the others use it.

Iain said...

I agree with both these comments.

Neil, if only the debate within the party could be conducted in such measured terms, rather than through false polarities of left and right.

Likewise with 'choice'. It is indeed dishonest of Labour and Tories to champion parental choice in secondary transfer as a panacea.

But in general choice is or should be a liberal word. We need to reclaim and redefine choice as a concept rather than disown it simply because the other parties misuse the notion.

Iain said...

There are surley too many Iains here. It is sad that we can't discuss choice and the upside of more providers without be slagged off as right wing. I offer this bit from a lib dem mp's newsletter:

Private health firms are going to be allowed to compete for NHS hospital work. Please tick any of these consequences you think may follow:

waiting lists will get shorter
departments of local NHS hospitals may close down
the financial stability of local hospitals will deteriorate
people will travel further for treatment

Clearly the situation is much more complex and the provision of alternatives is very good news in some areas and services. Folk with learning difficulties and mental illhealth etc would be very anxious if some of those highly valued services were withdrawn because their presence underminded the financial stability of a state service. This is the arguement used for decades for keeping ADULT TRAINING CENTRES etc. Prof Bosenquet wrote a pamphlet about the negative impact of that policy in Alliance days


yolly said...

A vibrant discussion!

If politics is a greasy pole, as Charles Kennedy has sadly discovered, then his obvious successor, Simon Hughes, now needs to seize that pole with a very firm grip.

Hughes is respected in all quarters as decent, compassionate, urbane, witty, intelligent, principled and also vastly experienced.

More to the point, for the future of the Lib Dems, he is hugely popular with the public.

For all his personal qualities, that easy affection which people from all walks of life offer him is the most significant reason why he is the right man to lead them into a share of Government later this year.

After half a generation of a "New Labour" experiment that has ended up looking as clueless and lacklustre as the dying and dreary Conservative administration it replaced, Britain is long overdue the freshness and vitality that has always characterised the bulk of the Liberal Democrat policy canon.

That's why the Lib Dem membership owe it to the country to choose the man whose electability offers them the best chance of a serious role in Government that has beckoned many times but hitherto remained tantalisingly just out of reach.

In short: cometh the hour, cometh Mr Hughes.