Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When did choice become a dirty word for Liberals?

This exchange (posting and comment) at Jo's Jottings highlights the (to me) strange reluctance of at least some Liberals to endorse the idea of choice in public services.

I joined the Liberal Party in 1985, as a result of reading Jo Grimond's journalism, which demonstrated a sophiticated understanding and critique of Thatcherism. I was a bit surprised to find that few of the Liberals I met agreed with Grimond and most seemed to share Labour's knee-jerk reaction against and refusal to engage with what was happening in British politics during the 1980s.

Troubled by this I asked my new 'Radical Liberal' friends what exactly it was that kept them out of the Labour party. Well, they explained, although we hate the Tories as much as Labour do, Labour are patrician, controlling and corporatist in their approach to public services. We want to empower the citizen and give them more control. They pointed to the way Liberals in Liverpool had encouraged self-build housing co-operatives and had worked with the voluntary sector to provide new homes. They contrasted this with Labour's attachment to monolithic council estates and their general wish to see people perpetually dependent on and grateful to the council.

Strangely, though, as soon as Labour began to embrace the voluntary sector, consultation, citizen engagement and the notion of choice in public services, some Liberals turned against and disowned such ideas and began to adopt Labour-style paternalism.

For that reason I found the re-launch of the Beveridge Group earlier this year a depressing event - because the speeches seemed more an uncritical defence of the public service ethic and public sector professionals than an attempt to empower citizens and give them more say in how services are delivered. In response to my (admittedly rather pointed) question asking whether the group was not a bit patrician and Fabian in its approach, Paul Holmes accused me of not wanting there to be a group promoting social liberalism in the party.

But his comment missed the point. My problem with the Beveridge Group and other 'anti-choice' Lib Dems is not that they support social liberalism, but that they don't.


Andy Mayer said...

A very good post. I likened the choice debate in the party to the European debate a couple of years ago.

There are some of us who are 'pro-choice', and debate intelligently about what that might mean in practice. Some who are equally thoughtful who are 'choice-sceptics', usually strong decentralisers and the majority of the social liberal modernisers. Finally those who are simply 'anti-choice', who hark after a better yesterday run by the local authority.

I think one of the best examples of this is the party's Post Office policy. It amounts to retaining a nationalised chain of small local shops with monopoly ownership on the provision of some minor public services that could be provided by numerous other suppliers. It's an anti-choice position.

A very pro-choice position might first start by analysing which of the services offered by PO were public services and considering how they might best be provided for the public good. Then move on to the delivery mechanism which might included putting POs in WHSmith, Tescos, Town Halls and other franchise solutions. It might divorce the service from the one-size fits all packaging. And it would consider giving local people more control over the funding by moving the tax and spending powers to subsidise the PO's service from national to local government. That way rural areas would not be victim to national decisions on cutbacks etc...

But that position comes up against a wall of conservative hostility broadly premised on the fact that we've been sticking Focus leaflets through doors for decades with the headline "Save our local Post Office" to great effect. It's harder to sell real local empowerment than the illusion of local concern. That I feel is the single greatest driver of anti-choice sentiment in the party.

Rob Knight said...

Just a quick comment, but I think that Jo's specific example was about privatisation rather than choice. She was talking about a scenario where a state monopoly is replaced by a private monopoly, which has absolutely nothing to do with choice.

Paul Graham said...

I very much agree with your points. I think part of the problem is the ambiguity of the 'social' in 'social liberalism'. There is a stream of thought in the LibDems that identifies individuals with communities (essentially this is communitarianism). But it is possible to accept that there are social conditions to exercising freedom and therefore a case for redistribution without believing people are 'social' in this sense. It is striking that many (most) contemporary (academic) political philosophers (e.g.,R Dworkin, P van Parijs) regard the market as the primary distributive mechanism, but also argue for redistribution.

I also think that there is an assumption among the Beveridge Groupers that all public sector workers support monolithic public services. Many of us in the universities would welcome greater choice and competition.

Finally, Chris Huhne attacks market solutions dictated from the centre, but what if under a more devolved system a local authority chose to introduce (say) school vouchers? Localists often want one model of local government (community councils etc.), which must necessarily be dictated from the centre! The strongest case for localism is that it encourages competition and innovation.

Tristan said...

Choice and markets are both dirty words for too many (so called) liberals.

I think it is due to anti-liberals using some liberal mechanisms - Thatcher used some free market reforms to combat socialism, but kept much of the anti-liberal Toryism leading to people confusing free markets with authoritarianism - not helped by the anti-liberal left accusing the likes of Milton Friedman of supporting Pinochet...

Choice is the latest victim. Blairism offers false choices, or rather choices between two versions of the same thing. Restricted choice in this way harnesses some of the power of choice and markets, but restricts it to let the state control everything.

Much of the LibDem program now seems to be simple managerialism and technocratic fiddling. No wonder our liberal opponents characterise us as a nanny state, high tax party...

Andy also makes some good points - the decline of community politics and its replacement with pavement politics - saying almost anything to get votes - has had a massive detremental effect on the party. We need to stop saying 'we'll do this for you' and start saying 'we'll give you the power to sort this yourself'.