Thinking about Liberal Left's statement of values - The Snow In The Summer or So-So

9 February 2012
Liberal Left

We're interested to read about a new group, calling itself Liberal Left. Leaders include Ron Beadle of Gateshead, Simon Hebditch of Liberator, Ed Randall of Goldsmiths', and Jenny Tonge of Richmond Park. Here, we're going to give its Statement of Values a thorough going over. Because that's the liberal way, question everything.

Liberal Left is initiated by Liberal Democrats who oppose the party’s membership of the Coalition. It is open to all who seek co-operation across the liberal left in order to provide an alternative to the current government.

So, it's a sort-of central clearing house for people who think the C+LD coalition is a priori a bad thing. Not entirely sure we're included, but let's press on.

Liberal Left articulates policy positions within the Liberal Democrats which should be central to a radical party. Such views have informed recent general election manifestos on which our candidates have stood, and on which our MPs have been elected. These views are not currently being voiced effectively in a party whose radical traditions have become muted in government, and whose leaders have taken the party’s policy position to the right. We are now part of a Government which is Eurosceptic, neo-liberal and socially conservative.

Not radically inclusive, this bunch. Already, we're getting a distinct sense of "you're with us or you're against us". The dread word should appears early - this blog reads should as shorthand for "the writer believes this, but is not going to bother marshalling any evidence to support their supposition."

There are no radical actions in government? Enquiring into the "war against some terror". A triple lock on benefits rises. The maximum period of detention without charge halved. Fixed-term parliaments. Actually building some social housing.

Yes, the Conservatives are coming across as Europhobic. Might this be for internal consumption, to help Dave the Eager Young Space Cadet shore up his position in his party? Yes, the Conservatives are conservative. There's a teensy-weensy little clue in the name. So socially conservative are the Conservatives that they're preparing to abolish civil partnerships for homosexuals, but only to replace them with proper marriages for same-sex couples, an act that the progessive Labour party refused to do.

The Liberal Democrat leadership has argued that Coalition was necessary to eliminate the structural deficit in a single parliament. It is now clear that this objective will not be achieved. Whilst the right of the party will use this failure to argue for a continuation of Coalition policy into the next parliament, Liberal Left believes there are different lessons to be learned.

Hang on, do we actually have any evidence that any Lib Dem campaigner believes that continued cuts are A Good Thing? As opposed to a regrettable necessity given the unsustainable economy inflated by Dr. Brown?

The Liberal Democrats argued during the 2010 General Election that Conservative plans to eliminate the structural deficit in a single parliament would remove growth from the economy and that their impact would fall disproportionately on those least able to afford them, increasing the gap between the rich and poor and further dividing the country. This is exactly what has happened.

It's very difficult to play what-if. We're not terribly enamoured of the rapid cuts, but all serious contenders for government agreed that some cuts would need to be made.

We support a different economic strategy - one that does not involve blaming the country’s problems on the demonised poor, nor on apparent 'overspending' by the previous government (spending which Liberal Democrats did not say should be reduced). Such a strategy should involve the budget deficit being reduced more slowly, with hardships falling squarely on the shoulders of those who benefited from government bail-outs. That would be in line with the scope and timing proposed by the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto. It should also involve prioritising investment in public works, especially green jobs, to boost employment.

Actually, the Lib Dems did campaign for cuts in the 2010 election, ending the Child Trust Fund (which happened), reducing public sector pay rises (that's in place), all falling more heavily on the well-off. More heavily, but not exclusively.

And again, there's the word should appearing. Twice. Faith-based groups might tolerate such hand-waving, but this is a bunch of Liberals, and evidence is the foundation of policy.

But there are wider issues at stake than public policy responses to the economic crisis. Liberals have long argued against concentrations of power and resources, whether in the hands of the state or of private institutions. Social Democrats have long argued that inequality in wealth, income and esteem undermine social cohesion. The financial crisis is the result of decades of neo-liberal ideology and politics which has ignored these lessons. Instead public policy has allowed financial markets to consolidate power in the hands of unaccountable institutions, has disempowered communities, undermined local economies and has redistributed income and wealth from the bottom to the top. The crisis has also allowed a rebirth of social conservatism as those on the right try to blame the nation's ills on the poor, the public sector, and a decline of family values.

Neo-liberal? WTF?

All of this is true, but doesn't this mean that small-l liberal voices would do well to shout a coherent point? To actually advocate a better world? (Reads ahead). Ah, yes it does...

People understand this. The popularity of progressive single issue campaigns shows a genuine appetite for progressive politics. We believe that Liberal Democrats should be part of this politics, not its target. This is a time for Liberals and Social Democrats to work together for a fairer and more democratic Britain in which people and communities are empowered to build a sustainable future and in which disparities of income, wealth and power are reduced. We must also work together to promote our shared approach to public services and attitudes towards social justice. We believe the state has a clear responsibility to enable people to make the most of their own lives, in contrast to the coalition's mission to slash the role of the both local and national government dramatically.

...the rallying cry is to make a better Britain. Which we don't disagree with. But for the second time in as many paragraphs, there's reference to Liberals and Social Democrats as though these were two different tribes that just happened to be marching together under a flag of convenience. And we reckon that, if asked, Conservatives would also say that they were helping people to work out their own lives on their own terms, as opposed to the dour paternalism of the Labourites.

The political result of the coalition has been disastrous for the Liberal Democrats. The party has haemorrhaged support, activists, members and councillors. The effectiveness of our policy gains such as increasing tax allowances at the bottom of the income scale and the partial implementation of the pupil premium, have been dwarfed by the impact of others, including the rise in VAT and loss of standards funds in education. The party's volte-face on tuition fees has fundamentally undermined our trustworthiness.

It is too early to judge the results of the Lib Dems securing power at Westminster. Certainly, the party has lost the significant anti-government vote it built up over some decades, for the rather simple reason that they're not against the government. The Lib Dems have lost the soft "they're just Labour under a different colour" vote it secured in the aughts, because they never were Labour under a different colour. We agree that tuition fees was a complete debacle.

If there is to be any future for the liberal left in British politics, we believe that there must be overt and public dialogue between Liberal Democrats, Labour, Greens and others on the democratic left. There is a centre-left majority in the UK but it all too often fails to be expressed because of parties not being clear in advance of an election about who their preferred coalition partners would be. Many of the political problems faced by the current coalition flow from it being a government which most Liberal Democrat voters did not want. It is ideologically unsustainable and without a mandate.

Newsflash: Labour is not a left-wing party. It is a fundamentally conservative grouping, seeking to preserve the social structure of its ages in aspic. Judged on results, Labour has consistently worked to reduce social mobility, to increase income gaps, and to retard the self-sufficiency of communities.

Newsflash: Just because the members of Liberal Left see themselves as left-wing does not mean that the entire party can be painted as left-wing. There are members who are in the party precisely because it is radical, because it dares to reform, because it trusts the citizen in a way that neither Labour nor the Conservatives ever manage.

A falsehood perpetuated often enough becomes a truth, and one of Labour's preferred falsehoods at the moment is that no-one voted for a coalition. It was certainly approved by the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party, and by voting members at a special conference. That's at least 1000 people who explicitly voted for the coalition. We do not know enough about the internal machinations of the Conservative party to state how many people there voted for the coalition. Alert voters will have noted that Mr. Clegg said he would prefer to talk with the party leader securing the most votes and most seats, a promise he kept.

A future coalition with Labour and others on the liberal left is more likely to secure Liberal Democrat goals than a further coalition with the Conservatives and we should actively work to make that possible. If that is ever to happen, future centre-left co-operation must not founder on personal hostilities, and policy differences/similarities must be fully understood. If coalitions are to become more common, then voters cannot be left in the dark over what parties are likely to do (or not do) from their manifestos if they co-operate. The public deserves to be given a clear idea of what co-operation between Liberal Democrats, Labour the Greens and others would mean in terms of public policy if they are to be expected to trust such a government.

Newsflash: Labour are not a liberal party, even with the smallest of "l"s. They wasted billions on the identity register, they introduced new criminal laws rather than address social problems, they promulgated an apartheid regime for same-sex couples, they turned a blind eye to kidnap and torture. Liberal Left is coming off like an entryist group for the corrosive conformity of Labour.

We do agree that the voting public would benefit from clearer explanations of what is likely to be in coalition deals. But this could so easily confuse the issue, so that people try to bring about a coalition and are disappointed when a majority government is formed. There would be less danger of confusion were the voters actually able to indicate a preference for a coalition, but first-past-the-post is too stupid to allow that.

To further our policy and strategy aims we will:

1. Provide a voice within the Liberal Democrats, opposing the party leadership on economic and fiscal policy, and advocating a positive alternative.

2. Seek every possible opportunity to build good relations across the left, between Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Greens, and the non-party liberal left, recognising that organisations such as Compass already offer a thriving space for such dialogue around democracy and sustainability.

So, basically, Liberal Left don't want cuts, and they want closer ties with Labour. How are they indistinguishable from Ed Balls?

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