Is Liberal Left ludicrous?

That is how it was described on Twitter today by a prominent LibDem blogger. And that followed a post yesterday evening by another prominent blogger who offered a particularly derisive response to the news that Liberal Left will be holding an evening session at Spring Conference. The basic position was that those responsible for Liberal Left should get back to the Labour party where they belong. It is unusual to see such disrespect and naked tribalism.

Liberal Democrat Voice today carries a rather more measured post by Paul Ankers arguing that the most important coalition of all, from the Liberal Democrat perspective, is the party itself. Factions are not necessarily a problem if they can engage constructively and respectfully. When the mud-slinging starts then there is a problem. We may then be talking not factions but fracture.

The ‘ludicrous’ comment was clearly a throwaway line. The reasoning behind it was not transparent. But it is evident that anything that involves Linda Jack and Richard Grayson is always going to bring some people out in a rash.

I don’t find the Liberal Left group ludicrous. But I am cautious about this development.

The group sets out its goals as being to:

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.

I’m not convinced that having a group whose formal aim is to oppose the leadership is entirely healthy. And it is too emphatic. While I am no fan of much of what has happened under the Coalition, to propose blanket opposition doesn’t feel credible or fruitful.

On the second point, the obvious response is that a commitment to the Liberal Left is one thing. An alignment with the other parties is another. Much of what Labour now stands for is neither liberal nor left.

We seem to be heading for another round of debate on where on the left-right spectrum the Liberal Democrats are, or should be. At this point some are wont to refer approvingly to Nick Clegg’s statement “We are not on the left, we are not on the right. We have our own label: liberal”. I have always felt that this statement is largely meaningless. Simple soul that I am I tend to think of things in terms of the political compass, from which perspective Liberal is orthogonal to the left-right axis and in opposition to Authoritarian. The Liberal Democrats are definitely liberal rather than authoritarian, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a location on the left-right spectrum as well.

I find some of these discussions rather pointless in the abstract. The left-right dimension of a political platform is evident from what it is proposing to do and what it does. Not simply from what it says it believes or stands for. The actions of the Cameron Conservatives are significantly to the right of their professed position.

The founding position statement of Liberal Left draws our attention to the policy platform that the Liberal Democrats offered in the 2010 election. It is hard to argue that this platform is not to the left of the Coalition agreement, and it is certainly to the left of the Coalition’s policy agenda which includes additional policies like the dismantling of the NHS. It is equally clear that plenty of people voted Liberal Democrat because they thought the party was a progressive centre-left alternative to Labour. Many of those voters have now defected from the party. Of course, some in the party might now wish to argue that these voters were deluded because the party was always centre/centre-right. But that seems rather disingenuous – at the time we were happy not to disabuse people of this belief and relieve them of their vote.

Political debate moves at a rapid pace. Our tendency to rewrite and overwrite history is well developed. If you are not careful it is easy to lose your bearings, find yourself in new territory and fairly rapidly start to believe it’s where you’ve always been. A reminder of what we claimed to stand for just a couple of years ago is no bad thing.

I think that lack of a strong sense of historical tradition is a theme worth further exploration. Some of the most vociferous supporters of the Liberal Democrats in Coalition, if they make reference to Liberal history at all, make some vague reference to Mill and classical liberalism. There seems to be a failure to engage with the rich history of twentieth century social liberalism, which was in progressive opposition to the Conservatives. David Laws’ chapter in the Orange Book is one of the few prominent contributions I can think of which explicitly argues for a rejection of certain components of social liberalism and a return to a more rigorous classical liberalism. I happen to think he’s wrong. But that is another story.

A stronger sense of the Liberal heritage could usefully inform some of the rather amnesiac debates over whether the Liberal Democrats are ‘really’ a party of the centre-left or the centre-right. There are individuals who perform that service in the comment threads and in the discussion fora – people who were there at the time and remember the debates. But that seems all too uncertain a mechanism for collective memory.

Maybe the party – along with all the other political parties – is moving to the right. And maybe that is ok. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is inevitable. But my feeling is that it should be a conscious rather than unconscious move.

My other caution about the emergence of Liberal Left is whether proliferating groups on any wing of the party dilutes effort and impact.

I am reminded of this passage offering a perspective on the Orange Book from the essay The Neo-Liberal Democrats by Simon Kovar:

Kennedy’s forward to the book declared of its ideas that “all are compatible with our Liberal heritage”. He later went further, suggesting that there was no incompatibility between the party’s traditional social liberalism and the Orange Book, an exercise in triangulation that … both obscured and denied the fundamental debate the party needed to have regarding its future philosophical definition and direction. The absence of that debate meant that the eventual rise to dominance of the Orange Book tendency represented not a decisive exercise in collective party position-taking but something more akin to a coup, built in part on the complete disarray, muddle and indecisiveness of the party’s left.

I am struck by two things about this passage. First, I am not entirely sure that the party is very much further forward with the “fundamental debate … regarding its future philosophical definition and direction”. Second, the last sentence invites reflection on the current state of play: “the complete disarray, muddle and indecisiveness of the party’s left”.

I don’t think this is where we are at the moment. In fact the rapid growth and organisation of the Social Liberal Forum indicates the contrary. But there is a danger that Liberal Left will result in a diversion and dilution of effort and a failure to articulate clearly and consistently a centre-left position.

Being subjected to a hostile divide and rule strategy would be one thing. Subjecting yourselves to division in a way that dilutes your own power to influence the agenda is quite another.

Image: © bofotolux – Fotolia.com

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  1. ‘At this point some are wont to refer approvingly to Nick Clegg’s statement “We are not on the left, we are not on the right. We have our own label: liberal”. I have always felt that this statement is largely meaningless.’

    This. A thousand times this.