Why Liberal Democrats?

… as opposed to straight down the line Liberals? This is a question that we perhaps don’t reflect upon as often as we might. Now would seem as good a time as any to do so.

In fact, it is an extremely pertinent question at this precise moment. We’ve just witnessed David Laws in the media promoting his campaign for a smaller state, invoking various liberal icons in support. Fanboys and girls in the Orange Book Tendency have rallied to the cause. His campaign complemented some of the key messages David Cameron has been peddling on welfare reform.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIn the ongoing debate about appropriate political directions for the party we’ve witnessed some intriguing recent contributions.

I was particularly struck by a recent post by Ellie Sharman at The Libertine. Here are the passages that caused me to reflect:

There are a few remaining in the party who would seek to re-establish our decaying connections with the (largely statist) left in the UK, particularly before the next election, and it’s this that we need to be sceptical of. As a party, it’s true that we’re a broad church – where else could you find Keynesian welfarism alongside free-market libertarianism? – but there are limits to pluralism in this realm. Extending our grassroots support any further to the left has two main risks to be wary of: firstly, we lose all the coherence of ideology and unity of thought that our leadership has engendered during this executive (even if the party body hasn’t always agreed with Clegg et al., there’s no denying that we’ve faced radical redefinition as a party); secondly, we return to our disprized status as the party of the protest vote …

We have a cohesive political philosophy, we have achievable policies across the full range of state activity, and we certainly know what we stand for. We are more than just a protest vote. Appealing to the social democrats might seem like a good idea now, and it might win us some much-needed support, but it’d be deceiving both those voters and ourselves to maintain that we’re the party for them. There are also votes to be gained from retaining our liberal principles and our integrity: let’s seek those before we return to being Labour-lite.

These passages are interesting at a discursive level. The suggestion is that there are “a few remaining” who seek to “re-establish our decaying connections” with the left. Those who don’t warmly embrace “all the coherence of ideology and unity of thought that our leadership has engendered during this executive” are constructed as a tiny remnant of the past, safely ignored. An alternative perspective might be that those with such views are the mainstream of party opinion, while it is the OBT that is the vocal minority. This alternative view might better account for why “the party body hasn’t always agreed with Clegg et al”.

And is there a suggestion of a cohort effect here? The young thrusters are signed up members of the OBT; the old farts hang on to the “decaying connections” with the left. Move over Granddad.

Yet the idea that the Liberal Democrats should not appeal to social democrats because that would reduce the cohesiveness of the party’s philosophy seems to misread the situation. There is no sense in arguing that the party needs to be on its guard to keep social democracy out. Social democracy is already in.

The party’s constitution is an amalgam – some might say uneasy – of social liberal and social democratic principles. The extent to which those principles can coexist, and the extent to which they can be synthesized into a coherent policy programme, is a legitimate question. But we cannot deny that both currents of thinking are present.

Conference debated these issues back in Spring 2011 as part of a motion on strategy, positioning and priorities. The motion was passed pretty much unanimously. The motion includes the statement:

Conference re-asserts that the UK Liberal Democrats are based firmly in the historical and global traditions of the liberal and social democratic philosophy and beliefs and commits the Party to developing a promoting the clear narrative setting out what modern liberalism is and can do.

This is not the mandate for a party founded on hairshirt classical liberalism, unleavened by broader social concerns.

Of course, there are few publicly advocating a rigorous and undiluted classical liberalism, insensitive to the lessons of the twentieth century. Yet when there is talk of four-cornered liberalism the objective is to press the cause of economic liberalism against social liberalism that is perceived to be too influential.

Social democracy doesn’t even get a look in. It’s clearly beyond the pale.

Yet, by conducting the debate in terms of the desirable balance between various components of liberalism we neglect a large part of our intellectual and political heritage.

We need to recover a clear sense of the “democrat” in Liberal Democrats.

© Fotolia365 – Fotolia.com

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7 replies »

  1. A fine riposte. As a centrist, I spend quite a lot of time engaging with both sides, primarily as I think the Dialectic Method works.

    I’ve observed with interest the loud young libertarians in our party and also, interestingly in UKIP. I also observe with interest the “old guard’s” response. Yours is measured and proportionate but there are others that are not so.

    As Pete Tong would say tho…. we continue. I’ll see if I can continue the argument on my own blog this week sometime.

    • Louise – Thanks for your comment. I’m not entirely sure that I’m in the old guard, but certainly my sympathies lie a long way from the libertarian end of the spectrum, as you can no doubt tell. I’ll look forward to reading your continuation when you get a chance to post it.

  2. As I remember, it’s “Liberal Democrats” because “Social & Liberal Democrats” seemed like a bit of a mouthful, we were trying to become more appealing and nobody was concerned that we’d forget the social bit at the time (because strict Liberals had already splintered). So, it’s not the democrat bit that’s missing – it’s the word social. It’s in the DNA of the party – we’re not classical liberals by definition. The Liberal Party still exists and people are welcome to join it – I just don’t understand why the Orange Bookers don’t like their native party. It’s the reason the modern Lib party exists – they didn’t want to merge with Social Democrats. So, if you feel like that now, why join the Lib Dems? Answer – political career. There’s no future in the Liberal Party so they’ve hijacked our bus and are driving it off a cliff. We allowed more classical Liberals to run the “Social & Liberal Democrats”, because we’re inclusive, tolerant sorts that believe in democratic process and never considered the possibility of that changing our trajectory.

    I’ve always seen the Orange Bookers as to the right of centre and directly to my right; the SLF lot as directly to my left – but isn’t that just a statement regarding my sense of centre? Clegg and Laws would probably say that I was a social liberal, because they’d see themselves in the centre. On the other hand, I could point to statements like “we should shrink the state” or whatever it was as indicative of right-wing thought. In my view, the party got hijacked by the right; your perspective may vary. Wikipedia says :

    “In a poll of Liberal Democrat members on 30 April 2011 64% classed themselves as social liberal with 35% counting themselves as economic liberals. Others high on the list were progressive with 65%, social democrat 34%, 45% centre left, 60% internationalist, 44% radical, 41% green”

    • Chris – Thanks very much for your detailed comment. The statistics you offer helpfully assist in making my point.

      You are right, of course. “Social” was dropped early on because Liberal Democrat was catchier. Maybe in retrospect that was a mistake. The fact that Democrat also seems to be falling into neglect is equally worrying. I very much agree with your analysis of how we have found ourselves where we are. I think, as you say, inclusivity and tolerance have much to do it. But perhaps also there was a lack of a sufficiently strong sense of identity and strongly worked out policy platform to rebuff the OBT when it arrived.

      I think that if there is any mileage in the idea that the LDs is somewhere where free market libertarians can find a comfortable home, as Ellie Sharman suggested in her original post, then we have a problem. To my mind it is next to impossible to reconcile a rigorous free market libertarianism with the party’s constitution. I’m very happy to agree with Ellie that there is a limit on the left beyond which a person’s views don’t fit within the party – I just think it is further to the left than an element of social democracy. But equally there is a limit on the right – and free market libertarianism is well over the limit.

  3. The lack of any serious attempt to create a fusion of liberalism and social democracy is what led to the full-bore push by old-school Liberals to seize control of the party. That and their core conviction that social democracy was just a pallid variant of social liberalism which on closer analysis could only collapse back into its origin creed. How amusing it is to hear Cleggite commentators speak of the ‘statist’ left, as if somehow state power is intrinsically a bad, menacing thing which should be pushed back and truncated, while at the same time offering up only the mildest criticism of the corporate frankensteins which now prowl across the globe, undermining governments everywhere you look.

    Truth is, social democracy is the instrument that can help us understand today’s structures of politics and power. Liberalism was born at a time when the struggle was for the individual versus the oppressions of state, monarchy and religion. For Liberals, the individual is supposedly the measure of all things. Social democrats, on the other hand, have a more up-to-date comprehension of the complexity of modern life, and are able to perceive the individual in the context of society, and society in the context of the individual. Such an standpoint encompasses the whole of human experience, as opposed to old-school Liberals who are locked into perceiving only one side of the whole.

    • Mike – thanks. I agree that more could have been done to work through the integration of the two strands of thought. Equally, I agree that those who rail against the ‘statism’ seem to be ignorant of, or willfully sidelining, a good chunk of what should be part of the Party’s intellectual core.