Why vote Liberal Democrat?

brownecoverYou can tell we’re heading towards a General Election. The mud-slinging has become more vigorous. The uncosted promises of jam tomorrow are appearing more regularly. The differentiation is happening with greater urgency. And publications are starting to appear laying out the case for the various parties.

Biteback publishing has launched a series of short accessible books on the theme “Why vote X 2015: the essential guide”. Nick Herbert has written the book where X = Conservative and Suzanne Evans has chipped in where X = UKIP. The Labour version is slightly different because Dan Jarvis has edited the volume, rather than it being single authored. He also gets a Foreword by the party leader, which Dave and Nigel don’t appear to have supplied for their champions.

When we come to the Liberal Democrats what do we get? We get Jeremy Browne, that’s what. Unlike an equivalent publication written by Danny Alexander in the run up to the 2010 General Election, we don’t get a Foreword from Nick Clegg. But we do get an endorsement from David Laws: “A compelling argument for liberalism as the big idea in politics today”.

I can certainly see why one might turn to Browne for a robust position statement. But what sort of position will be stated?


Anyone who follows this blog with any regularity will know that I’m not the biggest fan of Browne’s writing. When I reviewed his previous book, Race Plan, I felt that it had maybe one or two weaknesses and a certain looseness to the argument.

In that respect, at least, this book is no different. One word that I wouldn’t use to describe its argument is compelling. For this type of short guide one couldn’t reasonably expect a closely argued academic treatise. It is inevitably going to be broad brush and painted in primary colours. But the text we are offered is a mix of the plausible, the partial, and the problematic.

The broad contours of Browne’s argument are that we now live in “The Liberal Age” and that the Liberal Democrats are the only party with the instincts to deliver the policy needed to meet the challenges of that age. He offers the argument under five headings: freedom, opportunity, decentralisation, sustainability, and globalisation.

He arrives at his conclusion via the construction of a platoon of straw men. He repeatedly characterises Labour as collectivist and statist in ways that haven’t been the case for many years. The argument pretty much amounts to saying: scratch the surface of Ed Miliband and you’ll find Tony Benn underneath. Blairite ‘modernisation’ and the battle over Clause 4 were chimera. I suspect that there are many Labour activists who fervently wish that were the case, but don’t believe it is.

Browne characterises the Conservative party as backward looking, insular and keen to preserve institutions and ways of life that are no longer fit for purpose in the Liberal Age. While we might agree with the insularity point, it seems hard to argue, after four years in which the Coalition has gone about attacking or dismantling a range of institutions, that the Conservatives are, well, very conservative. And, of course, only a couple of days ago we had the announcement of Tory proposals to dismantle human rights legislation that their forefathers were largely responsible for drafting. This seems hardly compatible with the notion of a Liberal Age, or, indeed, with a conservative belief in the constitutional significance of the separation of powers. And if we look at what is going on internationally – with the rise of IS and the like – the premise that we have arrived securely in the Liberal Age is itself perhaps worthy of some exploration.

I don’t disagree with Browne that the Liberal Democrats are frequently closer to the mark in policy terms than the other parties. But I’m not sure that the argument is helped by the caricatures of the opposition that he offers. Indeed, presumably the other parties see the Liberal Democrats as closer to the mark because they keep pinching Libdem policies.

One of the puzzles about the book is what it is trying to sell. Browne is not quite making the case for Liberal Democrat policy as it is. Rather, he is implicitly making the case for Liberal Democrat policy as he would like it to be if only the party would listen to him. So, a bit like Race Plan, this has the potential to confuse the reader-voter.

And the further problem is that Liberal Democrat policy as Browne would like it is quite a lot like Coalition policy as it has been and is currently. He is pretty staunch in his defence of much of what the coalition has done. Just as the Liberal Democrats seek to differentiate from the worst excesses of the Coalition, Browne shows no such inclination. In particular, it appears not only that he is a fully signed-up austerian but also that he believes that the Coalition has nobly stuck to its economic plan come what may. Despite the fact that it hasn’t.

Indeed, his argument at times is indistinguishable from those advanced by people like Iain Duncan Smith. Browne repeats, for example, the myths about cultures of welfare dependency that IDS has used to justify his welfare reforms. Browne sees participation in work as unambiguously good because it fosters independence and human dignity, and allows households to be shaken free from clutches of the state.

Browne claims reductions in welfare spending and increases in numbers in work as indicative that the policies are working.  But that opens up all sorts of questions about sanctions and denial of benefit, on the one hand, and the definition of “in work” on the other. Browne sees the rise in the number of self-employed as indicative that the Coalition has released a new wave of entrepreneurship, whereas commentators who are rather closer to the issues see it as frequently a sign of desperation and de facto disguised unemployment. Browne doesn’t note the restructuring of the labour market such that the bulk of new jobs are now created at the minimum wage and many new claimants for social security benefits are in work rather than out of work because many employers are now paying poverty wages.

Browne is supportive of mandatory work placements for the recalcitrant unemployed and Universal Credit as a mechanism for making work pay, without noting – even parenthetically – that workfare is both a bit of a disaster and pretty illiberal, and Universal Credit hasn’t even been implemented yet. This was particularly striking because I have just come from a session at Autumn Conference in which the party voted through a policy to support the overhaul of Universal Credit, the sanctions regime, and the treatment of asylum seekers, and to try to deal with the problems of access to welfare advice. Activists are very concerned about the impact of the Coalition welfare reforms on the poorest and most vulnerable. We don’t get any great sense of this type of concern coming through in Browne’s book.

I mentioned earlier that some of what Browne offers is problematic. What do I mean? I’ll give just a couple of examples.

In relation to the Liberal Democrats’ record of government he writes:

In the decades before 2010 the Liberal Democrats existed on the fringes of politics. We had all the outward manifestations of a political party preparing for power: we published manifestos, held conferences and selected candidates. We were sometimes successful in local elections, but our efforts never amounted at the national level to anything definitive. Through these many bleak years in the wilderness a stoical band of activists kept the fragile flame of liberalism in Britain alive. Government alternated between the Conservatives and Labour. Voting for the Liberal Democrats was a demonstration of faith but not a means for determining the future direction of our country.

Sometimes successful in local elections? Bleak years in the wilderness? That seems to me to be a misreading of history, and a kick in the teeth for the thousands of councillors who painstakingly built the Liberal Democrats’ strength in local government over many years; only to see it unravel in many areas of the country as collateral damage from the Parliamentary Party’s sojourn in Government. It is a characterisation that sits slightly oddly in a book that only a few pages earlier was extolling the virtues of decentralising power to local and regional government.

Browne makes a strong case for liberty of the individual. He notes that liberals stand against concentrations of power – either the state or in the private sector – that can oppress individuals and constrain freedom. So far so good. He then says quite a bit about freeing people from the dead-hand of the state, personalisation of services and the like. But he says nothing more about concentrations of power in private hands. When he discusses economic liberalism and globalisation it is all free trade and free markets. There is no acknowledgement of concentrations of economic power. It’s all individual creativity and innovation. There is nothing about multinationals with the turnover of middle sized countries manipulating the world trading system to their advantage. There is nothing about the problems caused by the financialisation of the economy. There is no recognition that while free trade in goods and services might be a good thing, there is a growing concern among economists that unrestricted global capital flows might well be doing more harm than good. There is no recognition that decentralising political power without addressing concentrations of economic power is a recipe for disaster.

I agree with Browne that the individual is central to the story: that is the starting point and we build out from there. We need to see the individual in context and we need to understand the social structures in which the individual is embedded. Without considering these broader structures there can be no consideration of issues that exercise many voters – such as rising inequality. There can be no discussion of how to strike the difficult balance between between liberty, equality and community.

In Browne’s argument there is no acknowledgement of the tensions between democracy and globalisation. Rather, the argument operates in a rather Panglossian world in which we can have both and the benefits of both are unalloyed. Yet, the fallacy of that argument is playing out at the moment in the debate over TTIP. If you want to bring down trade barriers by guaranteeing regulatory harmonisation then you remove the right of countries to self-determination. Signing up to such agreements means you no longer have local discretion to decide unilaterally to do things differently. That’s the point. You might think that is a good thing. You might think that is a bad thing. But it is nothing more than a matter of logic.

But maybe I’m being harsh on Browne here. These are topics which seem to me to be under-explored in and around the Liberal Democrats more generally. In Race Plan Browne talked about “authentic” liberalism – by which he meant the sort of liberalism he favours. This time around he has returned to the Orange Book notion of four-cornered liberalism – economic, personal, social, political – although he doesn’t acknowledge it as such. This framework treats the four-corners as complementary, even though they are much more likely to be in tension. That’s a bigger topic – and one that touches on the debate between the various wings of the Liberal Democrats.

Although it is not mentioned in the book, in a recent interview with the New Statesman Browne has added the notion of “360 degree” liberalism to the repertoire of spatial metaphors. I guess that is just a catchier way of saying comprehensive. The article also makes it pretty clear that this book is part of the ongoing story of Browne’s leadership ambitions.

There is much in the book that all Liberal Democrats would agree with – on political and personal liberty, in particular. There is much in the book that some Liberal Democrats would welcome and some would find deeply questionable. The traces of many of Browne’s arguments can be detected in party policy. But some of the arguments are of a rather different kind.

But that leaves me wondering. How is the unwary reader, picking this book up in a bid to discover what they might be endorsing if they were to vote Liberal Democrat, supposed to decode the nuances of its argument?

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5 replies »

  1. Crikey Bill, that’s very kind! If I ever manage to achieve a quarter of CR’s grasp on liberal philosophy then I’d be hugely happy.

  2. Very interesting review.

    I wonder if you could expand on your reference to workfare being illiberal, bearing in mind the views of – for example – William Beveridge on compulsion – http://www.markpack.org.uk/14935/william-beveridge-benefits-and-compulsion/

    The details are certainly vital to get right but the principle that benefits come with conditions seems to me a large part of liberal and Liberal thought since before the welfare state was created?

    • Hello Mark,

      Thanks for your comment and your invitation to expand on the point. I admit that I used the term “workfare” to cover a multitude of contemporary sins.

      In some senses I think you’ve answered your own query. I’m not against the principle of compulsion per se. But whether or not it represents a liberal component of a welfare safety net depends, for me, on the context, the spirit in which it is pursued, and the detail of the rules and their application.

      I would argue that Beveridge’s statements on compulsion need to be located in the context of the post-war commitment to demand management and full employment. Whether or not that macroeconomic policy was something that was appropriate or sensible in economic terms, it was the other side of the same coin – we’re trying to make sure there are sufficient jobs available, it’s your responsibility to take on one of them. If you don’t then expect a rather more explicit intervention.

      Similarly I read Beveridge’s comments as being rather more supportive than the way in which the current system operates. It is about supporting people back to work, with compulsion as the last resort. The current system seems too often to see compulsion – or more specifically sanctioning – as the first resort, in part distorted by the performance management systems that are reported to be in operation (but denied by the DWP).

      Mandatory workfare coupled with sanctioning in a weak labour market allows employers to substitute the unemployed for the low paid and hold down the pay of the already low paid because of fear among staff of the consequences of job loss.

      The rather Kafkaesque approach of the current system – where people are being sanctioned for no reason they understand or, absurdly, sanctioned for attending a job interview and therefore missing their check in at JC+ – is the opposite of empowering. The level of compliance now expected – such as the hours of weekly job search – has arguably reached a dysfunctional level. The requirement for weekly (rather than fortnightly) check-in at a site an expensive bus journey from home simply depletes the resources of the already poor to no great purpose.

      The idea that people should be forced to do some sort of work in exchange for benefits, because any sort of work is by definition good, even if that prevents them from seeking to pursue a career for which they are trained and qualified (eg by stopping stopping volunteering to help out in a museum) seems an absurdity.

      Of course the system should not encourage or allow permanent idleness among those who are able to contribute through formal employment, but it should not be so oppressive that it acts to disempower vulnerable people even further or frustrates reasonable aspirations.