Would the authentic liberals please stand up?

RaceplancoverThe arrival of Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, published by the think tank Reform, has generated plenty of coverage in the mainstream and new media. Everyone – within the community of political nerds at least – has, for a few days at least, been talking about Jeremy. Presumably that was a large part of the point. So it’s already mission at least partially accomplished.

Much of the talk in the yellow corner is about quite what possessed JB to publish the book just a few weeks before a key election in which the party faces a wipeout. Given that much of what he’s saying isn’t Liberal Democrat policy the inevitable result will be to generate further confusion about what the party stands for in the minds of voters. You’d be hard pushed to disprove the hypothesis that he’s set the dial to maximum mischief.  Some commentators have condemned him for being self-interested. I’m not entirely sure he’d see that as a criticism.

Browne has made headlines by proclaiming his agenda to be one of promoting “authentic liberalism”, with the implication that anyone who disagrees with him is not an authentic liberal. It’s a classic tactic for marginalising those you disagree with. And given that the evidence before us would suggest Browne’s liberalism is about six parts economic liberalism to three parts personal liberalism and one part social liberalism there are likely to be many within and without the Liberal Democrats who disagree with him violently. [Read more...]

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The Conservatives as keepers of the liberal flame

Over at the New Statesman on Friday Ryan Shorthouse argued that liberals should look to the Conservatives to find the party delivering on a liberal agenda. In the post he reprises some themes that he set out in his contribution to the Liberal Reform fringe meeting at Liberal Democrat spring conference.

Conservative vs. Liberal Beliefs
In order to arrive at this conclusion Shorthouse adopts the strategy of giving credit for the ‘liberal’ policies pursued by the current Government to the Conservatives, while glossing over the fact that it is a coalition government and, indeed, that some of the policies cited were initially opposed by the Conservatives but pushed by the Liberal Democrats. He then takes a detour into political ancient history to identify a range of liberal measures adopted by Conservative governments past. And, credit where it is due, some of those measures – such as the factory acts, extension of the franchise, and the abolition of slavery  - were enlightened: they enhanced dignity and autonomy, augmented individual rights, and rebalanced power so that the vulnerable had greater protection against the powerful. [Read more...]

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‘roots against the machine

Last weekend’s Liberal Democrat conference was hailed by most of the mainstream media as a victory for Nick Clegg over the party’s grassroots activists. Commentators across the right wing press congratulated him on a job well done. Clegg engineered a situation in which the party voted to adopt a range of positions deemed to represent serious and grown up policy, suitable for a ‘party of government’. That is, the sort of policies that tend to find favour with right wing publications. The implicit association of ‘grown-up policy’ with policy that is hardly distinguishable from that of the other main parties is one of the most insidious, but clever, tactics the leadership has employed in volume, over time.

Anyone who believes in offering a radical social liberal alternative must be childish, because they are clearly not interested in ‘grown-up policy’. [Read more...]

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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. [Read more...]

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David Laws, neoliberalism, and concentration of power

Calling someone a neoliberal is rarely a sign of agreement or a term of endearment. It is one of those terms that’s only ever used pejoratively. It’s hard to think of anyone who would choose to classify themselves as a neoliberal. The definition of neoliberalism is quite fluid and contested, but no one uses the label as a sign of approbation.

So when David Laws was branded a neoliberal in the comment thread on a recent post at Liberal Democrat Voice a few supporters sought to defend his honour. The majority of the commenters, on the other hand, were less complimentary about him and his ideas. And there was some negativity about the possibility of his returning to government. Everyone agrees he’s a jolly clever chap. But many see him as the poster boy for the Orange Book Tendency and, as such, a malign influence within the Liberal Democrats. He seems reasonably comfortable with the Orange Book label and that it betokens a faction within the party. Indeed it is one he seems to relish.

But is he a neoliberal? [Read more...]

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Public service reform and liberal democracy

[Originally posted at LSE British Politics and Policy, 01/03/12]

Last week on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, Will Tanner argued that the government needs to change direction on public service reform. Tanner makes three points that flow from his frustration with progress. Mainly, he claims the government is being too cautious and it is placing an undesirable emphasis upon fostering mutual and not-for-profit alternatives to conventional public provision.

Tanner argues that “meaningful” reform needs to be faster and it needs to happen on a larger scale. This point resonates with KPMG’s 2010 paper Payment For Success, which sets out many of the measures you’ll find in the coalition’s Open Public Services white paper. The KPMG argument is that change needs to be rapid so it can more easily override objections and overwhelm resistance. Tanner thinks that new business models are not being embraced as extensively as they should. Rather, they are being restricted to specific policy areas. Finally, if we want to see public services dismantled more comprehensively then we need to reduce “barriers to entry” such as annoyingly inflexible and generous public sector pension arrangements. [Read more...]

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Crunch time for the Liberal Democrats –The NHS Bill and electoral oblivion

The tuition fee debacle was bad. But at least there was a reason, if not an excuse. Neither major party was committed to removing tuition fees. So whoever the Liberal Democrats ended up in Coalition with it was unlikely that the party was going to be able to honour its pledge. The hand was no doubt badly played, but the outcome was going to be nothing other than politically damaging.

This time there is no excuse. The Conservatives may claim that their manifesto refers to extending GP commissioning. But this passing reference is a threadbare justification for the enormous changes being proposed. And how many electors actually read the manifesto? If they bought the story at election time then it was more likely to be Cameron the compassionate Conservative reassuring them that the NHS was his top priority, that it was safe in his hands, that there would be no top down reorganisation, that it wouldn’t be privatised, etc., etc., etc. That these reassurances were not worth the breath required to produce them seems increasingly apparent. Significant chunks of the electorate have interpreted the Government’s plans as taking an axe to their beloved NHS. [Read more...]

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Open Public Services: market fundamentalism with a thin sugar coating?

We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master and a worse religion.

Amory Lovins, CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute

The Government’s long delayed White Paper on public service reform – Open Public Services – has now been released into the wild. I blogged an early reaction to its rationale over at Dale & Co on Tuesday. I’ve now had a chance to come to grips with the detail, such as it is. My feeling is that this is an intriguing, infuriating and – at times – alarming document.

It is a document that lacks coherence in a way that suggests it is the product of several hands, or a fevered mind. It is a document that lacks detail in its justification and its implications in a way that is troubling. The policies and initiatives it identifies as being in accord with the Open Public Services agenda are a ragbag of largely unrelated actions, some of which are problematic in themselves.

There are some components of the proposals that are welcome and sensible. They point, for example, to greater local government or community control over services delivered in their area. If the White Paper had stopped there then it would be a very different beast. But such moves to enhance local democratic control are the secondary storyline. This is the sugar coating.

The overarching message is the onward march of marketisation. [Read more...]

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