Is Liberalism Centrist?

July 29, 2015 § 3 Comments

The question of direction – or indeed of direction versus cleaving to the status quo – is one that is proving troublesome for almost all the UK’s political parties at the moment, with the exception of the Conservatives who rather specialise in avoiding having a direction and avoiding telling anyone when they do. Particularly after our recent electoral defeat, and the heavily “centrist” tone of our election campaign, the relationship between liberalism and the centre is something worth considering – indeed, it is worth at least a healthy scepticism about whether it inherently exists at all.

Liberalism – the belief that it is the freedom of the individual that should be the guiding factor in political decision making – is a creed that is just as favourable to radicalism as socialism or Thatcherite anti-statism, if not occasionally more so. This party’s constitution, stating that in a liberal society nobody shall be enslaved by ignorance, poverty, or conformity, is a powerful reminder of this. Radical liberalism demands attention to problems that centrism by its very nature has difficulty focussing on. It is clear that our current economic paradigm, for example, is one in which wealth gaps are tending to increase over time. Reversing that will not in any sense be a matter of tweaking some numbers and shifting some tax rates, but a society where the badly off are in a state of economic dependency on the wealthy – one where private wealth dominates over the public interest – cannot consider itself liberated any more than one where a controlling state is inevitably corrupted by an excess of power. A society that lives up to the ideals in our constitution is not going to be one that is unchanged in its economic structures.

I should clarify what I am not trying to say here – I am certainly not saying that one cannot be a liberal-leaning centrist, or indeed that our party does not have a high percentage of people who do lean towards centrism. What I am saying is that nothing about liberalism is inherently focussed towards the political centre. Indeed the centre – by definition, the consensus space between the current political parties – is only a liberal space in so far as that consensus is liberal, and it is a fairly clear fact that it is not, either in its social relations or its economic situation. The oxymoronic “radical centre” is a confused attempt to square this circle, and one which (I think because of that confusion) has little traction with much of the public. Perhaps we would be better admitting a circle is a circle, that liberal ideas may come in radical or centrist forms but not both simultaneously.

This is an important thing to realise. In some discussions I have had with people since the election there has been a sense that the Liberal Democrats need to “focus on what we’re good at” – aka, social issues that unite the party more – rather than risk pulling ourselves apart over questions of economic strategy. There are two major flaws with this. Firstly, we cannot become the “no economics, please” party, or even the “we’re economically sort of balanced between the others” party. It is economic vision –encompassing the basic facts of production and distribution in a society – that ties political narratives together, that welds disparate policy into a picture of a better future. If we avoid hammering out a picture of a liberal economy we will be torn apart from all sides on the subject, as indeed we were this year.

Not only that, though; we will deserve it. We cannot succeed in giving strength to the weak, safety to the vulnerable, if we ignore or downplay the economic aspect of their circumstances. For LGBT people in the UK, legal civil rights are of course a huge issue, but as important are frankly terrifying rates of homelessness, especially amongst the LGBT young. If we believe people should have the freedom to direct their own labour then we should be deeply concerned about the attack on the self-employed represented by the recent budget, too, as people suffer badly from the loss of working tax credits but do not even get the small consolation of a higher minimum wage available to those in employment. Opposing excessive concentrations of power in all their forms, fighting for people’s ability to stand on their own feet – these are political aspirations that demand an economic foundation to be workable.

Getting these ideas across, and forging a narrative from them, requires an appreciation of liberalism as a radical tradition that has its own driving goals for the socio-economic state of the country (the division of “economy” and “society” is rarely clear and certainly does more harm than good here). Regardless of the speed at which people are advocating we move in that direction, an appreciation of what that direction of travel looks like and aims for is going to be crucial to get across the people if we are to recover and build ourselves up in the medium term. This direction, the political pursuit of freedom, contains no inherent leanings towards the centre; it is a vision, an ideal and a goal that demands change on its own, liberal, terms.

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Where we screwed up – and where we went wrong

July 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

So this should be a short-ish post, just some thoughts on how the Lib Dems should be looking at and assessing their time in government. “What went badly” is an obvious question – and one that will surely dominate party thinking for some time (at least, it certainly ought to). What I wish to propose, however, is that this question is actually two in disguise, and that we should accept that both need answering and thinking about separately. The two questions, which I am going to re-frame as “where did we screw up?” and “what did we do wrong?”, are subtly but vitally different ones.

What I mean by “where did we screw up” is where we failed politically and electorally. The examples are myriad and there is no need to reiterate them here; one shouldn’t sign pledges and break them, one shouldn’t campaign next to a massive poster with a “VAT bombshell” on it and then agree to a steep rise in VAT, and the less said about “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” as a message the better. However, on many of these the thing that was most wrong was the politics. The tuition fees policy, for example, was morally not wholly unacceptable when negotiating with one of two main parties both of whom were determined to push the burden of paying for higher education onto the shoulders of students. It was a policy I disagreed with – my belief that higher education should be funded from general taxation remains unshaken, and indeed my first experience of real political campaigning was opposing those cuts – but one that was a disaster for the Liberals primarily because of its implications for trust more than for its implications for immediate human hardship. We also failed to produce an independent narrative to the Conservative one on the economy, something that should have, even within the constraints of coalition, been a priority. It was always Liberal policy that public spending should be allowed to rise again as the economy improved – that the worst of the cuts were a sacrifice for the crisis not a commitment to a permanently withered safety net. This message was too infrequently wheeled out, in favour of defending the immediate decisions being made. The Liberal Democrats looked economically lost, and paid the price. In short, we screwed up.

So then, if that covers that, why am I positing “what did we do wrong?” as a separate question? Put plainly, what I mean by the second question is that we need to think about where we failed the country, regardless of the effects on party. Posing this question means accepting that we did in some places fail to provide the best deal for the country that the coalition could have offered, which will be difficult – but necessary. We lost few votes for failing to properly oppose secret courts, but there is no doubt that our weakness there was a failure. More importantly, we failed huge numbers of people by not ensuring more compassion in reforms of the benefit system and local government. For all the good Norman Lamb did in improving NHS guidelines on mental health, ultimately the coalition’s record as a whole on the issue was poor, as a result of local government cuts leaving families without social workers or the help they needed to access cash-strapped mental health services. For the disabled and the out of work, testing regimes for benefit claims became excessively aggressive. Subjected to the increasingly dictatorial powers of job centres and employment assessors, the death toll – on which the government is still trying to avoid publishing the statistics – should be a reminder that our actions had very real and painful consequences. Some of the worst aggression of the Tory-run DWP we could and should have prevented. I don’t honestly think it would have helped us electorally – we’d still have been blamed for a great deal. But that’s really not the point. Not only is the increasing ability of job centres to force people to work without wages and sanction those who do not painful, it cuts at the core of liberal values. Someone who is offered the choice between “work-fare” and starvation is not being offered a choice, they are being offered a route into temporary enslavement. We need to think about our working and negotiating practices within the coalition to think whether we could have been more successful at preventing some of these profoundly illiberal measures.

In short, we need to analyse the coalition from two major perspectives; firstly, where we failed ourselves as a party, but secondly, where we failed most catastrophically or painfully to get our values applied into government, with welfare and local government social services at the top of the latter list. Only by ensuring that we carefully look through our strategies for both how we governed AND how we explained ourselves will the Liberal Democrats manage to learn the full range of possible lessons for the future.

Some brief thoughts on Greece

July 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Troika are really playing with fire in Greece; today shows a country that is deeply worried and divided, even with the strong No majority that has emerged. If the sensible option – that is, cancellation of a large part of the unsustainable debt being financed on the back of Greek taxpayers – is not followed, the risk of social disaster and meltdown in Greece may become very real indeed.

The purpose of the EU, and indeed its single greatest achievement, has been in creating peace across Europe; it is that which should focus the minds of Greece’s creditors. Never mind that it was in part their fault that Greece had unsustainable credit access to start with, never mind that they have been as guilty as any of flouting the financial stringency rules the Euro was supposed to have – what people need to get into their heads, now, is that if Greece keeps down its current path it is being railroaded, angry and bitter, into a pariah situation. Geopolitically, nothing could be more dangerous – a poor, embittered country, its far right potentially insurgent on the back of the failure of its far left, with Russia and China circling its poverty like birds of prey. This is the situation that Germany and France are making a very real possibility; the short-term financial pain of debt cancellation would, for the wealthy members of the Eurozone, be well worth it to banish the greater threat of instability. As I began by saying – the Troika are playing with fire, and I do not want to speculate on who the flames might burn.

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