Monday, 26 May 2014

Searching for a new liberal party....


I'm a Tory so I guess it's none of my business but it worries me a little that there is no genuinely liberal voice in UK politics. Perhaps the collapse of the party that colonised liberalism with a sort of tepid social democracy presents an opportunity to rediscover a genuinely liberal voice in British politics.

First here's the always on the money Graeme Archer on the subject of yesterday's Liberal Democrat annihilation:

Take away every elected Tory, and Toryism would continue, and sooner or later find a way to be represented in parliament again. Ditto Labour. But take away every elected Lib Dem, and what are you left with? The vacant contradiction at the heart of the "LibDem" construct: neither properly liberal, nor effectively social democrat. Just nothing.

Yet liberalism is a real thing - the Dutch show this with not one but two liberal parties (as I understand it one is quite crunchy and classical liberal whereas the other is more cuddly and lentil-eating). The problem is that the Liberal Democrats simply aren't liberal - indeed their political position was for me summed up by their leader on Bradford Council when she said - indeed says repeatedly - 'we're not liberal, we're liberal democrats'.

Now while Graeme suggests that all the real liberals were absorbed into the Conservative Party (certainly the economic liberal were but there's a strong case to be made for all the inheritors of Gladstonian liberalism to be in my party - even down to the nannying fussbuckets since Gladstone was certainly one of those) this means that whiggish tendencies have to fight their corner with proper conservatives of one sort or another.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats are doing a lot of soul-searching. Some of this is pretty unedifying - I watched some activist laying into Danny Alexander during the BBC's Euro elections programming. It wasn't about policy but an extended moan about going into coalition and how it didn't work out. But elsewhere the debate is more real with 'social liberals' like Tim Farron in one camp and economic liberals like David Laws in the other. For the former their policy prescriptions are almost indistinguishable - a penchant for localism aside - from those of the Labour Party whereas the Conservatives would welcome Laws or Jeremy Browne with open arms.

What is lacking here is a real liberal challenge to current economic orthodoxies or setting out policies that actually sit with the views of the private sector, middle class, metropolitan population. These policies could have the following components:

1. An international focus. For the Liberal Democrats at the moment this is done through blind adherence to the European 'project' despite all its manifest illiberalism, protectionism and preference for dirigisme over economic freedom. Rejecting this model means rejecting the EU and arguing for a unilateral approach to free trade - looking beyond a stagnating and inward-looking Europe to emerging nations and the old 'anglosphere'.

2. A preference for local over national. Partly from its base in local government and partly out of conviction, the Liberal Democrats have always supported the idea of 'localism'. But for this to work, you have to accept inconsistencies - the 'postcode lottery' beloved of the media. In return you get more accountability, a drive to improve, and more creativity in the design and delivery of government services.

3. Emphasising markets rather than planning. This isn't saying 'no planning' but it is expressing a belief that markets are, ceteris paribus, better at allocating scarce resources than planners. Such an emphasis might lead to new solutions to the challenges of pensions and caring for the elderly - getting away from the tax and provide approach to look at insurance systems for example.

4. Prioritising personal choice over social prescription. Bits of the social liberal agenda fit in well here - support for same sex marriage and more open immigration, for example. But this must be joined by wider personal choice issues and by rejecting the nanny state approach to public health. Plus, of course, things like free schools and home education.

The four broad principles provide the basis for a different agenda - one that is prepared to explore currency choice, drugs liberalisation and devolved city government. It would be very distinct from the dominant centre-right, conservative approach that focuses on getting the right governance and the right people in charge - making the state model work rather than reforming it through devolution, markets or a combination of the two.

Perhaps after it has searched its soul the Liberal Democrat Party will emerge renewed and ready to embrace a genuinely liberal policy agenda but somehow I doubt this. Rather we will see the Liberal Democrats squirm about trying to triangulate a slightly more left-wing agenda in a last ditch attempt to survive. And because the Party's last few redoubts - Sutton, Eastleigh, Colchester, Orkney & Shetland - will hold out along with a smattering of hard-working councillors across the country, the Party will believe it has the means to rise again. Meaning that my hope for a real liberal party would be dashed!



Curmudgeon said...

There are plenty of classical liberals within the ranks of UKIP.

Anonymous said...

The main problem with The Liberal Democrats is not it's Policies
which may appeal to some rural hasbeens,it is the activists who
pretend to be democrats but who have'nt the decency to show their true intentions.
Deviants,Trots,Fellow Travellers and carpetbaggers now with many trooping over to the freak brigade,The Greens

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