Hey, The Left, liberalism isn’t what you think it is

May 11, 2010

I hate calling a particular type of politics by a particular handedness; it speaks of the sort of crass pseudo-intellectualism that passes for discussion in the media. But there’s little other way to describe the aggregate of bizarre activity & analysis we’ve seen from a particular section of what you could call the wonketariat.

Firstly, the Demo for Democracy that I and many others attended last Saturday in Trafalgar Square. I am entirely in favour of electoral reform (although the chant ‘STV in multi-member constituencies!’ is never going to be a rabble-rouser), and attended in the expectation that this demonstration would be about convincing all the parties that now is the time to change our blatantly unfair voting system. However, after some rather cathartic yelling below Nelson’s Column, the demonstration was shifted to Smith Square, to lobby Nick Clegg directly. When this happened, I went to the pub.

The Liberal Democrats have been in favour of electoral reform for ninety years. Ninety years. Protesting in front of their HQ is equivalent to standing in front of Shell’s corporate headquarters and yelling, “MORE OIL DRILLING! SELL OIL AT THE HIGHEST PRICE YOU CAN GET!” It’s just stupid. I make no apologies for labelling Power2010 and Take Back Parliament daft for doing this, it’s the truth. When Clegg responded to the protest you could almost hear him thinking, ‘Look chaps, if you think I could get any deal that didn’t include at least a referendum on PR through the Lib Dems’ triple lock, then clearly you think I could out-Machiavelli Machiavelli’.

This is straight-forward political ignorance. Handing power to as many people as possible (and away from politicians) is a key tenet of liberal philosophy. First-past-the-post tends to render the votes of so many people irrelevant that it can never fulfil this objective, regardless of whether it ends up with a single manifesto put into practice or not. If you’ve voted for a particular collection of policies, wouldn’t you rather that your vote led to at least some of those policies being implemented, rather than none? While PR decreases the power of the ‘winning’ voters, it enhances the power of voters overall. It therefore distributes power more widely, and is inherently liberal as a consequence.

A further demonstration of political ignorance (actually, this one might be just stupidity) comes courtesy of the Fabian Society. They’ve argued that a Lib Dem coalition with the Tories would lead to a Lib-Lab swing at a future election that would see Labour gain many seats from the Lib Dems. They do this on the back of a national poll conducted by YouGov that ostensibly shows that Lib Dem voters view themselves as being closer to Labour than to the Conservatives. 39% of Lib Dem voters consider the party to be centre-left or left, compared to 33% who believe it to be in the centre and just 5% who consider it to be centre-right or right.

This is a bad analysis for several reasons. Firstly, the YouGov poll did not differentiate between the types of seats in which the polled Lib Dem voters were located. This will necessarily have an impact; generally people will vote for the Lib Dems either positively (i.e. for our policies or the work of our candidate) or tactically, against our main opposition in the seat if we’re in second place. This means that Lib Dem voters in Labour-facing seats will be voting for our policy platform/candidate or against Labour. A coalition with the Tories, which implements several Lib Dem policies, would not necessarily affect this vote.

It’s much more likely that a coalition would affect our Conservative-facing seats, which have been the recipient of tactical voting in our favour from Labour supporters. This would lead, most likely, to us losing seats where we face the Tories – but not to Labour.

The Fabian Society appear to regard a particular demographic – the disenchanted Labour voter who’s switched to the Lib Dems – as constituting the 39% of our vote who view us as being a centre-left party. As discussed above – and this is the point that the Fabians appear to have missed – it’s entirely possible to be on the centre-left and not want to vote for Labour over the Tories.

This relates to a wider confusion on the Left about what liberalism is and how it relates to the Labour party. This is demonstrated by Polly Toynbee, who says:

“Here at last is the historic chance to heal the pointless rift between two near-identical progressive parties, divided only by history, tradition and a rotten voting system.”

I suspect calling Labour and the Lib Dems near-identical would cause many members of both parties to take some serious umbrage. The doctrine of liberalism is wildly different to the statist doctrines pushed by the Fabians; it merely appears on the surface to be similar because many of its goals appear to be the same.

Educating and providing the support for the worst-off are a moral imperative for the Fabians, in which the end justifies the means – the means being expanding the state to ensure these moral goals. However, for liberals, education and welfare are tools of empowerment, to set the worst-off free from that which enslaves them. In this, the means are important: when setting people free, placing them in hock to the State at the same time does not constitute empowerment. In this, we share values in common with the Tories, in our goals, values in common with Labour.

The end can never justify the means wholly, which is why, for example, I know of no Lib Dem leaflet which has knowingly lied about our opponents’ policies. This is in contrast to Labour, who during the recent Islington campaign put out leaflets claiming that the Lib Dems would shut down the NHS. For the Fabian mindset, this is justified in terms of their moral goals, but in my view renders any attempt at moralising on their part meaningless.

Liberals have values in common with the Tories. If a coalition with them leads to empowerment of individuals whose votes would otherwise be rendered meaningless under FPTP, if a stable coalition leads to more peoples’ jobs and livelihoods being saved from the worst effects of the financial crisis, if a coalition can lead to educational and tax reform that lends resources and opportunity to the least empowered in our country, then I say we must take it. After all, a coalition with the Tories would represent at least part of the wishes of 59% of the electorate, while a rainbow coalition with Labour would represent 56% of the electorate. Although the margins are small, a Lib-Con coalition would empower more people than a Lib-Lab coalition. And that, after all, is what liberalism is all about.

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15 Responses to “Hey, The Left, liberalism isn’t what you think it is”

  1. An excellent piece. Nice to know that someone other than me thinks that the word “progressive” is bandied about far too much, especially because it is lazily assumed to include both Lib Dems and Labour.

  2. Jock Coats said

    Of course the real blame must go to the US “Progressive Movement” that was then succeeded in the same statist endeavours by what they called the liberals. All linguistic corruptions!

  3. A.H. Gillett said

    I’ve been waiting for the last few days for you to write this piece. Nice finally to have it so I can shove it under the noses of everyone calling us traitors.

    We have taken out all of the rich-helping elements of the Tory manifest, have contributed the £10,000 tax allowance, a referendum on electoral reform and fixed term parliaments.

    Anyone complaining has tribal sour grapes, and there are no grounds on which to complain until we have seen the outcome.

  4. […] I read on a blog today… Date: 11 May 2010 0 comments Tags: electoral reform From Decline of the Logos: The Liberal Democrats have been in favour of electoral reform for ninety years. Ninety years. […]

  5. gwenhwyfaer said

    Polly Toynbee isn’t just another ignorant commenter here: she’s one of those who left Labour to form the SDP, and stood for them in 1983, only rejoining Labour because she disagreed with the SDP/Liberal merger. As far as I can tell, she believes that the SDP should have been reabsorbed into the Labour party, bringing most of the Liberals with them. (And of course, like entirely too many on the left, she equates top-down socialism with the totality of left-wing thought, ignoring the bottom-up anarchist tradition altogether…)

  6. gwenhwyfaer said

    Make that “entirely too many on the left and just about everyone on the right”, actually.

  7. @gwenhwyfaer: Yes, to be fair she is a very intelligent person, she just doesn’t really understand what drives liberals. Otherwise she wouldn’t expect us to join the Labour party!

  8. George said

    Of course PR is a central aspiration of the Lib Dems, and of course they were always going to work as hard as they could for it in any negotiations taking place.

    The point of the demo’s move to Smith Square, to my mind, was to strengthen their hands in this. As clear from Nick Clegg and Chris Fox’s separate responses they think the same.

    G

    • declineofthelogos said

      While I’m sure Clegg and Fox were grateful for external support for something they already wanted to do, the point is in an extremely narrow timeframe you squandered perhaps the best opportunity to publicly pressure Labour or the Tories over electoral reform, and force them to make a response. Imagine if you’d got Cameron to commit to electoral reform before the conclusion of negotiations. That would’ve strengthened Clegg’s hand more than anything else you could’ve done. Since you didn’t do that, and only protested outside Labour’s headquarters when it was already clear a coalition with them wouldn’t work, I can only conclude you were being daft.

      • George said

        1. To suggest that blanket coverage of a mass protest for PR for the best part of an hour, and the perfect media opportunity for Nick Clegg to use to pressure Labour and the Tories – is “squandering” an opportunity to do just that then you are massively mistaken.

        2. At the birth of a new movement it’s vital you don’t end up like every other campaign banging its head against a brick wall. If you want to inspire further participation you need to do it by picking a challenge you might be able to rise to. Clegg could have come out (and did), Cameron and Brown would never have responded. “Imagine ifs” are are no good if they could never have been realised, only small comfort to idlers.

        On the contrary – you’re being daft if you think it an opportune moment to criticise the only emergent movement to push for fair votes. Contact me by email if you want an input on future direction for the movement, or begin like hundreds of others to organise your own rally or volunteer to help us run ours.

  9. declineofthelogos said

    George, I’m going to respond to you on Mark’s blog, as you’ve seen fit to repeat your post here on there.

    • George said

      Thanks Adam – it’s because having quoted you I wanted him to see the 2 points I’m trying to stress to you too.

      G

  10. JohnM said

    I describe myself as Social Liberal and SLF member but struggle to be inspired by that forum as much as say ‘ResPublica’ at the moment especially with respect to ideas around practically promoting social mobility. That’s not to say that SLF is failing or falling into the trap of adopting the relativity of the proverbial bubble in a spirit level. No, as a Liberal, one feels strongly that no ones life should be made worse in the pursuit of wider and longer-term objectives. There is no question where the SLF heart is.

    Nevertheless that longer term focus is worth striving for when it both, breaks out of the left-right axis and moves the debate towards a more liberal basis, and, particularly, aims to break the barriers out of generational poverty and low-esteem.

    So as to not give a ‘man’ a fish as to teach him how, removing artificial barriers to the pond (so to speak), to provide micro-credit to purchase the rod (say), and remove any barriers to free trade in his surplus fish. To achieve a social levelling and greater harmony naturally by inclusion – by removing barriers, and increasing self-esteem by reducing dependence, and promoting freedom by wiping away the imposition of centralised dictate and promoting involvement at an accessible level.

    I liked this quote from the Dutch social liberal party D66 (albeit a basic Google translation):

    “Reward performance and share the wealth
    People are not equal, or equivalent. People are different and we want the government leaves room for those differences.
    We strive for economic independence for many people as possible and find that people who deserve a reward for this outstanding performance. We want a dynamic, open society where everyone gets the space to its own decisions and everyone has their own way to develop.
    We find it natural to share the prosperity. We want as many people participate in social and economic process, because we are all better.”

  11. […] From Decline of the Logos: […]

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