Friday, September 30, 2005

We are not Old Labour in exile

There is a strange asymmetry in the average Liberal Democrat's attitude to the two other parties.

We positively glory in upsetting Conservatives. If someone got up during a debate at a Lib Dem Conference and said we should not support civil liberties in case the Daily Mail and the Tory Party attacked us, he would be howled down. And rightly so.

But our attitude to Labour is very different. Here is Paul Holmes, chair of the Lib Dem parliamentary party, writing in today's Liberal Democrat News:
Those who talk of "breaking up the NHS" need to explain in detail what they mean, although the damage is already done in terms of Labour leaflet writers. Decentralisation and local accountability would be in tune with Liberal Democrat core values. But the headline writers seized upon hints of cut-throat competition and USA style personal insurance (whatever other title it is dressed up in).
Liberal Democrats love to describe themselves as "radical", but for many there seems to be an unstated assumption that to be radical means to be like the pre-Blair Labour Party.

Why is this? In my Liberator review of the Orange Book I suggested that:
for most of the twentieth century liberalism was in decline and socialism was seen as the ideology of the future. It was not surprising that some liberals concluded that the way to prove that liberalism was still relevant was to show that it had anticipated socialism or was really a form of socialism too.
We need to be more confident in liberalism and to enjoy outraging socialists as much as we enjoy outraging the Tories. Our policies should emphasise individual liberty and local democracy to an extent that scandalises the Labour Party.

Perhaps the philosophical differences between liberalism and socialism are harder to appreciate if you do not remember Labour before Blair. And these days Liberal Democrat policy is closest to New Labour on precisely those issues which are central to New Labour's view of the world. I am thinking of childcare and antisocial behaviour.

But ultimately, what is the point of having a separate Liberal Democrat party if our policies do not annoy Labour politicians and journalists?


Peter Pigeon said...

I hadn't seen your review of the ORange book before. I agree that the contribution by Laws was the most valuable section, and that the Davey section was weak. Indeed I disliked it so much that I considered launching a campaign for the restoration of RDCs, UDCS and alderpeople...

Liberal Neil said...

I interpreted Paul's point differently.

I think he is saying that there is no point putting forward phrases that will provide easy leaflet writing fodder for our opponents UNLESS we have clearly thought through position to promote.

Otherwise all we do is give ammunition to our opponents without any positive gain in return.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Why does Paul Holmes have to perpetuate the myth that health insurance is a US-style thing, btw? It's a bit disingenuous - he's claiming to say that's what the headline writers do, and yet he's given exactly the same impression.

Anonymous said...

I think the argument put forward by Nick Clegg was well-enough thought through for the time being - that we have to look at the experience of EU members who use insurance models and have far better health results than we do. What's the matter with saying that?

The NHS has big problems, and lots of EU members have systems that we should be looking at. Why is there no positive gain from saying that, and who's afraid of Peter Hain and the leaflet writers when the sustainable future of the health system's at stake?

Anonymous said...

I think his point is that saying you want to "break up" the NHS makes you a very easy target for both the other parties. As he's won his seat off Labour, it's no great surprise he's used Labour in that sentence.

And you could easily describe the same policies using other phrases that aren't so obviously inflamatory and open to misuse and distortion. His point (which I agree with) is why use such language when there's other, less problematic language, on offer?

Anonymous said...

why use other language when it IS what we should be doing, and we struggle to make it clear what we stand for. People waiting months in pain for an NHS operation is an evil- as well as the fact that the much-derided US healthcare system has much higher rates of treating cancver for example. The wing of the party that says we should not try to be 'electable' and that it is the Lib Dems duty to rock the boat, go on to be massively hypocritical. To paraphrase Mao, let's let a thousand flowers grow and hoover up the best ideas. I find it ironic that the left of the party- shown by the miserable production of the Beveridge Group- is so conservative whenever it comes to looking in detail at radical reform.

Anonymous said...

I think liberal neil is right on this.

And - for what it's worth - I think someone as sensible as Nick Clegg would probably agree that he chose the wrong words, and encouraged the media to blow his remarks out of all proportion.

If you're in favour of radical reform of the NHS, fine - the onus is on you to come up with a scheme and you may well want to declare your intentions before you do that work in its entirety. But to (deliberately) describe your policy as "breaking up the NHS" is ambiguous and prone to gross misinterpretation by media, electorate and conference reps.

The careless remark about NHS waits being "an evil" in the anonymous comment above is meaningless. I could equally say that the immediate, free, life-saving work done by paramedics makes the NHS institutionally worthy of beatification. More heat than light...

Bratiaith said...

Everybody's (ostensibly) liberal nowadays so there really is no point to your party.

The "radical" wing should join with the Social Democratic wing of Labour. The rest should join with the (I hate to use the word but can think of no other) "progressively" libertarian Tories.

From what I've seen of Liberals it's all just about silly politiking, without substance. In cardiff we got rid of Russell Goodway only to end up with rodney berhman (may have spelled his name wrong) who is just Goodway with controlfreakery mendacious Knobs on.