Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Lib Dems should argue with the people they almost agree with

Chris White has a post on Liberal Democrat Voice attacking Conservative education plans. Apparently they take us:
back to grant-maintained schools, introduced by Thatcher is her assault on the concept of society in favour of individualism.
And they also mean that parents will:
have to apply for several schools simultaneously (sometimes all the schools in a town if moving into an area) rather than simply asking the local authority to find a place.
I am never going to agree with this. I find that I expressed my own views in an article on Comment is Free back in April 2006:

If liberalism is to amount to something more than socialism without the identity cards, respect for individual difference must be central to it. Yet British discomfort around social class makes it hard to show that respect when discussing education.

In particular, the suggestion that different sorts of school might suit different children is invariably met with a charge of wanting "to put the clock back 50 years" ...

Meanwhile, the attempt to cater for every need in one neighbourhood school risks maintaining the huge institutions that dogged the comprehensive system from its inception.

And, incidentally, grant-maintained schools long predate Mrs Thatcher.

But the point of this posting is that Chris's article gives me the chance to make a point I have long had on my mind.

It is that a Liberal Democrat like Chris, who clearly has no time for Tory views on education at all, would probably be far more interesting, and far more use in developing a distinctly Liberal Democrat position, if he talked about how he disagrees with Labour on the subject.

Similarly, the party's free market enthusiasts - like the people around Liberal Vision - would do better to talk about how they disagree with Conservative view on the economy.

It is the people you are tempted to agree with that you should be wary of. And it is the ways you find you differ from them when you think hard about it that are really important.


Iain Sharpe said...

This is a really good point. I always feel when hearing Paul Holmes talk: 'Yes but how does this differ from 1970s Labourism' and similarly that David Laws, Jeremy Browne and others seem unhelpfully negative about all aspects of the public sector.

On education it's how to achieve diversity in provision without reinforcing privilege. I don't pretend to have the answer.

Oranjepan said...

I'm tempted to disagree with this, not just for the sake of it, but as a demonstration of what you mean.

I agree with you in so far as it goes, but I would also point out that there are times and places where disagreements are more productive and less productive.

In particular we are in a vital pre-election period, where the real challenge is to spread debate beyond the confines of the party and thereby show we have developed a coherent and consistent approach which is capable of satisfying questions and acting as a unifying force as we ask for public support at the ballot box.

So in agreeing with you that we should be more balanced in our approach I both agree and disagree with you that LV or LDV should attack ideological opponents in this way - rather they should offer a more balanced approach all the time!

Is that being even-handed enough to be considered fair comment?


On the issue of education I fear this has become so convoluted that the public debate has degraded to a pitiful argument about the technical aspects of funding, rather than a practical consideration of who, how, why, when and what to provide a more inspiring and enlightening, more useful and more relevant education.

Frankly I'm not prepared to enter into a discussion which has been manipulated to the extent that the important issues are being neglected. But here goes...

Since when did it become a healthy viewpoint to say education is an issue only for children and their parents?

That's illiberal, it's unhelpful and we must change the focus of the debate accordingly.

If we accept this debate we are complicit in accepting and reinforcing the current overemphasis on the technocratic 'curriculum and exam' agenda - that's not education, or at least it's a highly constrained type of education which is noticably failing large numbers of individuals.

If we want a balanced debate on education we need to do more than just ensure a politically-balanced approach: we must also rebalance this with an unrelenting focus on the actual issues.

Basic skills are serious concerns among many groups, yet schools are in many ways disincentivised as a consequence of the league tables built from exam results and this creates conditions where people are allowed to fall through the net and initial inequalities are magnified.

This is at the same time as continuing education is disregarded as having no practical purpose and funding is channeled to more politically sensitive areas.

Meanwhile the only real way of career advancement is by taking professional qualifications which are largely outside the ambit of state provision and regulation and therefore not considered within a coherent government policy, nor included in the public debate.

So let's have a debate, but let's not accept the artificial restriction of the debate to the perferred territory of our opponents.

Jock Coats said...

And I do think some of us do do our best to argue from a free market point of view against the Tories. The most strident laissez-faire advocate is the most strident leftie IMHO. But there does seem to be little truck with that view in the Lib Dems who engage with that discussion.

Jock Coats said...


Edward said...

If bloggers argue to develop policy, they should argue with those with whom they largely agree.

Bloggers mostly seem to argue to publicly affiliate with a Team, like Tory or Labour bloggers. This explains why they mostly argue with the opponents of the people with whom they wish to publicly affiliate. See most Lib Dem articles on Liberal Conspiracy, or pretty much any article on Liberal Vision.

This makes sense, given that many people expect a hung parliament. In that case, the party leadership may be forced to choose between Labour and Conservatives. This kind of argument is a way for bloggers to try to push the decision one way or another.

Less charitably, they may just be looking for a bigger audience, based on recommendations from Labour/Tory bloggers like Iain Dale, as the Lib Dem blogger who is "one of us".

Tom Papworth said...

Jonathan: "the party's free market enthusiasts - like the people around Liberal Vision - would do better to talk about how they disagree with Conservative view on the economy."

Jonathan, there is plenty of criticism of the Tories on Liberal Vision's website. The Tories are no more a laissez faire party than Labour. They will intervene in the economy in different ways, but they will intervene.

Simply pretending that LV doesn't criticise the Tories on economic grounds is nonsense.

Edward: "Consider ... pretty much any Liberal Vision article. The ...authors are publicly affiliating with one side or another, perhaps in the expectation of a hung parliament forcing the leadership to make a Labour/Conservative choice."

Edward, I can't speak for LV as a whole, but I have publically stated on a number of occasions that we should refuse to form a coalition with either of the collectivist parties. Let them have their minority administration; we should call down a plague on both their houses.

Again, to suggest that LV is trying to encourage cozying up to the Tories is nonsense.