Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Liberal Left is not radical but conservative

Liberal Left, a new Lib Dem internal pressure group, was launched today with a website and a sympathetic article in the Guardian.

Both are liberally scattered with the hurrah words "progressive" and "radical". I have never been quite sure what the former means, but from what I have seen on Liberal Left so far, there is nothing radical about it. It seems dedicated precisely to avoiding hard questions.

You can explore the group's website for yourself, but take this quotation form the Guardian article. Speaking of one of the group's leading figures, the party's former policy director Richard Grayson, he says:
Asked to pinpoint the three strongest policy differences that Liberal Left had with the coalition, he said the deficit, tuition fees and the role of city academies in education.
On the deficit the questions radical should be asking are whether it is moral to leave an ever-growing debt for out children and whether they should be so committed to economic arrangements that leave them having permanently to placate the very people they despise most - international financiers.

On tuition fees they should be asking whether it is really a priority - let alone such a high priority - to fund not particularly academic middle-class youngsters to spend three years at university when our education system and society in general are already so stacked against the working class. It is also possible to ask whether our pile it high, sell it cheap of higher education now gives many graduates the career or educational advantages it claims it does.

And on education, we see more and more areas of our national life dominated by the products of private schools (even sport and pop music). Meanwhile access to the good schools in the state sector is rationed by parents' ability to afford the higher house prices in the streets that surround them. Moaning about city academies really does not cut it if you call yourself a radical. Where is the anger?

Richard is right to say there is a long tradition of dissent inside the Liberal Democrats and that:
"We have never been a democratic centralist party in which the whole party has to abide by a conference decision for ever more."
So he and his allies have every right to form a group, even if I would rather we all put more effort into deciding what the Liberal Democrats believe before we dedicated ourselves to dissenting from it.

But it would have been better if those who cannot stomach a coalition with the Tories had gone to the special conference that endorsed it and argued their case at the time.

Because Richard is not wholly accurate when he says the Lib Dems never said that Labour's spending should be reduced. As I recently discussed, the party committed itself to tax cuts rather than further increases in public spending as long ago as its 2008 autumn conference.

And really this was the issue that was at stake in our last leadership contest - a contest in which one of Liberal Left's leading lights told us that she would trust Nick Clegg with her life.

I am all for radicalism in the Liberal Democrats, but we should not confuse it with nostalgia for the Labourism of 5 or 10 or 20 years ago.


Dan Falchikov said...

Your point about when the party stopped arguing for increased spending is a good one.

But it was earlier than 2008. The 2005 manifesto recognised that Labour had increased spending and that no further increases were desirable. Instead Lib Dem spending commitments would have to be matched by spending cuts elsewhere.

I believe the Director of Policy at the time was one Richard Grayson.

John Minard said...

Feels like a shame that more ginger groups are sprouting up rather than new formats and forums for better internal debate and fostering radicalism. We probably don't need people to huddle into smaller groups to talk to each other about things they already agree on, do we? And, I have to say talking to 'like-minded' groups in other parties is a bit of a minority sport for those views in those parties. There's a better Liberal vehicle and it's called the Lib Dems. I hope for a new style encompassing and accessible Liberal Summer School were we start to develop that new radicalism. Liberal Summer School goes Liberal OU!

Richard Grayson said...

@ Dan Falchikov (and Jonathan)

I think you've misread what Jonathan is saying when you refer to: "Your point about when the party stopped arguing for increased spending is a good one."

That's not what Jonathan said. He said:

"Because Richard is not wholly accurate when he says the Lib Dems never said that Labour's spending should be reduced."

There is a clear difference between stopping advocating spending increases as you say, and between arguing whether or not spending should be reduced. The latter is what Jonathan says was resolved in 2008 in the 'Make it Happen' debate. Actually, the crucial part of MiH was 'We’re looking for ways to cut Britain’s
overall tax burden, so ordinary families have more of their money to help themselves.' It was all very tentative at that point. The debate we had, yes, and lost, was to say that we shouldn't go down that path and instead should have other priorities. The amendment said: 'That whilst we have: fewer doctors, oncologists and radiographers, and larger class sizes than the Western European average; relatively inferior state support for childcare; one of the worst state pensions in Western Europe; and high student debt in further and higher education; that remedying these deficiencies should come ahead of tax cuts (other than those which are already party policy).', the latter being funded by rises elsewhere. But I don't think it was at all that spending would come down as it was too high at an absolute level. Rather, a steer was given to FPC as to what to do if waste was found.

On the point about not raising spending, well, that did happen in my time as Director of Policy, probably as far back as about 2002 or 2003 in an Alternative Budget. But I left that role in 2004, not 2005 - or I'd not have been able to speak in the debate, would I? Remember also that I was merely a memebr of staff as DoP. Conference determined policy not me. I happened to agree though that overall spending was about right in the first half of the 2000s and that redirection was needed, rather than cuts, which was exactly what the party position was.

David Bertram said...

Agree with your points entirely, Jonathan.

Nick said...

"But it would have been better if those who cannot stomach a coalition with the Tories had gone to the special conference that endorsed it and argued their case at the time."

I do recall Linda Jack speaking against the coalition at Birmingham. She was one of the first speakers, though all I remember of it is her waving some handcuffs around.

On the more general point, I'm really not sure what the point of this group is, especially when it makes such a thing about building links with Labour, who thirteen years of evidence have shown us to be neither radical nor liberal.

Left Lib said...

I find that in relation to LL I agree with it's ideology inasmuch as I understand it, but not it's tactics. Notably talking to Labour about policy formation.
However I think some of the points made here are unfair. Cutting public spending is one way to reduce the budget deficit, but if at the same time it depresses growth in the economy then that makes the deficit worse as less revenue comes in through taxation and more money is spent on benefits. Of course the government is looking to cut benefits, but apart from the dubious morality of doing such a thing, given the increased risks of hardship and destitution, this can in any case be counter productive as it incentivises people to resort to crime which will also increase public spending.
Personally I did not agree with the Make It Happen policy passed in 2008, but the party leadership could not follow through the policy on tax cuts by the time of the 2010 general election because in 2008 we supported the economic stimulus to stop the recession getting worse. Do you think they were wrong to do that? Even George Bush had to support a stimulus before he left office in 2008.
At the 2010 general election the party manifesto anticipated that spending cuts would probably start in early 2011. That was not unreasonable. The quarterly growth figures in mid 2010 showed the stimulus was doing it's job and had it been allowed to continue for the rest of the year growth may well have been at a good level to start making cuts, which in themselves would not have needed to have been so severe as they currently are because of the growth. Instead of course we decided on May 7th 2010 to radically change our policy on the pretext of what was going on in Greece. We knew what was going on in Greece long before May 7th, so the reason seems rather odd to put it mildly, but all of a sudden it became Labour who were highly irresponsible on the economy on the grounds that they didn't suddenly change their policy when we did. Of course in the world of politics it goes with the territory that you criticise your opponents, but given the consistent undershooting of the OBR predictions of the performance of the British economy we hardly do so from a position of strength.
I would be interested to know what you think of the opinions of Joseph Stiglitz, author of the seminal book "globalization and it's discontents". He has personal experience of seeing what works and what doesn't work in terms of helping countries get out of debt. He claims that a policy of austerity at a time of flat economic growth is the worst thing we could do, it is repeating the mistakes of the 1930s.