Monday, 25 May 2015

What Liberal Democrats stand for

Way back in the 1980s, when the Social Democratic party was formed, I was at a joint meeting at which one of the SDP members asked what Liberals stood for.  I jotted some ideas  on the back of an envelope (I think I've still got it somewhere) and spoke briefly on the following lines -

LIBERTY comes at the top of our list of beliefs, with the John Stuart Mill constraint that we are free only to do what doesn’t harm others. This means that we value variety, welcome people with different cultures and religions and believe that diversity enriches society.  Where the preservation of liberty clashes with our other beliefs, such as equality, then we put liberty first.

EQUALITY AND SECURITY.  We believe that all individuals are equally valuable.  Hence we believe that the state has the dual function of both preventing some people becoming too rich (by progressive taxation) and providing a generous safety-net for the poor, so that all have the ability to participate fully in the norms of society.  We are proud that Welfare State was introduce by the Liberals Lloyd George (the People’s Budget, sick pay, retirement pensions) Winston Churchill (employment exchanges) and developed on the principles of William Beveridge (conquering the five giants of idleness, ignorance, squalor, sickness and want) and regulating the economy to achieve these aims using the economics of J M Keynes.

DEMOCRACY.  Liberals believe that people can be trusted. (Both Conservatives and Socialists believe at heart that we need to be coerced).  We want to see parliamentary reform, so that the people’s representatives have genuine control over the executive; reform of the electoral system by the introduction of proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies; an elected second chamber representative of the regions, to which power will have been devolved to regional governments; and vital local government.  All political power should be exercised at the lowest possible level.  We are devolvers, not centralisers.

WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY.  Our trust for individuals extends to the workplace, where we believe that workers should have a share in the decisions their firms make (which often have a bigger influence on their daily lives than the decisions of government.)  We have advocated and pioneered schemes of profit sharing (Taylor of Batley, for example), and industrial democracy.  Our belief in the value of variety means that we would not lay down a single pattern.  The concept of “Stakeholder” firms and, indeed, a “Stakeholder Society”, is essentially Liberal.

INTERNATIONALISM.  We believe that Liberal values should extend beyond the shores of this country.  We are the only British political party to have consistently supported full, enthusiastic and committed membership of the European Union, not simply because we feel that to stay outside, or semi-detached, condemns us to fourth rate political and economic significance, though that is probably true, but because we see the EU as a bold and exciting adventure. The more idealistic of us even see it as a step on the way to world government.  We believe that all international action should be taken through the United Nations, which should be reformed to reflect present day political realities.  We campaign consistently for Third World development through the cancellation of unpayable debt, the reform of the world trading system to end the exploitation of poorer and weaker economies, and  appropriate development aid from the rich to the poor countries.

SUSTAINABILITY.  We reject the concept that further continuous economic growth in the developed countries is the be-all and end-all of  politics and life .  A more equitable sharing of what we have is far more important, with consideration for the quality of the environment through the conservation of energy, the development of sustainable energy sources and economic processes, and emphasis on greater happiness thorough involvement in art, leisure and the community rather than the accumulation of further private material wealth.

EDUCATION is seen by Liberals as a major liberating experience. We reject the restrictive link between education and employment and believe that every individual should have access to and the opportunity to enjoy education for its own sake throughout their lives.

The 2015 election was fought not on great principles but a series of messy tit-bits which were effectively bribes To revive, and I'm sure we shall, we Liberal Democrats need to establish what sort of society we want, based I hope on the lines outlined above, and make it clear in our campaigning that we are not just pavement politicians who work "all the year round" but have values and beliefs which many people share


  1. Like you I was for nearly three decades a Liberal/Alliance/Lib Dem activist and candidate. I recognise many of the things you set out above Peter, but although my own views moved decisively leftwards in the late 1990s, I also saw so many of these ideals dying in the contemporary Lib Dems - whether from the Orange Bookers or even Charles Kennedy calling for a "bonfire of red tape" over employment rights. The last straw for me was receiving what can only be described as a neoliberal cri de coeur from Chris Davies in 2005 when he rebutted my suggestion that Lib Dem MEPs should support ending the opt-out from the working time regulations with a letter that could have been written by a Tory.

    On sustainability, your words are spot on, except again in recent years growth rather than redistribution has been the emphasis. Like Greens, Liberals championed the idea of a citizens income years ago but quietly dropped it; and same with industrial democracy - I still have the 1974 manifesto with its call for elected worker directors. Radical stuff but seemingly long lost.

    I bear no ill will towards the thousands of progressive Lib Dem activists, though I do wonder where they were these last five years (present company excluded, I've read your blogs with interest and considerable agreement), but unless the party fundamentally reappriases its purpose and gets beyond what I think was the problem - local pavement politics hiding an ideological vacuum which the likes of Laws and Clegg were able to occupy with ease - I cannot see any real future which, in spite of my allegiances elsewhere now, remains a matter of consiiderable regret.

    1. Thanks for your comments, with which I largely agree. Yes there has been a sad adoption of too many neocon ideas in the last twenty years, and activists so busy on the ground that "the likes of Laws" were able to move into an ideological vacuum. I would add Danny Alexander to that, but exclude Clegg, who I believe is a decent Liberal but with no strong economic credentials.
      I gather from your nom de plume that you're now with the Greens. I sympathise but for two reasons will not follow:
      1. I want to work with a political party, not a pressure group. Naturally I'm disappointed by our performance when, after fifty years in the wilderness, we've actually participated in government, but, rather than leave and join another group (and work another fifty years, only to be disappointed when the Greens get into government - and what after that?) prefer to remain and rebuild from within.
      2. More fundamentally, being “green” is not a complete political stance. Yes, I accept that preserving the environment is the probably the most important issue, but there are many other issues (liberty, equality, human rights, international relations etc) which being "green " doesn't necessarily cover. I know the British Greens have many policies at the moment on which I agree (I've read Caroline Lucas's book) but some Green parties in Europe can be and have been very authoritarian. As Ralf Dahrendorf (The Modern Social Conflict, 1988) argues, having a separate Green party can drain greens enthusiasts from the mainstream parties and thus hold back the green agenda. So we need green enthusiasts in all the parties.

    2. On the issue of a party rather than a pressure group, I'd agree with you 15 / 20 years ago, but the Greens have moved on. As we have grown to have a significantly larger membership than either the Lib Dems or UKIP, our politics have also changed and philiosophy developed signficantly. The environment of course remains of prime importance - neoliberalism is driving us to a point where the current decade or so is vital not if we are to preserve the planet, which will survive whatever we get up to, but if we are to preserve the conditions for human civilisation to continue.

      But in part driven by the objective of a more sustainable existence and in part by a growing ecosocialist outlook, we seek a more equal society. The policies on a living wage, a maximum wage, redistributive taxation, localisation of the economy, worker ownership and renationalisation of public services were not one-off tactocal stances, but rather a reflection of a commiitment to egalitarianism and community democracy. The purely ecological outlook that predominated back in the 1980s is now a tiny collection of individuals. "Green" in the context of the Green Party is not the environmental sentimentalism that Dahrendorf was describing, but rather a distinctive political outlook which stretches from possibly the left of the Lib Dems futher out to the Left. It is socially liberal but economically communitarian - my own philosophy like many others in the party is distinctly socialist but not in any sectarian sense. I find the Greens both more ideologically informed and coherent than I ever found the Lib Dems (as a whole) so I would take the view that our existence is both valid and purposeful, and essential to the future of our society.

  2. It is telling that the words "honesty" and "integrity" make no appearances in this list of what Liberals stand for. The tuition fees fiasco and Carmichael affair are only symptomatic of the party's moral vacuum, taking the trust of the electorate for granted and exuding a sense of entitlement.

    1. Well, as I explained, this list and its contents go back some 30 years. (The only significant update is the reference to "stakeholders": we had the concept back then, but didn't give it that name.) In all those years I firmly believed that the Liberals/Liberal Democrats would do whatever we promised if we got the chance. We had a reputation for integrity, and I think that this was demonstrated in the local government areas where we had or shared power.
      At the 2010 election Nick Clegg promised “a more hones politics." So the "student fees" debacle was a huge let-down. I sincerely hope that it was an aberration rather than an imbedded trait.
      As a party which, for the foreseeable future, is likely to be in government only as a minor partner in a coalition, I think we should modify the language we use in campaigning, defining the policies we shall "urge," "press for,” "argue for" etc rather than what we will do. This is not just to give us more "wriggle room" but to be more honest about what we are capable of achieving. For the same reason I think talk of “red lines" is best avoided by all parties. In coalitions they are almost inevitably crossed, and then used by commentators to deride politicians and the democratic process.