Are the Lib Dems liberal – or even democratic?

So asks Daily Telegraph reporter Graeme Archer, who concludes that “the junior Coalition partner’s policies have made a mockery of its historic name”. The title of his piece was so provocative – and so obviously aspiring to intellectual critique – that I felt compelled to read further. Mr Archer’s piece certainly touches on some of the key challenges facing a party experiencing something of an identity crisis and is definitely worthy of a critical and analytical response.

Archer begins by asking “if the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist, under what circumstances would you choose to create them?”; a pertinent question which he evades answering throughout his lengthy piece. Being pre-occupied with the name of our party to the point of obsession, Archer defines liberalism as “the autonomy of the individual over either stateist or corporatist collectivism” and proceeds to demonstrate why he feels that the Liberal Democrats’ policy platforms and actions fail to conform to this neat and tidy classification.

Curiously, Archer concedes – much as Nadine Dorries tacitly affirmed - that the Liberal Democrats have been “politically effective” in coalition. His argument is that such effectiveness has come about not because of the minor party’s inherently liberal guiding principles but from political opportunism; as a result coalition has been “a disaster for the Lib Dems”, who have been “anything but liberal” in government and whose tactics have “demonstrated that the 80 years without them [in government] were not a political loss for Britain”. That is a stinging criticism that requires some rebuttal, but also calls for some sober reflection from the party leadership in regards the public perception of our role in government: there is no point in being effective at the cabinet table if we are viewed as sacrificing the very principles that define us.

Archer’s political bias is made evident is his admission that his political hero is Margaret Thatcher. This does not render invalid his observation that our liberal identity should be valued higher than “success” in government, whatever the current view of the party leadership. However, Archer’s more detailed criticisms should be viewed through the prism of his Tory party loyalties and his intense dislike of the “social democratic clay from which the Lib Dems are formed”. The social democratic tail, he maintains, is wagging the liberal dog.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I’ve heard many times during the last twenty-three years. The Liberal Democrats are not liberal, so goes the logic, but social democrats who support big government and left-wing economics. Of course, it is both simplistic and false. But there was always a danger of being identified as a “Labour-lite party” and the consequences of this are only beginning to be felt. Archer makes further valid points in respect to the Liberal Democrat identity, insisting that claiming as liberal victories “policy which the larger party would implement anyway” (such as the identity cards issue) is counter-productive and, more convincingly, contends that “anyone can call themselves a 'liberal'. The trick is to convince voters that such an instinct requires a party to carry it.” And with that he hits the nail on the head: that, my fellow liberals, is the challenge for our party at all levels in the coming months and years. Can our instincts, as well as our principles, be trusted by an increasingly skeptical electorate? And can we resurrect our party not only as an effective electoral machine but as a rallying point for liberals and for those who believe in an open, tolerant and inclusive society?

Archer’s more specific identification of illiberal actions by the coalition’s junior partner unfortunately causes his wider arguments to lose some of their conviction if not collapse altogether. Not only are his Conservative prejudices revealed but his almost rigid, exclusive interpretation of liberalism is laid bare along with an intolerance to those who think differently. His “liberalism” is one which adheres to “the Right-wing view of taxation” and those who beg to differ are dismissed as illiberal. He regards the Liberal Democrats’ participation in government as “not even democratic, let alone liberal” largely on the basis of our stance on such great liberal ideal as free schools, Lansley’s confused vision for the NHS, sub-Thatcherite taxation proposals and the election of police commissioners.

I will take each of these in turn. Archer insists free schools are the epitome of liberalism in action. “Academic excellence through freedom of choice: what could be more liberal than that?” he asks. And if that was the only issue at stake I would be happy to concur: who doesn’t want to see a more liberal education system facilitating “excellence”? The devil, as ever, is in the detail and Nick Clegg has been right to express concern about the potential risks of applying market principles (as were delegates at last year’s Lib Dem conference) to state-funded education - such as unfair admission policies, a two-tier educational system, increased social inequality and worsening the life chances of our more disadvantaged children. There remain questions about how free schools work in practice and to date it would appear that the principal beneficiaries are those who, in the words of Liberal Youth’s Michael Atkins, possess “the social capital to take advantage of them”.

The top-down way in which the legislation has been passed and in which the schools appear to work hardly conforms to even Archer’s definition of “liberalism”. No-one could reasonably promote the evolution of a system that relegates local authority schools to second-rate status or the promotion of choice to a select view as fair, but this seems not to trouble Archer. “Fairness” and “liberalism” to him are diametrically opposed forces, which is why he reduces Clegg’s complex arguments to mere concern about profit motive. Archer simply can not appreciate that for liberalism and freedom to prevail the creation of a more level playing field is required – whether in regards educational opportunity, access to health services, taxation or human rights.

Archer is particularly furious about the way the Liberal Democrats have undermined Lansley’s Health Bill. As well he might be. Conveniently forgetting the influence of Spring Conference, he targets Shirley Williams and Evan Harris, citing the outspokenness of a Peer and a former MP (an “unelected peer and dis-elected ex MP” he terms them) as evidence of undemocratic practice. Only someone who believes that the parliamentary party in the Commons has a monopoly on democratic expression could peddle such an argument; I for one am grateful that I belong to a party in which unelected members are empowered to influence policy. That is clearly an expression of liberalism alien to Mr Archer. On the detail of the Bill itself, Archer mutters that the Liberal Democrats’ insistence that GP consortia should contain “hospital doctors and nurses” represents “a prioritisation of the producer over the patient”. Perhaps. But it’s certainly preferable to a prioritisation of the interests of an exclusive section of an exclusive profession over those of patients, carers and members of other health professions, which can not be considered “liberal” in even the loosest interpretations of the word. As for the implications of economically "liberating" the NHS by increasing the scope of private providers, Archer fails to even consider whether these aspects of the Bill would bring about the “autonomy of the individual” he claims to passionately believe in.

Archer denounces the 50p tax rate as “economically illiterate”, insists the case for the increase in personal allowances in unnecessary and criticises the Liberal Democrat view of taxation as an exercise in “social engineering”. I agree with him that the ultimate aim of any liberal taxation policy must be “free[ing] people from state dependency”. Most Liberal Democrats would agree with that sentiment, but where we would perhaps disagree is on the means being championed. Archer’s promotion of rampant classical liberalism as the one true liberal expression demonstrates his regrettable lack of intellectual dexterity. He clearly has little idea of the social dimension to liberal philosophy and in all likelihood sees David Laws as some kind of authoritarian Marxist.

“Lib Dems also want to delay the election of local police commissioners. Anti-democratic!” roars Archer. By a mere six months he fails to add - and this largely because of perceived operational difficulties. If Archer really knew anything about the potential ramifications of elected police commissioners, not least the consequences of politicising senior police officers (he should look no further than Jersey), he might begin to understand why rushing headlong into this may not be the wisest move. Besides, surely the Liberal Democrat policy of a directly elected oversight of the police is both more democratic...and liberal?

Archer’s arguments truly break down when he turns on the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to the Human Rights Act, reducing our promotion of a progressive, liberal-thinking emphasis on the rights of the individual to a glib “Votes for Prisoners” mock-slogan. Not only does Archer fail to see how the Human Rights Act is in keeping with this stated definition of liberalism, his right-wing instincts again evidence his complete lack of social conscience. “It’s not quite the heady fight of the People’s Budget of 1909, is it?” he asks. Well, no. But neither were the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto or Chancellor Osborne’s first two budgets. So let’s call it even.

I don’t believe I have a moral monopoly on the word liberalism. I am not sufficiently arrogant to suggest that Graeme Archer is not philosophically liberal, or that the Liberal Democrats are the only potential home for those of a liberal inclination. Unlike Mr Archer, I will not assert that I am a liberal and everyone else is not. What I will claim is that the liberalism of the Liberal Democrats is far broader in scope, far more pragmatic in its outworking and far more consistent in principle than the narrow interpretation being espoused by Archer.

Archer’s criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ role in government are understandable in the same way that Nadine Dorries’ increasingly hostile attacks have been. They represent the predictable frustrations of arch-Tories whose reactionary right-wing ideals have been marginalised by the politics of coalition. However, whereas Dorries’ incessant ranting and conspiracy theories are rapidly becoming the political joke of the decade, Archer at least presents his arguments in a sober-minded and considered way. There is a danger that many will accept his accusations of Lib Dem “illiberalism” simply because they want to.

Such criticisms can be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt they thoroughly deserve. What Archer does do effectively is to question the Liberal Democrats’ identity as a party, the commitment to liberal principle and the ability to remain a focal point for the promotion of liberalism. These are all challenges that must be risen to and met.

More importantly, Archer raises the issue of mistaken strategy and on this point I wholeheartedly concur with him. The challenge for Nick Clegg is not securing victories around the cabinet table or scoring points at the expense of his political partners, but to forge a fresh and liberal identity for his party. A failure to do this adequately could lead to a further eighty years in the political wilderness and the cause of liberalism set back irrecoverably.

And so, to conclude, I will answer the question Graeme Archer posed but refused to answer: “if the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist, under what circumstances would you choose to create them?” Perhaps when the main two parties are either redundant of responsible policy ideas or expressing dangerously right-wing ideology; when neither has a coherent view on Europe; when one or the other’s response to social unrest is either knee-jerk authoritarianism or political opportunism and when the Prime Minister’s response is shameless moralising; when there is a need for a liberalism that is inclusive and fair; when a firm stance has to be taken on human rights; when communities need to be empowered and revitalised to take control of their destinies...


Graeme Cowie said…
Whilst I generally agree that the approach of the article runs off an ulterior motive, I'd question your bit about free schools.

Free Schools are required to adhere to the same admissions criteria as their local authority counterparts. The idea of the best schools being swamped by those with "pushy parents" is hardly new and applies equally to existing local authority schools: even in Scotland, where more affluent parents will find property in favourable catchment areas. Introducing plurality into education and establishing a funding formula that favours schools taking on children on free school meals goes a lot further to levelling the playing field and access than many give credit for. If I recall correctly about half of the new free schools were actually set-up in disadvantaged areas.

I'm also struggling to see how it's that much of a "top-down" approach. Certainly I can't see how it's more so than a state-monopoly. It's not as though the government are "setting these up"; they're receiving applications from groups, looking at the merits of a particular application, then making a discretionary decision whether to provide the capital support to get it up and running or not. That's no more "top-down" than plain responsible oversight and management of public funds.
Andrew said…
Thanks Graeme. To be honest living in Scotland (where the free schools legislation is not applicable) I perhaps lack the detailed knowledge I would like to have. I am recalling the debate from Lib Dem conference last year and perhaps in many ways some of the doubts and concerns myself and other activists had at the time have since been dealt with.

I would be interested in looking into some of the statistics regarding the locations in which free schools have been established. My own feelings were that those most likely to take advantage of the opportunity to establish a free school would more than probably come from certain socio-economic backgrounds - it would be useful to look into the reality a year on. Plurality in education, as in the NHS, is something which should itself be welcomed, but must be achieved in a socially responsible way and without creating a two-tier education system.

I remain to be convinced but my line has softened a bit since last year and I'm open to looking at the evidence base for free schools' performances and as to whether the predicted risks have been more feared than genuine. I still feel that insufficient time was given over to debating the issue in the Commons and equally insufficient thought was dedicated to the concerns of many party activists - whose voice was only heard via a conference motion after the new policy had been affirmed.

I think the key is whether it is possible to introduce and maintain free schools without them having a similar effect on LEA schools to that private providers of elective surgery have had on NHS hospitals as they cherry-pick the more lucrative and risk-free procedures. It's this notion of "cherry-picking" I find most objectionable, not only because it leads to inequality but because it is "top-down" in the way it indirectly dictates a reduced or lesser role to state controlled services.

I am not an expert in this field by any stretch of the imagination and, as I've said, I'm drawing largely from year old recollections of conference and discussions with members of the Lib Dem Education Association. All the same, I think Archer's missing the point - any discomfort with free schools is because of perceived consequences and the way the leglislation was rushed through parliament, not because of some propensity towards illiberalism.
If you're interested in statistics on the effects of the market on education, you should check out the statistics regarding the Chillian education system since it was reformed to operate as a series of providors paid by parents with coupons representing a government promise to pay for their child's education. Off the top of my head, the best results came from non-profit providors, the second best from for-profit providors, and the worst came from schools run by the equivilent to local education authorities. This has convinced me that not only are free schools a good idea, but that we should let them be run for a profit.