Monday, January 16, 2006

The real divide in the Liberal Democrats - not between left and right.

Press coverage of the leadership election is already focussing on the "split" in the Party between "social liberals"/the Beveridge group/paid shills for the public-sector unions and "economic liberals"/the Orange Book crowd/people who belong in Cameron's Tory party. The choice of candidates will fits the pattern nicely, with Simple Simon on the left, Mark the Muppet on the right, Ming the Merciless in the centre, and Chris "Who"ne as the dark horse that everyone wants to avoid. Plus we have four very different personalities, so when the media stop talking about the left/right split, they can talk about personalities in a last ditch attempt to avoid mentioning Liberalism.

In fact, the left-right division is insignificant, at least with regard to values and policies - it is a bit more significant viz-a-viz presentation and tactics. Young, Free and Liberal was written by authors from all political tendencies within the Party. The only section that was controversial within the authorial team was the one on foreign policy. There is a disagreement about how to reform public services, but when Chris Huhne produced a detailed compromise in 2002, both sides were happy to support it.

There is a more serious split in the Party, which causes genuinely bad blood and allegations that people should find another party. That is the split between those who think Liberalism is important and those who do not. Those of us who take our Liberalism seriously tend to think about it, write about it, discuss it, and ultimately produce policies based on it. Sometimes these policies are unpopular with the Daily Mail - we don't care. We believe that the purpose of a Liberal Party is to offer the electorate a Liberal alternative - something the other parties are unable to do, but which is and always will be sorely needed. If they want a government that is in the business of telling people what to do, they should vote for one of the illiberal parties.

There is another faction in the Liberal Democrats, which doesn't see Liberalism as important, except for the bit about empowering local government. This group sees the unique selling point of the Liberal Democrats as our distinctive style of local campaigning, based on talking to individual voters, finding out what they want, and promising them it. They choose their policies based on how they look when explained in half an A4 side of 14 point type on a FOCUS leaflet. Policies which sound bad on the doorstep get dropped, or at least kept well hidden. The Liberal Democrats seek to appeal to everyone, because everyone benefits if the dog-muck is removed promptly from the pavements.

Both Hughes and Oaten are from the focus-freak faction. Oaten is a particularly interesting case, because he understands the consequences of extending "community politics" (which has very little in common with the radical democratic proposals made in the old ALDC pamphlet The Theory and Practice of Community Politics) nationally and wants to do it anyway. Arguably, Kennedy leans towards this view as well. Simon Hughes is at least an instinctive Liberal, but he isn't someone who sees Liberalism as especially important, or spends much time thinking about it when he could be delivering leaflets instead.

Menzies Campbell, on the other hand, is a committed Liberal - a "gut Liberal" in the words of David Howarth in the Guardian. Chris Huhne is one of the parties foremost intellectuals, who has written various book-length Liberal screeds. There is no shortage of intellectuals and Liberals on either wing of the party: think Holmes and Webb on the left, or Cable and Laws on the right. But they are not standing: we are faced with a choice between Hughes, Oaten, Campbell and Huhne. That means that we can't vote for an intellectual and settle the left-right question with one vote, but then nobody inside the Party really believes in left and right anyway.

The logical extension of community politics to the national level is some form of Blairite populism. The heavily-spun press release replaces Focus and the focus group replaces door-to-door contact, but those are only necessary compromises to take into account the fact that Mark Oaten can't knock on every door in the country the way a hard-working councillor can knock on every door in their ward. Given that what the voters say they want is all-too-often based on that morning's Scum, it will all-too-often lead to illiberal policies. We have seen this already- the LDYS forums have chewed out local campaigners acting like (illiberal) local campaigners despite holding national office on several occasions, notably over housing and drinking. We need a leader who will discourage this tendency. With the current crop of candidates, that means a choice between Menzies Campbell and Chris Huhne.

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  • At 11:22 am , Blogger Andy said...

    That is a fascinating analysis that really helps me understand why I was instinctively leaning towards Ming and was happy to see Huhne standing, and how come I knew (without fully understanding why) I couldn't vote for Simon or Mark Oaten.

    Thank you!

  • At 10:42 am , Blogger Tristan said...

    That is a really interesting analasys which has a lot going for it.
    There is a place for the focus style politics, but it is at a local level, and it is only part of local politics.

    We are seen by too many as trying to be all things to all people which is something we should be trying to address.

    We need to reaffirm our Liberal philosophy, show that we are an alternative, not some sub-new Labour or some sub-Thatcherite party. Anyone who knows the party should know that we aren't and will not be either, but the public as a whole do not know the party.


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