Guest post by Richard Reeves
Nick Clegg thinks – hopes – that we are at a ‘liberal moment’. He’s right. But that does not mean that we are at a Liberal Democrat moment. In his Liberal Moment pamphlet for Demos, Clegg offers a compelling critique of Labour’s top-down, statist approach and unjustified assault on civil liberties; suggests that the Liberal Democrats are now the carriers of the ‘progressive flame’; and predicts that just as Labour overtook the Liberal Party in the early part of the 20th century, so the Liberals can now get back into second place.
Clegg is right on the first and second points, but wildly optimistic on the third. The only hope for the Lib Dems is a much better than expected performance in the general election followed by a near-meltdown within the Labour Party and the election of a leader who is mad, bad or dangerous (or possibly all three). It is much more likely that Labour will elect a new leader who shares much of Clegg’s critique and who will pull Labour in a more liberal direction – advocating more power for the users of public services, significant devolution of power down to local authorities and lower (David Miliband’s long-argued for ‘double devolution’), a renewed concern with inequalities of wealth and power and substantial constitutional and political reform, including PR.
Clegg is right to argue that much of Labour’s programme has been characterised by a ‘relentless state activism’ at the centre, underpinned by ‘a far greater pessimism about the ability of people to improve their own lives’. By contrast, the starting point for liberalism is ‘the fairer dispersal and distribution of power’. And although the Lib Dems had some seriously amateurish moments in their conference this week, on policy the direction of travel was good: taxing wealth rather than income, questioning the middle class benefits from the state and urging – echoing Demos’ work - ‘progressive austerity’. This meant looking hard at their policy on free higher education, which is a predominantly middle-class benefit, as well as other universal benefits – and ensuring that any tax increases are borne by the most wealthy.
But it is hard to imagine half the Labour cabinet disagreeing with Clegg and his party on many of these points. There are plenty of Labour ministers who are deeply disappointed that the Party has not done more to devolve power down to local authorities and communites, has failed to live up to its manifesto promise of a referendum on PR and remains wedded to a centralist, statist model of social change. After the coming defeat at the general election, the battle for the soul of the Labour Party will commence. If Labour is to survive it needs to take on board much of Clegg’s diagnosis and prescription, and elect a leader able to so do. It is a liberal moment – but Labour can seize it.
Richard Reeves is the director of Demos