The Lib Dems themselves contain a number of currents, of course, and its a while since I followed goings on in the party closely. But there seems to be a clear 'left' grouping around Social Liberal Forum, associated with those responsible for the edited volume Reinventing the State. There is a clear 'right' grouping which produced the Orange Book and a follow up, Britain After Blair. The boundaries between the two are not very firm, however. There is a clear tendency for members of the one group to invite those associated with the other to contribute to their volumes. In essence, the latter have sought to reassert 'economic liberalism' as a component of liberal policy thinking, but without wanting to dismiss 'social liberalism'. The former have sought to reemphasise the 'social' dimension of 'social liberalism'.
In terms of the categories I used in the New Statesman/Next Left article, the Orange Bookers strike me (and, I think, Richard Grayson) as very close to centre republicanism. Like the Labour centre republicans (James Purnell, Phil Collins), they carry a torch for choice and contestability in the public services. They do not identify progressive politics with high rates of income tax. They readily adopt a language in which the concept of 'power', and its redistribution, is central. Consider, for example, this statement:
'Liberalism is all about power - putting power into everybody's hands. Dispersing it, breaking up monopolies and concentrations of power that distort society, warping chances for millions. Only by dispersing power in our politics and in our economy can we ensure that every person has the opportunity to make the most of themselves and to change our world for the better. Liberals believe that's the route to progress because we believe in the capacity of individuals. The raucous, unpredictable potential of people to do the right thing for themselves, their families, their communities - as long as they're empowered and entrusted to do so.'
Who said it? Richard Reeves? Phil Collins? James Purnell? (Well, no, he wouldn't use the word 'liberalism', though he uses the word 'power' a lot.) It is in fact Nick Clegg, speaking to the ippr in February of this year.
For their part, the SLF look to be closer to the left communitarian or left republican positions set out in the New Statesman/Next Left article. (This is Richard Grayson's view too.) They share with the left communitarians, for example, a scepticism about market mechanisms in the public services. They share with the left republicans a concern to restructure the state, with the emphasis on 'voice' rather than 'choice'.
There is one area, however, where both Lib Dem groups strike me as very conservative. In contrast to many of the currents I discuss in the article, neither group has thus far paid very much attention to new policy ideas for spreading asset ownership. They are what we might term ownership conservatives.
This is reflected in, and partly explained by, the fact that the Lib Dems decided early on to call for the abolition of the Child Trust Fund. This stance has always lacked a plausible rationale (see my previous post). And it has always been odd given the Liberals' own long and venerable tradition of support for 'ownership for all'. Of course, the Child Trust Fund is not a perfect policy, and those committed to the goal of 'ownership for all' might have in mind policies that will do an even better job of ensuring that all citizens have some capital of their own. But the Lib Dems - whether SLFers or Orange Bookers - have not come up with any significant proposals in this area.
And when one looks at the trajectory of party policy over the past fifteen or so years, there is a clear gradual loss of radicalism on ownership issues. One of the basic demands of the old Liberal Party was for schemes to promote co-ownership and co-determination in industry. In 1992 the Lib Dems fought the general election on the traditional Liberal platform of introducing workers' participation in firms' decision-making. In 1997, this commitment was weakened to one of 'participation and consultation'. In 2001, the notion of consultation replaced that of participation. And in 2005? For the first time since the 1920s, if not before, the Liberals fought an election on a manifesto which contained no commitment whatsoever to introduce or promote co-ownership or co-determination.
In part, this might be explained by wider changes in the political landscape. For the bulk of the twentieth century, politics was shaped by the confrontation between capitalism and socialism. The Liberals needed to offer something distinctive against this background, and ideas like co-ownership and 'ownership for all' were part of the distinctively liberal vision they offered. But post-1989, the political landscape is no longer shaped by that confrontation between socialism and capitalism. In consequence, the pressure to articulate a distinctively liberal form of economic radicalism, different to state socialism and capitalism-as-we know-it, has waned. (Of course, Vince Cable has been an insightful commentator on the financial crisis, and is more radical than the Labour government in his ideas for how to manage it: but, while important, this does not amount to anything like the vision of a distinctive egalitarian and liberal economic order that the old Liberals used to entertain.)
In part, I think, this growing conservatism on ownership issues also reflects the way in which Lib Dem thinking has become curiously detached from developments in academic liberal political theory.
The ideas behind what Labour calls 'asset-based welfare' started to emerge in academia in the 1990s. One influence was the work of Michael Sherraden on matched savings programs for low-income groups (work which shaped Labour's Saving Gateway). Another was the work of Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott on 'stakeholder grants' - capital grants that would be paid to all citizens on maturity (an influence behind the Child Trust Fund). Ackerman and Alstott explicitly defended the proposal as an expression of an egalitarian liberalism which seeks to ensure equal effective freedom for all citizens. Their book reflected a wider interest in 'asset-based egalitarianism' and 'property-owning democracy' which emerged in the 1990s as political theorists sought to give content to the ideas about 'liberal justice' developed in the work of philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.However, while these developments in academic political theory did find some foothold in Labour's thinking, they seem to have been quite ignored within the Liberal Democrats. When Liberal Democrats talk about their philosophy in edited volumes such as those noted above, it is striking how much they refer to the greats of the historic British liberal tradition - Mill, Green, Hobhouse, Hobson, Beveridge - and how little they refer to any of this contemporary liberal political theory.
In short, my impression - and, once again, I warmly invite any Lib Dem readers to show me the error of my ways - is that the theoretical world of the Lib Dems has become rather parochial and time-bound. As suggested, this might explain what I also perceive as a relative conservatism in their policy thinking.
Many of the themes of the emerging new left or lefts are highly congenial to the Lib Dems, and they could easily put themselves at the forefront of a new broad left coalition based on them. But to do so, they will surely need to overcome this parochialism.