Thursday, 15 October 2009

Mapping a LibDem ideology

One indicator of the increasing interest in political ideas across the plural left has been seen in the way in which Stuart White's "new ideological map", first published on Next Left and then extracted in the New Statesman as a guide to the new progressives sparked a good deal of debate both here and elsewhere. Stuart's map is also discussed by John Harris and David Aaronovitch in their correspondence about the future of the left in the most recent issue of Prospect.

With the conference season over, it is a good moment to return to this debate about whether and how high political ideas are relevant to political practice. In this guest post, Richard Grayson responds to our invitation to flesh out his challenge to Stuart White about the absence of Liberal Democrats from the map, and argues for a "left liberalism" which offers a distinctively liberal fusion of equality and freedom.


I found it difficult to understand why there were no Liberal Democrats whatsoever in the listing of progressives. Meanwhile, Conservatives were present which at the very least made my tribal hackles rise. Fundamentally, I don’t think that the people Stuart included as ‘Right Communitarians’ are in any way progressive.

Fundamentally, I think a progressive is someone who recognises that society needs to be much more equal in order for individuals to be more free. That is not the same as simply believing there is such a thing as society, or that social needs are not being met by the free market. I see that as the great dividing line between progressive and conservatives, and so I would not include ‘Right Communitarianism’ in any typology of progressivism.

As regards where Lib Dems might fit, Stuart represents my views correctly. There is certainly common ground between the broad approach of the Orange Book and the people described as Centre Republicans. In contrast, both the book Reinventing the State and the general line of the Social Liberal Forum are close to both of the left positions. I would hesitate, however, to place us in one or the other because I think that the distinction between the two is problematic. That is principally because there is rather more that is ‘liberal’ about the so-called ‘Left Communitarians’ than Stuart allows in his piece. Neal Lawson regularly talks about ‘liberal socialism’ and this is not reflected in Stuart’s description which is focused on ideas of collectivism.

In contrast, decentralisation is said to be the theme of the philosophy of ‘Left Republicanism’. Yet consider Jon Cruddas’s speech to Compass last month. This talked warmly about the ‘fleshed out’ (Mark Garnett’s phrase) Liberalism of Hobhouse and others. Moreover, the section which was overtly about community contained an extremely important paragraph which said that the ideal of community:

“lies behind the need to genuinely free up local authorities to borrow and invest in local priorities. Local bond finance for local infrastructure. The reform of local taxation. Too often centralised funding streams and prescriptions have warped our search for equality.”

In a later section on democracy, there was more on decentralisation: “We need constitutional change and proportional representation- to push power out of Whitehall and closer to the people.”

The point of all this is that I am not at all sure that there is much difference between the views of the people who are separated into two different ‘Left’ camps, and that if they were merged, then most Liberal Democrats would fit into the broad category.

Might we call it ‘Left Liberalism’?

One point I want to pick up on from Stuart’s blog is a quotation he includes from Nick Clegg. Stuart’s analysis of this is fair enough, but I’d like to flag another which comes from the Demos pamphlet he has published today called ‘The Liberal Moment’:

“I recognise the collectivist premise that, in many circumstances, we are capable of more together than we are alone. We are often more powerful – and therefore, in my interpretation, more free – when we can act together. As individuals, communities and nations we are more empowered to overcome poverty, confront climate change, or guarantee our safety, for example, if we act together.”

This is unusual language form Nick, and I’d like to hear more of it. I think it will be interesting to see how it develops.

As regards Stuart’s comment that the Liberal Democrats are “parochial” and “time-bound”, I accept that we do talk about some of the old thinkers rather a lot. One reason for that is that they wrote so well and that their basic principles remain relevant to today. So I make no apology for these being the people that we tend to quote in speeches. However, I completely reject the comment that we do not engage with more recent liberal political thought. A number of chapters of Reinventing the State do this extensively. Rawls is especially commonly cited by LDs in other publications.

On ‘asset-based welfare’, the point about the Child Trust Fund is that it is not targeted to those who need it. It seems to me inherently progressive that if we want to create a more equal society, then targeting limited resources to the poorest through the Pupil Premium (whereby the poorest children take more money with them to the school they attend) is just far better than a trust fund which will also go to people who have quiet enough money already. Does that mean we are against asset-based welfare? It’s possibly not our priority, but we are clear on the benefits of home ownership for example, and are especially enthusiastic about helping the poorest to own their home homes. I quote one of our policy briefings:

“Many people want a stake in their own home, which also gives them a stake in their community. But for years the Right to Buy system has meant that social housing was lost from the system and not replaced. We believe that council tenants should be able to start to build up this stake even if they haven't got the capital to buy their home outright and we also believe that the social housing system needs to be maintained and so we would reinvest the proceeds from Right to Buy in new social homes. We would develop a “Right to Invest” to allow council tenants to build up an equity stake which could then be used to buy a home of their own, giving tenants far more flexibility than under the rigid Right to Buy system. But because tenants only build up a stake, the home itself will remain in social ownership, so protecting low-cost housing for future generations.”

This is clearly an important way of expanding home ownership steadily by allowing tenants to build up a stake in their home which can be traded at a later stage, while not reducing social housing provision. It’s also clearly ‘asset-based welfare’.


Foxwood said...

Do you know what the teacher's unions do for your children?
Do you know why the founding fathers are not taught in school anymore?

Mike said...

Nick Cleggs Liberalism is closer to Left Communitarianism than Liberal Republicanism.

The dividing line between the 2 camps of liberal progressives, is those who think choice is more important than security, and those who think security is more important than choice. The former, emphasize personal responsibility and individuals should be given means tested cash vouchers in education and healthcare sickness funds, and expected to top up the remaining money need out their own pocket. If they've spent all their money, it's tough luck and you end up uneducated or dead. The latter group is against personal responsibility in social welfare and advocates public services that are free of charge coupled with quasi-markets and budgets where it isn't too risky.

Mike said...

I think the Labour party is now becoming more ideologically unified than in modern history.

Compassites like Jon Cruddas, Ed Miliband and Neal Lawson seem completly relaxed about applying a more enlightened and compassionate liberalism to public services and are not particularly critical of New Labour's public service reforms.

Progressites like James Purnell and Tessa Jowell are basically applying that same enlightened and compassionate liberalism to public services, but just at a faster pace and more radically.

I think different factions of the Labour party often misunderstand each other. Compass use to assume Progress were a bunch of unelightened uncompassionate liberal public service reformers, and Progress assumed Compass were Old Labour Utilities Stalinists who wanted to nationalize the commanding heights of the economy.

In some ways, Progress is more left wing and redistributionist than Compass, as James Purnell and Jessica Asato have been pushing hard to get Universal Child Care and 2 years paid maternity/paternity leave created in the next 10 years.

The Labour party factions are now realizing just how much they've got in common with each other and the party is slowly but surely becoming truly united. The challenge is to stop any destructive party dividers like John Harris from taking things backward.

Mike said...

I think Philip Blonde's Right Communitarianism is quite different to Camerons interpretation of Progressive Conservatism.

Philip Blonde believes New Labour hasn'r redistributed wealth enough, and is against public service marketization, which he criticizes as the market state.

Philip Blonde takes an almost Democratic Republican ideology towards public service reform in advocating using social entreprises to manage schools, hospitals, sure start centres etc, which would be democratically connected to all other schools etc through out the country and collectively elect the central management who allocate budget spending to each and every school etc.

It sounds more like a radical libertarian socialist solution to public services than a free market conservative solution to public services.

David Cameron is a big fan of public service marketization, so in a sense his progressive conservatism is quite different to Blonde's Red Toryism.