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 socialliberal.net 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’.