As the Liberal Democrats prepare for what promises to be a fascinating autumn conference, it is perhaps a good time to step back and ask some questions about the future of liberalism. In particular, what are the prospects now for a liberalism of the left? Does the Coalition mark the end of the road for left liberals? How should left liberals respond to it?
First, a stab at definition. A left liberal, as I use the term here, is someone whose politics is centrally defined by three commitments:
(1) A commitment to radical democratic renewal of the state.
(2) A commitment to a generous and robust scheme of civil liberties.
(3) A commitment to economic egalitarianism (in something like the sense I discuss in this earlier post).
So understood, left liberalism is a perspective with a long pedigree, reflected in the writings of Liberals like Leonard Hobhouse and Labour thinkers such as R.H. Tawney and Tony Crosland, as well as being a major presence in contemporary academic political philosophy.
Given their commitments, left liberals resist the idea, presented by right-wing liberals such as Julian Glover, that we must be either for or against the state (or, for that matter, the 'big state'). As Sunder Katwala has argued, we should be for the state in some areas and respects and against it in others. We don't want the state to trample on rights of free speech. We do want generous public services and state action to secure a fair distribution of income and wealth.
This discriminating attitude to the state - for it and against it - is not confused or unprincipled. Rather, it reflects a clear-sighted appreciation of what is necessary to build a society of free and equal citizens.
So, if this is left liberalism, what are its prospects?
At first sight they look rather dim. Historically, the forces of left liberalism have been dispersed across Labour and the Liberal Democrats and their Liberal predecessors. Labour has had an edge on economic egalitarianism. The Liberals/Lib Dems have typically been better - at times much better - on democratic renewal and civil liberties. The hope I have always had is that the two parties could come together in a coalition and learn from each other. Then we'd finally get a left liberal government. (Note: I have been a member of both parties: Lib Dems, 1997-2002, Labour, 1995-97, 2002 - .)
This is why the Coalition is such a huge disappointment to left liberals in Labour such as myself - and to left liberals in the Liberal Democrats like Richard Grayson. Its the 'wrong' coalition!
And neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats now stand clearly and reliably for left liberal values. Labour remains tentative and conflicted on democratic renewal and has only begun a journey back from authoritarianism to firm support for civil liberties. The Liberal Democrats are moving further away from economic egalitarianism under the leadership of their Orange Book-tendency and the pressures of accommodating to Conservative priorities in economic and social policy.
No wonder that left liberals like David Marquand have started to look to the Greens for inspiration. The Greens, after all, tick all the left liberal boxes. In thinking about the parties involved in any left liberal government of the future, we should think beyond Labour and the Lib Dems and acknowledge the possible role of the Greens. A helpful discussion of this pluralist left of the future, with contributions from Jon Cruddas and Caroline Lucas, is the recent ebook, After the Crash, edited by Richard Grayson and Jonathan Rutherford.
However, we shouldn't think only in terms of the political parties. We need also to consider what's going on outside of them.
First, there is Take Back Parliament, a campaign for electoral reform (PR). Some of its supporters and activists were previously involved with Power 2010 and the Convention on Modern Liberty.
Second, we are now seeing the emergence of campaigns, many locally-based, against the Coalition's agenda of severe public spending cuts, such as Oxford Save Our Services with which I am involved.
Campaigns like TBP, and predecessors like CML, speak to the state-critical concerns of left liberalism. The campaigns against the cuts speak to the economic egalitarian concern.
Third, there are blogs like Liberal Conspiracy. Lib Con has many, diverse contributors, but I would argue that one thing that gives it a clear identity and ethos is that its contributors generally share the commitments I've defined as left liberal. Along with other sites, it offers a forum for a shared left liberal conversation that bridges not only party lines but initiatives ranging from TBP to campaigns against the cuts.
So perhaps the situation is not as bad for left liberals as it looks. While left liberalism is currently weak at the level of main political parties, it still exists and is even growing, albeit in a complex, fragmented way, as a campaigning force.
Whatever party you are in, I think a priority for left liberals now is to get involved in these cross-/non-party campaigns. The stronger these get, the greater the pressure on Labour and the Liberal Democrats to respond to left liberal concerns.
And hopefully - one is entitled to dream - this will bring closer the day when we get a left liberal government.
Postscript: this post draws on some ideas that I develop at more length in an article, 'For and against the big state: can we build a left liberal coalition?', which will be in the next issue of Renewal.