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Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Liberal Democrats Aren’t Especially Liberal – Or Even Democratic

The junior Coalition partner’s policies have made a mockery of its historic name.

What is Sarah Teather's party actually delivering for Britain?

If the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist, under what circumstances would you choose to create them? I’ll assume that it’s the “Liberal” bit of their historical accident of a name that matters (not many anti-democrats run for election these days). If we did feel the need for a Liberal Party, I guess it would be because neither the Labour nor Tory organisations were being sufficiently, well, liberal in their policy-making.

Ten years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown making illegal anything that moved, while repeatedly trying to give the state the power to lock us up without charge for longer and longer periods? Yes, I can see a need for some more liberalism; that there could be a useful role for a party to react viscerally against Labour’s criminalising tendencies. Ten years of Margaret Thatcher? I’m hardly one to criticise my political hero, but I can’t deny that prolonged exposure to her governing style might make a voter yearn for something a little less prescriptive; a little more laissez-faire in matters social. Regardless of your own political disposition, then, I don’t think it’s hard to make the case that political space could exist for a party which prioritised the autonomy of the individual over either stateist or corporatist collectivism.

Now imagine that you are a Liberal Democrat. Your organisation has been in the wilderness for 80 years, since the time of Lloyd George. The general election of 2010 gives you the chance to share government with the Conservatives; this is the first time in recent history that an administration will have a serious Liberal presence. How would you behave? Me, I would be bending over backwards to demonstrate that not only is a liberal instinct a useful one to bring to the art of government, but that it also makes sense to have that instinct embodied by my organisation. Anyone anyone can call themselves a “liberal”. The trick is to convince voters that such an instinct requires a party to carry it.

Instead, what has happened? Andrew Lansley’s Health Bill, which made a tentative step towards liberalisation of health provision in the UK, is first of all postponed, and then watered down, largely at the behest of the Lib Dems. Even after the Bill passed the Commons this week, Baroness (Shirley) Williams and the dis-elected ex-MP Evan Harris continued to mutter darkly and publicly about their inability to support it. Lib Dems ensured that the planned GP consortia – supposed to act for us, the patients – will include hospital doctors and nurses; a prioritisation of the producer over the patient. Unelected peer and dis-elected ex‑MP – I withdraw my opening remarks about the party’s name: they’re not even democratic, let alone liberal.

Also this week, Nick Clegg gave a speech about the Coalition’s flagship free schools. These schools are the last, best hope of those children failed by local education authorities. Academic excellence through freedom of choice: what could be more liberal than that? Instead, Mr Clegg chose to focus on the importance of preventing anyone running such a school from making a profit – profit is bad, apparently, because successful schools might use the money to expand – and went out of his way to support an even greater role for councils – the LEAs – in controlling access. In a straight choice, the Lib Dem leader prioritises the producer interest.

I could go on. Lib Dems also want to delay the election of local police commissioners. Anti-democratic again; and when was denying a voice to the people a “liberal” characteristic? And I’ve not mentioned the party’s support for the Human Rights Act, largely because it defies parody, let alone analysis. “Votes for prisoners”, say Lib Dems. It’s not quite the heady fight of the People’s Budget of 1909, is it?

Ah yes, say Lib Dem activists, but think of all the good we bring to the Coalition. When pressed, they trumpet the lack of recognition of marriage in the tax system. I’m not clear why it’s liberal to penalise the natural pair-bonding affinity of human mammals, but there you are. They also claim to have secured the increase in the personal allowance for the poorest taxpayers, as well as the retention – thus far – of the 50p top rate.

The 50p top rate is economically illiterate, and needn’t detain us. Symbolism does matter, though, and if keeping it there for a few months longer means that those such as Simon Hughes (“Champion of University Access”, no less) continue to vote with the Government, so be it. But did we need the Lib Dems to make the case for the increase in personal allowances? Tories have campaigned against the complex and inefficient recycling of income from the poor, to the government, and then back to the poor, for years. More importantly, the Right-wing view of tax (to reduce it wherever possible) is truly liberal, because it seeks to free people from state dependency. Lib Dems view tax as an instrument of social engineering; hence the posturing over 50p.

Eighty years in the wilderness, 80 years protecting the flame, and they can’t even mount a coherent case for electoral reform (“AV is a miserable little compromise” – Nick Clegg. But then: “Vote for AV” – Nick Clegg). Measured as the opportunity to show that British liberalism deserves the vehicle of its own party, coalition has been a disaster for the Lib Dems.

We have to face up to this political category error. Just because we can all agree that there’s a need for some liberalism in our politics, just because some unpopular politicians have given themselves that name, we’ve taken the Liberal Democrats at their own valuation. But Shirley Williams and Evan Harris are not liberals, and nor are the other former leaders and big Lib Dem beasts who haunt the media airwaves with a greater prominence than the paucity of their electoral support could ever justify.

Not that a political position has to be popular in order to be worth holding; and if a party wants to act as a pressure group for the producer interest in health and education, or as a supporter of judicial activism on Human Rights, or to call for ever-greater European integration (as Danny Alexander did this week), then good luck to it. But it shouldn’t mis-name itself.

Where the Lib Dems have been politically effective in the Coalition, they have been anything but liberal. And when they claim to be liberal, they are merely copying policy which the larger party would implement anyway. Neither tactic makes them a worthwhile coalition partner for a Conservative; worse, from the Lib Dem point of view, neither tactic has demonstrated that the 80 years without them were a political loss for Britain. If the Liberal Democrats didn’t already exist, to answer my opening question, I suspect that few would contemplate breathing life into the politically unattractive, social democratic clay from which they are fashioned. We already have a party to represent the sectional producer interest. It’s called “Labour”.

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