Sunday, 10 May 2015

Facing up to political tribalism by reclaiming the alternative liberal agenda

This Assembly of the Liberal Party, indignantly aware of the grossly unequal distribution of property (wealth) in this country, believes that the greatest possible measure of personal ownership, with the independence and security it brings, should be enjoyed by all. It also believes that the opportunities of a full life hitherto open only to the rich should be placed before all.

It recognises these twin ends as the inspiration of its domestic policy and pledges its whole strength in urging on the nation far-reaching reforms to achieve them

Liberal Assembly, Buxton. ( Guess the date?)

We do not have multi party politics. Britain does not have a culture of coalition. Tribalism is alive and well in politics. Unless and until we have major constitutional reform, including electoral form for Westminister, any strategy which is based upon coalitions will fail.

Just look at how the Labour Party behaved on Thursday. Ed Balls lost his seat whilst Labour activists , motivated by loathing of Clegg spent time failing to unseat him rather than defend Balls. The same happened on a smaller scale in Southport. Labour activists were receiving emails beseeching them to go and help in the marginal seat of South Ribble ( which Labour failed to take) but choose instead to work their socks off in Southport where the only outcome which they could hope to achieve would be to reduce the Lib Dem vote and let the Tory in. Fortunately our ground war was just strong enough to repel them. Lab/Con do not have pluralist bone in their body. Take another example close to home. Southport has its own Health Commissioning arrangements (CCG). There are not, and there never have been, any Labour Councillors elected to our council from the town and yet there are only Labour Councillors sitting on the Health and Wellbeing Board which is the mechanism for the CCG's accountability.

The same is true of the Tories. Look at their behaviour over House of Lords Reform and the AV referendum.

If we are to rebuild we have to adopt a strategy which works under the First Past the Post (FPTP) and settle for nothing less than PR before joining a coalition. It is daft, irrational and against all the available evidence to think that either Labour or Tories will adopt PR. It is not in their interest. They will not do it as long as they can along without it. Forget bleating about unfairness. Was the system changed after 1983 when we got 25.4% of the vote and only 3.5%  of the seats? No. It will only change when we can build up a core vote big enough to win through under FPTP.

David Howarth has written an excellent article over of the Social Liberal website which shares this premise. David goes on to outline a strategy which could take us where we want to go. I urge you to read I, all of it, it gets beyond the anger of the lost opportunities and has a vision that can move us forward.

Central to any strategy is the building up of the core vote. If Simon Titley was still with us this is the point he would be making. It is the point Michael Meadowcroft has consistently made. If people only vote for us because we do prodigious amounts of case work we will all burn out before we achieve or goal and, what is more important, unless we persuade them to share our values we will only borrow their votes for a season. To succeed we need them to vote for us because they agree with us not because they are grateful we have fixed the drains.

It is commonplace to say the public are confused about what we stand for. It is nevertheless true and the incompetence exhibited at the highest level over the last five years has added to the lack of clarity. As David Howarth points out we do not have the luxury of being vague like those who appeal is based upon promoting sectional interests-Labour's identification with class and the SNP with the nation. I can do no better than to start by copying and pasting David's summary:

Some of our values are clear –  internationalism, protecting individuality and non-conformity, hating bullying and the abuse of power,  promoting environmentalism, protecting civil liberties and a love of democracy not so much because we think it efficient or effective but because it expresses a basic equality of respect for all individuals. But some of our values are not clear. Most significantly, what is our view of economic inequality? Do we, like Nick Clegg in his disastrous August 2010 speech, worry only about social mobility, or do we care about inequality of wealth in itself? I think most members do care about inequality of wealth, especially in its gross modern form. But the party is going to need to say so loudly and clearly.

I well remember that Clegg speech. I met a journalist who contributed to a Right wing periodical. He was ecstatic. Clegg had passed the Rubicon, he foresaw long term cooperation with the Liberal Democrats. Clegg had removed the biggest barrier. It was all about emphasis now not substance.

It is evidence of how far Clegg has shifted the Party to the Right that we have to address this question. We had very few high profile visitors to Southport during this election: Mathew Oakeshott and Shirley Williams we were pleased to welcome. Shirley was on Any Question on Friday (BBC Radio 4) where she was forthright in her view that the economic inequality in our country needs to be addressed.

Just as there is a difference between a citizen and a mere subject, so there is a difference between an employee who is simply hired by his company and one who shares, officially and formally, in the ultimate power to determine the company’s aims and call its directors to account.
(LPD 1962)

I joined the Liberal Party at the end of the 1960's. The signature economic policy of the party was Co-Ownership. The policy held that those with capital were entitled to a 'rent' on their investment but any profit over and above 3% should be shared with the work force. Capital did not have unconstrained rights. There was to be one company register on which shareholder and workers were to be equal. David Penhaligon always maintained to achieve workers' control all that was required was for a worker to buy a single share. This policy derived from what the academic Stuart White has called the alternative Liberal tradition. He explains:

While this tradition endorses both markets and significant private ownership of wealth, its proponents also see a key role for collective action, including action by the state, in determining, for egalitarian purposes, the content of the right to capital and its distribution. I call this tradition liberal because some of its leading theorists, such as J.S. Mill and James Meade, identified as liberals and because the Liberal party in the UK historically drew on and contributed to it.[2] But it is an alternative liberalism to neoliberalism in that it takes a different view of the content of the right to capital and regards rules regulating the distribution of wealth as properly subject to collective determination and an egalitarian conception of the common good.

To bring this up to date there has been much discussion of the writings of Thomas Piketty particularly his book   Capital in the Twenty First Century. White summarises his argument that without  corrective action, we can look forward to a rise in capital’s share of national income and a corresponding depression of the share of labour. This might not be so significant were capital evenly distributed so that all could share in its higher returns. But Piketty shows that the distribution of capital is extremely unequal and likely to grow more so. At the same time, he argues, the share of wealth that is inherited looks set  to increase. Together these trends threaten to produce a society in which a relatively small section of the population comes to claim a larger share of national income through its (increasingly) concentrated ownership of (increasingly) inherited wealth.

To those of my generation this sounds like pure Meade. He was a disciple of Keynes, a Nobel Prize winner (Economics) and advised the Liberal Party. I well remember a meeting of the Party's Policy Committee (or Standing Committee as it was known then) chaired by Richard Wainwright when he tabled a paper written by Meade. Meade also contributed a chapter to David Steel's 1985 book Partners in One Nation in which he argued the case for employee ownership.

As Piketty argued their is a maldistrubtion of the wealth we create, the share being taken by capital is disproportionate and those who only have their labour to sell are getting a raw deal. Liberal argued that the solution was to transfer ownership. Meade wanted, among other ideas,  companies to create extra shares and establish a workers' Trust much like Ed Davey did with the Post Office.

Some Liberal went further as White explains:

 for some more radical liberals/Liberals the idea of co-determination sometimes gave way to the idea that firms ought to be labour-managed. Firms should be run by their workers. To attract capital, worker-managed firms would of course have to offer a return on investment. But investors would not have a right to directly control the firms themselves. A further step along this road, of course, is to envisage workers owning the firm they manage, either in whole or in part

I can well recall Liberal Assemblies where Richard Wainwright argued that labour should hire capital. When you add this approach to Land Tax and a policy of Inheritance Tax which would be levied on the recipient rather that the estate we are well on the road to achieving the Liberal policy of Ownership for All where wealth is diffused rather than concentrated with a commensurate increase in liberty and security .

Adopting these Radical policies and agreeing that to achieve them the state would need to legislate to compel companies to share profits and to give employees equal rights to shareholders was one of the reasons that led to folk like Arthur Seldon and Oliver Smedley exiting the Liberal Party. They clustered around the Institute of Economic Ideas and acted as mid wives at the birth of Thatcherism. I suspect the some economic Liberals will follow their example today. 

White does not include in the antecedence of alternative liberalism  the Distributist tradition about which David Boyle has written.  The book which launched that movement, written in part by the Liberal MP for Salford, was called The Servile State. This tradition certainly influence Jo Grimond. The book that launched the Liberal Revival proper was the Unservile State published in 1957 and edited by George Watson whose recent sad death left the Lib Dems considerably wealthier .

In the Distributive tradition David Boyle has another way to spread ownership is to give away houses! He writes:

I've come to believe, as a modern Distributist, that the way forward has to be building new homes and then giving them away - on three important conditions:
  • They do not go back onto the open market and fuel house price inflation (ownership need not imply the right to sell).
  • They stay at the same nominal price they were originally sold for, ratcheting down the rest of the market, perhaps for a generation or so.
  • They are built in sufficient numbers to satisfy demand.
Simply giving away social housing also works, but not if it fuels inflation and isn't replaced.  But if the social housing is replaced, giving it away seems to me a more Liberal solution, given that it  provides people with genuine independence.  I've got no time for the idea that, because people are poor, they must be forced to pay rent.

The alternative would seem to me to be more and more private landlords and I am uncomfortable with that because as Boyle says: We are becoming dependent supplicants to the new landlord class, the rentiers which Keynes once told us deserved 'euthanasia'.

In answer to David Howarth's question do we care about inequality in wealth? The answer must be a resounding YES and we have the basis of the ideas to address that inequality.

If the party can agree on its values as out lined by Howarth, including redressing the inequality of wealth, then we have the foundation needed to move forward. It will not be enough to develop a new form of mindless activism we must launch new campaigns that communicate our values and as David points out there are some early opportunities. An immediate example is that we should organise our members to put pressure on MPs and ministers on the snooper’s charter, an issue on which the government’s small majority might easily fall apart. Similarly we will need campaigns to save the Human Rights Act, to preserve Britain’s place in Europe and, though it might be hard to win an anti-NIMBY campaign, against banning new onshore wind farms. We should also be campaigning against the forthcoming £12 billion benefit cuts and more broadly against state bullying of the vulnerable (something we seemed to have stopped doing recently). As in the original ‘dual approach’ to politics pioneered by the Young Liberals 45 years ago, we should be organising resistance both inside and outside political institutions, co-ordinating the two and encouraging citizens to join together to change policies and attitudes.

I would add to David's list opposing the renewal a Trident.

If this dual approach is carried through we can rebuild a loyal core vote and not get stranded when the tide goes out. Nor will we be destroyed again by political tribalism. If this is to be a progressive century and not a conservative one then Radical Liberalism must punch above its weight. We must reclaim alternative liberalism


  1. I think you're wrong that the only outcome the Labour campaign could hope to achieve was to let the Tory in. I'm proud that Liz's campaign gave voice to people's obvious anger about John Pugh's support for the Tory led coalition. Labour's vote doubled and with a 5-6% swing required there is now the real prospect of a Labour win in Southport at the next election.

  2. Hi Ged sorry to take so long to get back to you. I fully accept there was a price to be paid for entering a coalition and there is a real debate to be had whether it is possible for a third party to survive a coalition under the first past the post. There were voices raised in 2010 arguing the case for a supply and confidence arrangement. I rather think that after 5 years of a majority Tory government a lot of folk will look back on the coalition more fondly-that is already the view taken in Guardian editorial recently.
    As to Southport the core Liberal vote will simply not transfer to Labour, neither will those former Conservatives who now regularly vote for us. The Southport constituency has never returned a Labour MP, you couldn't even elect a single Councillor. It is frankly delusional to think Southport will return a Lab MP. it will either it will be a Liberal or a Tory.
    I suspect that the 'truth and reconciliation process ' Lab are going to go through which apparently requires you to swallow whole large chunks of the Tory manifesto is going to impact on your northern activist base..
    Being angry with the Lib Dems will not get a Lab government-it certainly didn't work well this time did it? The difficult truth for those who only want a Lab government is that historically low levels of support -as bad as anything since 1923- mean Labour simply cannot command a majority. Back in '45 and 51% you were there and there about. This time and last time you were closer to 30%. In a democracy forming a government when70% of the population don't support you is unacceptable. The Greens, Lib Dems, UKIP, Plaid, SNP are not going to disappear.

  3. In the meantime we have a Euro campaign to fight, a snoopers charter to challenge, a Southport friendly devolution settlement to promote not to mention the HRA or welfare changes (especially now Labour are backing a much lower benefit cap.


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