New poll: where on the political spectrum would you like the Lib Dems to be?

by Stephen Tall on December 3, 2007

YouGovThis was one of the questions asked by YouGov in the party members’ poll commissioned by Sky News. I suspect I wasn’t alone in finding it hard to answer, as none of the eight choices on offer included the word ‘liberal’, a striking omission when surveying members of the Liberal Democrats. Instead, answers ranged from ‘very left-wing’ to ‘very right-wing’. (Click on the image to see my screen-shot.)

It seems appropriate, then, to ask the question in a slightly more sophisticated way than YouGov attempted… So the options you can plump for in this poll – see the right-hand column – are:

* A socially liberal and economically liberal party
* A socially liberal and economically centrist party
* A socially liberal and economically left-of-centre party
* A socially conservative and economically liberal party
* A socially conservative and economically centrist party
* A socially conservative and economically left-of-centre party

Of course the terminology will mean different things to different people. I’m interpreting the definitions in a fairly conventional way: a social liberal thinks the state has no business interfering in citizens’ private lives; a social conservative thinks society will be stronger if it does.

An economic liberal will seek to minimise the role of the state in the delivery of public services; an economic centrist will favour more pragmatic case-by-case solutions; and an economic left-of-centre voter is likely to believe the state (whether by local or central means) is key to the delivery of public services.

Feel free to argue against those interpretations in the comments box. But I hope at least you’ll feel a bit more comfortable opting for one of those six definitions than I was when I looked at YouGov’s forced-choice question.

(For the record, in the end I opted for ‘Centre’ in the YouGov poll – not because I think that’s an accurate description of my liberal views, but because I reckoned the only point of the question was to try and manufacture an artificial ‘Lib Dem members are split between right and left’ story.)

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My preference is a “A socially liberal and economically left-of-centre party”, which is what the Liberal party was when I joined in 1983.
“Economic Liberal” is term that can be intrepreted in different ways. If it means neo-liberal – that markets are automatically self-correcting, then it would be absurd to believe in that given the Stern report identifies global warming as a market failure. In other words, markets are not self correcting.
If it means the economics of Keynes and Beveridge, who were both liberals and both economists, and who both proposed policies that succeeded in reducing the gap between rich and poor, then lets be economic liberal.
The neo-liberal position is already occupied by Labour and Tory, so if we go down that road, it will be even harder to distinguish us from them.

by Geoffrey Payne on December 3, 2007 at 10:37 am. Reply #

This is the problem, liberal means so many things, and economically liberal has been so distorted by neo-conservative politicians who claim the banner of economic liberalism.

economic liberalism in its true, undistorted form is fine, the problem is, it has become a title for something else nowadays and thus for ‘small l’ liberals it has become a dirty word(s).

by Dominic Hannigan on December 3, 2007 at 10:43 am. Reply #

Coherently liberal – Whether that be in economics, personal freedom, political freedom or anything else not “tolerant” social democrats.

“We struggle for freedom for all, except when it comes to economics” has never been my chosen rallying call.

by Peter Bancroft on December 3, 2007 at 10:50 am. Reply #

If it means neo-liberal – that markets are automatically self-correcting

Your definition of ‘neo-liberal’ is so absurd as to be insulting, and I’m now giving up trying to rebut it. Please try and read any basic primer on economics written since the year 2000, the discipline has moved on, and the two dominant paradigms of 1983 have both been revised and revised and rewritten, neither is effectively what you seem to think they mean.

Perhaps you could try to start in the blogs of prominent leftwing liberal economists, Chris Dillow’s Stumbling and Mumbling would be an excellent start.

@ Stephen, by your definition I’m an economic centrist, but it’s not a definition I particularly like, I’d prefer provision to be by employee owned co-operatives and partnerships, whcih is inherently socialist but nothing whatsoever to do with the state. But you went for the ‘conventional’ option.

Market failure happens, always, that’s why Govts should tax externalities and ensure there’s always fair access to the markets, especially by minimising rent seeking. And if you don’t know what rent seeking is, you’re really behind on economic thought…

by MatGB on December 3, 2007 at 1:09 pm. Reply #

1. Global Warming is not a market failure as the market will self correct – human activity will cause the earth to become uninhabitable for humans who will then die out, allowing the planet to revert to balance in a few hundred thousand years.

by Peter Dunphy on December 3, 2007 at 1:10 pm. Reply #

For completeness there should also be two options offering “economically right-of-centre”

by Joe Otten on December 3, 2007 at 1:22 pm. Reply #

Without wanting to cry conspiracy, the results of this poll can easily be thwarted by Nu Lab and Tory trolls.

As for the above – being an economic liberal does not mean that one refuses to acknowledge market failure.

by Julian H on December 3, 2007 at 1:54 pm. Reply #

Liberty, Cromwell and Commonwealth will do for me!

by Martin Land on December 3, 2007 at 2:54 pm. Reply #

Julian H is (as so often) right. It’s actually incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to describe yourself as being economically liberal whilst not being concerned at concentrations of power or abuse of monopoly position.

Nobody in the party or even the country would accept that being economically liberal “means neo-liberal – that markets are automatically self-correcting” – as not even Geoffrey’s usual “neo-liberals” (by this he means modern economists and Neo-conservatives, usually) are anarcho-syndicalists in this way.

Clearly if being socially liberal means that all children with brown hair get beaten, then I’m not socially liberal, but that’s hardly useful commentary.

We shouldn’t be tempted to be sheep to the manipulation of the term liberal by those on the left and right – or by lazy journalists who don’t understand that there are more than 2 points of view on things.

by Peter Bancroft on December 3, 2007 at 2:58 pm. Reply #

There are three modern economic positions-

Markets in reality are sufficiently close to the ideal market.
Markets fail, we should use government.
Markets fail, government fails even worse

I tend towards 3 – I see government intervention causing so much suffering and smothering so much potential.
I am willing to allow some government action to internalise real externalities though, but it must be strictly controlled (for example tax emissions to internalise the damage, but not beyond that).

1) is the Chicago school, I think its wrong because markets do fail.
2) is the current statist left and right wing view. I suspect it gains lots of support amongst LibDems, I’d criticise it because government failure is far far worse than market failure and far harder to correct, and it stifles progress and innovation which would solve many market failures.

I’ve never been sure what neo-liberalism is – it seems to be some marxist nonsense term used to attack some liberal ideas combined with some illiberal ones.

As far as I’m concerned we should be liberal – that means individual freedom, the rule of law, equality under the law and limited government to enable that, with a long term aim of reducing the role of government in our lives. That means free markets, low regulation and minimal taxation combined with protection of civil liberties and basic rights and a safety net welfare state with a strong voluntary and private sector independent of the state playing a part.

by Tristan Mills on December 3, 2007 at 3:07 pm. Reply #

Peter, stop, I’m blushing. Plus, you’ll make me feel (increasingly) guilty about not blogging ‘properly’ since my return.

I agree with Tristan’s analysis – markets do fail, but government intervention often fails to a greater extent. As a party we should recognise failures and look for (liberal & innovative) means of lessening them, whilst resisting the instinctive statism of Nu Lab and the Tories.

by Julian H on December 3, 2007 at 3:35 pm. Reply #

I agree that this kind of forced-choice question is divisive, as it misses much of the point of being a LibDem, principally the second part of our name – we are democratic.

The ideals of democracy are liberal (the closest thing to objectivity), and that is as far as it goes without starting to exclude people from the process, as the very idea of a spectrum being any more than a less-than-complete picture is a shoddy and irrational manipulation for the benefit of conforming to and confirming the prejudices of the questioner.

As suggested above, this poll offers greater enlightenment about the polling organisation than it ever will about the people being polled, democracy or the democratic process (that said, it perversely speaks volumes about the limitations of current undemocratic methods).

So, for my own view, I would answer that we LibDems should maintain our current position at the heart of the battlefield of ideas, rather than to withdraw to the trenches of ideology: we fight to tear down the barricades of false dichotomies.

We are (and will remain) a broad church; we accept and encourage the dynamism of vibrant debate and the necessary disagreement which goes with our diversity of interests and opinions.

I know that because the only way to defuse problems is to neutralise them, we must solve them, resolve them and then keep finding newer and more relevant solutions to them. The path to peace is provided by a unified and clear-headed alliance of diffuse liberals. Thank God for liberalism; blame the cults of illiberalism for our problems!

(speechwriters job going anyone?)

by JamesS on December 3, 2007 at 5:09 pm. Reply #

Matt @ 4.
There is a perfectly good defintion of neo-liberalism on Wikipedia that does not contradict anything I have written.

by Geoffrey Payne on December 3, 2007 at 6:04 pm. Reply #

I get irritated with the idea that there’s left and right in a simple economic way. Many economists I know are left of centre on tax (ie they would like to see a higher tax burden) but not traditionally left in how the tax is spent (ie they are in favour of market led solutions to public services). That is actually quite a common position – but doesn’t fit on a simple left-right spectrum.

by Rob Blackie on December 3, 2007 at 8:06 pm. Reply #

If we take as the definition then we can be pretty sure that there is not a single neoliberal in the party. In fact, I have only met once such person in my life!

As Rob says, it is perfectly possible to believe in higher taxes than we have, but want to see the money spent differently.

by tim leunig on December 3, 2007 at 11:18 pm. Reply #

It’s also perfectly possible to believe that the state should help itself to less of its citizens’ hard earned cash (tax) but spend what it does take more wisely. This is a liberal approach, not necessarily a right wing one.

by John on December 4, 2007 at 12:04 am. Reply #

to describe yourself as being economically liberal whilst not being concerned at concentrations of power or abuse of monopoly position. – Peter @ 9

Surely that is the essence of liberal economics – that what is needed for the market to be able to deliver most efficiently for all, including things like improving the returns to labour – improving the lot of the ordinary man or woman much better than welfare ever could – is only to root out and prevent monopoly and other protectionist influences.

I find myself having drifted on the “Political Compass” quiz thing from the very far bottom left of their grid – libertarian but economically as far left as you can be – into the bottom right quartile – certainly uniquely as far as my Lib Dem Facebook friends who have done the test on there.

It’s not that the “ends” have changed – I still want to see every last person in the land with a secure safety net and opportunity to go as far as they can, and want to go in life – just that my understanding of the various “ways”, especially economic “ways” of getting there has changed. That and Tony Blair’s ten year grinding down of my belief that government could actually achieve anything useful even with the best of intentions.

by Jock on December 4, 2007 at 5:09 am. Reply #

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