Guardian: Make it Happen “a shift towards liberal traditions and away from social democratic ones”

by Stephen Tall on July 21, 2008

There’s an interesting and pretty perceptive editorial in today’s Guardian taking a thoughtful look at the Lib Dems’ Make it Happen policy proposal paper, launched by Nick Clegg last week. (And, whether it was deliberate or not, let me take a moment to congratulate The Guardian on not rushing to judgment, but taking a reflective, carefully considered, and rounded look at the document).

And broadly it gives Make it Happen a thumbs-up, albeit in a back-handed way for those who came into the party through the SDP:

Liberal Democrats do not think of their party, as the media does, in terms of its position relative to Labour and the Conservatives. They lay claim to ideological roots of their own, liberal values of independence and fair treatment and scepticism about state command that predates not just New Labour, but socialism. Mr Clegg’s new document draws on these old themes. It is critical of big government, without lapsing into libertarianism, and is clear that the party does not (unlike Labour’s Fabian tradition) see high state spending as a moral good in itself. As such it represents a shift towards liberal traditions and away from social democratic ones that have shaped policy since the 1980s and which culminated in the only one most voters could remember, the promise to put a penny on income tax for education.

And it also acquits the party of making this shift solely for tactical reasons:

Try as he might, Mr Clegg will not be able to shake off the suspicion that he is courting Conservatives (and Conservative votes in his threatened marginal seats in the south), but it is unfair to caricature his leadership in this way. He is trying to propose an alternative to a Labour model of social justice that he believes has run its course. That does not mean he accepts the merits of the Conservative model. Nor does it mean that he is forcing his party into new clothes that will not fit. Last week’s document was not so new, after all – even if the ambition to cut taxes overall has never been spelled out so clearly. It took in much existing party policy – including specific cuts in government programmes, such as ID cards, to fund tax cuts for people on low incomes. The emphasis was different, as was the (unconvincing) tabloid language: “Get the government off people’s backs.” But the party has been moving in this direction for some time, and began to move before Mr Cameron became Tory leader.

There are a couple of specific cautions: that the Lib Dems will have to prove they can find £20bn of public expenditure cuts; and that the party should spell out more clearly the redistributionist elements of the tax package. But there is unabashed praise for the party’s questioning of how far national government is able or competent to deliver social justice:

At least the Liberal Democrats are engaged in the debate about the central state, and its failure to guarantee social justice, a debate Labour struggles to enter, but which needs to be had.

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“There are a couple of specific cautions: that the Lib Dems will have to prove they can find £20bn of public expenditure cuts …”

What it actually says is that even if £20bn of spending cuts could be found, tax cuts might still be unaffordable.

What it also says is that people are likely to conclude from the policy that the Lib Dems are sympathetic to the Tories, and this is the note it ends on:
“Mr Clegg believes that the social democratic experiment has failed. He must now show voters why, given his diagnosis, he does not think the cure is to be found in a Conservative government.”

If people want to read the article for themselves, rather than relying on the “edited highlights”, they can find it here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/21/liberaldemocrats.nickclegg

by Anonymous on July 21, 2008 at 8:26 pm. Reply #

I like to think the economic liberals are aiming at the same goal as the social democrats, it’s just that we think liberal ways are the best for achieving this. I’ve thought of adopting “socialist ends, liberal means” as my strapline 🙂

by asquith on July 21, 2008 at 8:26 pm. Reply #

Interesting that the Guardian congratulates Nick on questioning the failure of the central government to guarantee social justice. I would have assumed that the Guardian would believe that it could guarantee it. I must toddle off and buy a copy before the shops shut.

by Stuart on July 21, 2008 at 8:43 pm. Reply #

Anonymous correctly cites two problems: the £20bn and public perception. What s/he doesn’t say is that the Guardian offers a fascinating solution to both:

“The party’s much more dramatic plan to introduce a local income tax, and to tax capital and income on the same footing, which would take money from the rich, does not sound Tory at all – but less has been heard about it.”

Quite right – but who ever listens to us when we talk about those policies, still less about LVT??

It just shows how much the Make It Happen thing has done for the party’s image that a mainstream editorial column can be suggesting we should get a bit more hardcore! They wouldn’t have given us the time of day on this stuff two weeks ago. The Make It Happen doc may have been designed, as the article suggests, to ape tabloid language and generate mass interest in liberalism, but it has also forced serious commentators to read our policies properly.

by Alix on July 21, 2008 at 9:21 pm. Reply #

Alix:
“Anonymous correctly cites two problems: the £20bn and public perception. What s/he doesn’t say is that the Guardian offers a fascinating solution to both …”

Curiously, I read what the Guardian wrote about that as another criticism of Clegg, and didn’t mention it because I thought I’d probably quoted enough critical comment that had been ignored in Stephen’s post.

I read that as suggesting that the Lib Dems had given prominence to the “Tory-friendly” policy of tax and spending cuts, but kept quiet about other not so Tory-friendly policies. But maybe I read it wrongly.

I must say I don’t really see that the fact the Guardian has commented on our policies (quite critically in some respects) proves that “Make it Happen” is a great success. Though I suppose, as Oscar Wilde said, there is only one thing worse than being talked about…

PS I’m a he.

by Anonymous on July 21, 2008 at 10:32 pm. Reply #

I agree with Alix, whether positive or negative, the media coverage of Make It Happen has increased the party’s profile

asquith

I believe term your thinking of is ‘social liberalism’, which by my understanding is uses elements of economic liberalism such as free markets in order to provide state support (albeit small state)in areas such as education.

More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_liberal

by James Shaddock on July 21, 2008 at 10:45 pm. Reply #

Alix, if the party hierachy wants more recognition for their objective of taxing the rich more, then they should state very clearly that they believe, unlike the Tories, in a big redistribution of wealth and in reducing the inequality of outcomes.
Looking at the policies it is all implied, but no one ever states this clearly and unequivicably.
This is a very Liberal position; the whole point of Llyod George’s “Peoples Budget” was to do just this.
On a seperate point, I think it is rediculous to promise cuts in public spending of £20Billion, as though we didn’t try hard enough at the last general election.
Amongst many other things, does anyone think the impact of global warming will be negligable on the public purse for the forseeable future?

by Geoffrey Payne on July 21, 2008 at 11:32 pm. Reply #

This £20bn. A figure simply plucked out of the air. A promise which we cheerfully admit we do not know how to meet. A hostage to fortune. A message that says “please distrust me”. Can we kill it? Now? Please?

Let’s replace it with “Labour wastes your money again”, repeated every time we identify another example of Government waste. Much more credible, reportable, and responsible.

by David Allen on July 21, 2008 at 11:42 pm. Reply #

“Alix, if the party hierachy wants more recognition for their objective of taxing the rich more, then they should state very clearly that they believe, unlike the Tories, in a big redistribution of wealth and in reducing the inequality of outcomes.
Looking at the policies it is all implied …”

But is it really there any more?

Or is the policy just phrased in such a way as to induce left-liberals to persuade themselves that it’s there, and so support it?

by Anonymous on July 21, 2008 at 11:43 pm. Reply #

Geoffrey, I think that’s almost my point. Making it Happen is a halfway document. It gets people who would never entertain any of our radical stuff from a standing start to the point where they suddenly see the point of LVT, LIT, redistribution of taxation onto capital etc etc. And they turn round and say “Why don’t you do all that?” That’s a *good* thing.

It’s to be hoped that this part deux will follow in train (though I’m not necessarily holding my breath). But we’re still further on this week in the business of persuasion than we were last week.

Re: the 20bn, I don’t like it when figures are plucked out of the air. But there is a qualitative difference between saying you’re going to make savings through better management, which is the usual non-credible line, and saying you’re going to do it through an actual wholesale reduction of the state.

I’d rather we had led on the wholesale reduction of the state. Then again, on a quick re-read, I suppose we do, but the media naturally hit on the £20bn. The only way to keep state reduction the main story would be to not name the figure, but that simply leads you into fresh credibility problems. Damned if you do, etc, it seems to me.

by Alix on July 22, 2008 at 12:14 am. Reply #

The editorial is well worth reading in full. I have the highest regard for stephen who is the back bone of this site but the actual article is a bit cooler than his synopsis suggests. However the real point is this. When a tepid, damning with faint praise editorial in the Guardian is deemed worthy of bigging up then are there perhaps storm clouds on the horizon ?

by Another Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 1:39 am. Reply #

£20bn works out at around 3% of spending.

Savings of about this figure is expected every year in vitually every part of the economy as it is, so I don’t think it is unrealistic – after all shouldn’t government also follow by a general rule which the rest of society abides by?

Surely it’s bad politics to factor in bad investment into budget calculations – or have we reached a state of affairs where expediency is taken for granted too?

by Oranjepan on July 22, 2008 at 8:50 am. Reply #

Saving £20bn is easy – it’s just a case of finding the most acceptable ways to do so. Some ways could include:

1. Minding our own b****y business and getting our troops out of George Bush’s wars.
2. A root and branch reform of policing. The current system might as well be abolished for all the good it’s doing.
3. Education. I taught in a number of schools last year. I’ve never seen so much waste in my life. As for the universities! 24 weeks tuition in a year! In other words you could run two universities in the same premises! Waste, Waste, Waste.

I could go on. And on. £20bn is 3%. Let’s go for 10% and free up money to spend on the things we need to spend money on.

by Martin Land on July 22, 2008 at 10:21 am. Reply #

“As for the universities! 24 weeks tuition in a year! In other words you could run two universities in the same premises!”

Evidently you’ve never heard of research – which is what most academics think of as their real job, of course.

As for the waste in schools, could you give us some idea what kind of thing you mean?

by Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 10:29 am. Reply #

“Saving £20bn is easy – it’s just a case of finding the most acceptable ways to do so.”

The Tories didn’t find it so easy in their 2001 and 2005 manifestos. And they weren’t committed to free care for the elderly, building a network of high speed rail links etc….

by Hywel Morgan on July 22, 2008 at 11:01 am. Reply #

There’s an interesting piece on the Lib Dem website, undated but apparently written before 2006, saying:
“Julia Goldsworthy MP, our Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is already on the case to identify 3% of total government spending (approximately £15 billion of government spending) which could be spent more effectively, on our priorities.”

The particular priority under discussion was the abolition of university tuition fees …

Does anyone know what conclusions Julia came to? If she identified £15bn of savings, doesn’t that mean Jeremy Browne needs to find only £5bn more?

by Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 11:21 am. Reply #

There’s an important point about how waste adds to inflationary cycles – so in one related sense the additional debt created by introducing PFI, PPP and nationalising Northern Rock borrowings has added unnecessary costs to the task of effective government while reducing the ability to fully fund essential services.

The creation of extra money doesn’t benefit everybody equally, and nor does it make society richer – it just creates the opportunity for disproportionate benefit to be accumulated unfairly by those with more access.

So really we should be making a stronger argument which links together the build-up of waste over the past decade under Labour with the build-up of economic problems which we are set to face.

It must be distasteful for both the Conservatives and Labour to realise that our argument to increase fairness in taxation is the only true way to solve the dual economic problems of inequal distributions of wealth and ongoing security of financial planning – neither tax cuts nor spending reductions resolve the long-term underlying problems which are presented by excessive inflation.

by Oranjepan on July 22, 2008 at 11:40 am. Reply #

Hywel Morgan,

The Tories in 2005 were committed to not only preserving but extending Blair’s authoritarian state, which led to massive commitments and hidden social costs which presumably wouldn’t exist if these policies were enacted. That is what we should all bear in mind.

I think it was a mistake to pounce on the number 20 billion, though. A better policy would have been to continue the focus on shifting tax away from low and middle earners and consumers towards polluters: green tax is an excellent idea, though thinking about its implementation would cause many a head to be scratched. 🙂

I’d have said that the policies are revenue neutral with a view to saving money if possible. I observe that Camoron may raise taxes. What do you make of this? And which taxes are likely to go up?

by asquith on July 22, 2008 at 12:11 pm. Reply #

Martin Land,

I agree with getting our troops out of places like Iraq, but I fail to see how that will add to cutting £20bn, seeing as if they weren’t in Iraq they’d be in (hopefully) somewhere like Darfur or Zimbabwe and the fact that Nick has raised before the issue of our armed forces needing more investment in their equipment

by James Shaddock on July 22, 2008 at 12:24 pm. Reply #

Cameron is trying to reach out beyond his core vote by being counter intuitive on Tax. At this stage hinting that they may have to go up is great for him because it slays dragons around the slash and burn image of the 1980’s. he also picks up bonus club card points for (a) telling the truth (b) lookig prime ministerial by being prepared to rule out populist.

In short its a stage in late brand decontamination.

Clegg is trying to move beyond his core vote by being counter intuitive on tax. 2005 was fought to the left of the labour governmen by being vougish on Iraq. 2010 will be fought to the right of the Conservative opposition on tax.

The problem is we don’t have a brnd decontamination problem, we have a brand construction problem. Netto would strugle if it over night it started selling xpensive luxury goods. M and S would struggle to convince anyone that it was the cheapest shop in town.

such shifts if neded take ages o ink in and we don’t have ages to the next GE.

The question is this. Given that evry opposition since the Sumerians promises to cut wste in public spending can we plausibly offer (a) £20bn of tax cuts (b) continue to spray spending comitments about as we are doing.

We have gone to revenue neutral Gren taxes, to sharing the proceeds of growth, to a £20bn / 3% over all cut in public spending in 7 months with no conferene ote and it sems no firm proposals o how to pay for it.

As things stand at the present this position will not be taken seriously by either journalists or the public.

And lets not forget that cameron has been given an Ace by Clegg. Just as Clegg gave permision of the liberty By Election he has now allowed the Tories to cut taxes if they wish. They don’t need to wory about the right wing slsher tag an more when “even” the Lib Dems are offering cuts. We have provided the covering fire needed for him to tack right/populist wth say a £10bn / 2p off the basic rate promise.

However my suspicion is the economy is goig to et so grim that he’ll stick to prudence and just leave us looking oppotunist.

by Another Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 12:35 pm. Reply #

Another Anonymous,

Sounds chirpy on paper, but reality is another animal.

Cameron faces a different dynamic from us in that it wasn’t just conservative policy matters which needed decontamination. So by his action he threatens splitting the core support for his party between the hard-core and the moderates, which might spread his appeal, but it wouldn’t grow it, and would therefore make him look less prime ministerial.

On the other hand we dont need to construct our brand because all our political forebears have always talked about fairness, even though we’ve argued about what that means in practise (fairness is also our strongest card according to PoliticsHome Index among the public, and we far out-score both the other parties – so it’s definitely something to build on).

Our problem is for these arguments to be productive processes around which we can present ourselves as a unified force both serious and sensible in the details of any of our specific policies.

In this light £20bn/3% savings is a perfect example of our predicament which we need to find a way to overcome through better communication – £20bn may seem far-fetched, but 3% almost seems overly cautious!

by Oranjepan on July 22, 2008 at 12:54 pm. Reply #

“Clegg is trying to move beyond his core vote by being counter intuitive on tax.”

The other problem with this is that while leaning to the left to pick up more votes is a _relatively_ risk-free strategy for a Conservative leader – with nothing but fringe parties for disaffected right-wingers to turn to – leaning to the right is much more hazardous for a Lib Dem leader, who may stand to lose as much to Labour (both in Labour/Lib Dem marginals and in tactical votes in Tory/Lib Dem marginals) as he stands to gain from the Tories. Particularly if Cameron is simultaneously on a Green/Liberal-friendly counter-offensive.

by Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 12:57 pm. Reply #

Anon – the point is that Clegg hasn’t moved the party anywhere because what might seem counter-intuitive actually reaffirms our core principles – and we will therefore solidify our appeal on all sides.

The conservatives are a different beast, being organised from the top-down around their leader – you should ask what principles do they actually stand for, if any at all (other than gaining power at all costs)?

by Oranjepan on July 22, 2008 at 2:14 pm. Reply #

Orangepan,

Yes. I forgot that the Tory party was on the verge of breaking up. All those disgruntled old buffers will be flocking to those viable options of the BNP and UKIP. Thank God we have such a vigourious operation like the Peel Group to mop up the refugees.

If Cameron moves centre there is nowhere else for for right wing tory voters to go. If we move right there are plenty of places for left liberals to go.

As was posted up thread Goldsworthy was asked to find £15bn or 3% of public expenditure to cut two years ago. If its as easy as you glibly suggest why do we still have no figures?

by Another Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 2:24 pm. Reply #

“the point is that Clegg hasn’t moved the party anywhere”

Yes, yes, anything you say. And the earth isn’t rotating either – it only seems that way because the rest of the universe is spinning round.

by Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 3:01 pm. Reply #

“If we move right there are plenty of places for left liberals to go”

Like where? Green? SNP/Plaid? Surely you don’t mean Labour.

by asquith on July 22, 2008 at 5:13 pm. Reply #

“Like where? Green? SNP/Plaid? Surely you don’t mean Labour.”

I don’t know about “left liberals”, but if we move to the right we are obviously going to make traditional Labour voters more likely to vote Labour rather than Lib Dem.

by Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 5:21 pm. Reply #

Labour are still polling 5% to 10% ahead of us even in there current dire state. In scotland and wales there are the nationalists. the Greens have passed the referendum of having a single leader. If they go for one of the media literate women (berry/lucas) you’ll be surprised ow quickly they start bobbing along at 3% to 5% in the polls. Also don’t for small geographic challenges like Respect or peoples voice.

by Another Anonymous on July 22, 2008 at 5:36 pm. Reply #

Oh please, we were never really left, right or centre, we were always the party of decentralisation – which is partly why we’ve always been criticised for picking and choosing.

When it was a choice between initiating the NHS and cutting taxes we argued it was possible to have both if we accepted some measure of deferral.

Similar choices has been put to the public every generation and we’ve always argued against a doctrinaire approach, so anyone who says we are left, or right, or centre, or radical or moderate is both partially right and partially wrong – we are a party built out of our membership from the bottom up, not a collection of fawning acolytes seeking favour from any glorious leaders.

Frankly the situation isn’t dire and I’m mildly amused to being called glib by someone who is equally if not more so.

by Oranjepan on July 22, 2008 at 6:40 pm. Reply #

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