Where I stand on the new Lib Dem groupings

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2012

Time to out myself.

In the last year, three new Lib Dem groups have been launched to an unsuspecting world and to an often-suspicious Lib Dem blogosphere. In chronological order, they are: Social Liberal Forum (SLF), Liberal Left, and Liberal Reform.

They will add to the already thriving discussion base within the party which exists online (here on LibDemVoice and at Liberal Vision), in print (at Liberator), and in any of the party’s internal organisations.

To take the new kids on the block in turn…

Social Liberal Forum

I have a lot of time for the SLF for three reasons. First, the calibre of the people involved — these are folk who take policy seriously and thoughtfully.

Secondly, because of their explicit commitment to reducing inequalities. I have a presumption in favour of market-based solutions to societal issues, but I recognise markets do not always afford a level playing field for all. The SLF is a useful corrective to folk like me that outcomes (and not just opportunities) do matter.

And thirdly, because of the positive approach the SLF has adopted to the unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable, position of the Lib Dems becoming the junior partner in coalition with the Tories. Indeed, the first sentence of SLF’s mission statement is explicit: “the creation of the coalition and its policy programme as set out in the Coalition Agreement was the best available option for promoting Liberal Democrat policies and values during this Parliament”. This is also generous given the pain some Coalition policies (the Welfare Reform Bill, the NHS reforms) will have caused some SLF members.

Liberal Left

In spite of my admiration for many of those involved — there’s little point being a liberal unless you relish feisty spikiness from folk such as Linda Jack — I have an instinctive reaction against groups driven by visceral opposition to something. The opening statement of Liberal Left’s values defines LL as a group for those “who oppose the party’s membership of the Coalition” (which according to our latest LibDemVoice.org survey account for 13% of the party membership).

Significantly, LL is committed to working with Labour, Greens and others on the liberal-left. I have no objections to the Lib Dems building bridges with other parties, but it seems a curious decision to explicitly ally with the Labour party at a time when most Lib Dems would say it’s ever more important that the party establish its political independence. I also think LL will have a lot of work to do in persuading Lib Dems (certainly me) that overtures from Labour are anything other than a tactical device to appeal to liberal voters, given the party’s lukewarm-to-hostile approach to Lib Dem-sponsored reforms such as tax-cuts for the low-paid and Lords reform.

I’m sure LL will generate positive if critical thinking — heck, with former party policy director Richard Grayson in their team how could they not? — but given its likely ‘social liberal’ policy overlap with the SLF its defining USP is likely to end up becoming more and more oppositional. Ultimately I think that will create unhelpful and long-lasting fractures that will, at best, take time to heal.

Liberal Reform

This group is self-consciously ‘Orange Book‘ — its banner of “four-cornered freedom” mirrors David Laws’ (brilliant) introductory chapter to a book around which has grown a something of a mythology of economic liberalism, given the eclectic nature of its contributors (who included Steve Webb, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable, all usually seen to one degree or another as primarily on the ‘centre-left’ of the party).

Ideologically this is the group to which I am naturally closest, though its mission statement is somewhat jargon-heavy and skewed towards only one of its “four corners”, economic liberalism. As yet there is little indication of how the other three corners — personal, social and political liberalism — will be advanced within the party. Plenty of time for that to develop, of course.

What makes me cautious about the LR group (and again I stress my liking for the individuals involved) is that it seems a little too ready for a fight with other Lib Dems, not least Liberal Left. I’m all for robust debate, as long as it doesn’t turn personal. Our party has a tendency towards binary fission — think of the Lloyd George / Asquith split; or the Samuelites v the Simonites; and of course the SDP & Liberals — and it’s not normally to our electoral advantage!

In summary:

1) Some cause for concern that this flowering will factionalise a party which will need all its energies in the next few years to win elections in a difficult climate;

2) But more cause for celebration that Lib Dems are once again engaging vigorously in ideas and policy.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.