by Stephen Tall on October 19, 2014
“10 Years on from The Orange Book: what should authentic liberalism look like?” That was the title of a Lib Dem conference fringe meeting in Glasgow, organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), at which I was speaking alongside MPs Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne, Orange Book co-editor Paul Marshall, the IEA’s Ryan Bourne and ComRes pollster Tom Mludzinski. Here’s what I said…
I often describe myself as an Orange Booker. Like most labels it’s a short-hand. To me it simply means I’m a Lib Dem at ease with the role of a competitive market and who believes also in social justice. To many others in our party, though, Orange Booker is a term of abuse – Orange Bookers are thrusting, smart-suited, neoliberal Thatcherities, never happier than when mixing with red-blooded free-marketeers like the IEA.
What I want to do briefly is make a pitch for something that’s become quite unpopular among the party ranks: I’m going to make a pitch that the Lib Dems should be a party that’s unabashedly of the liberal centre.
Yes, I used the c-word: centre. Centrism brings out some liberals in a rash, among those who see it as nothing more than a soggy, split-the-difference mush of vague intentions. It can be that, of course. But it doesn’t have to be. The liberal centre can be a principled place. It is also a brave place – as Janan Ganesh put it recently in the Financial Times: “Centrism is despised as effete, but it takes steel to leave your ideological comfort zone”.
It also happens to be the only place from which the Lib Dems can fight the next election and thrive as a party.
But before I explain why that is I want to reassure you of my core liberalism. If I were that oxymoronic thing for a day – a liberal dictator – I would pass 10 general laws as follows (I’d flesh the details out afterwards):
1. I’d shift taxation away from earned income and towards wealth and property, including through a land value tax, as well as pollution;
2. I’d abolish any form of net migration target and welcome wholeheartedly those who choose to work here as fellow citizens;
3. I’d eliminate any protectionist taxes and tariffs, including the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which stifle free trade and discriminate against developing countries;
4. I’d devolve powers over budgets and policy for key services from Westminster to national parliaments, assemblies and local councils;
5. I’d scrap the Barnett Formula and ensure public spending was allocated on the basis of citizens’ need not a 1970s’ patching job designed to prop up the Callaghan government;
6. I’d introduce a Citizen’s Income, guaranteeing an above-poverty level of income to people who have no earnings from work at all;
7. I’d ensure local residents were properly compensated for new housing developments to break the logjam which pits housing need against understandable NIMBY opposition and prices young people out of the market;
8. I’d strip private schools of their charitable status so they could market their social cachet as the commodity it is without being subsidised by the state;
9. I’d legalise drugs and prostitution;
10. I’d bring in a Bill of Rights that enshrined civil liberties protections for individuals from an intrusive state – yes to the ECHR, no to the Snoopers’ Charter;
11. Oh, and no regulation of the press or Internet either;
12. And of course I’d bring in a written constitution, electoral reform, an elected second chamber, a disestablished church – oh and abolish the monarchy in favour of a republic as well.
(You might have noticed that’s 12, not 10, by the way: always under-promise and over-deliver.)
You won’t agree with them all, of course not. But those dozen measures are what I’d call authentically liberal. My kind of liberalism, anyway, which is what most people actually mean by authentic liberalism.
So that’s my authentically liberal policy platform. Now, who’s going to offer to write me the Focus leaflet setting all that out which will get me elected? Anyone? [No-one offered.]
And that’s my point. We have to accept that one of the reasons we Liberals are such good friends to minority causes is because we are one. Individually, I’d probably lose an election on the basis of any one of those policies. Taken collectively as a manifesto it’d probably even lose us Orkney, our safest seat.
So authentic liberalism is all very well, but we aren’t only Liberals – we are also Democrats. That means we need to recognise the majority will of the people. And if we want to move towards the Promised Land of milk and honey we may need to make do with semi-skimmed and marge from Lidl before we get there.
That’s where the Liberal centre comes in.
Yes, the Lib Dems should campaign as a liberal party with distinctively liberal policies: it’s what we’re here for and it’s what the voters have the right to expect of us.
However, I assume none of us is under the illusion we’ll win an outright majority next May? Which means we won’t get to implement any of those liberal policies unless we cooperate with either Labour or the Tories in government after 2015. And in that circumstance we’ll have to accept some of their illiberal policies we don’t much like, they’ll accept some of our liberal policies they don’t much like, and on the rest we’ll work out some kind of compromise. Sound familiar? It should do: that’s the last four-and-a-half years.
Let me put it like this: if Lib Dem members really want to remain in government after May 2015 then we will have to do a deal next time with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We may not place ourselves in the centre, but our circumstances do.
It’s no coincidence that the areas where the Lib Dems have achieved greatest success in this Coalition — raising the personal allowance, the Pupil Premium, same-sex marriage — have been areas that are mainstream, centrist. To put it another way: they are popular with enough people to stand a chance of making it into legislation.
And that’s what makes being a minority party such a challenge. We have constantly to set out our liberal vision, to remind ourselves of the authentic philosophy which makes us distinctive. And then we have to work out how to translate that into practical ideas that not only get approved by our conference here, but also have a cat-in-hell’s chance of Labour or the Tories living with them too.
There’s sometimes a temptation in our party to wish for ideological purity. Orange Bookers wishing themselves rid of the social liberals, social liberals wanting the Orange Bookers to go privatise themselves. And yes there’s comfort to be had in being surrounded by people we agree with, wrapping our confirmation bias around each other. But you know what? I’m glad we have MPs like Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne, each representing different wings of the party, offering different — but, in their own ways, just as authentic — liberal visions.
The tension within the Lib Dems (when we keep it civil) is a healthy one. The Orange Bookers were quite right to sound a warning 10 years ago that too much Lib Dem thinking had grown flabby, that our answer to every public service problem was simply to say spend more money and hire more staff, to try and out-Labour Labour.
But I’ll tell you something else. I wish we’d listened as hard to the social liberals who warned, rightly, that the Bedroom Tax was a harsh and senseless way to cut the welfare bill and free up social housing.
We might sometimes be all too obviously two ill-fitting parties in one, a smart jacket combined with scruffy trousers pretending to be a suit. But we need the authenticity of both economic and social liberals within the Lib Dems: we are ourselves a coalition which is, how best to put it?, Better Together.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.