On Identity

According to Nick Clegg’s aides the summer will see the start of a concerted attempt to shift (further, some might add) the Liberal Democrats to the centre-Right, culminating in a series of binary choices at Conference in Glasgow on a range of issues from tax to Trident.


This would mean abandoning the centre-left political territory occupied by British Liberals since Keynes inspired the 1929 Liberal manifesto and Beveridge played such a key part in the policies the Party stood on in 1945.  Jo Grimond in rescuing the party from near-oblivion in the 1950s and 1960s stood similar ground. A cynic looking at the current opinion polls for the party and its leader might be tempted to draw parallels. A more relevant poll finding, perhaps, might be the one that shows a plurality of voters preferring to see a centre-Left government after the next election.  Among that plurality is the bulk of the Liberal Democrat vote in 2010.


What will happen at Glasgow is a series of votes where Ministers will tell Conference representatives that it would be politically damaging for the party to fight the 2015 election on positions different to those taken by the Coalition Government. Of course, the Conservatives will not be doing this on subjects such as equal marriage, Europe or renewable energy; but that appears to be of no concern to the strategists.


The key issues include tax; nuclear power; the living wage (vociferously opposed by economic Liberals, who dispute the Resolution Foundation’s work to demonstrate the economic benefits and savings to the exchequer); Trident replacement; and higher education where the party may struggle to avoid reopening the self-inflicted wounds of late 2010.  The motion in Clegg’s name aiming to persuade the party to back George Osborne’s deficit reduction strategy in the 2015 election and beyond may be the most significant of all.


It is striking when listening to senior Party figures at present to note just how often they link their efforts to Liberal values. Norman Lamb, in a thought-provoking speech about the potential future role of mutuals in public services at the Social Liberal Forum Conference, did just that. Others, though, can only bring themselves to talk about shifting the party to the centre ground – or as Richard Grayson put it in his remarks leaving the party, leading ‘a centre-Left party [from] the centre-Right’.


One of the biggest problems the Liberal Democrats face in the march to 2015 is motivating the foot soldiers.  Articulating values is one of the most effective ways to do that. There is not the slightest evidence that the party’s loss of identity, or the discernible attempts to shift it to the Right has attracted new activists or inspired existing ones to work harder. There is, though, lots of evidence that many long-standing Liberals have switched their energies to their gardens, their golf courses or their grandchildren in response to that shift.


Now is the time to vigorously restate the identity that inspired the party’s volunteer base, rather than seeking to change it forever.

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13 comments on “On Identity
  1. Ed Mander says:

    I think it may then be time to abandon the economic liberals to the Tory party, which appears to be their home, and to realign the social democrats with true liberalism, that is, properly, left-centre. That is my position since I resigned, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I take solace in logging on to http://www.liberal.org.uk. My beliefs find a sounding board there. Time to reengage with our philosophical roots?

  2. Graeme Cowie says:

    “Jo Grimond in rescuing the party from near-oblivion in the 1950s and 1960s stood similar ground.”

    This the same Jo Grimond who said

    “Much of what Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph say and do is in the mainstream of liberal philosophy.”

    Surely not?

    “the living wage (vociferously opposed by economic Liberals, who dispute the Resolution Foundation’s work to demonstrate the economic benefits and savings to the exchequer)”

    Evidence please? This economic liberal, and many others, are firmly in favour of the living wage, achieved by the abolition of all taxation on employment up to the living wage value. Eliminating income tax, employee NICs and employer NICs at minimum-wage-level immediately creates a net minimum income greater than the living wage for everywhere outside of London. How very dare you accuse economic liberals of being against a fairer deal for the low-paid, simply because they disagree with you about whether the best way of achieving that is to tax the low paid and then pay them more back or just not to tax them as much in the first place.

  3. Mike Cobley says:

    There are so many aspects of the Clegg leadership’s record to which I am opposed that there is no time or room to deal with them here. What I will say is that assertions that the party is in any way a centrist party are utterly deluded – the true centre of British politics is now well to the left of the 3 main parties, and it is under Clegg that we as a party have made the strangest, most overtly rightwards lurch of almost any major party in modern times. We now support, either openly or tacitly, policies that attack society’s most vulnerable, the kind of policies which this party have vigorously and with justified outrage criticised in the path. To have gone from being speakers for and defenders of the disabled to the willing enablers of the vicious cruelties of the WCA is the most telling symptom of how corrupted we have been. This cannot go on, and things that cannot go on generally do not.

  4. Simon McGrath says:

    I am not sure that it is correct to say that the living wage is “vociferously opposed by economic Liberals, who dispute the Resolution Foundation’s work to demonstrate the economic benefits and savings to the exchequer”. The issue which concerns the economic liberals I know is the effect on employment – modelled by the Resolution Foundation at a net loss of 160,000 jobs with the largest effect among young workers. The question is whether the gain to the 4m whose pay would increase is ‘worth’ the loss of jobs. That is a discussion which certainly needs to be had but I am not sure it is helpful to see it in simplistic terms.

    It is interesting to note that the Foundation are not in favour of a statutory living wage

  5. Paul Hindley says:

    The Liberal Democrats are historical a centre-left social liberal party that has striven for individual freedom, social justice, political reform and the environment. Some economic liberals have sought to hollow out the party’s values too such an extent that the party seems to resemble a liberal version of New Labour devoid of any progressive soul or sense of purpose. Perhaps what’s even worse is that some party figures seem to have adopted the free market values of the centre-right.

    The Liberal Democrats need to rediscover their political values; I suggest that people can start by reading the back of their membership cards. The party must also rediscover its rich centre-left history. The history of great social liberals like Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge, Hobhouse and Grimond. These were great political champions who promoted individual freedom and social justice.

    The Lib Dems need to ensure that they have a radical distinctive identity from those of Labour and the Conservatives. To endorse Conservative austerity in 2015 would be disastrous for the party and the country. The Lib Dems need a moderate social liberal alternative to the Thatcherism of David Cameron and George Osborne. This should be an alternative that promotes better living standards, better wages and that focuses on job creation.

    To echo Richard Grayson, the Lib Dems are a centre-left party being increasingly lead from the centre-right.

  6. john pruce says:

    I am a founder member of the party, having joined from the SDP.
    Economic liberalism as espoused by the Tories, involves minimal regulation of capitalist activity and is designed to protect their funding. It will push more and more people into poverty and will cripple the middle class. We must put distance between us and that ideology. The coalition’s policy of austerity is not working in that the annual deficit did not go down at all last year.
    Put those two issues together and it should be clear that we must position ourselves on the centre left of British politics with a set of policies that puts clear water between us and the Tories. A continued coalition with them after the next election should be unthinkable. I did not join the party to be a tory bag carrier.

  7. Sue Doughty says:

    On Trident we are clearly moving away from the Cold War stance that Trident is essential to world peace and stability. Although our paper does not go all the way in abandoning nuclear power, what it does do is to start to climb back down the ladder and point out that we no longer need to sail around with Cruise at the ready. Those of us who tend towards unilateralism on the Defence Policy Committee strongly agreed with the line Nick Harvey set out which, while not absolute, sets out a very clear opportunity to reassess threats and our responses. We need to take this argument in stages to gain acceptance and understanding from the public and indeed from those in the present and former senior ranks of the Armed Forces and Defence ministers and who still have some influence on public thinking. We also have more opportunity to take people with us internationally if we set out a third way of dealing with Trident rather than a stark yes or no.

    Although the first two years of the coalition have not been good for us,we have a responsibility to continue to set forward our ideas, not only in the comfort of opposition, but in government. A small party in Parliament has limited influence but it can be easier to criticise rather than to understand that it is incredibly difficult to steer a truly Liberal course given the few cards which we hold.

  8. Liberal Neil says:

    So we can afford to continue to fund a nuclear deterrent, not because we believe it is the right policy, but because we think we need to take the public with us in a staged approach.

    Yet we claim we can’t afford to axe tuition fees and didn’t appear to feel any need to take the public with us on that one?

    The former seems to be a huge amount of money to spend on what is basically a tactical position.

  9. Mike Falchikov says:

    To Sue Doughty re Trident.
    Sue, I understand where you’re coming from and can sympathise with
    your stance up to a point. But, surely, we’re not a great power any longer and we shouldn’t try to be. Please remember, only 3 members out of 28 in Nato have their own nukes and a number of Nato countries (e.g. Germany and Canada, to name the two biggest) don’t and won’t have nuclear weapons on their soil. I don’t get the impression that the British public go to their beds every night being thankful for the protection of our tiny little nuclear force. Anyway,Liberals were quite happy for 30 years to oppose an independent nuclear deterrent and it didn’t seem to do us any harm electorally.

  10. Amalric says:

    Perhaps the Social Liberal Forum should see this as an opportunity to defeat the leadership and ensure we have Social Liberal Policies in the run up to the next general election.

    According to the Guardian article (that Gareth gave the reference for) there is to be a pre-manifesto strategy paper. Depending on what the motions are I think Social Liberal Forum should focus its amendments on economic policy and leave tuition fees and nuclear power to others. (The Social Liberal wing has lost the debate on tuition fees with half of our MP’s voting for them and the party not revoking their membership for bringing the party into disrepute. I am sure there will be amendments from others to try to ensure we are not supporting nuclear power.)

    I feel that having a more aggressive policy on increasing the minimum wage above inflation or the increase in average earnings would be a good idea. However the Resolution Foundation have some useful ideas about the living wage (http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/media/media/downloads/Beyond_the_Bottom_Line_-_FINAL.pdf):
    Whitehall to pay the living wage;
    Local authorities conduct feasibility studies on paying the living wage and publish the results;
    Central and local government and the NHS review the cost of re-tendering contracted services on a living wage basis;
    Amend Company law so all companies have to publish the proportion and number of their staff paid below the living wage.

    We need to reform the public sector borrowing requirement to free councils to borrow money against their assets to build council houses (i.e use the EU definition of Public Sector Net Debt). I would also like to see a commitment to restore house building to above historical averages.

  11. john says:

    The problem for the SLF is that they fail to frame an economic policy and like Labour are rather coy about it as many are really scandinavian style social democrats and unable to spell out the sacrifices that that would require in terms of taxation, social conformity and other tax transparency.

    A living wage is a good idea – yet even that is framed by the great germanic social market project that is being developed by this government and will take a generation to produce.

    Say what you like about Clegg – he has understood that the electorate maybe drifting leftwards in terms of local government yet on the national issues they are firmly on the right.

  12. Linda Jack says:

    John, I think you will find that SLF have a very sound economic position, have you read this? http://www.amazon.co.uk/Plan-liberal-approaches-sustainable-ebook/dp/B007I59A6A/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375169548&sr=8-1&keywords=plan+c+social+liberal+forum

    As for your assertion that Nick has “read the electorate right” I presume that is an argument for us all to abandon our values in order to chase the shifting sand that is public opinion? If that was our rationale for political engagement we would all be best placed to join the Tory party!

  13. Steve Bolter says:

    I cannot understand why the binary option on nuclear power is seen to be a right/left issue.
    The fundamental issue is should we allow nuclear energy to be part of our energy mix.
    The issues under consideration need to include:-
    • Do we need to address rapid climate change?
    • If so is reducing carbon dioxide emissions (i.e. going “low carbon”) the way to do it?
    • If so how do we best go low carbon?
    • What are the disadvantages of including intrinsically low carbon nuclear energy in the mix?
    • What are the disadvantages of trying to get by without it?
    • Would we have the will to push alternative technologies or would we just dash for gas and hope we could make CCS work safely on a large enough scale at some time in the future?
    • Is the motion only about the immediate future and new conventional nuclear fission reactors, or does the no nuclear option mean for ever and apply to nuclear fusion and Thorium fission reactors as well?
    • Are the dangers of nuclear reactors larger than the dangers of not doing enough to reduce CO2 emissions, or the dangers of some of the other low carbon technologies, such as burning biomass, we would be likely to employ instead?
    • Will CCS work, and will the storage be secure.
    • If there were an unprecedented earthquake, which would be the greater risk, exposure to glassified deep buried nuclear waste, or the escape of vast quantities of stored carbon dioxide.
    There is one left right issue. Instead of simply seeking a vote on whether or not to allow the inclusion of nuclear energy in the energy mix, the nuclear option includes a commitment for it to be entirely privately financed. This is inappropriate and should be the subject of separate discussion. However this is ancillary to the main purpose of the vote and was probably only inserted in an attempt to bias the playing in favour of other technologies.

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