In defence of broad church politics

There has been a bit of a debate waging over the past week about “classical (or economic) liberals versus social liberals,” partly due to the launch of the Social Liberal Forum and exacerbated by a recent editorial in Liberator Magazine.

For the record, while the Social Liberal Forum does indeed believe that social liberalism is the mainstream ideology of the Liberal Democrats, we do not believe it is incompatible with other strands of liberalism. Being a broad church, and having its tenets challenged from time to time is healthy for a political party.

We established the Social Liberal Forum to encourage debate within the party not to shut it down. Everything we have done thus far (the Ideas Factory, the policy discussion evenings) has revolved around this. We very deliberately chose to launch this website with David Howarth’s article examining the different strands of liberal thought precisely to move on from debate which at times can be dogmatic and based on the assumption (often promoted by the media) that this is a zero-sum game in which for economic liberals to ‘win’ social liberals must automatically ‘lose’, and vice versa.

David Howarth adds:

My views on this are well known – ‘economic’ vs ‘social’ is a debate within social liberalism about means, not ends. ‘Classical’ vs ‘social’ liberalism is a different debate within liberalism about whether the core commitments of liberalism should be supplemented by commitments to the redistribution of wealth and power and to democracy for its own sake. It’s important not to get these two debates confused.

But I do think the Liberator ‘Blues under the Bed’ editorial is quite wrong when it claims that classical and social liberalism cannot exist within the same party. That depends on what the leading issues of the day are. When current politics is exclusively about the redistribution of wealth it might well be difficult to keep a combined liberal party together. But if the issues of the day include a large element of having to defend core liberal values – such as political freedom and civil liberties and keeping the state out of private lives – I can’t see why liberals of all kinds could not work together, even in government.

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26 comments on “In defence of broad church politics
  1. David Allen says:

    “The Liberator editorial is wrong when it claims that classical and social liberalism cannot exist within the same party. That depends on what the leading issues of the day are.”
    That won’t do.  We can’t run a party which is going to split into two whenever the redistribution of wealth issue comes to the fore!
    So it has to be a question of degree.  An “economic liberal” who believes in the wider use of competitive free market policies, but can also live with a role for the State and a real aim to reduce poverty and inequality, can belong in our party.  An “economic liberal” who has come to us because Cameron is too insipid, and promotes radical new free market recipes in the clear knowledge that they will increase polarisation and social inequality (as, of course, has occurred under both the Tories and Labour over the past thirty years) can not!  

  2. Andrew says:

    But doesn’t that also work the other way round, David?

    A “Social Liberal” who is in the party to try and promote equality and redistribution while allowing people to retain as much liberty as possible should be welcome in the Lib Dems.  A “Social Liberal” who has come to us because they see the Labour Party as having sold out and puts equality and redistribution above all else and pursues a radical socialist recipes in the clear knowledge that they will decrease liberty, surely shouldn’t be welcome?A broad church should be welcomed, a skewed church should not.

    FYI James, The comments boxed seems to be a bit buggered – the cursor seems to place itself in the wrong place with respect to the text when I go back and try and edit a previous sentence. And the font boxes aren’t the right size.  Apart from that, nice site.  Though whichever of your brethren wrote the Liberator article should be sent to Solovetsky – In general I am okay with the ‘Broad Church’ idea, even though I think the “socials” are misguided. But I don’t take too kindly to being told to eff off…

  3. James Graham says:

    Just out of interest Andrew, what browser are you using?

  4. James Graham says:

    Same here – I’m not having the problem though.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure you can blame “my brethren” for the Liberator article, unless you are making a more profound point about humanity in general.

  5. Andrew says:

    Strange – must be because my computer’s crap then, the whole comments box just looks and feels ‘squashed’ though.By your brethren I meant the ‘social liberals’ within the party, rather than someone from the SLF per se.  Even if launching this forum is slightly hackle raising for some, I don’t think you’d be quite as insane as to piss people off that blatantly.

  6. David Allen says:

    Can’t disagree at all, in principle, with what you say about “radical socialist recipes that will decrease liberty”.  What actual recipes or radical socialist entryists to our Party did you have in mind?

  7. Andrew says:

    Oh, none whatsoever.  Admittedly there is an ex-CPGB in our midst but I think he has renounced his communist past.  But one only has to take a look at somewhere such as Liberal Conspiracy to see that people who originally allied themsleves to the Labour party but consider themselves true ‘liberals’ and are quite happy for the state to do as it wishes as long as it is for what they percieve ‘the greater good’.I guess my biggest problem with social liberalism is where does it stop?  This is the problem that the Labour party have come across – once you start meddling you need to constantly tinker and constantly come up with new ways to justify your actions.  You are essentially asking me to simply trust you that you will stop, that there is a point that you say is too much state intervention.  That you are in some way better. You would surely make the argument that I can’t trust the Labour Party, or the Conservative Party for that matter, so why should I trust you?FYI2 James – Again maybe something to do with my computer, but there is no spell checker if I go back and edit a sentence – so if I write perceive here to see how to spell it, it tells me but the one I added above, and is spelt wrongly isn’t highlighted. strange.

  8. David Allen says:

    “so why should I trust you?”
    Fair question.  Initial response, nimbly cutting-and-pasting from this site’s “what we stand for” piece:
    “The British state … is over-centralised and authoritarian, and for those reasons inefficient and unresponsive. The power exercised by the state therefore needs to be decentralized, participatory democracy encouraged and a greater emphasis placed on social justice and environmental sustainability.”
    This doesn’t exactly sound like Arthur Scargill to me.  Of course you’ll want to see more flesh added to these bones.  Perhaps trust will grow!

  9. David Heigham says:

    Andrew.Social Liberalism stops before it gets in the way of people making their lives as they want to make them. Just where classical Liberalism stops. Non-liberals don’t stop there, be they Lab or Con.How much collective help it is worth giving, or practical to give, to people to help them make their own lives is a question of degree for debate among Liberals. It is a “category error” to mistake it for the deep ideological divide between non-liberal paternalists/nannys and those hold that self-reliance is a moral imperative.

  10. Andrew says:

    “Social Liberalism stops before it gets in the way of people making their lives as they want to make them.”

    So if I want to smoke 40-a-day, down a bottle of scotch of an evening while eating my McDonalds before nodding off from my Heroin injection, and then wake up the next day watch a bit of Jeremy Kyle, head down the Job centre to collect my welfare and then walk into the local A&E saying I was on a bit of a bender yesterday and am feeling a bit peaky, that’s okay if that’s how I want to live my life?

    “This doesn’t exactly sound like Arthur Scargill to me.”

    Correct, but the people nearer my thinking in the party don’t sound like Ayn Rand.

    “greater emphasis placed on social justice and environmental sustainability”

    Cool, except in this case the justice is arbitrary.  It is solely decided by those in power, which in this case would be you.  Didn’t we hear exactly the same kind of thing from Tony Blair in ’97?  Aren’t we hearing the same thing from Cameron now?  Why are you better? 

    Regarding environmental sustainability, again excellent, except weren’t biofuels the big thing a few years ago?  then food miles?  Again, someone was lobbied into pursuing certain goals that turned out to be unwise.  This is an inherent problem with power, no matter what David Howarth may think. 

    And what about when these things clash?  Trade with developing nations increases social justice, yet we’re told to ‘grow our own’?  Which is it?  With social liberalism, I am not allowed to decide which I prefer, you are to decide. 

    Why?  Simply because you wanted to become a politician?  Because you are best mates with one?  Sweet baby James, the Solicitor General got his post because he was the PM’s flat mate!  And then we went to war, partly due to his advice.  What stops you doing something similar, apart from the fact that you ‘say’ you won’t?

    FYI James – I think the problem might be that the comments box grows, rather than has a fixed height that than scrolls?

  11. David Allen says:

    “…someone was lobbied into pursuing certain goals that turned out to be unwise.  This is an inherent problem with power, no matter what David Howarth may think.”
    Yes, it’s an inherent problem.  How would you resolve it?  By not trying to get any power, and leaving the responsibility to someone else?  Or by not having any goals or policies, in case they might be the wrong ones?

  12. James Graham says:

    Andrew – I’ve removed the WYSIWYG comments box and replaced it with a basic one. I don’t know what the problem was, but it seems to be causing more problems than it is worth. I hope you don’t consider denying you this choice to be excessive socialistic nannying! :)

  13. Andrew says:

    Really James, I require you to put up all possible comments boxes and then let me choose which one I want to write in. God damn you Communists!

    I guess the only solution to that problem is anarchy, which has a few problems of its own.

    In my opinion, the fatal flaw in social liberalism as you see it, is that it is susceptible to “mission creep”. I know you have good intentions, but I also think Gordon Brown has good intentions. The limits are ill-defined, and therefore will forever grow. If your goal is to make life more ‘fair’ who defines ‘fair’? It is ‘fair’ that Bill Gates has so much money? If not, why not? and if not, what about all the good stuff he has then done with it?

  14. James Graham says:

    Andrew – I would be happy to do that, but each comment will cost you £5. That’s economic liberalism isn’t it? :)

    Regarding your point about ‘mission creep’ surely the same could be said of economic liberalism. Either you assume the market is all and that there are no externalities to factor in, or someone has to calculate those externalities. The only solution, ultimately, is bad old politics.

    Gordon Brown’s intentions are irrelevant: only 35% of voters supported his party in 2005 and only 1-in-5 electors overall. Power corrupts.

    Social liberals might assert there is a role for the state but we call for that state to be democratic. Gordon Brown, by contrast, supports a state in which the legislature is elected through undemocratic means and even then its voice is muted by an over-mighty executive. He has no time for political pluralism, when that is the heart of a democratic state.

  15. Andrew says:

    But then I would of course weigh up the value of commenting on here against the value of what else I might send my £5 on. Maybe if I had a particularly witty and erudite comment to make, that I knew would be read by millions and the great and good of the party, then I would pay my £5. Possibly more. But I don’t think you website offers me that much value, so I would take my £5 elsewhere. You would then have to lower your prices to a more reasonable amount to get people to comment. Do you think a comment on here is £5 well spent?

    How do you get “mission creep” in economic liberalism? Aren’t you restricted by what the externalities are? True, the initial calculation of a pigou tax may well be arbitrary but as the market would then respond – too high, loss of output; too low, problem not corrected – it has a self-adjustment.

    Power is too centralised, and I know how you think you would change this, but I guess – what happens next? If you localise the health system, won’t the stuff in the poor areas still be bad? Won’t there still be no incentives to live healthily? If you redistribute wealth arbitrarily, then were is the incentive to work hard?

    So my final point (I am in the US, so this is the middle of the day and I really have to get on with some work!) is that if you want to take over managing part of my life – my education, my healthcare, whatever, you have to have a very good reason for doing so. I want to see numbers and hear facts. I don’t want some waffle about ‘social justice’ or sustainability. I want actually information. I think this is why people across the political spectrum can get on board with things such as LVT and CBI – because it can always be referred back to actually numbers. I am happy to do without so that others less fortunate can have, but don’t ask me to trust you – We’ve all heard that one before!

  16. James Graham says:

    Andrew – on that last point I entirely agree. Of course it has to be backed up with research. But once again – that does work both ways.

  17. Oranjepan says:

    I’m not into ideologies, I’m into ideas. The political challenge is to reconcile the competing logic of each different idea in order to put it into practice.

    Discussion about ideology will always end in dispute and rancour because there are very few universal standard reference points and the parameters of orientation are almost exclusively personally-defined.

    So let’s not waste time chatting about the preferred schema of things when there is a wider public to be engaged with and convinced of the beneficial value in their participation.

  18. James Graham says:

    I’m not into ideologies, I’m into ideas.

    Hopefully you will want to participate in our Ideas Factory then! :)

  19. Andrew says:

    The political challenge is to reconcile the competing logic of each different idea in order to put it into practice.

    Isn’t that what James and I just agreed on – As long as there is hard data to back up your idea, I am willing to listen to it. It is impossible to argue with “phrases”.

    So let’s not waste time chatting about the preferred schema of things when there is a wider public to be engaged with and convinced of the beneficial value in their participation.

    So this is a really big thing. Why vote? Not Why vote Lib Dem? Or Why vote Tory? just Why vote? In mathematical terms your vote is essentially worthless, even if you have a particular preference. Even if you do have a preference, if you live in a non-marginal seat your individual vote is worthless. Only once in a general election in the last 90 years has an individual vote been worthwhile in electing an MP (He was Labour, but even then the tories won a large majority, so the vote wouldn’t change government policy) and this is all before we get to whether a change of government would actually change policy in any meaningful way.

    I am a member of the Lib Dems and even I have trouble coming up with a good reason to vote for them. I vote for them because I have a strong affection for liberalism and they are the best of a bad lot. The only strong, different policy we have is STV. What else is there?

    If you are concerned with community participation in a more general sense then going down the statist route is probably the worst possibly avenue – the state actively takes participatory choices out of people’s every day lives and replaces it with single choices once every few years. Want to help the homeless? Well, you can wait until next year and then you can vote for the Labour party who want to help the homeless marginally more than the others, or you can just go and bloody help the homeless.

  20. Jock says:

    “An “economic liberal” who has come to us because Cameron is too insipid, and promotes radical new free market recipes in the clear knowledge that they will increase polarisation and social inequality”

    Ijust wish someone would back up the assertion that these people exist with some examples. Because from what I can see, those amongst us pushing what one might call a classical liberal position haven’t been near a Tory knowingly for some while…

  21. Jock says:

    Oh, and I’d be utterly astonished if you could come up with someone in the party who “promotes radical new free market recipes in the clear knowledge that they will increase polarisation and social inequality”

  22. Bruce Wilson says:

    I would recommend reading the first half of David Howarth’s article, ‘examining the different strands of liberal thought’. He deals with much of the criticism mentioned above there. People should learn to listen and not just jump onto their favourite hobby horse. He is also rather more eloquent.

  23. Andrew says:

    He deals with much of the criticism mentioned above there.

    No he doesn’t.

    He explains why he thinks people such as Jock and I should be called minimalist social liberals rather than ‘economic’ or ‘classical’ liberals, but the article deals with none of the actually criticism of social liberalism – essentially, once you decide that state knows best on certain issues, when does it stop?

    And will someone please define ‘fair’ for me?

    He certainly is eloquent though, so eloquent in fact that it is hard to notice that it doesn’t say much…

    An extra problem was added with the Liberator article – The SLF may well be happy to see the likes of Jock and I in the party, but that obviously isn’t universal within all social liberals. So David Howarth may call me a minimalist social liberal who he is happy to debate with, but whoever wrote the liberator article sees me as a closet tory waiting to install Maggie as leader…

    I’ll go back to the one point that James and I agreed on – if you got data to back up your argument I will listen, if you just have platitudes then you are no different to anybody else – red, blue or yellow. Waffle about fairness, redistribution of wealth and equality is all just platitude.

  24. Oranjepan says:

    Bah, ideological debates are circular and always end up back where they started, so the distinction between ‘social’ and ‘economic’ liberals is divisive and unhelpful and should be consigned to academia where they belong – politics is about people, not just the ideas we produce.

    I prefer to understand the terms as between those of liberals who have a primary policy focus on social or economic issues.

    It is then the job of party members to show how the two areas overlap and can be reconciled before a truly workable policy can be developed and supported as a manifesto commitment – so if any proposal is either anti-social or unaffordable (or both if you’re not in any way liberal) then it is half-baked and needs further work before I am likely to campaign for it’s implementation.

  25. Monkee says:

    A liberal is a liberal if you don’t like capitalism
    you’re something else

    Surely any liberal must agree with the oxford manifesto?

    “1. The suppression of economic freedom must lead to the disappearance of political freedom. We oppose such suppression, whether brought about by State ownership or control or by private monopolies, cartels and trusts.”

    “The free exchange of ideas, news, goods and services between nations, as well as freedom of travel within and between all countries, unhampered by censorship, protective trade barriers and exchange regulations”

    Thats a description of free markets right there

    “The free exchange of goods between nations” would be what people call free trade

    There’s nothing to say you can’t be capitalist and support a reasonable amount of non-statist wealth redistribution

    The question is where you redistribute from and how you redistribute it

    does government have the right to take more tax off successful computer programmers or plumbers than unsuccessful ones?

    probably not

    does government have the right to tax mines, pollution, carbon emmissions, land usage, water utilities


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