What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

December 01, 2005

A wet centrist, me?

Thank you The Apollo Project for featuring my most recent post - about internal Lib Dem left/right name-calling - on your latest Top 10 Lib Dem blog posts. It appears to have attracted the ire of one of my readers. I don't normally respond to comments through a separate posting, but decided to make an exception this time:

Anonymous said...

Stephen this is a pathetic letter. The debate between the left and right of the party matters quite a great deal in respect of which future liberal voters or otherwise we will be able to attact.

The right of the party believe that the best coalition is of social and economic liberals, that tends to include a lot of left-wing Tories and disgruntled centrists who currently vote for Labour. The left of the party belivee the best is one of social liberals, social democrats and liberal socialists, broadly a coalition of the left or charitably a progressive coalition. What you can't have though is a sort of catch-all spanning the lot. socialists and eocnomic liberals are opponents on most tax and spend matters.

They can agree tactically on civil liberties, but that's rather small beer in the policy portfolio of a future government compared to doing a budget.

In fact it's wet centrists like you sitting there whining passively about why we can't just all get along, rather than taking difficult decisions is precisely why we are in this situation today. The leader being the worst offender.

Oxford Liberal (aka Stephen Tall) says...

Good lord, it's a long time since I've been called a wet centrist! I'll remember that next time someone takes me to task for supporting the
legalisation of drugs or the necessity of university top-up fees.

Your comment makes my point for me. No-where have I said, or would I say, that we should avoid a debate which requires difficult decisions (tip: read my article).

What I do want is a debate on our own liberal terms. By unwrapping the useless and unhelpful terms, 'left' and 'right', you've indicated the kind of debate we should be having. (Though I'd suggest ditching the word 'pathetic' and not posting anonymously might be a yet more grown-up approach.)

But that is not the debate which is raging on the letters page of Lib Dem News right now. There the argument is (I paraphrase only slightly): we need to be more left/right-wing to win over Labour/Tory voters. That kind of simplistic logic is what made me despair, and prompted my letter.

Finally... to imagine, as you appear to, that there is no common ground between 'economic liberals' and ' socialist liberals' - other than civil liberties - is a mistake. Opening up markets to competition, and enabling the poorest to take advantage of those markets, are two concepts which can co-exist happily. There are many instances of co-operative societies and not-for-profit trusts where these find practical expression, and unite those with differing ideologies.

You don't always need to pick a fight to win an argument.


Anonymous said...

Stephen, did you welcome the arrival of Brian Sedgemore in the party or did you feel, like some of thus that this was opportunism gone mad?

Stephen Tall said...

Anon: I hope I would never sit in judgment on the membership application of an individual I've neither met nor spoken to... I'm not going to make an exception for Brian Sedgemore.

As PR propaganda it probably didn't help us much. We should have ensured we had a prominent-ish Tory to parade at the same press conference. But it would have been odd not to announce the fact that a long-standing Labour MP was defecting principally because of this Government's illiberalism.

Ranald C. said...

I agree that the terms left and right aren't by themselves enough to map out a whole ideology - there are many different species of left-wing thinking, eg Green left, populist, socialist, third way and so on, and equally many different species of right-wing thinking.

But I have some sympathy with the comment you quoted (albeit not the tone) because left and right really do mean something, even if they aren't exhaustive categories. You either think that Britain's public services are underfunded and more tax should be paid by the rich to improve them (left), that there is significant room for savings in the public services and the saved money would be best spent on tax cuts for companies and individuals (right), or that the balance between public spending and taxation is about correct (centre). Claiming you exist outside the left-right paradigm is just silly; the options I outlined above need to be grappled with, though they are certainly not the only options that need to be grappled with.

In previous manifestos the LibDems have squarely positioned themselves on the centre-left side of this choice. This is not surprising given they were formed partly by the Social Democratic party, and social democracy is a centre-left ideology. There are some (such as the blogs Liberalism 2010 and Liberal England) who want the LibDems to become more 'economically liberal' - which tends to be code for moving right - and it's fine for them to make those arguments, but trying to pretend that their position has nothing to do with left and right is not just silly, but a little dishonest.

For me, I wouldn't vote for the LibDems if they abandoned the centre left (I'd probably vote Green, I suppose). So please don't tell me that the left versus right argument is a waste of time. I'm a committed LibDem as they exist at the moment, but left versus right still matters to me, and I suspect they matter to a lot of other voters as well.

Stephen Tall said...

Ranald - I can't agree. I'm delighted you know exactly what you mean by 'left' and 'right', but the reason I deprecate the terms is simple (not silly, still less dishonest): the moment anyone starts to define what they mean the more it becomes clear how definitions vary.

Let's take your definition of 'left'. You are saying that what defines the 'left' is that more tax must be paid by the rich to fund public services. But at what point would you say enough tax has been raised to pay for the level of services you think proper? Are you still on the 'left' even if there are other people who argue for yet more tax increases beyond those you support? Do you then, by default, become right-wing?

What about someone who believes taxes should be higher, but that the NHS should be broken up so that management is under local, not central, control? Are they right- or left-wing?

What about someone who believes taxes can be cut because they would scrap Trident? Are they right- or left-wing?

And is tax-and-spend the only way of distinguishing 'left' from 'right'? What about those who believe in higher taxation, but support capital punishment? Are they right- or left-wing? Or someone who believes in lower taxes, but thinks ID cards are essential? Are they right- or left-wing?

These are not silly or dishonest examples. They are illustrations of why a left-right paradigm is too simplistic to have any real meaning.

You are doubtless correct to state that voters would frequently place themselves on the 'right' or 'left' (or more often in the 'centre'). But if you asked them their views on a variety of issues, economic and social, I suspect you would often come up with results which bore no relation to voters' self-identification. That's not because they're silly and dishonest, but because politics is way too complex for binary definitions ever to be more than a crude, misleading over-simplification.

Ranald C. said...

Ranald - I can't agree. I'm delighted you know exactly what you mean by 'left' and 'right', but the reason I deprecate the terms is simple (not silly, still less dishonest): the moment anyone starts to define what they mean the more it becomes clear how definitions vary.

Unfortunately the same is true for the terms 'liberal' and 'illiberal'. But I'm sure you don't think that, just because these terms are a bit vague and people have difficulty agreeing precisely what they mean, that they are therefore meaningless and discussing them is a waste of time. At the end of the day trying to summarise any ideological position in one word is likely to be a bit crude, as I happily admitted, but that doesn't mean these sorts of terms carry no weight at all.

Let's take your definition of 'left'. You are saying that what defines the 'left' is that more tax must be paid by the rich to fund public services. But at what point would you say enough tax has been raised to pay for the level of services you think proper?

I suppose I should have been clearer: I was speaking of left and right relatively to the current Labour government. I think (and I'm sure you agree) that arguments about whether the current Labour party is left, centre-left, centrist, right or whatever on some grand and fixed scale spanning from communism to fascism is a bit pointless. But arguing whether the UK would be better off if government policy turned left or right seems to be meaningful, as long as we then proceed to further questions - if we want to turn left, what sort of left turn do we want - more government interference in the workings of business, or a government that simply concentrates on a more generous welfare safety net, etc. Or if you prefer, and I'm sure you do, we can take something other than left and right as our primary consideration. But at the end of the day we will have to return to where we draw the balance between social spending and taxation, simply because a) that's a real question governments have to confront if they don't want to drift aimlessly, and b) that's a questions voters really care about.

At the moment the LibDem manifesto is decidedly centre-left, with its increased taxes for high earners and so on, even though the leadership pay lip service to the 'neither left nor right' mantra. If it was to drop that sort of policy it would constitute a shift to the right, which would have real consequences, and it doesn't seem to me to be a waste of time to debate the merits of this sort of shift.

I didn't mean to accuse you of dishonesty, by the way, though I see how my earlier comment might have read like that. So thank you for not taking it personally and giving such a civil response. I was talking about people who advocate a big shift in LibDem policy towards lassez-fairer economics and low tax, then try to claim that their stance has nothing whatsoever to do with a rightward shift.