Deciding On A False Choice

Various siren media voices are busy offering us advice on our future. Today, the Grauniad saw Jonathan Freedland making a typical stab:

For too long, there has been a benign fog where the Lib Dems’ ideological clarity should be. To the left of Labour in the north, Eurosceptic in the south-west, this muddle helped the Lib Dems bag seats. But it is surely not sustainable indefinitely.

There’s no shortage of possibilities. One scenario would present the Lib Dems as unabashedly liberal, socially and economically: they could promise low taxes and, say, the legalisation of all drugs, following the chief constable of north Wales. Such an approach would have tremendous intellectual coherence, but there are drawbacks. It could take the party into places comfortable for a thinktank, but awkward for a political party. What’s more, the rightwing postures it would entail would be too much for many activists to swallow.

Alternatively, the Lib Dems could fill the vast acres of space vacated by New Labour on the left. Taxes on the super-rich, an Iraq pullout, protection of civil liberties – it could be an appealing programme. But it would hardly play well in those southern marginals where the Lib Dems do battle with the Tories.

The risk is that Clegg or Huhne will be tempted simply to join Brown and Cameron in fighting for the evershrinking, hallowed terrain of the centre ground, saying nothing too daring on tax or equality or anything else (though Clegg deserves credit for proposing an amnesty for illegal immigrants). Such a huddle in the middle, leaving the rest of the ideological spectrum badly unrepresented in Westminster, would not just be uninspiring to Liberal Democrats. It would be depressing for British politics.

A similar way of thinking was put forward in the piece on Newsnight that preceded Paxman trying to manufacture a policy schism within the party where there isn’t really one. Currently, I can’t find a link to it. Anyway, in it, Paul Mason mocked up two “alternative” party political broadcasts to represent the two paths we apparently have to choose between, essentially highlighting those aspects of our policy which might be characterised as either “left” or “right”.

The only problem with both of these analyses (and I’m sure there are more like it around) is that at no point do they explain why the two are mutually exclusive. Why do these people find it so hard to understand that what we stand for is what Gladstone stood for, what Lloyd-George stood for, what Liberalism has always stood for: freedom, fairness and equality of opportunity. Why exactly can’t we be the party who stand against the monopolies and lump government subsidies required for nuclear power, at the same time as being the party who want to cut income tax to make way for green taxes? Why can’t we be both the party of skeptical pro-Europeanism and the party of legalising cannabis? Nobody has yet made a good argument as to why our current position is foggy, they have simply asserted that it is.

Now, I don’t deny that people just don’t understand liberalism, that they are confused because for so long the left-right axis, with its bizarre smushing together of all sorts of values and ideologies into completely incoherent “sides”, has dominated politics. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a wholly inadequate way to categorise us, and indeed, to categorise any of the other parties.

We must not be persuaded by these voices. The position we inhabit right now is mostly right, it holds together probably better ideologically than the other parties’ positions, and by and large it is one we believe in. Of course, in selling our manifesto to a Labour or Conservative voter, we are going to emphasize the elements that we think will appeal to them. We would be silly not to. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t all fighting on the same manifesto, just that we think different pages of it will appeal more to different people; because of course they will! It doesn’t stop those voters asking us about other policy areas, and when they do so, we will of course be equally happy to defend those policies.

And let’s not allow ourselves to be told that there is only “bigger” or “smaller” government, when we know full well that every bit as important as those ideas are “more local” and “more accountable” government.

We are not here to position ourselves in relation to the other parties. We are here to argue for what we think is right. We are liberals, we believe in all those things that it says on my membership card, and that’s where we’re staying. There is no choice to be made here, and no future in either of the false choices being presented. Either of those options would turn us into a genuine protest party, little more than a cobbled selection of whinges about government policy. What makes us more than that is precisely the fact that we are self-evidently not designed to woo a particular type of discontented voter.

The other day, James Graham was on CiF, arguing that

Our political opponents like to talk about how the Lib Dems say different things to people depending on what side of the street they’re on. I don’t accept that is true, at least no more true than the way I’ve seen other parties behave over the years. What is true, however, is that there is an inclination to try and be all things to all people: to have a sprinkling of Labour-ish policies here, a dash of Tory-ish policies there, all designed to appeal to the swing voter.

It’s worked, but it has its limits. There are only so many of this kind of voter. When, in 2005, we offered the middle-class “grey vote” pretty much everything they could ever dream of on a silver platter and with a cherry on top (small print: at the expense of everyone else), the stubborn old buggers refused to be bribed.

He was right, but I don’t accept that we have a massive problem here. He correctly identifies the push for the “grey vote” as a pretty cynical move, but other than that, I don’t really accept that our policy is Labourish or Toryish. He also wrote:

The real division in the party is between what the party recognises as long-term goals that are in the national interest, and short-term populism that’s in the party interest. We have a long-term commitment to shifting the burden of taxation off income and onto wealth and natural resources, but our short-term commitments are a muddle, taking 4p off income tax while introducing a 4p local income tax. We have a long-term commitment for a progressive form of property taxation based on land values, but in the short term, we propose to scrap council tax and its requisite infrastructure. We have a long-term goal of replacing inheritance tax with an acquisitions tax, making tax avoidance more difficult and ensuring that wealth is spread more thinly; in the short term, we are cheerleaders for raising the inheritance tax threshold as much as our Tory and Labour opponents. In the long run, we want increased access to higher education for people from poorer backgrounds to increase social mobility; in the short term, we are committed to spending our limited higher education budget on scrapping tuition fees, which will mainly benefit the middle classes.

Now, those are some pretty good examples. But I would argue that in none of those cases are our policies for the immediate future notably Labour or Tory, so much as they are just motivated by a desire to translate Lib Dem ideals into practical steps which the public could easily imagine happening. Say to most people that we support abolishing council tax in favour of LVT, or that we want to introduce an acquisitions tax in place of inheritance tax, and they will look blankly at you.

I think James is (unsurprisingly) much more right than the MSM commentators, though. For them, the problem is that we need to be more like one of two things. For him, it is that we are already trying to make ourselves look like those other things. In so far as we are doing so, we should stop.

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